Skip to main content

Journalist Says Steve Bannon Had A 'Years-Long Plan' To Take Down Hillary Clinton

Bloomberg's Joshua Green discusses Bannon's work in the far right wing of the Republican party. Trump's chief strategist, Green says, was "one of the major figures" in Clinton's defeat.


Other segments from the episode on November 17, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 17, 2016: Interview with Joshua Green; Interview with Casey Affleck



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Perhaps the most controversial move Donald Trump has made since winning the election is the appointment of his campaign chair Steve Bannon as chief strategist and senior counselor for the president. Before joining the campaign, Bannon was executive chair of Breitbart News, a far right website that revels in provocative stories and headlines such as "Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive And Crazy" and "Bill Kristol: A Republican Spoiler Renegade Jew." A New York Times editorial condemned Bannon's appointment, and the Southern Poverty Law Center is circulating a petition urging Trump to rescind the pick.

The center has called Breitbart News a white ethno nationalist propaganda mill. Bannon has described Breitbart News as a platform for the alt-right, but he disputes the charge that he or the website embraces racism or anti-Semitism. To learn more about Bannon, we're going to hear from Joshua Green of Bloomberg Businessweek who wrote a lengthy profile of him last year before Bannon joined the Trump campaign. Green is the magazine's senior national correspondent and a weekly columnist for The Boston Globe. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Joshua Green, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start at the beginning. Tell us about Steve Bannon. Where did he grow up? What was his background like?

JOSHUA GREEN: Well, Bannon grew up in a blue-collar, Irish-Catholic family outside a naval base near Richmond, Va. And after college, he joined the Navy - this was in the late '70s - wound up with a job in the Pentagon got a Master's degree in Georgetown. And he became captivated, I think, by what he saw going on on Wall Street. This was the '80s. It was Ronald Reagan being an investment banker seemed like an adventure. He said that friends who were in the field told him, you know, if you really want to be a good investment banker, you need to go to Harvard Business School. And so he applied, got in, and that was the path that he took.

DAVIES: Got out started working at Goldman Sachs. What did he do? What did he specialize in?

GREEN: Well, basically, the way Bannon described it to me is he had to talk himself into a job at Goldman Sachs, but he wound up specializing in mergers and acquisitions, and this was at a time when Wall Street was changing and banks like Goldman recognized that there was going to be a premium on specialization. And so Bannon decided to specialize in media and shipped out to Goldman's Los Angeles office and basically wound up as a dealmaker making deals between movie studios and TV companies. After a few years of doing that, he and a partner ventured off on their own and Bannon started a boutique investment bank that got further invested in setting up deals between people like Ted Turner and Castlerock Pictures and negotiating different fees and different deals and becoming very wealthy along the way.

DAVIES: Some of this money comes from "Seinfeld" royalties. Is this right?

GREEN: This is true, yes. I mean, he told me that one of his most memorable deals was between Ted Turner and Castle Rock Pictures, which I believe own the rights to the "Seinfeld" show which at the time was only in like its first or its second season. It was far from a hit. Turner wound up a bit short of cash when it came time to come to the table. And rather than let the deal fall apart, Bannon agreed to take residuals from a basket of TV shows that included "Seinfeld" in lieu of his full fee. And the way he described it to me he said that "Seinfeld" was the runt of the litter that there were other shows that were more popular and seemed like they would pay off more down the line. But, as we all know now, "Seinfeld" became an enormous hit. And so he's had a steady stream of income from that ever since.

DAVIES: Because he was in the entertainment end of the financial industry, he ended up making movies. He made a documentary, I guess, about Reagan called "In The Face Of Evil." This was around the time he connected with Andrew Breitbart. Tell us who he was and how they got together.

GREEN: Well, Andrew Breitbart was a conservative provocateur, I guess is the best way to put it. But he's someone who lived out in Hollywood. He worked for Matt Drudge who runs the Drudge Report website, so he's someone who has a deep, deep understanding of kind of how the culture processes political news and how to shape news narratives by focusing people's attention on certain stories or certain storylines. Breitbart was an interesting guy because he lived and circulated in Hollywood which, as we know, tends to be a bastion of liberalism. But here he was a conservative rubbing elbows with people like Arianna Huffington, a lot of other folks. Breitbart delighted in kind of, you know, provoking and outraging those liberals, really derived a lot of joy, I think, from being the skunk at the garden party.

