Kyle Chandler discusses his role as Joe Chandler in Manchester by the Sea…
When Kyle Chandler was preparing for his role in Kenneth Lonergan’s eagerly awaited new drama, Manchester by the Sea, he admits that the prospect of nailing his character’s distinctive accent was troubling him.
“I think I almost said ‘no’ just because of the Boston accent. I might have even asked Kenny, ‘can I keep my Texas accent? Does that work? Maybe my character went away and came back!’” he laughs. “But we had a wonderful dialect coach, and that all worked out. I think I did a pretty good job, and she kept a whip over me.”
Kyle spent many of his childhood years in Georgia and now lives in Texas with his wife and family, and his natural voice has that distinctive southern drawl. But he certainly did more than a “pretty good job” playing Joe.
His performance, along with co-stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges, received glowing reviews when Manchester by the Sea premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and later screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Lonergan’s film, which he wrote as well as directed, is a beautifully observed study of a family desperately trying to cope with terrible loss. Chandler plays Joe, the elder brother of the troubled Lee (Casey Affleck) who has been living in Boston, miles away from the small town, Manchester, where he once raised his family.
After the sudden death of Joe, Lee is shocked to learn that his brother has made him sole guardian of his 16 year old nephew, Patrick (Hedges) and he is forced to return and spend some time in the working class community where he was raised and to confront the tragedy from his past.
As the story unfolds, the audience will discover the reason why Lee left and see his once close relationship with his brother and his former wife Randi (Ms Williams) told in flashbacks.
The film, which is produced by Matt Damon, marks award winning playwright Lonergan’s eagerly awaited return to film directing five years after he made the critically acclaimed Margaret.
Damon, who starred in the West End production of Lonergan’s play, This Is Our Youth, initially approached Lonergan with the idea for Manchester by the Sea as a writing project, and later, convinced him to take it on as a director. Kyle is certainly happy that he did.
“And as a director Kenny was very calm, very sweet, very kind, very knowledgeable, and it’s him. You’re working his material that he has meticulously worked out, so it was a very interesting process,” he says.
“I would also say that there is a great love on the set, not just with the crew, but Casey [Affleck], and Lucas [Hedges] knows Kenny from the past, and Matt [Damon] knows Kenny.”
For Kyle, the key to his performance is the close relationship between Joe and Lee, a man who has lost the life and family he loved because of a terrible decision that has haunted him ever since and forced him to leave the close knit community.
“I guess the biggest thing in the script was the decision that Joe has already made to leave his son to his brother,” says Kyle. “I think that’s what I loved the most – that love that he has for his brother.
“You don’t see the process take place, but obviously my character believes that he can save his brother. This will save his brother, and he has that faith and trust in the character of Lee like no one else has.
“That was nice, because as you’re working the scene, you get to look at him, and how broken he is, knowing that he doesn’t have to be this way. It’s hard to explain.
“Watching Casey and working with him, it was really enjoyable because you get to just watch. When he’s working, there’s so much going on. It’s fun to sit across from as another actor and just watch him. And to see the film finally come out, I understand everything he was doing.”
To prepare for the role, Kyle spent time in north eastern Massachusetts where the film is set and where, in the story, Joe earns his living fishing on his beloved boat and repairing the yachts of wealthier neighbours.
“We went up there early and we did a few things that gave you an idea of how these people live and work. Some of the people on the set lived there, so I went out and had dinner with them and met people,” he says.
“I went out on a lobster boat with some kids, and you just go to local bars and eateries and try to settle in. There’s a blue collar up in New England, there’s a blue collar down in Texas, there’s a blue collar in Chicago.”
Filming scenes when Lee, having arrived back in Manchester, goes to see Joe’s body in the local morgue, was a little surreal, he admits.
“The oddest moment was (when we filmed scenes) in the morgue. It was me in the bag; they zipped me up. It was a new body bag, and they opened it up, and you climb in.
“The first time they zip it up, there’s a formaldehyde smell. And here’s the thing that I didn’t know: when you think about going inside [the mortuary chambers] in the morgue, you imagine that it’s your own little room, but it’s open to all the other bodies.
“You can reach out and touch everyone if you wanted to. I thought that was interesting. I did not know that.”
Working with Casey Affleck was a delight, he says, just as it was when he worked with Casey’s brother, Ben, who directed Kyle in Argo. “They’re both very talented people, that’s for certain. It runs in the family, no doubt.”
