Manchester by the Sea: Male Characters Far More Interesting than Female Ones

As of today, Manchester by the Sea is one of the best pictures of the year.


Director Kenneth Lonergan  is still best known for his feature debut, the 2000 Sundance Fest winner, You Can Count on Me, which introduced Mark Ruffalo to the American public.’

He has been widely praised for eliciting astonishingly detailed, poignant work from his actors, on stage and screen.

With a cast that includes Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler and young Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea boasts an ensemble of great actors rendering affecting performances.

After his life was upended in a single night, Lee Chandler, played by Affleck, works as a janitor in a down-and-out part of Boston.

Dead-End Existence

“Lee has all but given up on other people,” says producer Matt Damon. “He’s living a dead-end existence as a handyman. He drinks too much. He’s completely disengaged from life, except for his devotion to his brother Joe and Joe’s son Patrick.”

Damon and Affleck had many discussions about how deeply connected Lee remains to Joe, even as he isolates himself from the rest of the world. His brother’s last act is an attempt to force Lee to reengage with the world. “Lee prefers not to spend time in his hometown, but he returns anytime Joe calls,” says Damon. “When his brother dies, Lee is on the road in 10 minutes to take care of all the details and to make sure Patrick is told about his father’s death in the right way by the right person. He does it all with more thoroughness and commitment to getting it done right than 100 ordinary weeping relatives. As much as he wants to be completely disengaged from life, Joe keeps him tethered to family.

Casey Affleck

“This is one of the best roles I’ve seen in a long time,” Damon adds. “I can’t think of anyone who could do it as well as Casey. He locked right in and did something no other actor could do.”

Affleck appeared in the London production of Lonergan’s “This is Our Youth” alongside Damon.  “We’ve been friends ever since,” says Lonergan. “I think he’s one of the best actors out there. I knew he was going to be good in the part, but I didn’t have any idea how spectacularly nuanced and emotional his acting was going to be. Casey was extremely demanding of me — and of everyone — in a way that was stimulating and productive. Often, in exhaustive — and exhausting — conversations about character, something gets lost.

Instead, Casey burrows into the situation and unearths more and more details throughout the shoot. He builds the specifics and detail he discovers until the character is real for both of us. It is a very exciting creative exercise. He was also totally unselfish in using all his experience in front of and behind the camera to make sure I was focused on making the movie I wanted to make, and in doing whatever he could to help me do what I wanted to do.”

Intriguing Mystery

By revealing Lee’s history in snippets throughout the film, Lonergan creates an intriguing mystery that pulls the audience in, says Affleck. “You get to know and love the characters before you start to learn things about the past. They’ve all got some struggles, small and large. Lee is trying to discover a reason to keep going and eventually he finds that in the relationship with his nephew. It’s funny, it’s sad. And it feels very, very real.”

But for Lee, the relationship with Patrick has an inherent cost. Manchester by the Sea is a place he wants desperately to avoid. “It’s just too charged for him there,” says Lonergan. “It’s a very small community. He can’t go anywhere without people knowing who he is and what happened to him. It’s torture for him to see any of the people there. But he has to come to help out with his nephew. He’s put in a position of either having to drag the nephew away, or stay somewhere where he can’t stand to be.”

Lee has experienced things that would destroy most people, says Affleck. “He’s haunted by the past and has run away from everything he knows, because it’s too painful.”  Everywhere he goes, Lee faces the whispers of his former neighbors. “Lee doesn’t want to be around anybody who knows what actually happened to him,” says Affleck. “In Boston, nobody has any idea. But Patrick wants to stay in his town for the exact reason Lee doesn’t want to be there — his history.”

“Casey is a different actor than anybody working,” says producer Moore. “He has a very quick wit and a lot of depth. He brings so much emotion to his work. There’s some very sharp dialogue between Lee and Patrick. Casey’s deft sense of humor brings something unique to those exchanges. He really has an interesting approach to the role. I’m always impressed by his work, but this is a career-high role for Casey.”

Lucas Hedges as Teenager Patrick

Casey Affleck’s performance is matched by Lucas Hedges, who plays Patrick. Even though he has lost his father and had been abandoned by his mother, Patrick is in many ways a typical teenager. At 15, he has a good life that he just wants to hold onto.  “He’s in a band, he’s on the hockey team, he’s got everything he loves in Manchester, including two girlfriends,” says Damon. “Joe was his primary caretaker. He was a great dad, but he’s gone and the kid still needs a father as he tries to figure out the future.”

With a resilience forged by the difficult circumstances of his upbringing, Patrick is as eager to get on with life as his uncle is to avoid it. “He’s a teenager who is hurting and he’s got his guard up,” says Walsh. “He doesn’t quite comprehend that anybody’s life matters outside of his own. That’s the gist of the arguments between Lee and Patrick. They are unable to meet halfway.”