Bannon himself was living out in LA at the time - had become really smitten with Ronald Reagan after his time in the Navy. He read a book by a conservative author named Peter Schweizer called "Reagan's War" and decided, you know, he had the money. He thought he understood the entertainment industry, and he made a documentary called "Reagan's War" about Schweizer's book. And it was at the premiere of that movie in 2004 - Bannon describes it - that Breitbart essentially came storming out of the audience and gave him a big bear hug in a speech about how guys like them had to take back the culture. And basically Breitbart, I think, conscripted Bannon into what was then - it was pre-Tea Party, but it was that kind of Republican populist view that we have to kind of rise up and take back our government and take back our culture. And Bannon obviously heard a lot in that that he liked, and so he wound up becoming a financial backer and then ultimately the executive chairman of Breitbart News after Andrew Breitbart died.

DAVIES: I had forgotten this, but it was Breitbart News that broke the Anthony Weiner texting scandal originally.

GREEN: It was, yes. And that was a classic Breitbart kind of story in that it took someone who was a liberal, culture warrior all over TV, you know, loudly condemning Republicans, and essentially exposed him as a hypocrite in the most embarrassing and humiliating sort of way. And if you remember back to that scandal, you know, initially Weiner denied it, and then he said he'd been hacked. And then there was just this bizarre surreal scene where Weiner was getting ready to have a press conference and all of a New York media had assembled around this empty podium. And then out from backstage comes not Anthony Weiner, but Andrew Breitbart himself who hijacked the press conference and the microphone and began taking questions from astonished reporters. That was a classic Breitbart kind of move just creating a media firestorm, and then kind of gleefully egging it on and ultimately, you know, that took down Anthony Weiner.

DAVIES: Andrew Breitbart died in 2012 suddenly, and Bannon became executive chairman of Breitbart News. Was his approach any different from Mr. Breitbart?

GREEN: The way that Bannon describes it, there is a clear continuation for Matt Drudge to Andrew Breitbart to Breitbart News as it exists under Bannon and Larry Solov who is the CEO. What Bannon told me - I went back and pulled some notes from my interview at the time - he said Breitbart is almost like a medieval guild where you're passing on that special knowledge, you know. We learned it from Andrew who learned it from Drudge. We are going to carry on the banner and keep doing what Andrew wanted us to do. So that is sort of the view or the conceit that folks at Breitbart News have, this idea that they're kind of carrying on Breitbart's war against the culture. And that's very much what Bannon seemed to think he was doing over the last few years.

DAVIES: In 2012, when Steve Bannon was the executive editor of Breitbart, he established a research arm - the Government Accountability Institute. What does it do?

GREEN: Well, Bannon - what attracted me to Bannon originally was that, you know, if you look at kind of the infrastructure, the organizational chart of the Republican right-wing, what Hillary Clinton once referred to as the vast right-wing conspiracy, what you see is that a lot of the tendrils lead back to Steve Bannon. So not only was Bannon executive chairman of Breitbart News, but then with some of the same financial backers, he started the Government Accountability Institute which is a nonprofit research organization based in Tallahassee. And whereas Breitbart is gleefully provocative and hard right, the conceit at GAI is that this is a research organization that is going to do digging and stick to the realm of facts, and they're going to investigate corruption in cronyism in government, be it Republican or Democrat. GAI was a pretty sleepy shop.

But what really brought GAI into the forefront was that GAI's president, Peter Schweizer, wrote the book "Clinton Cash" that became an unexpected best-seller back in the spring of 2015, just as Hillary Clinton was getting ready to launch her presidential campaign. It drove up her unfavorability ratings, and it raised all sorts of pernicious questions about who Clinton - in the Clinton Foundation had financial relationships with and whether or not this was going to be a problem in her presidential campaign.

