Uncut Q&A: Casey Affleck
UNCUT: You’ve made a two-and-a-half hour movie about Jesse James with just one train robbery. A daring move, surely?
CASEY AFFLECK: You’re right. It’s definitely not what people might expect from a Jesse James western. There aren’t many gunfights or train robberies. But I think it’s well-made and the story’s told well, so people should enjoy it. I don’t want to underestimate the audience for it. But I also wonder if people outside of America will care about it, knowing less about Jesse James. He’s part of American folklore, you know?
He was also a folk hero when he was alive. Wasn’t that part of what attracted a wide-eyed Robert Ford to him?
Robert Ford was just a little kid when he started reading comic books about Jesse James. But people didn’t really know who James was. They only knew him from comics. Everyone lived in small pockets of urban areas, like the big northern cities, New York or Washington, and they didn’t have any personal experience of Jesse James. To them, he was only what he’d become in the comic books as a legend. When he was killed, it was easy for people to romanticise it and turn him into this Robin Hood hero that he wasn’t, you know?
Did you find it hard to see through the myth of Jesse James?
I wonder what he was really like, how special he really was? In photos, he looks like a scrappy, weaselly guy, you know? I wonder what it was about him that people latched onto? Was he that magnetic? Was he just a good shot? Was he fearless? What was it about his character that made him a legend? Because he didn’t really rob trains and give to the poor that much. He didn’t have a political agenda, he was just like a lot of those people: a confederate, who lost the war and was bitter about it. I don’t think he was like a Che Guevara, someone who really had a cause.
The film portrays him as a depressive.
I think his own legend started to consume him, you know? And he tried to live up to it. He felt either maligned by things he’d read, or he craved positive attention, so he’d leave notes on trains that he’d robbed.
The dynamic between Robert Ford and Jesse James is fascinating. Ford is like a deranged fan, and Jesse laps it up. But that changes later on.
It’s pretty complex why those two guys end up in opposition to each other, but really it just boils down to one moment early on in the film. One accident turns everything on its head. Before then, things were going as well as ever for Robert Ford, he’d finally got close to his hero, and his hero is flattered by the way that Robert Ford flatters him and so he lets him in close. Then there’s this one gunfight, this totally irrelevant thing, which puts my character in a spot where he is easily manipulated by the police.
It can’t have been easy for the director Andrew Dominik to make such a long, artful film for a Hollywood studio?
We had an enormous amount of resistance because Andrew was trying to do something that wasn’t all that commercial, you know? There was a lot of money on the line and a lot of people who had seen the movie a different way. It could easily have been much more exciting, more of an action movie. I certainly think it’s exciting, but he definitely didn’t make an action movie.
Was there much conflict between the director and the studio? Brad Pitt has said that there were countless different cuts of the movie.
Andrew was always coming up against the powers-that-be, and he didn’t have the clout that a more experienced director might have. This is only his second film. He relied on his powers of persuasion, which were formidable, but he also had Brad as a producer, and Brad didn’t take any money from the film and he put his own money into it. When we needed extra days to shoot, Brad paid for them himself. He always supported Andrew.
It’s pretty admirable, man. Brad is like the biggest movie star in the world, right? And he goes and does these movies? That’s risking a lot. Most other movie stars are like:Make sure the next one grosses so much, so I get so many points on the one after that.” Brad doesn’t give
Interview: Dave Calhoun