By Simona Zaunius
It’s Sunday night, February 5th. The air is chilly, and Grace Miller and I don’t have good jackets. We’re waiting on the red carpet. We began rehearsing questions nervously, because we are about to get the chance to interview the stars of Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams were going to receive the Cinema Vanguard Award. As the Santa Barbara International Film Festival website explains, “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.” The two had been going all over the country, even the world to honorary events. This was their last one.
About a half hour before the stars were supposed to arrive, we had the opportunity to interview Wiktor Ericsson, the director of the Swedish drama Strawberry Days. He had come to Santa Barbara on Thursday. Not knowing much about the film, we asked him what his inspiration was. In a strong accent, he replied:
“… I grew up in this part of Sweden so I saw these workers in the fields… you know I just became interested in their life. They’re there in the landscape, no one really cares about them so I wanted to write a story about them.” The film is also known as Jordgubbslandet, and can be found in the Swedish Film Institute website.
Afterwards, Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams’s personal handler came walking down the red carpet. She stopped by us and asked us what questions we wanted to ask Affleck and Williams. We tried to be charming while maintaining a professional look. Evidently, we made a good impression, as she told us that we might be the only people they would stop for. We became pretty excited, and continued to rehearse our questions.
We started talking with other interviewers, such as a professor at Santa Barbara City College. Then the limo pulled in. Casey Affleck climbed out of the car and began to greet fans and sign autographs. After a couple minutes, he started walking on the red carpet, being interviewed by the first people in the lineup. We stood there, pumped with adrenaline. He was definitely taking his time. Then Michelle Williams’s limo pulled in. After signing autographs like Affleck, she began walking down the red carpet, answering questions. She was wearing a Louis Vuitton dress.
Now, since Casey Affleck had come before Williams, we had prepared our questions for him first. The handler actually decided to push Michelle Williams to us first, so we had a few brief moments of panic. However, she was incredibly nice.
Michelle Williams started acting at a young age. We asked her what made her realize this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
“I definitely didn’t know when I was young that I was gonna do it for the rest of my life, but it was the only thing I did, like I just kind of concentrated on it, and then it sort of became the only thing I could do, so I narrowed my options too much. Don’t do that.” She had a very easygoing personality, making jokes and smiling.
Manchester by the Sea is a serious drama noted for its deep moving storyline. Williams’s character, Randi, struggles with a terrible tragedy from her past. We asked her if it was difficult to play the character, to get into her head.
“It was an upsetting place to live, and something that you kinda didn’t really want to go into but you knew that you had to… inside yourself you’re sort of resisting it the whole time cause you’re like ugh, I don’t want to be that person”
She added, “But I also felt very lucky at the end of the night, like, I got to go home and I got to put my daughter to bed … It wasn’t my reality, I didn’t have to live it forever and there are some people who it is their reality and they do have to go through it.”
When we asked her to give advice to young people aspiring to be in the film industry, she said “I would say the best way to become an actress is to do anything but acting lessons – so like take dance lessons, read a lot of books, and travel, and take lessons in psychology – don’t take acting lessons.”
Next Casey Affleck came up to us. The high school journalists dropped something heavy onto the red carpet, and everyone started laughing so he couldn’t hear our questions. Once we began asking, it became clear that he was a very genuine, down to earth man. We asked him what his advice was to students aspiring to be in the film industry. There was a slight pause.
“I’ve been asked that question a lot and I never have a satisfying answer. I’m sorry… I mostly didn’t study acting… I studied other things so that I had some sense of what the world was made of, a little bit, a sense of history and sense of language by doing English classes and other things. And that was proved to enormously helpful to me because that is sort of what acting and screenwriting and movie making is all about. It’s not exactly about the technique and the, you know, how to use a camera …Those things are always changing. What it’s really about is understanding stories and understanding people and telling them a little something about yourself… And for better or for worse it’s at least the thing that has kept me sort of involved in the world and therefore able to bring something to a performance.”
We asked Affleck how it was different to play his character, Lee Chandler, compared to other characters he had portrayed.
“Well you know each character is kinda the same in that you are just bringing the things from your own past and your own life… And if you’re not doing that then there’s really no point in doing any of it. Because it’s supposed to be a tool of self expression and that’s the thing, kinda, the thing that feels the best about it all. And you know I have things in my life that I bring to each character, and I brought them to Lee and I brought them to other things … every time I do it I am more or less trying to do this exact same thing.”
Affleck went on to compare making movies to having children. “… Every single job I kinda say I think this might be the last. And then when it’s over and I’ve forgot how hard it was … the mother of my children would say ‘I’m never having another kid’ and then, you know, a year later she’d say ‘okay let’s have another kid’. You sort of forget about how painful it is and how hard it is because you’re proud of it, and then you go on and do it again. It’s rewarding. And it’s cathartic in a way. “
When asked when he knew he wanted to become an actor, he replied “… when I was very, very young I started doing theater as a way of sort of dealing with the things in my life. You know, what was happening in my house or happening in school and that was a way of acting those parts out kind of role playing was really satisfying for me. And that was sort of when I first fell in love with doing it.” Affleck later explained during the event that his father was an alcoholic, and his mother would take him and his brother, Ben, to therapy groups where the children had to act out what was happening at home.
Manchester by the Sea is a critically acclaimed film. It has been nominated for six Oscars, Casey Affleck in contention for Best Actor and Michelle Williams for Best Supporting Actress. The ability to interview them was a great privilege. We learned that making movies is hard, but rewarding. We learned the best way to become an actor is to broaden your knowledge of the world, not focusing on acting lessons. We learned that celebrities are genuine, nice people, not untouchable icons. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, if you by some miracle you happen to be reading this, Grace (the blonde in the leather jacket) and I (the tall girl in the black dress) thank you for an incredible experience.