It was clear, I think, from the scope and tenor of the coverage that there was really something there. And that is the other way, I think, in which Bannon has been able to hack mainstream media news coverage because these "Clinton Cash" stories and the various relationships that the book documented were intentionally not published on right-wing sites like Breitbart News. What GAI did instead was to reach out to investigative reporters and mainstream media outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and others and try and encourage their reporters to take this research that they'd done and to go off and do some digging on their own. And they did, and that wound up resulting in front-page stories in a lot of major newspapers that got this negative information about Clinton in front of a whole different audience than reads Breitbart News or listens to talk radio.

And if you look at how Donald Trump chose to run against Clinton in the general election, Trump was essentially channeling the same attacks that Bannon had conceived and pushed in the "Clinton Cash" book. And so - and, you know, so ultimately, you know, he succeeded in this year's-long plan to plot and carry off the downfall of Hillary Clinton.

DAVIES: Joshua Green is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Joshua Green. He is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. We're talking about Steve Bannon, who has been named to a senior post by President-elect Donald Trump.

You know, there's a lot of consternation, criticism, alarm about the appointment of Bannon to a senior-level position in the Trump White House. The concern is that it suggests a tolerance, if not embrace, of racism and anti-Semitism. What about the idea that Breitbart News itself propagates, you know, white supremacist views? I mean, The New York Times editorial on this said to scroll through Breitbart's headlines is to come upon a parallel universe where black people do nothing but commit crimes, immigrants rape native-born daughters and feminists want to castrate men. The Southern Poverty Law Center says he made Breitbart News a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill.

What's your sense of the content of Breitbart News?

GREEN: Well, it is certainly inflammatory and fixated on race, on religion, on all the sorts of things that have upset people. I think the thing to understand about Breitbart - and this is not to excuse anything they write or publish - is that they are deliberately provocative. They're aiming to offend and upset people in order to stoke the grassroots anger at government and the broader culture.

In internet language, it's an elaborate and effective trolling operation because that is what martials this group of disaffected Republicans, you know, and other people sometimes referred to as the alt-right, but essentially this splinter faction of conservatives who have attacked and now taken over the Republican Party over the last four or five years.

DAVIES: You know, it's one thing if white supremacists read Breitbart News and if they write shocking comments in response to the stories. But as you look at the content, I mean, does the website seem to, you know, embrace and propagate these views of white nationalism and white supremacists? What's your sense?

GREEN: I think it certainly fuels those views. And, you know, I had a discussion with Bannon about this back in 2015 about - you know, I said, you know, you're a former Harvard guy, you're a Goldman Sachs banker. I'm sort of shocked at some of the things you write because you come out of a culture that isn't, you know, openly racist or anti-Semitic.

And what he said essentially was that they are trying to reach an audience that doesn't have an outlet anywhere else in mainstream media. I pulled up some of the quotes. He said, you know, we focus on things like immigration, ISIS, race riots, what he calls the persecution of Christians. He says, we give a perspective that other outlets are not going to give. There are not a lot of outlets that are covering that, at least not from the perspective that we should be running a victory lap every time some sort of traditional value gets undercut.

The question I was always interested in getting at with Bannon was do you really believe this stuff - because a lot of it is offensive and inflammatory. And he said, you know, personally I'm mixed on a lot of this stuff. But we're airing a lot of things that traditional people are thinking that don't get mainstream media representation anymore. So they were making a market for these kinds of views and these kinds of stories and attracting an audience, what's turned out to be an extremely large and powerful audience by tapping these sentiments.

DAVIES: I'm wondering what Bannon brought to the campaign. It seems like his real expertise is in messaging. Was he primarily a guy who brought that expertise?

GREEN: I think messaging and theater, for lack of a better word. I mean, Bannon is a guy who came out of the media world. He used to be a movie producer. He made documentary movies. He's somebody, I think, with a pretty clear sense of narrative and also of the value of presentation and how you can seize the attention of the entire political culture if you push the buttons right.

I think he's figured out that you can essentially seize control of the political conversation through stunts like the one that Bannon orchestrated before the second debate, where he rolled out all these women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault and sexual harassment. And he's somebody, I think, who takes Trump's impulses and channels them into a more or less cogent worldview that fits into this right-wing populist ethos that Bannon is all about.

