Academy Award nominees Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams arrived at the Arlington Sunday, February 5, to receive SBIFF’s Cinema Vanguard award for their moving performances in writer and director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea.
The critically acclaimed film has already snagged six Academy Award nominations and Affleck can now market himself as a Golden Globe winner. Sunday night, however, was the duo’s last chance to speak about the film on the festival circuit, as, Affleck remarked, “there are no more left.”
Williams looked like a fairy in her yellow evening gown while Affleck rocked a man bun and scruffy beard in a suit and tie. But the elegance of the evening was secondary to the sentimental stories, thoughts, and honesty offered by the pair.
Hollywood Reporter Awards Correspondent Scott Feinberg guided the actors on a trip down memory lane. Film clips of their careers were played throughout the night, highlighting challenging roles the actors have taken: Wendy and Lucy and Blue Valentine for Williams; and three Gus van Zant films — To Die For, Good Will Hunting, and Gerry for Affleck.
The pair charmed audience members with their humility, humor, and diplomacy when answering questions. Williams paused before answering Feinberg’s question about working on Brokeback Mountain: “I fell in love in that movie,” she softly replied. It was a somber reminder of actor Heath Ledger — her partner and father of her child — who died tragically in 2008.
Feinberg noted that a majority of their roles for independent projects were reflective of real struggles ordinary people face. For example, the abusive relationship between Williams and Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine and Affleck’s turn as an Iraq War veteran with post traumatic stress disorder in Out of the Furnace.
Affleck remarked that he didn’t take acting gigs when he had small children, choosing instead to stay home and watch his kids achieve milestones such as walking. However, in the end he had to make a living and so returned making films. Williams spoke of her child when she repeated what her daughter said when she told her she would receive an award: “Make sure to tell the other people who didn’t win that they all did a great job.”
The night ended with an emotional discussion about Manchester by the Sea and the relationship between actors and directors, “a love affair like no other,” said Lonergan when he joined the duo on stage. Affleck noted Williams’s effortless ability to be present in a scene and his confidence that things would be all right because she was there; she admired his honesty, “That guy cannot tell a lie.” The director was grateful for the pair’s ability to erupt into powerful emotions for his screenplay and the support they gave one another. “I’m really grateful [to have worked with] incredibly kind, thoughtful people,” Lonergan said. “I wouldn’t have gotten through the shoot without Casey always there to reassure me.”
The audience roared with cheers when Williams confirmed she will portray singer Janis Joplin for her upcoming project and Affleck left the stage only after taking selfies with fans.
It was inspiring to hear Affleck and Williams reflect on their careers, discuss balancing family and work life, and explain how they use film as an emotional outlet. It was a pleasant reminder that our screen idols are people like us with similar worries, emotions, and experiences.