LOS ANGELES - In separate but similar hotel suites, the Affleck brothers have their own styles going on.
Casey Aflleck is all aw-shucks energy, on his feet one second, leaning forward in his chair the next, asking if it's OK to smoke before coming in from the balcony to light up. His hair is choppy, his face stubbly, his jeans torn and saggy beneath wrinkly shirttails. He flicks ashes into a wastebasket. There's nothing movie star about him, although he's now starring in two films, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," and his big brother's feature-length directorial debut, the set-in-Dorchester "Gone Baby Gone."
Ben Affleck, on the other hand, exudes stardom, or at least a sense of himself as a celebrity. His hair is short, too, but freshly shorn. Same with the stubble, no doubt professionally buzzed. His shirttails are also out, but the shirt is pressed and worn over creased khakis. He slouches on the couch, ankles crossed on the coffee table, full of confidence that he's done all he can to make the movie he wanted the way he wanted.
Then the slightest edge of uncertainty slips in, covered as it is in self- deprecation: "I really want this movie to do well," Ben says, pausing a beat, "because I really want to get more directing jobs."
He also wants his kid brother to get the attention that has eluded him. Sure, he had a role as one of the sidekicks in "Good Will Hunting" back in 1997. And he has worked steadily since, including the "Ocean's Eleven" franchise. But only now, with his co-starring role opposite Brad Pitt in "Jesse James," and his leading role in "Gone Baby Gone," which opens Friday, does he seem perched on the edge of stardom.
Casey, 32, couldn't seem any more surprised, or 35-year-old Ben prouder. It was a casting decision that could have been disastrous, not because Casey can't act, but because Ben has attracted his share of contentious criticism in the past. There were some unfortunate movie choices, and that little thing called Bennifer, as his headline-grabbing engagement to Jennifer Lopez was nicknamed. Any slams against "Gone Baby Gone," written by Ben and based on the Dennis Lehane detective novel, would no doubt raise the question of unwise nepotism. The brothers are ready.
"With my brother, yes, there was definitely a high-risk situation," Ben says. "But I'm not in a place where I was going to shrivel up and die and go 'Oh my God, they've been critical of me.' It happens. You're not in the business of playing things safe, and if you're too worried about that kind of stuff you make terrible choices, and you might as well just not do it. . . . And I would never leverage my own movie for something I didn't think was going to work out of nepotism, certainly, because this was so important to me."
Casey simply didn't want to let his brother down. When Ben visited him on the "Jesse James" set and said he'd like him to star, Casey says he told him, "Let me read it, OK? I want to make sure it's something I understand and that I can do at least a decent job with it because I know the lead role is really important to making the movie good, and I don't want your movie to be bad."
The brothers also worried about getting Boston right on screen. Set mostly in Dorchester, with some Southie and Roxbury thrown in, "Gone Baby Gone" showcases every accent the city has to offer. Casey, of course, comes by his naturally. And his co-stars - Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, and Amy Madigan, among them - slab it on to varying degrees, all of them realistic. Ben, who last directed a movie in 1993, the 16-minute "I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney," calls it "the gift of these amazing actors," and gives credit to everyone from his casting director to his crew.
For Ben, however, setting "Gone Baby Gone" in Boston was doubly risky. He came to fame as co-writer and co-star of "Good Will Hunting," which also starred South Boston. Comparisons are inevitable. And he says he did hesitate. But only for a moment. Then he decided that Dorchester isn't Southie, and that his movie would focus on the city as his first one never did.
"I guess there was an aspect of 'Oh, is this trying to repeat Good Will Hunting'? But that was offset by the sort of sense of safety I had in terms of feeling that I know Boston better than I know anywhere else. If I were going to make a movie about, you know, corn farmers in Kansas, I would have to go live in Kansas for a year and research that, but I already have a lot of information about Boston from growing up there."
Casey just says he's tickled that half of the attention he's getting is for a movie about his hometown and made in large part in his hometown. "What's made it extra [special] for me is one of these movies is set in Boston. And it's really about the city in many ways, and I feel very connected to Boston and I consider it home, and it's nice to be able to kind of share that with the rest of the world."
"Gone Baby Gone" tells the story of the search for a missing girl. Her aunt and uncle hire private eyes Patrick Kenzie (Casey) and Angie Genarro (Michelle Monaghan), who are a couple romantically as well as professionally, setting in motion a series of events that lead to bar brawls, murder, and a moral dilemma.
For the brothers, both married to actresses and fathers of young children, the ugly way the child lived and what becomes of her in the end were almost more than they could stand at times. Ben, who has a daughter, Violet, with Jennifer Garner, says he's not sure he would have chosen the subject matter if he'd already been a father. Casey, who has a son, Indiana, with Summer Phoenix, shudders when recounting the choice his character must make.
Says Ben, "There's something distant about reading something in a novel. You're imagining it in a distant place. But being on the stages and some of the stuff we built and the actors being there made it really, really real. I was like, 'Ugh, I don't like this, I'm having a really, really hard time with this.' "
Casey, who describes himself as the sort of man who will see a lost puppy and spend the rest of his day tracking down its owner, says, "A lot of things that happen in this movie are a parent's worst nightmare. I can't even think of some of the stuff. . .. It's a scary, violent world right now and I've always been aware of those things; but having to confront them even in a fictional way in this movie was pretty upsetting."
In writing the script, Ben kept the ending but changed some of the ways the story gets there. For instance, he made the main character younger, at an age where one event, one choice, can still change who a person will become. That decision led to other decisions and suddenly Ben knew how to put the story to paper and just who should play the lead.
"When you're 29, you might still be able to put a fork in your road; you might still be able to say, 'I was going to be that person but now I'm going to be this person,' " he says. "To me it was a more exciting version where his identity might be at stake. Then I immediately thought, 'If I do make him younger, there's this actor who's amazing, who is from Boston, he can do the accent, who knows that world, who I can probably afford. And whose phone number I know so I can call him up and get him the script."