DAVIES: You know, what's interesting about it is that if Bannon was good at pushing Trump in directions of appealing to this provocative populist message, it's - in the closing days of the campaign when Trump was muted and on message and not making headlines that he really made progress in the polls. It's kind of an irony, isn't it?

GREEN: No, I actually wouldn't agree with that.


GREEN: I think in the closing days of the campaign if you listen to what Trump was saying - I mean, it was unhinged - I mean, this stuff about dark conspiracy theories and cabals of global bankers. It struck tones, I think that were anti-Semitic. I would argue that Trump in the final weeks of the campaign was, you know, mainlining the purest distillation of Bannon's views out there on the stump. And, to my shock and a lot of other peoples, that actually resonated with a much larger segment of the electorate than we had anticipated.

DAVIES: He's an interesting character, and, you know, in your profile of him, the photos show him wearing cutoffs. And when you see him in photos now like with the transition team, he really stands out from the Trump family who are so carefully, you know, tailored and coiffed. I mean, Bannon, you know - he looks a little unkempt. He might have a little growth of beard. He doesn't have a tie. His hair isn't exactly combed. I mean, you know, if one were being unkind, you might say he looks like somebody ready to mix it up. You spent time with him. Is this a cultivated look or is that just him?

GREEN: That is just him. I mean, if you want to be blunt, he looks like a bloated homeless alcoholic...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

GREEN: ...And revels in that view. And if you look at the cover picture he let us shoot for business week, he is sitting on a couch wearing like two polo shirts on top of each other with an Oxford shirt over that and cargo shorts and flip flops - clearly hasn't shaved or showered. He revels in this image of himself as an outsider who is giving a big middle finger to the system.

DAVIES: There are petitions circulating urging Trump to reverse the hiring of Steve Bannon. Why is he so loyal to Steve Bannon?

GREEN: There's been so much kind of shock and consternation about how a guy like Bannon who is so far outside the bounds of anybody who'd typically be considered for, you know, a West Wing position gets elevated to one, I think it's important to remember what we've just witnessed and what Trump himself has just seen that Bannon - and this is what originally attracted me to him as a profile subject - is a smart guy and a clever strategist who orchestrated this elaborate plan to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency that we've just watched work. It succeeded.

And so I think that Trump has a degree of faith in Bannon that he doesn't have in another people. And I think that's why Trump has been willing to withstand all the intense criticism over the Bannon appointment that we've seen in the last few days. To me it's sort of like the least shocking aspect of what Trump has done in appointing Bannon to the West Wing. I mean, the guy hatched this elaborate plan to stop Clinton, and it worked.

DAVIES: The plan being to research her background as the State Department and put out the book and feed it to the mainstream media?

GREEN: Yeah. Well, the plan being, you know, this multi-year, multifaceted effort to take down Hillary Clinton, right? Part of it was Breitbart News with its rolling narratives about how Clinton was corrupt and doing Benghazi and this and that and really stoking all this conservative right-wing anger against her and against any Republican that treated her as anything less than, you know, a terrible pariah and a threat to the country. That eventually came to include people like Paul Ryan who are the most mainstream of Republicans. And then on the other hand, you have the Government Accountability Institute and the "Clinton Cash" book that figured out a way to kind of hack into the mainstream media and propagate these negative anti-Clinton stories. It had the effect of driving up her unfavorability ratings.

If you look at what happened in the election, essentially Clinton was too unpopular to reconstitute the Obama coalition that got him elected twice. She lost the presidential race narrowly. I mean, to my mind, Bannon is one of the major figures, if not the major figure, that conceived of an orchestrated and carried out that attack. That was what he laid out in the piece that I thought was so interesting. And, to be honest, I never thought in a million years he would carry it off. But, look, he has.

DAVIES: Joshua Green, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GREEN: It was great being with you.

GROSS: Joshua Green is senior correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek where his profile of Steve Bannon was published. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Casey Affleck, a great actor who many people, including me, think hasn't yet gotten the wider recognition he deserves. But that may be about to change with his starring role in the new film "Manchester By The Sea" which was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Affleck also gave great starring performances in "Gone Baby Gone" which was directed by his brother Ben Affleck, and "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford" for which he was nominated for an Oscar. He was first noticed on screen in the comedy "To Die For," which was directed by Gus Van Sant.

