There’s a quiet scene in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, where Casey Affleck’s Ford stares silently with equal parts trepidation and admiration at Brad Pitt’s fated James bathing in a tub. “I can’t figure it out,” says James, his back to the lingering Ford. “You wanna be like me, or you wanna be me?” The unanswered question resonates through much of Affleck’s body of work – a list of rich, varied roles, some extreme but all grounded by the talent of the man portraying them; a manner so convincing you’re left with an unsettling uncertainty about how much he’s acting, and how much he’s just being himself; a notion further posed in the actor’s own highly underrated directorial debut, I’m Still Here. Assassination, for which the Bostonian was nominated for an Oscar, is in thrilling company with his turns in Gone Baby Gone, Lonesome Jim, and The Killer Inside Me. But Affleck is not in the class of actors who love to talk about themselves – attention-craving Adonises, chiselled and chest-puffing – so when he got on the line with Parisian portrait-pasting artist JR, he was more than happy to steer the conversation away from his own accomplishments and chat about the puzzling debates of art versus advertising, beloved projects versus commercial viability, and acting versus all the other things he still wants to do with his life. To answer Mr. James’ question: no, he definitely doesn’t want to be you. But you should probably watch your back, because there’s a good chance he could play you in a film.
CASEY AFFLECK—Hey, what up? Where are you?
JR—I’m on the roof of the Pompidou center in Paris. I actually just came back from the [International Festival of Creativity]. I think I told you before how much I hate advertising. Well, yesterday I did a talk in the conference explaining how sometimes art and advertising cannot work together. We’re enemies; one against the other. And [the advertising industry] still love this, and they applaud and they say, “We love that way of thinking!” I don’t know what to think about it. It reminded me of your movie [I’m Still Here], and the way you sent this message to the industry. Did it have an impact or did it at least start a dialogue within the industry?
CA—I think that basically no one saw the film and it had zero impact on the industry! The impact that it had on me, was just the experience that I had, but there were no ripple effects. The question of the place of advertising in our culture and in art is really interesting to me, some of the things you’ve done by assuming certain endorsements, or letting yourself become an advertisement in some ways are really remarkable and admirable, and I think it’s nearly impossible to do that as an actor, unfortunately, because movies cost so much money.
Maybe in the future that will change so they’ll be much smaller movies that don’t require any publicity. There are movies on YouTube that are three minutes long that 30 million people see in a day, so things are changing already. I find that the movie industry itself… sometimes I feel like it’s dying, although that just might be my pessimistic nature, but at the very least it’s deadened by the kind of things that are made. It’s been deadened and dulled with how we make things, what gets made.
I watched this movie called Margaret, this Kenny Lonergan movie that came out for a millisecond and nobody saw it, and it’s one of the best movies of the last 20 years. If I had a 100 million dollars I would give [the money] to him or I’d give it to filmmakers who are still trying to do something that’s kind of important. I feel like with all the people in Hollywood who make money, and all the advertising around it, and all the billions of dollars that come in and pass through this industry, and all the people who work at all of the studios who don’t know anything about storytelling or character or art, with all that money we should be subsidizing artists. Other governments do it, other places do it. There’s a fortune that comes out of movies, and they should give it to people like Kenny Lonergan instead of suing him and then burying his movies. Those are the kind of things that are going to keep movies afloat; otherwise it just becomes completely unimportant entertainment, distraction. Cinema has become synonymous with entertainment, but it’s not just entertainment; it didn’t start that way.
JR—I had this discussion with the guys from advertising over the last three days. I asked them, “Are you happy in what you’re doing?” And the creative directors were like, “We’re happy when we do pro bono stuff; when we do it for free, like when we do advertising for an NGO, or maybe we do extra stuff for a brand because we have a crazy idea.” And I asked, “How much of your time [do you spend on this]?” And they said, “Maybe 10 per cent of the year, the rest [of the time] we do what the client wants.” I guess there’s a [parallel] with what you’re saying about the Hollywood industry, in the fact that the whole thing is not based on what the artist or the storyteller wants to make, but how much cash you’re going to generate and how you’re going to do it taking the least amount of risk possible. I guess what you see in the cinema industry are movies that tell the same story in a slightly different way because they know they’ll cash out enough money to be safe, to make more deals where they don’t take risks. But real change and really great movies that inspire people and create trends come from risk.
