Ben Affleck Talks Role as Basketball Coach in ‘The Way Back’

Starring in his first big sports movie, Ben Affleck plays the role of Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star asked to come back and coach his alma mater. The Way Back, directed by Gavin O’Connor and in theaters now, tells the story of the team and follows Cunningham’s personal struggles with alcoholism.

SLAM recently took part in a roundtable with Affleck to discuss the movie and his character:

Q: The idea that you could put so much of your life into this film. How does that work and were you attracted to this project because of that?

BA: What attracted me to the project initially was just the fact that it was a very compelling drama. Yes, there are certainly things that are similar to my life and just some stuff that’s, thank God, very, very distant from my life—some really tragic events and that kind of thing. But ultimately, I felt like it was a pretty universal story about facing adversity and how you deal with that. And sports are a great metaphor for that. Sports are something that a lot of people can access, you know? They know what it’s like to have to practice, to have to work hard, to have to face challenges, to have to grow and evolve. I liked the idea of having a relationship with this group of young guys. I had never played a coach. I had never played a mentor. I’ve never had that experience. Being around them kind of reminded me of what it was like when I was 19, just trying to audition and break in and talking to a bunch of other young actors who were all up for the same roles. It was a lot of fun. And obviously the prospect of working with [director] Gavin [O’Connor] again was very, very appealing. We had a great time on The Accountant. Nobody does performance drama better as a director or sports. So he’s the perfect guy for this, you know?

Q: Did you speak to or draw from any coaches as you prepared for the role?

BA: I talked to a bunch of people and watched a bunch of tape mostly of coaches going bananas. You could look at YouTube and it looks like that’s all they ever do—swear and throw chairs and curse at the refs. But no, I didn’t want to be like, ‘Okay, [the character] is Bobby Knight.’ We talked about developing the character and he was always kind of his own guy. I mean, obviously, he was carrying some emotional weight and working that through, but one of the things I liked about this particular coaching relationship was that the coach got as much out of it as the players did. It was very reciprocal in that way. But there was no one [specific], like Coach Cal or whatever.

Q: You haven’t really done a true sports movie. Is this a check off the bucket list in your fourth decade acting?

BA: We were just talking, I was just telling Gavin how it makes me feel old. Because I get the question like, ‘What’s your favorite sports movie?’ And I’m like, Hoosiers, The Natural. These guys are like Coach Carter, Remember the Titans. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah. I guess.’ The ones you see when you’re younger, they have more of an effect on you. There is a certain age where sports is a really strong metaphor in your life for stuff because it’s one of your main experiences as a young person. But I really wanted to do this with Gavin because I think it’s such a—you have to have a sense of verisimilitude and making it feel real, especially nowadays when we’re so intimate with the coverage of sports and the detail that we see on sports. Gavin and I talked about even your carriage and physicality, you can tell the difference between an athlete and somebody who’s not an athlete. And that was something that I was really concerned with. The character had been an athlete decades before, but they’re still like—you know, we met Chris Herren and talked to him and you can still see in his movement and his physicality that this guy’s got talent and command of his body. So I really wanted to do this with somebody who respected and understood even the little nuances and details of athleticism. Gavin was obviously the guy. He’d done it before and done it so well, both with Warrior and Miracle.

Q: What were some of your favorite memories from on set? 

BA: That’s interesting. There were some really heavy emotional scenes. Those are kind of satisfying to do in their own way because you know as an actor, like, OK, here’s this big scene. I got to get to this place emotionally. And you would think, oh God, it’s must be painful to experience a painful scene. But it’s more like a sense of victory that I got there. I felt like it was pretty good, you know? So I had a lot of satisfying moments like that. I felt very—sometimes you connect to a piece of material and you have a great relationship with the director and the cast is great and that’s just how I felt. Every day felt like, we knew what we were doing, we were on the same page. When we did the emotional stuff, that stuff felt really good. The stuff with Janina [Gavankar] felt great. The stuff with Michaela [Watkins] felt really real. And the big thing for me was the young guys, the players. There were days I really looked forward to because I’m 47, I don’t hang out with a group of ten guys every night. Having that connection, that group of young men that I could kind of earn their respect. And then we’d spent time [together], like they wanted to hear Hollywood stories and I wanted to hear stories from them about what their lives are like. I really looked forward to those days. Also, I just had to stand there, they had to run back and forth [laughs].

The Way Back is in theaters now.

Photo via Getty.