Lonergan saw many young actors for the part before casting Hedges, who has already appeared in a handful of prestigious films including Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. “Lucas is just super talented,” says Lonergan. “He’s incredibly sensitive and really nice to be around. It’s a tricky role and he brings tremendous emotional life to the part. Patrick has been through a lot in his life, but it hasn’t broken his spirit. He has a certain buoyancy that Lucas embodies naturally. He’s also a smart ass. He’s tough, he’s totally relentless and really funny — all qualities it was thrilling to watch Lucas discover in himself and bring to life. It’s not just a talented kid acting natural for the camera. It’s a beautiful, detailed character turn from a very young actor; something you don’t see every day.”

Hedges’ father, writer Peter Hedges, has known Lonergan for over 20 years from the New York theater world. “Apparently I met Kenny when I was 2 years old,” says the actor. “I was in a stroller. It’s the coolest thing that 16 years later, I’m in one of his movies.”

But Hedges didn’t have to resort to nepotism to get the part. “My agent sent me in just like everybody else,” he says. “Patrick was the last major role to be cast. I had four or five auditions before they asked me to come up to Boston and read with the entire cast. Kenny offered me the part on the train ride back to New York.”

Although Patrick is clearly in need of a father figure, it’s not clear that Lee is up for the challenge. “Patrick just wants love from Lee,” says Hedges. “He had a great relationship with his dad and he wants the same with Lee. He also wants to keep this life that he’s been living. He loves his home and friends. In many ways, his life is good.” But Lee is desperate to get back to Boston, disrupting Patrick’s education and social life. “When Lee arrives, he’s like a robot,” says Hedges. “He doesn’t have emotions any more. Patrick tries to bring him some humanity by joking and making fun of him. When Lee doesn’t give him what he wants, Patrick gets mad and fights back. It’s unfair to take him out of his home and bring him to Boston.”

Affleck is one of Hedges’ acting heroes, according to the young performer. “I respect him so much. He doesn’t care what people think. He’s here to work. I appreciate the way he talks to colleagues and the ownership he took of his role. He showed me that a movie is ultimately the director’s vision, but the actor can have his own influence.”

Hedges’ enthusiasm for working with Lonergan is just as profound. “I’ve worked with writer-directors before and they are usually better at one thing or the other,” says Hedges. “Kenny is the best of both. He is one of the few screenwriters and playwrights working today who writes the way people talk. The dialogue sometimes overlaps, which I had never seen before. Not everyone speaks in monologues. Kenny captures the messiness of real life.  “And as a director, he spent so much time with me working out why I say something or how a scene should be played,” he continues. “He wanted go behind the scenes with me to explore Patrick’s past, his memories and insecurities, why he does what he does.”

Hedges says he realizes he may never get another role as full and rich as Patrick Chandler. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for someone my age to play a character so well developed and well written,” he says. “There’s no way to know if it will ever happen again, so I’m grateful to have this chance. Joe Chandler, the man who sets the film’s action in motion, is a salt-of-the-earth family man who has raised his son on his own, knowing that he has a heart condition that will likely put him in an early grave. With his last act, he tries to bring together the people who mean the most to him, in an effort to save them both. “He has tried for years to help Lee,” says Walsh. “By putting Patrick in his care, he is forcing his little brother to come out of his shell inch by inch. It’s a very loving way to try and help Lee get over his depression and his loss.”

Kyle Chandler

Kyle Chandler, who plays Joe, first came to Lonergan’s attention as an FBI agent in pursuit of Leonardo Di Caprio’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street. “He jumped out at me in that movie,” says the director. “He played the part with such great humor, as if he were amused by his quarry. I thought it was an amazing choice. I was really happy that he was able to do the part.”

Steward agrees, saying that Chandler quite naturally stepped into the role of big brother in real life. “Kyle gave great advice to every one on the set, kept their spirits up and brought a cool, calm and collected dynamic to film.”

A fisherman who works the Massachusetts waters, Joe is a mainstay of his tight-knit community. “Joe still lives in the town where he and Lee grew up,” says Chandler. “He has known for a while that he has a limited amount of time to live. When he passes, he leaves responsibility for his 15-year-old son to Lee. He knows Lee would do anything for Patrick and hopes that it can help heal his brother. It takes Lee by surprise and doesn’t make him happy, but it may save his life in the long run.

The story is really about family and about one man’s struggle with this immense responsibility that is thrown on him. Lee’s heart is in the right place, but it’s not certain that he can deal with what he’s confronted with.”

Reading the script for the first time was an emotional experience for Chandler. “It’s unusual for me to be so moved by a first read,” he says. “When I finished, I walked around wondering why I was crying. I read it again and I cried again. I met with Kenny the next day and we talked for an hour. I walked out thinking, gosh, I hope I get this. I got lucky as hell. I hope I’m lucky enough to work with him again.” If the quality of the writing was his main reason for signing on, Chandler knew he had made the right decision as soon as shooting began. “Kenny’s direction is astonishing and I don’t say that often,” notes Chandler. “After I saw the movie for the first time at Sundance, I realized it is a type of movie I had never seen before. It is so specifically Kenny’s voice. He’s not only very intelligent, he’s also one of the most honest people I’ve met. He knows how life works and he’s able to put that on the screen. I am a tremendous fan.”