The director Gavin O’Connor (The Accountant) artfully documents the wearying, circadian routine of Affleck’s character’s nightly bingeing. But as unsparing as the film is in depicting his voracious drinking habit, it’s hardly a bleak watch. A sense of levity is baked into the story – and also a satisfying shot at redemption.
“We didn’t want this movie to be like a death march,” O’Connor says.
For Affleck, taking on the role of a divorcee with a drinking problem was a bold call.
I’d be lying if I said divorce wasn’t a painful experience… Even if you’re on the best possible terms and you agree it’s the best choice … It was very, very painful for me.
He’d not only have to confront his own demons, he’d also be obliged to sit – as he did on a recent Saturday afternoon, in an ornate hotel room – and talk about it to somebody like me.
“It’s true, being an alcoholic and doing this was daunting, ultimately knowing that it opens me up to talking in a more public way than I would have otherwise,” he says. “Alcoholism works in a lot of different ways. It’s hereditary and can be brought on by enormous stress and suffering. You create this habit that you wouldn’t otherwise have had. That was the stuff I was excited to emotionally explore again, I was really hungry to do some acting that felt … real.”
The film’s early scenes of Affleck’s character immersed in an almost mundane, methodical ritual to nourish his dependency were shot only days after the actor himself left rehab and was navigating a divorce. In the film, Jack increasingly isolates himself and disconnects from those around him to absorb the pain of the life he has lost.
“Ben was very raw at the time,” O’Connor recalls. “So we just started doing it and it felt very intimate. He was so powerful to watch, because it was so brave and honest. It felt very real.”
The pointed interactions with Jack’s estranged wife, deftly played by Janina Gavankar (True Blood), demonstrate similar candour.
“I’d be lying if I said divorce wasn’t a painful experience,” Affleck says. “But that was part of what made this story really authentic. For a lot of people divorce is the most painful thing that happens to them in life. Even if you’re on the best possible terms and you agree it’s the best choice … It was very, very painful for me.”
Divorce and alcoholism are often inextricably linked: both evoke a sense of shame and failure. Amid the humiliation the natural thing to do is to withdraw, deliberately shrink your world, isolate yourself and eliminate interactions with friends and family and those who care about you.
Usually, something significant is needed to shake you from this malaise.
The path back for Jack comes from an unlikely source: his former high school, where he is remembered as a champion basketball player and whose hapless team is in desperate need of a new coach.
Jack reluctantly takes the job and quickly realises that if he is to succeed in mentoring a raw, disparate group of disadvantaged teenagers, he needs to halt his daily obliterations.
In person today, Affleck has lost much of the weight – physical and metaphorical – that helped inure him to the character of Jack.
Still, a nervous energy remains. He fidgets at times and chomps on nicotine gum at others.
“Although some of the past few years have been quite painful, it’s also been very instructive,” he says. “I feel much more connected with myself, my kids, my feelings, and what I want, than I did five years ago.”
Back then, Affleck was cresting on a mid-career creative peak, emboldened by a stint behind the camera that won him a wave of acclaim for highbrow adult dramas such as Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo – which won the best picture Oscar.
This terrific run was capped by a meaty part in the frothy thriller Gone Girl. Then came an ill-fated stint as Batman and, well, the wheels fell off in more ways than one.
By then, Affleck and Garner were already regular tabloid fodder and Affleck’s boozy public appearances became the norm as his personal and professional lives took a pointed turn.
“The creative life is a risky one inherently,” he says, carefully. “You try hard every time and sometimes it works and sometimes it just doesn’t. When you have an event like a divorce, you reflect on what you could have done better. Alcoholism has the same impact where you think, ‘Why? Why did this happen to me? Why am I behaving this way?’ It was all cause for a lot of reflection, so in these past five years I’ve probably grown more than in any period in my life.”
He pauses for a moment.
“But even then, if you avoid some mistakes you probably just make others. I’m trying now to think about the present and keep myself engaged and interested in life in a way that’s healthy, and to be the dad I want to be, and that’s basically enough.”
Affleck says the scenes playing a basketball coach were actually the most daunting for him.
“I never coached anything before,” he says. “I didn’t have that understanding of the nuances of basketball. And I knew I would have to create a rapport with the guys (who played the students) and earn their trust, have a genuine relationship. That was definitely the scariest part. You can just tell guys who are athletes and those who aren’t. The same if you haven’t coached.”
For many divorcees there are several stages of acceptance. There’s the fog of anger that can cloud the early phase of the separation, then there’s the grief for what there once was, and then there’s the regret for not doing enough to save the union and protect the person you committed your life to.
Near the end of The Way Back we see Affleck’s character in that final phase.
It’s not often that Hollywood allows for this type of reflection. In rehab, Jack’s ex-wife visits and he breaks down and apologises for not protecting her and relinquishing the lifetime commitment he wished he’d kept. It’s honest and also modest – not a showboaty Oscar highlights reel, just a guy realising his colossal mistake and the way it inexorably altered their life trajectory.
“No doubt as I’ve gotten older my experiences inform what I do as an actor,” Affleck says. “There’s a broader emotional pallet because I’ve been through more.”
His director O’Connor is less circumspect: “The thing that was beautiful about it is he was never acting. He was just experiencing, using the stimuli from his real life to experience the character. It was incredible.”
After filming was completed last year Affleck retreated from work and spent eight months with his children. Checking in with his friend and neighbour Matt Damon, with whom he shared an Oscar in their breakout 1990s indie drama Good Will Hunting, the two decided to reunite creatively for the first time in more than two decades.
They ended up writing The Last Duel together with Nicole Holofcener and it’s already scheduled for release during this year’s December Oscar release window.
“It was so much fun being with Matt again,” Affleck says. “It reminded me of being young and not exactly carefree, but remembering when you’re a kid. You know, the feeling there’s limitless future possibilities and you’re not experienced enough to know that things can really go wrong yet. But now we have the benefit of 20 years of making movies in between to help us. I think it’s made us better, frankly.”
The Way Back is now screening.
Andrew Murfett is the editor of the Green Guide, the weekly section all about television trends, interviews, and reviews of upcoming television and radio programs and video releases.