Ben Affleck on breaking Hollywood taboos
While “The Accountant” isn’t exactly a name that inspires much excitement, the new crime thriller from acclaimed director Gavin O’Connor, and starring Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick and J.K. Simmons, is a powerfully told story that doesn’t fit into the usual Hollywood template.
Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, a small-town accountant and autistic maths savant who uses those gifts to freelance for criminal organisations as a book-keeper and later a killer. Esquire caught up with the director Gavin O’Connor and Affleck to find out how they prepared for a movie that deals with the complex issues of parenting, autism and how we perceive outsiders from the mainstream.
ESQ: Ben, how did you prepare for playing a character with autism?
BEN AFFLECK: The last thing we wanted to do was a caricature or oversimplification. So Gavin and I spent time with people at various places on the spectrum. And there were a lot of laughs and a lot of humour in these conversations. I was really moved by
it and wanted to honour that aspect, because I think humour is such a powerful form of intelligence.
ESQ: Gavin, were there any aspects of the script you wanted to change?
GAVIN O’CONNOR: One of the things when Ben and I both agreed upon was that in the flashbacks we wanted to make sure that when we meet Chris as an adult, the audience understood how he became this person with all these incredible skills. It was important to dramatise the relationship between the father and son. He loves his child. He thinks he’s doing the right thing, but we didn’t know a lot about the autism spectrum back then, when Chris was a boy. It could be a really cruel world out there for a kid like him, so his father did what he could to make sure his child was prepared for that. It was always generated by love, but parenting isn’t a sport for perfectionists.
ESQ: Ben, can you speak about the father/son dynamic in the film, being a father yourself?
BA: That’s what I thought was the most heartbreaking thing about this story. As a parent, I face the same dilemmas that all parents do every day. What’s the right way to raise children? What’s the right thing to teach? Every little moment there comes a crossroads and a lot of different parenting choices you could make. We all try our best, but we all make mistakes for sure.
A lot of it is the fact that when you have kids, all of a sudden what’s fresh in your heart is outside your body; all of a sudden you feel vulnerable. This fear of a child being vulnerable is very, very powerful and I can see why it made for a really interesting character in the father. He’s a guy who, out of love and compassion and fear for his son, actually ends up kind of brutalising him and abusing him. It’s a really interesting question to look at: what is the appropriate way to channel the intense emotion we have as parents? It’s not easy.
ESQ: Gavin, how did you find the balance between the character’s brawn and his brain and make the mathematical elements compelling?
GO: Well, I was more comfortable with the action part of it. It’s the scene where he deconstructs the books that, as I’m sure Ben can attest, I was terrified of doing. I wanted to make sure we got it right because it was a journey into his mind. I approached it like an action scene, but it was a visualisation of his super brain. When we started with figuring out what Chris’s style of fighting would be, and doing a dissection on the character, it felt like Chris would just want to eliminate people as efficiently and quickly as possible in a mathematical way. So we discovered a style called Pentak Silat, which is an Indonesian fighting technique that is cinematic and kind of flashy, but very efficient.
ESQ: Ben, is this role up there as far as complex characters that you’ve played?
BA: Oh, yeah. It’s definitely the most complicated and interesting character I’ve played for sure.
ESQ: Gavin, as a director?
GO: It just required a lot of research for us to immerse ourselves in that world. One of the things we learned is that the autism spectrum can mean a million different things. It’s different for everyone. We were just trying to just depict this one character as honestly as possible and make sure we got it right. And one of the things I’m most proud of in regard to the film
is that when you get a really good actor to play someone who is a genius,
I think there’s the temptation to show off a little bit…
BA: Like Matt Damon did in Good Will Hunting [laughs].
GO: I was not referring to Matt [laughs]. Ben gave a very honest and restrained performance and never got seduced by trying to do anything showy. We approached it from a place of honouring, respecting, celebrating. I keep saying that, in our world right now, it’s a great time to be different, so let’s make a film about someone who’s different and celebrate that person. He’s not different in a bad way; he’s just different like we’re all different.
BA: What Gavin points to is at the root of what we wanted to do, which was to be respectful and to tell a truthful story, to not try to sex it up or gloss it over. We just wanted to peer into the reality of this character’s life, and also show that, simply, different can be different good, can be better, can be special.
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The Accountant is out now in UAE cinemas