Casey Affleck comes into his own in ‘Out of the Furnace’

Halfway through Out of the Furnace comes a scene in which Rodney (Casey Affleck) goes to visit his older brother Russell (Christian Bale), who is serving a prison sentence for vehicular manslaughter. Rodney has just returned from his fourth tour of duty in Iraq; the two men haven’t seen each other in years. When Russell asks him how things went overseas, Rodney just stares at his brother, his eyes suddenly veiled and dark and haunted. Some things are just too painful to talk about.

The scene is subtle and deceptively simple — Rodney’s experiences in Iraq will end up affecting the rest of his life — and Affleck’s performance during that small throwaway moment is remarkable, using stillness and silence and a blank expression to convey his character’s great inner pain and the irreparable scars he must bear.

The performance is even more impressive when you meet Affleck, 38, who is funny and jovial and playful and somewhat of a prankster — all the things his character is not. During a recent visit to Miami to promote Out of the Furnace, which opens Friday, Affleck at first dismisses praise for that scene with a joke “(They just used mascara to darken my eyes and make me look tortured!”), but then reveals in earnest what was going through his head at the time of filming.

“I’m glad people pick up on those kinds of details, because they are little things, but they’re so important,” he says. “I talked to a lot of veterans who were nice enough to share their stories and insights with me. A lot of them had similar stories — not only in terms of their combat experiences but also how it can be to come back after going through that ordeal. When you spend several years living in an incredibly stressful environment, you go through intense trauma and it changes your brain chemistry. You’re essentially a different person. You can’t just erase some of the terrible things you see during war. Those were the things I thought about during that scene. It was really important that I depicted the post-war mindset of a veteran as accurately as I could.”

Out of the Furnace, directed by Scott Cooper (whose previous film Crazy Heart earned Jeff Bridges a Best Actor Oscar), is the kind of intimate, character-driven drama that attracts a lot of top-tier talents (Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard and Forest Whitaker round out the cast). The grim nature of the tale — Rodney gets involved in an underground fighting ring, ignoring his brother Russell’s pleas to join him at a job at a steel mill — doesn’t bode well for the film’s chances at the multiplex during the holiday season.

Whatever its box office fate, though, Out of the Furnace will further elevate Affleck’s status as a diverse and skilled actor, something he has been demonstrating ever since his first starring role in 2002’s Gerry, Gus Van Sant’s quasi-experimental film in which Affleck and Matt Damon got lost walking in the desert. The movie started out as an absurdist comedy that evolved into a rigorous, existential tale with an unexpectedly bleak resolution. With his mischievous personality, physical abilities and gangly, loose-limbed body, Affleck has a natural flair for comedy and had been previously cast most often as goofballs: He has been part of ensemble comedies such as Tower Heist, American Pie 2 and the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy (”Those movies aren’t exactly ensembles, though,” he jokes. “They are mostly Brad Pitt and George Clooney talking in front of the camera and everybody else is somewhere in the background, pretending to do something.”)

That all changed in 2007, with the one-two punch of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination as the man who famously shot the legendary outlaw in the back of the head, and Gone Baby Gone, his big brother’s directorial debut, in which he played a street-smart detective investigating the disappearance of a little girl.

Affleck’s subsequent choices of leading roles — the sadistic sheriff in the brutal The Killer Inside Me, the prison fugitive in the lyrical Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and now the war veteran who becomes embroiled in an underground fighting ring in Out of the Furnace — all point to an actor seeking smaller projects that allow him the opportunity to play a specific kind of role.

“The idea behind my character in The Killer Inside Me was to play someone who could seem your friendly neighbor next door — the last person you would ever suspect of murdering people. He’s someone who is very different on the inside than he is on the outside. In a way, that’s the kind of character that I’m drawn to — not people who do horrible things, but people who feel one way on the inside but appear differently on the outside. That’s an interesting conflict for an actor to explore. That’s true of Rodney in Out of the Furnace, too. He has all these experiences from war that he can’t talk about and he feels an enormous amount of guilt, but he goes about resolving it in all the wrong ways.”

Affleck is currently working on his biggest film to date — the new sci-fi epic Interstellar by Christopher Nolan ( The Dark Knight, Inception), which has a sprawling cast that includes Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine. The special-effects intensive film isn’t due until November 2014.

But although Affleck admits he has never worked on a movie of this size, he says the process isn’t all that different from the smaller-scale films that have been his specialty.

“Chris Nolan is someone who has made very small, successful movies that are about people and performances, and he has made these huge, enormous movies that have also been very successful,” Affleck says of his current director. “He can kind of do it all, on every level. And he never does just one or the other. So even though he’s making a huge science-fiction movie with lots of spectacle, he’s also making a movie that’s about people and driven by performance. He really is one in a million.”

Shooting on Interstellar, which has been filming in Los Angeles as well as Iceland and Canada, has kept Affleck from spending too much time recently with his brother Ben. But after winning the Best Picture Oscar for Argo earlier this year, and the announcement he’ll be playing the Dark Knight in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie, has Ben become more conceited and insufferable than before?

“Yeah,” Affleck says, laughing. “But he was like that before. He’s always been like that. So it’s not much of a change.”

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