A polished, fairy-like Michelle Williams joins a dapper, curly-haired Casey Affleck on the red carpet. An unlikely duo? It is clear their paths were aligned for all the right reasons.
Welcomed by Roger Durling, Executive Director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, both Williams and Affleck arrive at the Arlington Theatre to accept the Cinema Vanguard Award for their acting in the film, Manchester by the Sea, a film which has already made tremendous waves.
“I wish I would have been kind to myself,” Williams confidently shares with a local Jr. High student when asked what she wishes she‘d done differently at age thirteen. Her acting career began early, at age ten. She has come a long way since selling Tide and pizza. Starring in “Lassie,” in 1994, she went on to act in “Baywatch”. “I have never been so excited as I was to walk on the set of “Bay Watch” for the first time, embarrassing as it may be!”
After that experience, Williams landed a prominent character, Jen Lidley in “Dawson’s Creek.” One hundred and twenty eight episodes later, Williams had many bold roles awaiting her. A short list of these films include, “Wendy and Lucy,” “Broke Back Mountain,” “Blue Valentine,” and “My Week with Marilyn.” In each of these films, she played a compelling character remarkably different from the last, and found herself propelled towards the independent film industry. “The Indie film industry was the one that seemed to fit me.”
Williams has an interesting take on films from her twenty-plus years in the industry. She expresses that there is some element of being an actor in a movie, which makes her feel “caged.” However, from her recent experiences in theatre productions, such as “Blackbird” and “Cabaret,” she feels like these experiences are, “… much more open.” “Theater feels really real to me,” Williams expresses. With movies, there are edits and color adjustments and stopping and going. A lot of acting is waiting. A lot of acting is patience. It’s like being a waiter but without the food!” she gleefully shares.
Even though these are Williams’s sentiments around her acting career in film vs. theater, she certainly has drawn attention from movie critics. Shocking as it may be, Williams shares that she still, “…hustles for roles that seem to fit me best and push me to accomplish new challenges.” And when Williams is asked how she can jump between such intense roles, “I like to create an internal space. As you go in and out of your day, you prepare for scenes in a movie. It’s always with you.”
Being an ethereal beauty on the outside, Williams is only made more beautiful by her presence and gentle way of moving through a night centered on her and her costar’s successes. There is no ego, and when any kind of recognition comes her way, she boomerangs it back, sharing “When you work with a talented director, such as Kenny, it is easy to feel able to perform in the film you are making.” Kenny’s sensibility is outstanding. When the audience watches Manchester by the Sea, they are walking away with Kenny in their hearts. That’s how much he has given this film.”
Affleck is no rookie to the film industry. He has already been recognized for his exceptional portrayal of characters in the films, “Good Will Hunting,” “Jesse James,” “Gerry”, “Finest Hours” and “Gone Baby Gone,” just to list a few.
When asked how he trained for his acting career, Affleck casually states, “Acting is, taking things from your life and putting them to use.” At nine years old and with a father who was an alcoholic, Affleck’s mom would take Casey and his brother, Ben to a therapy class for families dealing with alcoholism. Affleck, in a momentous revelation that happens on stage at the Arlington Theatre shares, “I guess this was when my acting began! I used to have to act out certain scenarios around living with an alcoholic. So, I guess I have my mom to thank for taking me to these!”
“When I told my mother I wasn’t going to college. It broke her heart. I headed to L.A. It took me three months to get there!” zigzagging his hand in the air to show his indirect route from Massachusetts to California. Once I got to L.A., I auditioned for “Saved by the Bell.” And just before I packed up to move, after NOT getting the part, I had an audition with Howard Feuer. I had no formal acting background and thought auditions happened only once. I auditioned more than six times with Howard! I thought, do you want me or not?”
Affleck finished college, albeit to his mother’s relief but saw all that came with the daily passing of life the real fuel for acting. At one point in his acting career, while on set with co-star Christian Bales, Affleck brutally honest confessed, “I feel totally lost with this script!” Bale’s response, “Good! Lost is a great place to be!” “Since then, I have felt pretty OK”, Affleck casually adds.
When Kenneth Lonergan, writer and director of Manchester by the Sea, with gleamimng pinnacle-like trophies in hand, begins to honor Williams and Affleck, he shares, “There is nothing overly done or prepared for either of these two…there is a spontaneous spark which is one of the best elements of Casey and Michelle through their generosity towards others. Without Casey, I couldn’t have completed the film. He was there for me throughout the entire process.”
Though the film, Manchester by the Sea, sets out to convey the depth of grief, with a snowball effect, it has encircled love and kindness. “I had no idea while we were making the film how important it would become. It wasn’t until I saw the film alongside the reactions of the people around me, that I became aware of how impactful it was, ” Williams expresses.
Casey, “There is no spectacle in this film. Just a good story.” And as the night comes to a close, Casey shares “I hate the sound of my voice…this seems like a long night!” The packed house appreciates his humor. Williams is equally light-hearted, sharing that upon her daughter learning she was leaving for a weekend in Santa Barbara to receive an award, her daughter exclaimed, “You’re going to get an award? Oh, Mommy, that is so great. You’ve never gotten one of those!” Laughter consumes Williams and everyone in the theater feels warmed by their authenticity.
Triumphantly overcoming challenges is a common theme from all films chosen by Durling to be part of the SBIFF’s thirty-second year. The films are inspiring stories that elevate a film enthusiasts’ awareness of life and all its dimensions.
Williams’ advice for the end of the evening “Play with people who are better that you, who push you to be better. This has never been more true for me, working alongside Casey and Kenny.” The admiration is triangular. It is clear the work of these three together was just as much an investment in relationship, as it was to create a masterful film.
Awarded “Best Picture” from the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, the Cinema Vanguard Award from the Santa Barbara Film Festival and a nominee for “Best Picture” by the Academy Awards at the end of the month, Manchester by the Sea with Williams and Affleck are bound for another wave of success.
The Cinema Vanguard Award was created in recognition of actors who have forged their own path- taking artistic risks and making a significant and unique contribution to film. Previous honorees include Rooney Mara, Eddie Redmayne, and Felicity Jones, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, Amy Adams, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, Nicole Kidman, Christopher Waltz, Vera Farmiga, Stanley Tucci, Peter Sarsgaard, Kristin Scott Thomas and Ryan Gosling.