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The actor inside Casey Affleck

The star of Michael Winterbottom's new film, 'The Killer Inside Me,' was handpicked by the director, who saw in his quiet intensity a link to his character's lethally insular nature.

June 20, 2010|By Scott Timberg

When British director Michael Winterbottom was putting together a film adaptation of Jim Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me" — a notoriously brutal novel about a gracious Texas lawman who's actually a sadistic murderer — he didn't wonder long who should play the lead.

He thought immediately of Casey Affleck, and not because the lank, reed-voiced young actor projected any propensity for violence. Affleck's reserved presence seemed right for the role of the twisted Texan, who moves through town like a reassuring brother while masking his homicidal intent.

" Luke Ford has deliberately constructed this false persona for himself as the easygoing deputy sheriff," says the prolific Winterbottom, whose film opens in Los Angeles on Friday (it's already available on several video-on-demand platforms). "That's what's great about Casey. There's a gap between what you see and what's going on underneath."

In person, Affleck, 34, is intelligent, polite, deeply curious and often opaque. Perhaps because he watched his older brother, Ben, work to cultivate a role as a celebrity and eventually get burned by it, Affleck the younger keeps a lot inside. "At the end of a movie," says the actor, who typically avoids film festivals and other gatherings, "I feel like I never want to do it again."

This low-budget indie is his first film since he emerged in 2007 with the one-two punch of "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Those critically praised performances could have served as tickets to a very busy few years, with higher paydays in bigger studio films. Instead, Affleck chose to spend the years since making an obscure, eccentric documentary about the retreat from the limelight of his brother-in-law, Joaquin Phoenix, whose family has had its own issues with the seductive (and destructive) nature of celebrity.

Affleck, who comes across as more shy or reflective than calculated, is equally particular about publicity. When asked for his preferred location for an interview, he suggests a street corner at the foot of Pasadena's Arroyo Parkway; it takes further negotiations to get him indoors, to a nearby coffee shop. Days pass where his publicist can't locate him. In conversation he makes eye contact only occasionally, yawns, and offers laconic answers. But when discussing his passions — science-fiction novels, Kurt Vonnegut, the documentary tradition — he's fully engaged and passionate.

"Although he's a great actor," says Winterbottom, "he's a very reluctant actor. He's offered a lot of stuff, but I think he finds acting something you have to plunge into. And he's not always willing to plunge in."

The careers of Casey Affleck and his older brother Ben resemble the story of the tortoise and the hare. The elder Affleck appeared in high-profile indies and won a best screenplay Oscar for "Good Will Hunting" while in his mid-20s. He went on to make big-budget popcorn movies, date Jennifer Lopez, marry Jennifer Garner and become a regular target for the tabloid press. Though he was praised for his performance as George Reeves in 2006's "Hollywoodland," his popularity as an actor seems to be in retreat. Casey, by comparison, has been a slow climber.

Raised mostly in Cambridge, Mass., he worked a bit in theater as a teenager, moved to Los Angeles to act at 18 ("a bust," he says) and attended Columbia University but did not graduate. His film debut was as a dangerous teenager in 1995's "To Die For," alongside Phoenix, his future brother-in-law. Though he had small parts in a number of films, including "Chasing Amy" and "Good Will Hunting," and a recurring role in Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's" movies, Affleck broke out in a big way in 2007.

Looking to cast his directorial debut, Ben had to persuade his younger brother to take the lead role in "Gone Baby Gone," based on a Dennis Lehane novel set in working-class Boston. ("It seemed like asking for trouble," Casey says about it now. "I knew it would add some complications to have Ben directing [me], someone who wasn't going to immediately do what he said.") He plays detective Patrick Kenzie, who searches for an abducted child. The well-reviewed film earned both Afflecks special notices.

Winterbottom, best known for his films "24 Hour Party People" and "A Mighty Heart," was especially impressed by the psychologically penetrating "Jesse James," based on Ron Hansen's novel. Affleck plays Robert Ford, a young sycophant who breaks into James' gang before turning on his hero. Affleck was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar.

Affleck is generally protective of his older brother in interviews, and when asked about him, praises his intelligence, taste and leadership. Still, director Andrew Dominik told New York magazine that Affleck had excelled in the Robert Ford role because he "knows what it's like to live in somebody's shadow."

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