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Interview: Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck Talk “Manchester by the Sea”


Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Photo credit: Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Photo credit: Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

Two heartbroken souls. Two ways of coping from loss. Two ways of building a future. Two ways of living a life that they were never meant to live. Randi and Lee Chandler had one nightmarish night that concluded with the death of their two children. Now, many years later, Lee comes back home to bury another loved one – his dearest brother, Patrick. As he processes the death of Joe, Lee goes through again, recalling a night that had changed many lives… including his own…

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck portray Randi and Lee in a way you would not imagine was possible. Both of them allow themselves to get into the skin of their characters and to disappear into them without using a heavy make-up.

During the Toronto International Film Festival, Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck gladly shared their experience, journey and what was it like to be a part of the life by the sea of Manchester.

MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the characters you play?

Michelle Williams: When I read the script, I realized this movie is about bravery, about people who want to stay alive and how they stay alive. One shuts down and one opens herself back up and they meet each other in the end and try to talk to each other from very different places.

Casey Affleck: Because the script was so well written it’s pretty evocative; you get the feelings right away. You feel like you understand even though it’s just the beginning. I felt like, “Okay, I got it, I’m ready, I’ll get there.” But little did I know there was a long way to go and that starts with talking to Kenny about it and you learn more about what is happening and why is he behaving this way. He is not just doing plumbing where he can focus on something that he can start and finish and not think about anything else. I went, “Well that’s some good insight and I can really use that!” As soon as his job’s over he has nothing to do, sitting at the bar and he starts to fight as he feels awful. So, his life starts to unravel as soon as he has a minute to himself. Playing the character is not really as complicated and mysterious as it sounds; it’s just about trying to make yourself feel bad thinking about the sad things in your life and other people’s life and the characters and you stay there as long as you can, sort of just the opposite of what you’d do if you’re going through your own day.

MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the order of the scenes in which the movie was shot because there are a lot of flashbacks?

Michelle Williams: I think after a certain point you get used to it. We are used to having to tell a story completely out of order and so having to kind of jump into the middle, which is why ideally you spend a lot of time before you start shooting. It’s not ideal, I think everybody wishes it were straightforward but there are a lot of constraints like budget, locations. So, that never brings that incredible satisfaction when you do a play where you get to storytelling from the beginning to the end but never in a movie have I had that luxury.

Casey Affleck: I think Michelles’s right. You use the rehearsal process to make yourself as flexible as you can. You dig into the harder scenes and you’re digging into the lighter scenes and the fun scenes are tricky too. It’s kind of like acrobatic, it’s very precise and once it’s done a certain way you sort of jump in from each line to line and you kinda have to hit each mark. So those are hard to do and if you can get really flexible you can really sort of do anything. You just have to feel emotionally charged and accessible. A lot of the people, myself included, don’t want to go through life emotionally charged all the time. But when you meet those sorts of people you feel there’s something wrong with them.

MOVIEMOVESME: You’re usually a gregarious person. So how was it playing this character and keeping your natural instincts under the surface?

Casey Affleck: I guess the hard thing was or the job was to feel those emotions and just hold them down.

MOVIEMOVESME: The scene where you meet each other after many years. There was no Casey Affleck or Michelle Williams and I didn’t feel like you were into something else. Can you talk about the making of that scene?

Michelle Williams: There was a lot of preparation that went into that scene; a lot of anticipation, foreboding I think. As perhaps Randi herself would feel perhaps that’s the situation she’s imagined time and time again what she would say and how she would say it.

Casey Affleck: It’s the thing he was telling whether he knew it or not. He did not want to go back there, didn’t want to revisit something that was very painful in life. She is a reminder of that and the source of a lot of pain and regret. There are other reminders like when he goes to the job people say that he’s a child murderer or something. But then when he’s face to face with the person he loved and had a family with and that he destroyed, it’s her kindness that’s the hardest thing to deal with. He cannot forgive himself and she’s trying to let him off the hook. That’s what is kind of happening in the scene.

MOVIEMOVESME: Does shooting a film like this take a toll on you after the camera stops rolling? How does it affect you after?

Casey Affleck: It’s like other jobs; sometimes you wouldn’t do that much and you don’t feel that good. You feel as if you wasted your day. Sometimes it really feels good when you do a full day’s work and you do it like you wanted it to do; it was hard and you got through it and so you’d be sort of drained but feel a sense of completion. It feels satisfying. Depending on what the scene is you’ll either feel varying degrees of a great mood or drained and terrible when you go to bed and be back the next day. There are so many scenes like that in this movie that after a while you very slowly just start to begin your day at a very low level and you don’t have to do too much to get there.

MOVIEMOVESME: The vibe in here feels kind of low for a movie that has gotten so much attention right out of the box. It’s as if the subject matter in this film has kind of permeated the conversation. Does that attention affect you?

Casey Affleck: I’ve never felt that way about the performances I’ve done. I’ve felt that way about other things I’ve done in life. But movies are just not wired that way. I don’t have to feel like, “Hey everyone just look at this movie I made, it’s so great. Watch me watch me!”

MOVIEMOVESME: But it is a two-way street, it has to have someone on the receiving end and if the receiving end is excited that must be wonderful.

Casey Affleck: Yeah, I’ve done a lot of movies where people have not liked this and what’s even worse is what people have said, “Yeah it is good” when it was just mediocre and they lied. That’s most of the things that most people do with most of the movies out there. It’s very hard to make a good movie, a lot goes into it; it doesn’t always work out. It isn’t, believe it or not, not the most important thing. If this movie hadn’t been released, I would’ve been okay with it. It sounds kind of arty farty and so precious but it really doesn’t matter if the movie comes out and I’m so used to them coming out and not finding a huge audience.

Michelle Williams: It’s just like a change in temperature, so you really know how to weather the storm. If you’ve had a long career you just have to get flexible with the ups and downs and not affix to one of them too greatly.

Casey Affleck: Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud to be a part of something that works and something we believe in about people and say something meaningful that affects people but not for the reasons of wanting to hear about, “Oh you might get a trophy or something.” I sort of wish you could pick movies you want to do but you can’t. You have to do what’s available to you. Michelle said the other day that she wants to leave this record of herself behind for her daughter and I like that. It’s those sort of things that you think about during your day job and when you watch the movie that you’ve done you think about what am I leaving behind, am I saying something I believe in and stuff like that.

Michelle Williams: Am I doing something I haven’t done before and what aspect of this job is going to be a challenge that I haven’t confronted myself with. I think it’s difficult for an actor to take ownership over anything because you’re so dependent on the writer and the director. So, I can’t really say, “I did that.” It’s the same about having children; she’s wonderful but that’s because of her; I’m there and I support her and guide her but it’s all her and sometimes you feel like that in a movie. It’s a director’s medium and his words and his shots and I just sort of film them; I feel like a small part of this, just there supporting his world.

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