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THE ACTORS : fall sneaks

Make way for a leading man

With two new films, Casey Affleck's emergence from the supporting ranks may help moviegoers forget that he's someone's kid brother.

September 09, 2007|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

It wasn't intended to play out this way. There was no master plan. And yet back-to-back fall movie releases are pushing Casey Affleck out of the supporting-sidekick category and into the ranks of leading men, edging him ever closer to seeing the disappearance of the comma that often follows his name before the words "brother of Ben Affleck."
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" has been beset by post-production delays and backstage wranglings that have held up its release since last fall, so when it finally hits theaters Sept. 21, it will be closely followed Oct. 19 by "Gone Baby Gone," a moody thriller based on a novel by Dennis Lehane in which Affleck plays a laconic, small-time private detective. Both roles involve young men forced into lose-lose situations that will indelibly mark the courses of their lives and, taken together, they show in the actor a newfound maturity and a previously unexplored depth and range.
In one sense, since he appeared on screen in 1995's "To Die For," Affleck has had to just make do, trying to create a strong impression and vivid characters with relatively limited screen time. On the DVD commentary track for "Good Will Hunting," Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Gus Van Sant all marvel whenever Casey comes on screen, noting his exuberant eccentricity in his small part as a friend to the main characters. His role in "Ocean's Eleven" and its subsequent sequels provided an oddball ballast to the martini-time suavity of Clooney and Co.; in the recent "Ocean's Thirteen" his character was given a story line essentially to himself, inciting unionization at a Mexican dice factory.

Understanding the struggle

There is no small irony that Affleck's first major leading role comes playing a man who struggles to overcome his status as a bit player in someone else's story -- "I think Casey understands what it's like to be in somebody's shadow," said Andrew Dominik, director and screenwriter of "Jesse James."

As portrayed by Affleck, Robert Ford is an awkward, obsequious sniveler who descends into feelings of jealousy and disappointment over his place in the pecking order of James' life, ultimately lashing out in the manner of a spurned lover or obsessed fan. And yet there is a strange dignity to Affleck's portrait of "the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard" and "laid poor Jesse in his grave," as the folk tune goes, a strain of sympathy and understanding that is unexpected in its poetic strength.

"I found him really appealing," Affleck, 32, said of the character. "I immediately felt for him. When I read the script I was kind of rooting for him. I sort of understood his struggle."

Affleck speaks slowly, choosing each word carefully and thoughtfully. As he talks, his eyes often flutter side to side, suggesting an electrical storm of activity behind his laid-back exterior.

"He tried to get away from everything that happened in his life and he just couldn't outrun it," he said of Ford. "He's like one of those things you hit and it keeps popping back up. He just keeps starting over and people keep pushing him down, people keep hating him and they won't let him forget what he did. He builds a saloon and they burn it down, he builds another one. He just keeps coming back. I just love that."

"Casey's a funny one," said Dominik. "He's better when the chips are down. When he first came in to read for the part, he didn't think he had any chance of getting it, and he was just amazing. And as soon as he realized he was the front-runner, I brought him in like three more times and he was never as good. It was only when he went to the back burner again that he came in with that need. And then all of a sudden Bob came out."

So how did the director get an underdog performance out of the actor once he had gotten the part? "I gave him a hard time," Dominik said simply.

However the film plays out, it's already paid off in at least one sense: Older brother Ben, who makes his directing debut with "Gone Baby Gone" and also co-wrote the screenplay, used Casey's performance in "Jesse James" to convince financiers that he could carry the lead in "Gone" as well.

"It's a great performance, and he's really good in that movie," said Ben Affleck of his brother's turn as one of the Old West's most despised characters, expressing himself with an exuberance unprintable in a family newspaper. "Granted, I'm biased, but not totally. You have a complicated relationship with your siblings. It's not like I'm his mom. If I saw that performance, I'd think, 'That guy can act.' "

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