Kyle played coach Eric Taylor in five seasons of the critically acclaimed, much loved Friday Night Lights, about a high school football team in Dallas. He won a Primetime Emmy Award, for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, for the role in 2011.
His films include Mulholland Falls, King Kong, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Super 8, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Broken City, The Wolf of Wall Street and Carol. He is currently starring in the Netflix drama Bloodline.
Q: What was shooting this film like? Do the flashbacks make for a tricky production?
A: It’s confusing. There are a lot of questions on the set. It’s a smaller film, so you’re shooting pretty quick and you’re moving around and making changes, but Kenny [Lonergan] knew everything. He had all the answers, and you were never short of getting exactly what you wanted when you asked Kenny a question. So he kept us in check – or he kept me in check anyway. But yeah, it was a little complicated. It was enjoyable too; it’s a nice challenge to find new things to do.
Q: How much did you have to bring to this role? How much was on the page?
A: Everything was there on the page. Everything that I needed was on the page. We rehearsed quite a bit. Kenny is a theatre director and writer and we rehearsed as if it was a play. When we got to the set we had enough knowledge of what we were doing that we could start from a different level, and we went from there. Once you do all that prep work and then you get on set, nobody knows what’s going to happen, but everyone was prepared for anything to happen, I think. And as a director Kenny was very calm, very sweet, very kind, very knowledgeable, and it’s him. You’re working his material that he has meticulously worked out, so it was a very interesting process. I would also say that there is a great love on the set, not just with the crew, but Casey [Affleck], and Lucas [Hedges] knows Kenny from the past, and Matt [Damon] knows Kenny.
Q: Were you pleased to be invited into such a tight New York group?
A: Of course. I live out in Texas, so when I got let in to this group – you know, ‘thank you very much.’ And now I’m a big fan as well. I have a great love for what Kenny has created here, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
Q: What was your access point for this character?
A: I guess the biggest thing in the script was the decision that Joe has already made to leave his son to his brother. I think that’s what I loved the most – that love that he has for his brother. You don’t see theprocess take place, but obviously my character believes that he can save his brother. This will save his brother, and he has that faith and trust in the character of Lee like no one else has. That was nice, because as you’re working the scene, you get to look at him, and how broken he is, knowing that he doesn’t have to be this way. It’s hard to explain. Watching Casey and working with him, it was really enjoyable because you get to just watch. When he’s working, there’s so much going on. It’s fun to sit across from as another actor and just watch him. And to see the film finally come out, I understand everything he was doing.
Q: There’s some heavy stuffgoing on here. Do you carry that with you when you’re playing a role like this?
A: God, no. (Laughs). I’ve got enough problems in real life that I don’t have to carry round my other ones. But no, I’ve never had a problem taking that home with me, for sure.
Q: What drew you to another intense family drama on your break from Bloodline?
A: This was wonderful. When I read the script, you knew what the film was. You didn’t have to cross a line out, you didn’t have to make suggestions, you didn’t have to say, ‘I don’t understand this.’ It was all there. There was nothing you needed to do. That the filmcame out as good as it did in the long run – I was amazed. I’m very proud to be part of this film. You don’t know that when you’re making it, because it’s an ugly business making a movie. You don’t know on the set. You don’t know at five in the morning, or three in the morning. You don’t know what’s going to happen with a scene. But Kenny was very steady through the whole deal. He was a great captain of the ship and he has created a beautiful film.
Q: Was there any part of playing Joe that was particularly challenging?
A: I didn’t have difficulties other than the fact that I couldn’t get back home while we were shooting for quite a long time, and that drives me crazy just as a man who wants to be with his family. The hotels and such. The other thing is that the accent scared me. I think I almost said ‘no’ just because of the Boston accent. I might have even asked Kenny, ‘can I keep my Texas accent? Does that work? Maybe my character went away and came back!’ (Laughs). But we had a wonderful dialect coach, and that all worked out. I think I did a pretty good job, and she kept a whip over me. There’s one word, ‘furniture’, and I think she cringed every time I said it, and then finally they were like, ‘ah, we’ll find one of them.’ Then I looped it, I think, too, and I never got it looping either. So I probably said the word ‘furniture’ about 7,000 times.
Q: There were no synonyms?
A: Not that they wanted to use! (Laughs). They really wanted the word, ‘furniture’.