I do one project after the other and it sometimes has an impact because I took a risk. If I stop taking risks I’m going to create a business model, and I’m going to stop searching for limits and pushing them. As an artist I can afford that because on my side it takes less money. You need much more money to do a movie so in your world it might be much more complicated. Do you want to try and take on more movies as an actor or director? What’s your position on this?
CA—First of all I think it’s probably the same thing you’re talking about with that attitude of, “If I start creating a business model I’m going to stop taking risks,” and “How do I change my artistic impulses and rein them in so I can make them fit into a business model that works?” I think that is a cautionary tale that could be of some value to anybody, any artist, whether they’re in the movies or photography, whatever it is that they’re doing, so it’s definitely relevant to actors and it’s very smart. I’d be happy to do other things. I never thought of myself as an actor; I never said, “What I want to do is be an actor for the rest of my life.” It’s just that you start doing something, you’re a young man and you have a little bit of success, to some degree, and you get a foothold and it starts paying for your apartment. You start doing stuff so you keep doing it and suddenly the years go by and you’re approaching the middle of your life and that’s all you’ve done, and that’s what people think of you, but I never thought of myself as that. There are a million other things I want to do. I wish I was you – I wish I was travelling around the world doing photography, bringing people together.
When I look at your art and I see it up on walls, it shrinks the world in a way that’s very exciting. It brings people together and changes things in a way that is exciting and daring and different, and I think there are a million ways to do that and I would love to do that. Sometimes it’s exhausting and draining to work in committee; every decision is made by committee. That part of film is not that exciting. There’s 15 seconds a day where you actually feel like you’re being creative and it’s fun and you have that exhilaration, but the rest of the time it’s not. So many people gripe about making movies; it’s been a living for me and it’s been fun sometimes, so I’m very grateful for it and happy, but there are other things I’m excited about and the kind of stuff you’re doing is some of it, and I want to know more. I want to know why is it, if someone said to you, “I’ll give you a million dollars and you don’t have to do anything for us, all you have to do is put our little logo at the bottom of one of your images,” why you would say no to that?
JR—I’ve said no for 12 years and yesterday I had to explain it in front of all the heads of those brands. The guy who brought me on stage told a little story. He said, “I called that kid when he was 24 and proposed to him a couple of million dollar contract for Levi’s.” And I said, “Listen to me, sir. You are doing advertising, I’m doing art. If I start being like you, what’s the difference between me and you?” I’m taking people’s faces – it’s not only my responsibility – I’m responsible for all the people I photograph and all the images I’m carrying. I would have to explain to all of them that actually the Women Are Heroes project, where we covered an entire favela [in photographs] just for the sake of showing that [those women] exist, would also be to show that L’Oréal or another shampoo brand exists. I want to be completely free. And it’s not something against branding, because I love going and buying shoes and T-shirts, but you don’t want to lose that freedom that you fight so much for. Yesterday, when I saw them all with their money, controlling that world of advertising, I was like, “There’s nothing there that I want that you guys can offer me.”
I’d rather work with communities – I’d rather go to Liberia and convince the rebels to paste photos of women they might have raped; I’d rather go to the favelas and convince people to put art in places it’s never been. That’s what really drives me. I don’t want to do provocative art to be provocative, but I think art should be free to everyone and accessible and unlinked to any operation or brand. I guess that’s why when you lose that freedom there’s no way you can go back. I don’t need the logos of the brands to validate my work; my real validation comes from the streets. If people scratch it down, if people tear it, it comes from them. I don’t want to enter into another discussion. When I was in the favela, if the traffickers didn’t want the art any more they would come and shoot me – I was the only guy who was responsible for it, and I want to stay the only guy who’s responsible for it. I always say to those big heads of companies, “You say you want to help me, but if you really want to, go into a gallery, buy a piece, put it in your living room, drink wine with your friends, and say you love that art; that really supports me, and I can do whatever I want with the money.” But if you come to me and say, “We want to do something different,” it’s not true. You want to use me. You want to use the authenticity of this work and it’s not for sale.
CA—I love that, man. When you were 17 years old, where did these ideas come from? Were there other graffiti artists or traditional artists you were inspired by?
