On Sunday, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival presented the 2017 Cinema Vanguard Award — created in recognition of “actors who have forged their own path taking artistic risks and making a significant and unique contribution to film” — to Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, who were celebrated for their roles in Manchester by the Sea.
Both actors are Oscar nominated for their parts in Kenneth Lonergan’s drama, which is also nominated for Best Supporting Actor for costar Lucas Hedges, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Lonergan, and Best Picture. Affleck and Williams were first treated to a career retrospective with clips of their past work, and a Q&A with The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg. The award was then presented by Lonergan, who notes, “There are a couple of things you might not be able to tell about Casey and Michelle listening to them this evening. You might notice they’re both a little on the quiet side, so you wouldn’t know to look at them that when they go to work they’re capable of this incredible eruption of emotion and specificity and transformation and humor. What you also don’t know is how difficult it is for them each to sit here and watch clips of themselves.”
The whole presentation and acceptance speeches from the actors is worth watching, especially if you enjoy listening to the always charming, master storyteller Lonergan, and Michelle Williams (who tells an adorable story about her daughter and also happens to be wearing the prettiest yellow dress). But, perhaps more surprising, is the remarkably candid, personal, and heartfelt speech from Affleck, who says that over the last year of traveling to different film festivals (“We’ve done them all,” he jokes, “Unless there’s something on the moon,”) and talking about Manchester by the Sea has finally given him the answer as to why he became an actor.
“I’ve learned a couple of things. One is that I hate the sound of my own voice. The other is that, astonishingly, this simple thing I should have learned years ago, I finally realized why I act,” he says. “When I was very young my father was a terrible alcoholic, and my mother would take us to these Alateen meetings [support group for young people affected by alcoholics],” he said. “She’d drive us across town to a church and we’d sit in this room with other kids we didn’t know, and the people who were running it would walk us through these exercises basically reenacting what was happening at home. So you’d watch these other kids behaving like their drunk mom or dad, and yelling and throwing things and hitting them and so forth and then you’d get up and do your thing. I was 9 years old. That was the first acting I ever did.”
“It was therapy, but it was also drama. It was drama and it was therapy,” he continued. “Acting for me has sort of been that ever since, taking the things from your life and putting them to use in some way. I think the reason I’ve been an actor is that my mother took me to those meetings. Thank god for her. And thank god I’ve had this great privilege to spend my life doing that thing,” he says. Later, he adds, “For me it’s necessary and acting has been a lifeline.”
Watch the whole moment above — Affleck’s speech begins at the 14:41 mark.