Let's start with a scene from "Manchester By The Sea." When the movie opens, Affleck's character, Lee Chandler, is living in a basement apartment in a Boston neighborhood working as a janitor and maintenance man. He keeps to himself, and we don't yet know why. Then his brother dies, so Lee travels to his hometown Manchester-by-the-Sea in Massachusetts, where his brother lived with his teenage son Patrick.

Lee is taking care of funeral arrangements. And in this scene, he's meeting with his brother's lawyer, who is handling the will. The lawyer informs Lee that his brother named him as Patrick's guardian. Lee is shocked.


CASEY AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I don't understand.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Which part are you having trouble with?

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Well, I can't be his guardian.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well...

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I mean, I can't.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, naturally, I assumed Joe had discussed all this with you.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) No, he didn't. No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I have to say, I'm somewhat taken aback.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) He can't live with me. I live in one room.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, but Joe has provided for Patrick's upkeep - food, clothes, et cetera. And the house and the boat are owned outright.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I can't commute from Boston every day until he turns 18.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I think the idea was that you would relocate.

AFFLECK: Relocate to where?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, if you look...

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Here?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) ...It's - well, as you can see, your brother worked everything out extremely carefully.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) But he can't have...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Can't have meant that.

GROSS: Casey Affleck, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love the new movie. And you play a character who can't really express emotion. He can no longer allow himself to feel emotion, and he isn't very talkative either. So can you talk a little about getting into that kind of character where your acting is about - more about holding things in with occasional explosions of anger?

AFFLECK: First of all, thanks - thanks for having me. And I'm glad you liked the movie. So I think that there's - he comes across for some reason, it's been said to me before that he's a man of few words, that he's not very expressive, that he doesn't say much, stuff like that. And it's been said that he's sort of shut down or doesn't feel anything, which is another reaction that I was surprised by it because I felt like the character was really boiling over with strong feelings in every scene.

And I guess what made it kind of a tricky wicket of a part was that it demanded some really strong feelings, a lot of emotion but also a lot of restraint. And Kenny also wanted to make sure that it didn't veer into melodrama, you know, that we kept a nice balance and created tension with the emotion that the character was feeling. And one of the ways that that was done, you know, Kenny very wisely kept great distance with the camera.

You know, there's a scene in which I go and - to the morgue and I have to identify my brother's body. And they pull him out of the little steel box on the shelf and there he is. And I have to say goodbye to him. And I didn't know what was going to happen. And it was one of the most surprising moments in my career because I knew Kenny - it wasn't scripted to be a very emotional scene. He wanted it to be kind of a surprise that the character identifies the body and he - just that's it.

However, when I entered into the scene and I walked up to the body, I was really moved in talking about it. It's very emotional for some reason, and I was visibly upset. I was crying, and I kissed Kyle Chandler, who's playing the part laying on the slab there. And - but Kenny's camera, you know, he's put it at a distance as many of the shots in the movie are these kind of wide shots, these master shots and a lot of distance from what's happening and the characters and especially with my character.

GROSS: So - but when you had this emotional reaction in the morgue scene, why do you think you had such emotional - an emotional reaction more than was called for in the script? Were you reacting to the moment and in character? Were you thinking of something from your own life?

AFFLECK: I was not thinking from something in my own life. And that moment was, you know, just saying goodbye to my brother and holding him for the last time. And it was emotional in the way that I think is natural for probably someone - for anyone who has been through something like that.

And so - and it was a private moment, which is different than a lot of those scenes in this movie where he has a lot of feelings. But he's in the presence of other people and he doesn't want to deal with other people, their emotions. And he doesn't want to share his emotions with them.

So, for example, the scene with the doctor when I - when they tell me that he's - my brother is dead, you know, I don't show anything there and I'm very, very controlling. I'm controlling the whole scene. I'm controlling everybody there. I don't let them express emotion. I don't let them talk about anything other than the logistics. I want to know where's the body, and I want to know what happens with the body next. How am I going to get the body to the next place to go to?

