‘Wow, I’m really glad I didn’t know that,’ says Casey Affleck, leaning back into his seat in a New York hotel suite. Apparently, it’s news to him that his latest role – Lou Ford, Texas sheriff and psychopath of Jim Thompson’s revered 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me, the film version of which hits cinemas across Dubai next week– was long pursued by Marlon Brando, who wanted to play it when the story was first courted. ‘It’s just terrifying to hear that. He would have been so perfect, the way he embodies duality in something like On the Waterfront.’
Affleck, 35, is a natural deflector. It might be a younger-brother thing (Ben has a very different energy, which works in movies such as Armageddon), but it’s also a strength – and perhaps a defining trait. There was an Oscar nomination in 2008 for Affleck’s desperate, fawning outlaw in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (he played the coward). Even more people know him as the sweetest member of the Ocean’s Eleven crew, or for his sensitive detective in Gone Baby Gone.
This is all by way of saying one doesn’t think ‘inscrutable serial killer’ when sizing up Affleck, now dipping his mint tea bag into steamy water. ‘Honestly, I didn’t know about Lou Ford before he came across my table,’ he admits (the actor was first introduced to Thompson’s noir by Assassination director Andrew Dominik, who harboured the project for years before turning elsewhere). ‘Then again, I always have a hard
time seeing myself in any script. These roles – they just seem like people in stories, you know? Do you really imagine yourself as Odysseus when you read The Odyssey? It’s always a hurdle. How can this guy possibly be me?’
Getting into Ford’s skin would be tough for anyone who didn’t habitually extinguish cigars on people’s palms and shoot unblinkingly. The Killer Inside Me will test Affleck’s fans, and not just with the spectacle of this handsome softie beating up his female perps. ‘You should be shocked by it; this is someone destroying people who he loves, and that’s exactly the reaction we wanted,’ says the film’s maverick director, Michael Winterbottom, calling from London. ‘Lou is not an obvious person, and Casey’s brilliant at making you wonder what’s going on inside his head.’ Earlier this year, the film drew exactly that reaction when it premiered at the Sundance festival, with many members of the audience expressing anger and shock at the levels of violence in the film. Winterbottom, a fast worker (and a mile-a-minute talker), says he was undaunted by the project’s legendary history – it has been notoriously hard to finance and adapt, attached to directors as varied as Quentin Tarantino and Stanley Kubrick. Maybe it needed a someone with a little distance.
‘Michael’s not from here; he doesn’t love genre,’ Affleck says delicately about his British director. When asked to make comparisons with his other collaborators, including Gus Van Sant (they co-wrote Gerry with Matt Damon), he sheds light on Winterbottom’s unusual perspective. ‘I was walking with Michael in Oklahoma on one of our days off – a little town, really sweet. I asked him, “What are you up to today?” And he said, “Oh, just trying to pretend I’m not in Oklahoma!”’ Laughing, Affleck wants to downplay what sounds like snobbery. ‘He’s from far away, culturally, and he uses that.’
Made by a director who sometimes flaunts a light, ironic touch (the Madchester music biopic 24 Hour Party People is from Winterbottom) and starring a slippery actor, The Killer Inside Me often feels like a thriller held at arm’s length, fascinatingly oblique. Affleck seems drawn to the vibe; a pet project of his is a documentary he’s made himself about his brother-in-law, the troubled actor Joaquin Phoenix, lately revealed as an elaborate hoax. ‘My goal was an extreme close-up of someone who’s grown very private,’ he says of the profile. ‘He jumped into the musical deep end too soon.
I had no idea what we’d capture over the two years. It’s a strange film.’ Affleck mentions hundreds of hours of footage, hanging out with Phoenix in his house in his boxers. He cracks a smile, his potential career as a non-fiction provocateur a glimmer. Maybe he’ll get used to being unpredictable.
The Killer Inside Me is in UAE cinemas from December 9.