It’s fair to say that Casey Affleck understands that the soul of a story can say more than the sum of its parts.
Known for strong performances in such films as A Ghost Story, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Manchester By The Sea (for which he won Best Actor at the Academy Awards), Affleck frequently adds an emotional depth to his characters that helps their fictional stories feel authentic. However, with his latest film Our Friend, star Affleck had the opportunity to explore the real-life journey of writer Matthew Teague, a man whose life is turned upside-down due to a family tragedy. As thrilled as he was to work with the rest of the team behind the film, he recalls that he was also very excited about the soul of the story itself.
“Two things really appealed to me about this project,” he begins. “One was the people who were involved. I liked Gabriela [Cowperthwaite] as a director. I didn’t know Jason [Segel] or Dakota [Johnson] but I was interested in working with them and it turned out to be great. The other was just the spirit of the story, which has to do with sort of selflessness and being of service to others, showing up for people in our lives, even when it’s hardest. Somebody said that a great friend is somebody who shows up when you need them, even when being there is the last place in a world that they want to be. This is a story about me and Dakota, our family finding ourselves in a crisis and Jason Segal’s character showing up in just that way.”
After his wife, Nicole (Dakota Johnson) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Matthew Teague (Casey Affleck) struggles to balance meeting her needs and raising their daughters. Seeking to help, close friend to the family Dane (Jason Segal) offers to move in for a short stay to help Matthew get back on his feet. However, as time marches forward, the lines between friendship and family begin to blur as Dane’s temporary gesture extends into an indefinite living arrangement at great personal cost.
Though the trio had never worked together before, the chemistry between Affleck, Johnson and Segel is something to behold. In virtually every scene, each of the film’s leads feels emotionally present, creating something truly special onscreen.
“I had gotten close to working with Jason once on movie but [we] didn’t end up doing it,” Affleck recalls. “I really think he’s a great, great big talent and a sweet guy. Dakota has been sort of on my radar for a while because she’d been just doing really interesting choices that seemed unpredictable. She’ll be in 50 Shades of Gray, Peanut Butter Falcon and Suspiria. She’ll be popping up in places and just seemed like there’s an interesting person there.”
Often times, bringing an actual person to life onscreen can create an added pressure to ensure that you represent their life story and mannerisms authentically. Asked if there’s anything in particular that he wanted people to know about Matthew Teague, Affleck felt that his most important job was not to try to ‘impersonate’ him but instead to honour the power of his story onscreen.
“I don’t really have an agenda about what people know about Matt Teague,” says Affleck. “Matt’s a writer and a nice guy and he brought this story to the public. He wrote an article, brought that article to a screenwriter and he shepherded the whole project all the way through. I was there to just to play a role as an actor. I told Matt on the very first day that I met him that he should not expect to see the movie and feel like he was looking in a mirror or something. It would be different than he remembered. The events in the movie might some way not be exactly like he remembered, but we would all try very hard to make sure that the spirit of the story was communicated. So, I want people not necessarily to know something about Matt, but to know something about what this story says about all of us.”
Furthermore, in any biographical project, Affleck also understands that the person onscreen is never a full realization of their actual character.
“In the telling of a story, people are changed,” he explains. “You’re not doing an impersonation. You’re not trying to say this is exactly as someone else is. I believe that the person you see onscreen is a combination of the imagination of the writer, the director, the actor, and the editor, et cetera.”
In an interesting way, the fact that the film is based on friendship seems almost countercultural. At a time when the term ‘friend’ is most often associated with Facebook connections, Our Friend highlights the meaning of the word in all its fullness. Even so, instead of changing his views on the expression, Affleck’s experience on the film has reinforced what he already believed a friend should be.
“I don’t think that it has new meaning for me,” he explains. “I think that being a part of this movie was a way to contribute to something that expressed what I already felt about friendship. So, it’s more that I got to bring something that I was already sort of carrying to the movie and share that. I think it’s a funny sounding word ‘friend’ but it’s such a beautiful idea. I’d love to have a longer conversation about how and why human beings form relationships and what purpose they serve and how we can serve that purpose. That’s interesting to me and I really do feel like I love the spirit of what this movie is, especially around that topic.”
Having become increasingly selective in his projects over the course of his career, Affleck found a healthy spirit within this story that was hard to resist. With its emphasis on healing after suffering, he feels that Our Friend is particularly special in the way that it offers a sense of hope to the audience.
“I used to think that, after [working on] a movie, I would walk away and just leave it behind completely,” Affleck points out. “Sometimes it feels like that, but I think that when you put a lot of yourself into a movie, sometimes the movie puts a lot back in you. For that reason, I’ve become a lot more careful about the kinds of projects that I choose to be a part of. When I was younger, almost out of necessity, I just took whatever. Whoever would hire me, I would take that job because that’s how I made a living. It is still how I make my living and I have to work, but I try to be as careful as I can about the spirit of the movie and the spirit of the part. Something like this, I feel like I can live with. I liked the message of this. Even though that the movie is will break your heart, it will also it’ll repair your heart too and sort of fill you back up. I think then when people watch the movie, that’s the experience that they have. They leave feeling sort of emptied and refilled and I’m okay with that.”
Our Friend is available on VOD on Friday, January 22, 2021.
To hear our conversation with Casey Affleck, click here.