He's sort of disabled himself emotionally because to be - to be turned on and to allow himself to feel anything, it would be too much. So all of those feelings, they're flooding inside of him. And he just keeps his hand firmly on the lid but not because he is - has no feeling. It's because he has too much feeling.

GROSS: How did you know you wanted to act? And how old were you when you figured that out.

AFFLECK: Boy, I'm still trying to figure it out. My first exposure to TV, film, theater, the idea of what acting was is I was a little kid and my mom's best friend was a local casting director in Cambridge, Mass. Her name was Patty Collinge. And there wasn't a lot of work in Cambridge, Mass.

But every now and again, they'd do a local weather commercial or a movie would come to town and they would need extras. And so me and my friends and - we would - you know, she'd bring us in and we'd get a day off from school and we'd get to be an extra in a movie, which to us meant nothing more than a day off from school. And at the end of the day, they gave you 20 bucks and then your mom took 15 of it and put it away and you got $5. And that was it. That was a real treat.

And so when I got into high school, you know, I started acting because I was well on my way to being a professional baseball player. And I was...

GROSS: Wait, wait, are you serious or kidding (laughter)?

AFFLECK: I - well, and I was deadly serious about it. And I think it probably would have come to pass, but - that my professional baseball career was derailed when the person who directed the plays at my high school came to me and said we're doing a musical. We have 19 girls and we need one male at the very least to play the the male lead. And I considered another summer of baseball or a summer in the basement of the theater department with 19 girls who otherwise would never have spoken to me. And so thus began my career as an actor.

GROSS: What was it - wait...

AFFLECK: And then I fell in love with it.

GROSS: What was the play?

AFFLECK: It was a musical version of "The Madwoman Of Chaillot."

GROSS: A musical version...

AFFLECK: It was called "Dear World." I have no idea. I'm not a musical person. And in fact, I'm tone deaf, as it was revealed in the second rehearsal. The musical director played two notes on the piano and asked me which one was higher, and I said the second one. And he said, OK, you're tone deaf, which was a blow to the company.

And so I mouthed - I was asked to not make a peep on stage. And so I mouthed the words of the - in the chorus section. And then they had a - they had to have a grown-up male who was a friend of the musical director come in and play - play the lead. And I said that's the last time that'll ever happen.

GROSS: Wait a minute. Now, how come this wasn't a completely discouraging experience? You were chosen (laughter) to be the guy in this musical and once they had you, they thought, like, wow, that was a big mistake. He's tone deaf. So how come you stuck around for more and didn't just kind of leave and think, like, I'm no good, and they don't want me?

AFFLECK: Because I've got grit. That's why, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter).

AFFLECK: I really love doing it. And I was already taking an acting class. I sort of fell in love with it when I was in high school doing theater. And so as sometimes happens when kids - they graduate high school and people turn to them and say so what are you going to do with your life? I thought, well, I like being onstage. I like being an actor. I guess that's what I'll do. And I drove out to LA with a good friend of mine from Boston, and I didn't really know anyone who had any success. I - took me a few months to find an agent, and it took me a year to get an audition for anything that I wanted to do. So I got a job that year and a movie called "To Die For." And then I fell in love with making movies. It was totally different than anything that I'd known. Being a kid who liked to do theater...

GROSS: Do you think you're lucky that your first film was - it's a really good film "To Die For," and you play - if I can say, a very obnoxious high school kid who's always making really crude comments. And so your first film experience was with Gus Van Sant who, you know, is a very, I think, individualistic filmmaker. He has his own vision, and he's not - even though this was, you know, a relatively commercial film, he's not, like, a big commercial filmmaker. I'm wondering do you feel, like, lucky that that was your first experience?

