The Finest Hours is the true story of how four members of the coast guard braved a massive storm to rescue 30 sailors stranded on the SS Pendleton, which had been split into two. But what you may not realize that the film is also a story of survival. Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) the ship’s engineer, took it upon himself to be the leader of the 30 man crew, most of whom were frightened at the thought of staying aboard a half-broken ship and wanted to take their chances on a fragile lifeboat. But with a calm demeanor, Sybert rallied the men to work together to survive one of the worst storms recorded in U.S. history.
We had a chance to talk to Affleck during the film’s press junket where he spoke to a group of journalists about what it was like to play a real-life hero, the filming process, the research, the sets, and more. Check out our interview with the actor below.
Geeks of Doom: Why do you believe it was important for the film to also focus on your character’s heroic acts?
Casey Affleck: I think the movie is in part about two men who, though different in some ways, are similar not in a role that usually requires acts of heroism or leadership, but they step up into that role because circumstances demand it. Part of that is galvanizing people. Corralling everyone. Overcoming their resistance. Trying to get them to do something selfless and courageous. I think it takes a lot of heart to do that, to think about everyone else involved and not just yourself. One of the things that I loved about the script was that it was an intimate story about people trying to help each other in an incredibly scary stressful time. That felt like a very positive environment. It was an uplifting story. You don’t see that that much. It’s visually a throwback. It’s set in a certain period. It’s also thematic in some ways. It’s also sort of old-fashioned. It has simpler ideas about valor and virtues.
Geeks of Doom: So what was the most challenging aspect of your role?
Casey Affleck: I think trying to figure out how much, you know, fear you show, like how do people actually behave in those situations and sometimes the best guide is just like now-a-days you can find almost anything online so you can find people who are taped, you know, videotaped in the middle of very stressful, scary situations. And they more often than not, and the stuff that I saw and my experiences is that it’s not a whole lot of, you know, flailing and screaming. It’s really like those moments are quietly tense and strangely low-key, you know, and whether it’s like airline pilots doing their things in super, you know, terrible situations or captains of boats or just people on the street in the middle of stuff. Now there is a wide range of behavior obviously from like panic and stuff to sort of total bizarre, total calm and that good stuff is good to steal.
Geeks of Doom: Could you tell us what it was like to be on your set?
Casey Affleck: They had a lot of reproductions on set. We were shooting on this enormous old ship from during the war. So we had half this oil tanker. We had another one that was just for interiors and then we had a whole wood shop and metal shop and everything where they would do and they had all of these versions of that boat. So I got to spend a bit of time on it. Once we were rescued, then we shot on it for a couple of days. It’s pretty amazing what they did without any instruments. I would not want to be in a storm in that boat, let me tell ya. But I also went to that museum, that coast guard museum. I once spent a lot of time out in Cape Cod, but I’ve never seen that. So when this came up I went out there.
Geeks of Doom: In a lot of movies the quiet calm guy who rises to become the hero also transforms into a bold and brash leader, but in this film, your character seems to keep those qualities of being quiet and calm throughout the entire film. What made you decide to take this approach?
Casey Affleck: Some things you do without a plan. I would love to take credit for that, but I think it was like you decide on a character and certain elements of it you are making it up as you go. You’re also tethered to the script. It just seemed really interesting. Craig [director Craig Gillespe] and I talked about being kind of a librarian on an oil tanker. That kind of a guy doesn’t seem like he is going to suddenly rip open his shirt Clark Kent-style and be like this bold, overtly, all external superhero kind of a dude, and that is sort of not the point. The point is that circumstances present themselves to people who can be heroic without all the gestures of heroism.
Geeks of Doom: What sort of inspiration did you draw from for your approach to your character, and how much research did you do on the actual event prior to filming?
Casey Affleck: Any time you come onto a project, there’s already a gigantic huge group of people who did a lot of work for sometimes years and years. From the producers to the writers, they’ve done a ton of research. And all the people that work for them have done a ton of research and they’ve boiled it all down to a little packet and they can give it to you and you get the very best of it without doing too much.
That said, I went around. I went to museums and went to different things, and went on a few, you know, ships and try to imagine what it would be like down there and some of that comes out in the movie and some of it you have all these plans about, then they turn the cold water on and you forget everything, and you are just trying to get through the scene. There’s a book that Craig and I – it is a painting that is a cover of a book, a John Williams book called Stoner, and the cover of the book is a painting of a guy, and I said: “This is the character, this guy here.” It actually sounds too, too simple to be useful, but it was really helpful. Every time we would get into an argument I would show the picture and go “No, he’s like this. This. Remember this guy?”
Geeks of Doom: What was the weather like during filming?
Casey Affleck: It was pretty cold. We started in the fall and went until Christmas, and it gets pretty cold in Boston during that time, and it was mostly outside. Sometimes it was warmer outside than it was inside, for whatever weird reason. But it was cold. It was cold and wet, and it sucks. But you get used to it, you never really forget about it. It was a nice group of guys you were with, so you get to complain all together. And that’s comforting.
Geeks of Doom: Does acting become any easier with cold water being thrown at you?
Casey Affleck: Oh it helps, for sure, no doubt about it. It is much easier than pretending. All you have to do is get your lines out, and you are already shivering. You can’t but help keep your eyes closed as you are being pounded with water. and then you just look like, you know, a good actor maybe, you know. And like you really just stood there and took so much physical abuse. So I think it makes it easier.
Geeks Of Doom: Did you guys get to wear any wetsuits or warm suits underneath during the water scenes?
Casey Affleck: I think the other guys had wet suits on. They had little heating pads. They had all kinds of things, but there were few among us who braved it. I think Chris and Ben wore wetsuits.
Geeks of Doom: So what did you do to warm up? Did you get a chance to go inside dry off and warm up?
Casey Affleck: It was worse if you did that. It’s like getting in and out and in and out of the cold shower. You just stay there until it’s over and then you go home and get in a warm shower. It’s too hard to dry off and it’s brutal when you first get hit with the cold water.
Geeks of Doom: How does it make you feel to know that there are still people who do this line of work?
Casey Affleck: Those can be hard jobs, but I think people love doing them, you know. I wouldn’t think of those guys as victims or something. A few that I have met really, really love what they do, both the professional fisherman although that industry is sort of dying off because it’s so – their business has been so gobbled up by bigger corporate fishing entities – but I think it’s a really hard job. I’ve often thought about doing other things in my life, then I started acting early, I’m 40 now, I think like well maybe try other things, but I can tell you it won’t be in the Coast Guard or like going deep sea fishing because it seems like not for me. But you know anything like being a fireman or a policeman or any of those jobs where you’re there to help people. There are times when you are asked to put your own life on the line for someone else’s and that takes a special kind of person I think.
Geeks Of Doom: Then what would you have done if you didn’t choose acting as your career?
Casey Affleck: Oh I don’t know, all kinds of things that I’m probably not qualified for. Be a teacher or a journalist or, you know, a pediatrician.
Geeks Of Doom: Why a teacher?
Casey Affleck: Why? Oh, you know I like kids and my mother was a teacher so I know all about it, I heard all about the meetings. You know I grew up with something and I am just – I feel like I could step right into that and sort of know what it’s all about. I like doing it. So there’s a million things. Daily I go through – I know I’m going to be an engineer. I gotta get back to school, I gotta lay the plan out and then by the afternoon I’m like I gotta a press junket to do. Let me do that first. Then I’ll get to being an engineer.
The Finest Hours opens in theaters on January 29, 2015.