Q: How important was it to get familiar with that blue-collar environment?
A: Oh, it’s a big part of it. So we went up there early and we did a few things that gave you an idea of how these people live and work. Some of the people on the set lived there, so I went out and had dinner with them and met people. I went out on a lobster boat with some kids, and you just go to local bars and eateries and try to settle in. There’s a blue collar up in New England, there’s a blue collar down in Texas, there’s a blue collar in Chicago.
Q: Were you anxious about faithfully representing such a proud working class community?
A: It’s easier for me to get in a blue-collar mood than it is an upper class one. You go and you meet people and you hang out with people, and you live their life a little bit. Yeah. If ever I was going to play a character that was upper class or lower class, I can slip into the lower class a lot easier. Blue collar – that’s the way I was raised. We didn’t have a lot of money where I grew up, and I lived in a rural, poor area down in Georgia, so I know that and I understand it far more than I’d ever understand being at the Biltmore House and figuring out which fork I should use.
Q: Did the process of immersing yourself in the town help you unlock the accent?
A: An accent doesn’t necessarily come from saying the words over and over. You have to be the person and be the character, be in the environment. It was important to be up there early and live with the people. Accents also create gestures and they create the character, if you will. That was new to me, because that’s probably the toughest accent I’ve done. I’m just realising that just about every film I go on, I meet the director and say, ‘is there any chance this guy’s from the South?’ Even Scorsese with Wolf of Wall Street. He said, ‘that’ll be fine.’ I was like, ‘oh, thank God!’ (Laughs). I’m just remembering that.
Q: Is the travel the hardest part of your job?
A: I travel a lot. When you go away, it’s the best thing in the world for the first seven days, and then it turns to hell because you’re away from home. It’s the same thing coming home again. It’s the greatest place for the first seven days, and then all of a sudden you’re out mowing the grass. (Laughs). Yeah, that’s the hardest thing in my career, the time away from home, but I think it’s also been the most beneficial at the same time. We’ve made the best of it. I’ve got two kids and 21 years of marriage so far, so we’ll see if I can get a few more. If I keep working, I guess I’m good. (Laughs).
Q: You said you live in Texas now?
A: Now it’s Texas. I was in LA for about 20 years. Six of those years we lived in Chicago doing another show, and now it’s Texas, and of course I go to Florida for the show I’m doing now, and I have no idea what’s next. I’m starting to see what’s next because this will be the last year of Bloodline, if I’m not mistaken. I think it might be. I’ve read the first couple scripts and they’re good.
Q: Is it hard switching between TV and film?
A: I’ve done so much TV that I could never figure out the movies. I’ve never been the lead in a movie, so as an actor, going onto a film is sort of like jumping onto a moving train. You’re not there to meet all the people at the beginning, so you don’t have a sense of comfort and safety, and it takes a while as an actor to learn that. Now I can go on a movie set and I know what not to think, what can cause problems. But early on in your career, it’s nerve wracking. It’s the same thing with guest starring on TV shows. Whenever anyone comes on one of my shows, the first thing I do is I go in their trailer and I say, ‘hey, how are you? Nice to meet you.’ You make them welcome and do everything you can.
Q: What was it like on Grey’s Anatomy?
A: That was one of those where I was very nervous, because I don’t think I’d done a guest star like that ever before. I remember standing outside the door going, ‘alright, you can do one of two things: you can screw this up and let the nerves hit you; or you can just go in the door and have a good time.’ I did the latter and it worked. That was a massive, very important moment, standing outside those doors. I was a kid when I did that. It was also my first Emmy nomination. (Laughs). It was a good decision.
Q: Does a part like this make you confront your own mortality?
A: Oh yeah, especially this one. Tonight when I watch it, I really want to try to put myself outside of the film and to watch how it was made, to watch the pieces get put together. It’s hard to do, especially with this one because it’s pretty seamless. It’s so well put together, I think, and everything is so pure and honest in it that it’s hard not to get caught up in the emotions, even though I know, ‘there’s Casey, and there’s the kid, and there’s me…’ You really get caught up with what’s going on because the storyline is really put together so well.
Q: How much does it affect you to play a character who’s sick? Did you go to the doctor for a heart check up?
