The Interview: Gavin O'Connor on Ben Affleck, rehab, and directing drunkenness
With a name like Gavin O'Connor, you can imagine why the American director perks up when he speaks to an Irish interviewer.
As he tells it, his family hails from Mayo and he even made a pilgrimage shortly after the UK premiere of 'The Accountant', the 2016 action-thriller starring Ben Affleck, John Lithgow and Jon Bernthal. With a name like his, it's common as muck here - a fact he greets with uproarious laughter. Yet, for all of his good-natured ribbing and easy humour, his movies tend to be dark and filled with conflict, both emotional and physical, that's drawn from his own life.
The inspiration for 'The Accountant', for example, came from his parents' divorce as a child, which resulted in him and his brother being separated for a prolonged period. His latest movie, 'The Way Back', or 'Finding The Way Back' as it's known here in Ireland and the UK, sees Ben Affleck playing a basketball coach who struggles to face his alcoholism and process an incalculable personal loss. Ben Affleck's had his own issues with alcoholism, but for Gavin O'Connor, it's at a distance, but close enough to see it.
"My dad was an alcoholic, my brother, my grandmother, it's pretty rampant in my family. It's funny, when my dad passed away, there were hundred and hundreds of photographs in these boxes, and in not one of them - not one of them - did he not have a drink in his hands," he says, with a slightly bitter laugh.
"When I started the movie, my wife and I just had a baby and, to be honest, I'd lie awake at night and I'd have these panic attacks, I'd feel so vulnerable, y'know, that if anything happened to this little girl, what would I do? I couldn't survive it. So when the script landed in my lap, I was having this fear of losing a child and it happens to this character, and I get... I get what he did." Likewise, the sports component of the movie is equally relevant to his own story. "The only way I'd get to see my dad was if I played basketball, and I loved my old man so much, so that's why I played."
Sports plays a major role in the movie, but shooting it was a different thing altogether. "We had about thirty days, so we were really just trying to make our fuckin' days," he admits. "I went it into with this desire to shoot basketball in a way that's never been shot before and do it justice, but ultimately, we're following Jack's story, so it's about what he's feeling and how he's dealing with what's happening on court."
Affleck's character, Jack Cunningham, is frequently seen drinking throughout the movie - even cracking open a beer in the shower before work. His cheeks are often blotted red, his eyes are watered and glassy, and while he doesn't exactly stumble over chairs, Affleck's performance carries a lived-in quality to it. "I started looking at all the best alcoholic performances. You can't play drunk, it smells so false," he observes, and cites examples such as Paul Newman in 'The Verdict' as the most honest example of an alcoholic, along with Jack Lemmon in 'Days of Wine and Roses' and, more recently, Bradley Cooper in 'A Star Is Born'.
"I remember saying it to Ben, we were shooting a scene in the bar one night, and we were trying to find the humour at times in the drunkenness, and I said to him, 'All those movies for all the different alcoholic performances, you went to the top of my list,' because he did it so fuckin' good. He said to me, 'I know this very well,' because he did."
Affleck has admitted to his own alcohol problems in the past. In a revealing interview earlier this year with the New York Times, he spoke about how he confronted his own addiction and alcoholism. Putting an actor into a movie that deals so frankly and candidly with drinking issues is no small thing. Was there a fear of putting him in harm's way, even if it's a movie about redemption and defeating alcoholism?
"The first week of shooting, and I did this intentionally, Ben got out of rehab right when we started shooting. He was in rehab the whole time. He would get furloughs from his sober buddy to leave the centre and meet with me and the kids and do all our work, but then he'd go back to rehab," Gavin explains.
"He got out right when we started shooting, so I knew I'd have a very raw package, and was in the very early stages of recovery. The first week I had him, I intentionally did all the scenes with him alone drunk, in the house, a lot of drinking. It could be scary and it was, but the thing about acting is, when you're doing it right, when Ben started doing these scenes, he was opening up the box to let out the demons."
"If you're doing it honestly, as painful as it is and what looks like suffering, in actuality, that's your job as an actor - and it feels good. If you do it right, there's something cathartic about it, you're doing your job in a way that's honest. You have to reveal yourself emotionally and go to these deep places, but you can't fake it. If you're really going there, it actually feels fuckin' great! So I was watching Ben every day do better, because he was going to places, and in a weird way, it was healing him because he was accessing emotions that were truthful, that was allowing him to be really good at his job and that feels good. It gave him confidence!"
Gavin admits that it can feel counter-intuitive, but for him as a director, it was about creating a place where Ben felt comfortable enough to go to these places and feel like he had a safety net underneath him. "He bolstered his confidence, but he was so good at it, and he knew it so well."
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.