AFFLECK: Very lucky. I don't know what would have happened had that not been my first experience because it gave me the idea that movies were going to be always that wonderful. You know, that was my first impression of being on the set was with a director who's very, very gentle, very inclusive, very patient, who would take things that you did and make them work in the movie instead of trying to, you know, beat an actor into doing it the way that it's scripted and - or the way that he had envisioned it. He sort of takes what has been given to him and places it into context in a way that makes it work.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Casey Affleck, and he's starring in the new movie "Manchester By The Sea." We're going to take a short break and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Casey Affleck. He stars in the new movie "Manchester By The Sea." Some of his other starring roles were in the films "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford." Your parents separated when you were young and your father had a drinking problem that sounds like it was pretty serious. He later went to rehab and became, I think, a social worker and then ended up working with people who have drinking problems. Were you aware of his drinking when you were young?

AFFLECK: Yeah. I was aware of his drinking. I was aware that he had - that he was an alcoholic and that he behaved badly that he wasn't in good shape and - in the way that a kid is aware of those kinds of things. He was a bartender also for some for some time and so when my mom was working, you know, my brother and I would just sit around the bar. We'd just go to work with him sitting at the bar. So in some ways it was also just - it was normal, too. I was - became more aware of it, I guess, as I got older and his problem got worse. And, ultimately, he wound up in - and getting sober and pull himself together and we have a great relationship. And he has been sober since I was 14 years old.

GROSS: That's great. So when you were hanging out at the bar because that's where your father worked, what kind of bar was it and what were you exposed to there that you otherwise wouldn't have seen?

AFFLECK: It was next to a post office, and so it was mostly just postal workers. It was a kind of dark bar, you know, no windows. And there's like a jar of, you know, hard boiled eggs on the bar, and it was just a drinkers bar. It was not a - there were - no one was socializing. There were people sitting there alone drinking.

GROSS: So watching your father, after having become an alcoholic, go to rehab and then becoming a counselor or social worker, did that give you the sense that, like, well, people can change?

AFFLECK: Yeah. I was 14 years old when my dad, you know, went into rehab. And he stayed there for a long time - I don't know, 10, 12 years maybe. He first was there as a resident or someone trying to get sober, and it took a long time. And then he stayed on helping people, counsel them towards rehabilitation and sobriety but also helping them get an education and get a diploma so that they could begin to pull their lives together.

He really did make a Herculean effort and has stayed sober for a long, long, long time. I directed a very (laughter) deliberately unconventional movie called "I'm Still Here" some years ago. And he plays - I had my dad play Joaquin - the father of Joaquin's character, who's also named Joaquin, in the movie. And it was a scene that was supposed to be in Costa Rica.

The - Joaquin's character was supposed to go down to Central America to see his father and - as a way of escaping this disaster that he's made of his life back home in Hollywood and trying to disappear. And he goes down and he has a scene with his dad and - where they're sitting at this little Central American outdoor bar. And we shot that in my backyard in Los Angeles. And I had my dad be his dad, and I put a beer in front of my dad.

And I was not intending for him to drink the beer. I just wanted him to be - both of the characters just to be sitting there in silence, sort of uncomfortable silence between father and son. And my dad looked at me and he said, I can't drink this. I said I know you can't, dad. You don't - I want you to drink - for God's sake, don't drink. And that's probably the only time we talked about his recovery and sobriety since - since he got sober.

You know, he doesn't talk about it much. But he is a lovable guy, and I have a great relationship with him. He's really very, very smart. And it's been - you know, I got to know a whole new person when I was a teenager because the man I knew before that was just completely different. So in some ways, I kind of began my relationship with the father I know now when I was a teenager.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Casey Affleck. And he stars in the new film "Manchester By The Sea." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Casey Affleck. He stars in the new film "Manchester By The Sea." You starred the film "Gone Baby Gone," which is adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane, who's a Boston-based crime writer. You play a private detective in it who takes on a case to, like, kind of supplement what the police are doing to find a missing child.

I want to play the opening monologue from the movie. This is, like, a voiceover monologue. We're seeing a montage of the neighborhood. It's set in a Boston neighborhood, and we're hearing this voiceover.


AFFLECK: (As Patrick Kenzie) I always believed it was the things you don't choose that makes you who you are - your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in these things, like it was something they'd accomplished. The bodies around their souls, the cities wrapped around those.

I lived on this block my whole life. Most of these people have. When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started. I find the people who started in the cracks and then fell through. The city can be hard.