JR—At that time I was living in the suburbs. I had no idea there was an art world. I had no idea you could be an artist. I was doing graffiti but in its cheap form – I was writing my name everywhere. So in a way I was advertising myself. And then one day I realized, wait, I’m writing my name everywhere, but for what? I’m just copying those brands that put their logos everywhere. And then I switched and I thought, “Why don’t I paste the photos of people who want to reveal that they are anonymous, and instead of writing my name, I’ll write their names on the wall?” And then I discovered this is art – I didn’t even know! And that’s what you did. You became an actor, got famous, and then suddenly you end up in good movies and you created your name. Now you’re at another point in your career where you can do maybe more of what you want because you have the chance to make your name like a brand – you can decide where to put it, which movie to push or to make your own movie. Of course you don’t have the freedom of working on the street, because it’s the Hollywood industry, but there’s a way there, depending on what you want to do, that you can use your name to do it. Am I right?
CA—I think that’s actually a fallacy along the lines of what they would tell indentured servants. “You can work, and you’ll make enough money to buy your freedom at a certain point,” but they have to buy certain things to live along the way, and they had to buy them from the plantation owner so they continue to stay in debt. I don’t think there are any actors who really ever get to a place where they say, “I’ve done these studio movies, now I’m big enough that I can actually make what I want to make. I can use the success I’ve achieved through the system to liberate myself and do what I want.” I think that’s because it’s other people’s money so you’re always beholden to them, and it’s this piece of commercial art that you [make by collaborating] with the people who are paying for it to some extent. Either you accept that or you don’t.
If there are people out there who feel like they have gotten to a place where they can make anything that they want, and they go and say, “Give me a certain amount of money – I’ve proven myself, I want final cut, and don’t tell me who to cast, and don’t tell me what’s in my script,” they’re just deceiving themselves. They still have to make something that is going to achieve something and makes some kind of financial success because they have to be commercial to a certain extent. I think they’re still checking themselves, reining in their artistic impulses, so they’ll make something that performs at the box office. And that’s fine. Who really cares? If you tell stories for a living, and that’s what you want to do, God bless you. It’s a great life. If it’s what moves you it’s much better than doing so many other things. So the idea that this constraint of having to participate creatively with the people who are paying for what you’re doing is this incredible albatross, some unmanageable burden, is just bullshit. It’s a different kind of limitation, and as you say, limitations sometimes create freedom.
JR—Of course it’s better to make money from storytelling than exploiting resources. What made me start what I do today is actually watching movies – that film Hate [La Haine] from Kassovitz. When I saw that I was 14 years old, and I was like, “What the fuck!” I’d never seen a movie like that and I didn’t know anything about it – I couldn’t tell you if it’s well-framed or badly framed – I just felt like it reflected a reality that I knew and then suddenly seeing it on a screen made me freak out. I don’t know how it had an impact later, but I know it has. And somehow he must have tried so much [to get] financing for his movies, at that time, I’m sure. That’s why it’s so worth it. Sometimes the fight’s even harder where you are, but I’m sure that there’s a moment, with the right producers, the right script, or whatever; that’s the dream of every actor and you’ve already made some of those movies. Of course you have to make those movies, but when they get out there with the right message they can have so much impact.
CA—It’s definitely more satisfying. It’s very hard to judge the impact of something or to ascertain the impact of it, but it’s more satisfying for sure when you get out there and do stuff on your own. You just can’t always do stuff that way. Maybe I just don’t have the spine that these other people do. I just think I make compromises – I have family and stuff, so you do a couple of things that you really love and then you do something you don’t love, and it burns a little bit. And when it heals, some of your flesh is gone, but you lose all your flesh in the end anyway. You’ve got to get through paying for school and paying for this or that. There’s the old saying, “What is freedom?” you know?
JR—The only thing that would make me work with advertising would be money, and that’s not what’s driving me right now. Who knows what the future will look like, but I’ll do everything I can to create a living that doesn’t force me to be dependent on that. But there’s stuff you always do that you don’t like – it’s the balance of both, and you can find your balance if you’re doing films you don’t like so much but earn your living, and others that you like, which you kind of make happen. But movies do live after you. My posters go away and my books travel here and there, but with a movie, you never know where it’s going to be downloaded illegally, where people are going to buy it on computers, and I love that. And I’m sure it would be the same with your documentary, even if you’re not happy or [it wasn’t a success] in the theater, it will keep spreading. That’s what it’s going to do. People are going to download it and pass it to each other and the statement you made isn’t temporary. It doesn’t matter if you made it in 2010 or 2020, it will still be the same issues, and it will actually make much more sense in more years.