A: I have had one, but not specifically for the film. The oddest moment was (when we filmed scenes) in the morgue. It was me in the bag; they zipped me up. It was a new body bag, and they opened it up, and you climb in. The first time they zip it up, there’s a formaldehyde smell. And here’s the thing that I didn’t know: when you think about going inside [the mortuary chambers] in the morgue, you imagine that it’s your own little room, but it’s open to all the other bodies. You can reach out and touch everyone if you wanted to. I thought that was interesting. I did not know that.
Q: Did it freak you out?
A: No, but I was curious about it, because you’d think horror films would want to use that. All the people could turn and say, ‘Welcome.’ (Laughs).
Q: Do moments like that remind you how strange your job is?
A: It’s crazy. Yesterday when I was in Texas, I was like, ‘alright, I’m going to talk about myself and the film – what does that mean? Oh yeah, I get to go pretend I’m important tomorrow.’ It’s very strange.
Q: What’s your favourite part of the entire experience of making a film?
A: I love the process, even more than watching final products. I haven’t watched everything I’ve ever done, but I love the process. I love working and I love the moment when the camera is on and everything disappears and it’s just that. That’s my addiction. I love it.
Q: Does it get more enjoyable as you get older?
A: Yeah, because you get so much under your belt. You’ve got these experiences and you understand a little bit more.
Q: Do you still get stage fright?
A: I haven’t been on stage in a long time, and that would give me fright, but now, in what I do, it’s exciting. When there are scenes where you have no idea what you’re going to do, it’s exciting knowing that that’s okay, too. You’ll use that and you’ll find things that you couldn’t have ever imagined until you actually do it. So it does get more exciting, yeah. Have you talked to the kid yet? He’s a brand new actor, and he’s a young, smart man. He’s got a great intelligence, you can tell, and he’s had a good education. You just wait, he’s great. He’s just a neat kid.
Q: How long have you been acting now?
A: I was just reminded when another guy said, ‘In a couple years it will be 30 years that you’ve been acting.’ It was in ’88. So it’s been good.
Q: Did you ever have a plan B?
A: What did I used to say? I said something about having a hardware store or something. But no – not that I recall. I’ve been blessed. For some kid that went from Georgia to LA, and dropped out of college with his buddy to be a movie star, it’s worked out pretty good.
Q: You’ve worked with both the Affleck brothers now. Did you spot similarities?
A: Well, I worked with Ben as a director, so it’s different. I don’t know them personally – I haven’t had dinners with them, or drinks, or things like that, so I really don’t know how to answer your question. But they’re both very talented people, that’s for certain. It runs in the family, no doubt.
Q: What was it that made you decide you wanted to act?
A: I was at the university of Georgia, and I met four characters – three guys and a girl. My girlfriend and I, at about three in the morning, bummed a cigarette off of them, and they were crazy. They were very strange people, and it turned out, after a couple hours of conversing with ‘em and sharing cigarettes, that they were the theatre department. As we all said goodbye, Tyree Patterson – who is a relative of the great Bobby Jones, the American golfer, and who became a very dear friend of mine – he goes, ‘hey, you should go try out for a play down at the Cellar Theatre.’ I have no idea why in the hell I did it, but I went over there and I picked up the script, and it was for A Comedy of Errors. There’s this great graveyard at the University of Georgia – It goes all the way back to the Civil War, it’s beautiful – so I went there and I sat down with a dictionary and the script, and I did what I thought I should do and figured out what it meant. I auditioned and got the part of one of the Dromio brothers. Why I stayed in the job was that, first of all, I was home with actors, because they’re a crazy lot. It’s like The Theatre of Blood, when you go down there with all those characters. Those are my people. I’m Vincent Price now. The other thing that got me was when the first performance was over and it was the applause. Boy, I loved that. I think I was in, right then. That’s what gave me the nerve to say, ‘I’m going to Hollywood to be a star.’
Q: How did your parents feel about it?
A: My father had passed away by then. I’m not so sure what he would have thought. But when I figured it out I went home and told my mom and she oddly enough said, ‘I always thought it would be something like that.’ Which sort of pissed me off, because I was like, ‘I want some backlash!’ (Laughs). She said to me, ‘Listen, if there’s something you want to do in life, make sure you go for it, so that you never regret it.’ She had her regrets, and I learned a lot that night about her as well. My family was all very supportive – my older brothers and my sister – so I had that.
Manchester by the Sea opens in the UK tomorrow, Friday January 13th. Read our review of the film here.