When I was young, I asked my priest how you could get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to his children. You are sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.

GROSS: That's a beautiful piece of writing and acting. And I know in your first acting role you - you learned you couldn't sing. This probably comes as close (laughter), you know, as you can without actually singing because it's - it has such beautiful music scored behind you. When you read this part, did you know what the music behind you was going to be? Did you do it with the music so that it could have that sense of almost song?

AFFLECK: There was temp music behind it that was very, very similar.

GROSS: Did that help you?

AFFLECK: Yeah, I think it helped. That was Harry Gregson-Williams, the composer and it's beautiful. It's really nice. I don't remember what music was there, but I - listening to it, I do think that I kind of have a voice for silent film. And...

GROSS: (Laughter)...

AFFLECK: I don't - I have a few notes for the director. I'm not sure why it is paced that slowly. I fell asleep during that little piece there. But it is a really nice piece of writing. And the director did a fantastic job with the movie.

GROSS: You know, it's funny when you said you have some notes for the director, I should point out that the director is your brother, Ben Affleck. You've said that most roles that you've gotten, you've gotten because the first choice dropped out. Was that the case with this movie? Did your brother have somebody else in mind (laughter) before...

AFFLECK: He did.

GROSS: ...He cast you - seriously?

AFFLECK: He did. He tried to get - in fact, he asked me to call up a couple of actors who he knew I knew to help him cast the parts. Would you mind calling so-and-so and see if you can - if he'd be willing to read the script?

At the time, I don't think anyone - people only knew Ben from certain movies he was doing as an actor. And they didn't think that he could direct. I think a lot of people passed on the part and - or enough people passed on it that while I was shooting "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford" in Canada, he showed up. He came up to Calgary, and he said, all right, look, you don't have to call anybody else.

And I really didn't have to think about that either because, A, I knew that he was very, very bright, super-smart guy and would make a great director. And we have similar taste in movies and in acting styles. And we have a shared language that makes it really easy to work together. And we are brothers and sort of grew up sort of looking after each other.

And so, you know, the kinds of - the sort of getting-to-know-you period that wastes the first few weeks of any movie in the relationship between an actor and a director - being polite and trying to understand what the person saying - we didn't have to go through that, you know? We just sort of jumped right into it.

GROSS: Were the actors who you called on to ask to be in the film, the ones who declined to be in the film, were they physically different types than you?

AFFLECK: Not physically different types, maybe slightly better looking. But they were, you know, probably more established actors. I hadn't been a lead in a studio movie at that time. And it's one of those kind of chicken-and-egg things that people talk about. They say, like, oh, he's not a - he's not the lead of a studio movie. And there's no way to - you know, because he hasn't done it. And there's no way to do it until someone gives you your shot.

And once Andrew Dominik saw me audition and gave me the chance to be the leader of a movie that, you know, ironically that Brad Pitt was kind of an - almost a supporting part in...

GROSS: Because he played Jesse James and you played the guy who shot him...

AFFLECK: He played Jesse James.

GROSS: ...Yeah.

AFFLECK: And it was a, you know, very expensive, big Warner Brothers movie. I think Ben thought, oh, OK, well, maybe - maybe I can just cast Casey. Look, someone else has. And that's how that came to be.

GROSS: Casey Affleck, thank you so much for talking with us.

AFFLECK: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Casey Affleck stars in the new movie "Manchester By The Sea." I'm planning to interview the writer and director of the film, Kenneth Lonergan, in a couple of weeks. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like Dave Davies interview with Evan Osnos about what it would take for President Trump to deliver on his campaign promises, or my interview with Francis Ford Coppola about the making of his masterpiece "The Godfather," check out our podcast. You'll find those and other FRESH AIR interviews.

We've been closing the show this week with music by Leonard Cohen, who died last week. We're rebroadcasting my interview with him on the day after Thanksgiving. I'm Terry Gross.


LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) If you want a lover, I'll do anything you ask me to. And if you want another kind of love, I'll wear a mask for you. If you want a partner, take my hand or if you want to strike me down in anger, here I stand. I'm your man. If you want a boxer, I will step into the ring for you. And if you want a doctor...

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue