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Interview: The Way Back’s Ben Affleck teaches us that we all need our shot at redemption

[Ben Affleck stars in The Way Back. Pic credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]
[Ben Affleck stars in The Way Back. Pic credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]

When Ben Affleck stepped into the shoes of a broken man grappling with alcoholism, divorce, and other painful personal issues he found a compelling way to explore how his character could find The Way Back through the camaraderie of coaching a high school basketball team.

A two-time Oscar-winner, Affleck, a noted actor, director, screenwriter, and producer, became a mentor to the actors portraying the members of a struggling high school basketball team – both on and off the set.

From Warner Bros. Pictures, The Way Backtells the story of Jack Cunningham, (Affleck), a former high school basketball star whose life has unraveled after great personal loss and pain, which he tries to ease with large amounts of beer and whiskey.

When the principal of his high school asks him to come back and coach the losing team, being able to pour his emotions into the players in an effort to help all of them achieve a glorious comeback gives him a much-needed boost of confidence. The movie acknowledges that we all make mistakes in our lives and deserve our shot at redemption.

With several decades of experience under his belt, and best known for Good Will Hunting, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Justice League, and Argo, Affleck recently said during a press event that his own personal hardships clearly informed his performance in this memorable drama, and he enjoyed mentoring this next generation of actors.

“I loved the young guys who played the basketball players, and for me winning their respect as a person, and as an actor, was the same way I went about winning their respect as a coach,” he recalled. “I wanted them to feel my investment in them as people and it really reminded me of my [1992] movie School Ties,” with best pal Matt Damon.

“I played a left guard in School Ties and I probably had 10 lines, but it was so much fun just being able to do the thing I wanted to do, and talking to the other actors like Brendan Fraser, Chris O’Donnell, Randall Batinkoff, and Anthony Rapp,” Affleck reminisced. “So, this movie just reminded me of how much I love acting and how fortunate and grateful I am to still be doing it. It reminded me that I am extremely lucky because I really love this job!”

With awards season around the corner, The Way Back is gaining renewed attention for Affleck and his nuanced movie, nearly a year after its initial release.

Director Gavin O’Connor commended Affleck’s work ethic during the 35-day film shoot. “From the moment that Ben showed up in the morning, he never left the set the entire day. He knew the tight schedule we were dealing with and we never had to wait for him. This was an unspoken agreement and I really appreciated it.”

O’Connor also praised Affleck for digging deep in his heart and soul for the role of Jack Cunningham, a broken man who is trying to find his second chance in life.

“Ben had to open the box and let the demons out in his own life that reflected the demons of his character, so it was very personal,” O’Connor shared. “Ben had just gotten out of rehab when we started shooting, so he was very raw when he got out. I’m really proud of him. He truly confronted it all in a powerful way and was very brave.”

Affleck spoke during a recent press event about the longevity of his rich film career, how art sometimes imitates life, his deep love for being a father, and why he wants to keep making movies with impact.

Monsters & Critics: Ben, how did this movie come to you?

Ben Affleck: The script {by Brad Ingelsby] was sent to me by my agent and it was exactly what I wanted to do. It was obvious to me that it was an acting challenge that ran the gamut of emotions.

I immediately thought of director Gavin O’Connor. Gavin obviously understands the essence of why people play sports. With Warrior and Miracle, he captured something real, powerful, and profoundly moving. But, he also values character and performance above all, and that was the key for me.

M&C: What were you looking forward to in working with director Gavin O’Conner again?

Ben Affleck: I knew Gavin’s taste in performance and storytelling and from his movies Miracle and Warrior that he knew how to shoot athletics and sports that are realistic and not cheesy and artificial.

Gavin was the first and only person I thought of who could do everything that was required and do it well, and I also had a relationship with him and knew from The Accountant. It was evident to me from the work that he put into it, how much he cared.

M&C: Overall, how do you see this movie?

Ben Affleck: Really, it’s about losing a child and coming to terms with grief and how you recover. You don’t want to hammer the audience over the head because I think people recoil if it’s too much, but you don’t want to soft-pedal it either for the reasons we all know.

I was really excited to work with Gavin again and we were off and running. It’s a drama, which they aren’t making theatrically too much these days. We didn’t have a bunch of money to do it, but we had enough, and we were able to shoot it fast.

M&C: As a director how do you and Gavin work with your actors on a movie that you feel is a good method?

Ben Affleck: If you don’t believe that I’m this guy and I’m going through all these things, and it feels false and artificial; it’s dead. Sometimes there can be too much talk. You have to be on the same page and come with the preparation and have the same level of understanding. If you are trying to do too much calibration on the set and there is 45 minutes between takes it doesn’t work for me to play it.

I appreciate that Gavin has a great understanding of human behavior and how people react. But he also doesn’t talk it to death and he gives you room to try things and adjust your performance.

One of the things we did with autism in our movie, The Accountant, and with this movie emotion, alcoholism, or how much I didn’t want to show that I missed my ex-wife.  I trusted that I would give him a whole scope of stuff, and I was receptive that he would pick the right take and find it in the editing room.

The Way Back director Gavin O'Connor surrounded by the movie's high school basketball team. Pic credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
The Way Back director Gavin O’Connor surrounded by the movie’s high school basketball team. Pic credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Doting dad in real life helps make the role more realistic

M&C: How did you relate to this movie in that respect, especially being the father of three children under age 15?

Ben Affleck: As a parent, your greatest fear is losing a child. Absolutely and without question. And because I have children, I was able to tap into a lot of that stuff.

There is this weird paradox for me with acting I believe that when it’s easy it feels the best. If you are doing a ton of stopping and talking and hashing it out, that’s how it feels to me when it’s not going well. But this movie just fell into place.

So, we were just on the same page and it just felt great. Something about acting and movies and plays, the sort of chemistry with the actors, writing, director, and photography, it either falls together or it doesn’t and it can be elusive and mysterious to me.

With this one, I remember saying to my friends, “I think I’m doing some of my best stuff. I feel great every day at work. I feel really cathartic coming home.”

M&C: Was delving into Jack’s life depressing?

Ben Affleck: Actually, it wasn’t. It was really satisfying and cathartic, generally going through the range of emotions every day. Sometimes it was tragic and painful, but it’s so much more interesting and fun than trying to get blood from a stone. Trying to get something that isn’t there. No matter how much you try to find a backstory and mine it, you are only going to drill so deep.

M&C: After making movies for 30 years and working with these kids (playing on the basketball team) come along and it’s their first or second movie, did it make this a fresh experience for you?

Ben Affleck: It was wonderful. First of all, they were great guys. And getting to hang out with them, Terrance Mallick once told me, “Ben, make sure you always spend time with people in their 20s and who have a fresh perspective in life.”

Some of these guys were in their late teens, and some of them were talking about casting and directors, it just reminded me of that time when I was just trying to get a job, feeling just so happy to be acting and on the set.

Ben Affleck plays a high school coach in The Way Back. Pic credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Life experience equals richer performances

M&C: What informs your performances?

Ben Affleck: All of the things have enriched my life as an actor.  I have learned a lot about acting from directing, just from being on the other side. All of a sudden, it’s so obvious that an actor is pushing and trying to sell me something; get me to lean forward. I always loved those actors because they brought me to them. They didn’t do anything. It’s scary, it’s a risk. You have to feel it, experience it, and re-create it, but you are not selling something. That’s a good acting lesson that I learned from directing.

I’ve had a really diverse, rich, good, bad, great, awful set of experiences in my life and learned from them and reflected on them. I’ve had a broader life experience at age 48. I don’t think I could have played this part without having children, or without getting a divorce. I don’t think you have to have gone through the exact same thing to play it. But knowing it’s there, I don’t have to show you it’s there.

M&C: Thinking back to Good Will Hunting, when you were sitting at the table with [director] Gus Van Sant casting the movie, now that you are a noted director yourself what advice do you have for up-and-coming actors.

Ben Affleck: There are a few simple things to share. I never saw anybody get the part who was reading off the page. You’re just not going to get the job. It speaks to the preparation and commitment and how much that stuff really matters. And how much it helps you relax. The more relaxed and looser you are will make all the difference.

Experienced actor advises: ‘be committed and show you care’

M&C: What other advice do you have for the next generation of performers?

Ben Affleck:  As a young actor it is all about showing that you are committed and that you care. It’s hard because you go in for 90 things and get one, and there’s a lot of rejection and frustration. That’s part of what separates the people you respond to. – the people who feel alive. There are actors like Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, and Viola Davis and they have a tremendous amount of talent they are kind of magical, but I promise you they also work really hard.

M&C: The film business has changed so much since you started years ago. What are you nostalgic about?

Ben Affleck: The movies I grew up idolizing before I came of age, great artists making great movies in the 70s like Chinatown, Network and The Verdict, and all of those great actors and actresses. So, I’m nostalgic for that and for the time when the business was kind of driven. Even before COVID-19, there was a transition away from dramas because that audience is competing with such good work on streaming platforms now, so you can stay home and watch something just as good at home then you may have the opportunity to see in the theater.

So, it’s really hard to get the audience to come out on a Friday night when you can stay home and watch it on Netflix and pause it. So, I lament that when the theaters re-open there will definitely be fewer of those kinds of movies released theatrically. But our movie The Way Back came out the week they shut down all the theaters, and I was like “here is the movie I am most proud of, and literally, the theaters are closed,” but they rushed it into streaming and way more people watched it more than otherwise. And I was appreciative that so many people saw it.

M&C: After such a rich career in the movies, what do the next 20 years look like for you?

Ben Affleck: I’m less career specific. I want to be a good father more than anything else. My work is secondary to that and if it means a compromise or that I work a little bit less; I am good with that. I want to work with people who I love, respect, and value the time spent from them.

The Way Back, from Warner Bros. Pictures, is streaming on HBO and Hulu.

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