Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones star in "The Company Men," centering on three characters who gave years of their working lives to the same corporation, who deal with their layoffs in very different ways.
Affleck's Bobby Walker has two young-ish kids and stable, sympathetic wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt), who expreience each subsequent financial blow as his months of unemployment roar on. He goes from the $160,000-a-year job to selling the Porsche, the house, moving in with his folks and working for his blue-collar, construction worker brother-in-law (Kevin Costner).
While Jones' Gene McClary's stock options benefit to the Nth degree by the very downsizing he experiences, his honed materialism can't seem rival the emotional and personal blow he's been dealt. Same could be said of aging Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), except he doesn't have the cushy finances to fall on, to soften the blow, and depression takes over.
It's an examination on the American Dream, how the buying of things and the perceived security of money and years at a job overshadow more important priorities -- family, self-esteem, quality of life.
Director John Wells shines a light on "how little time that men spend with their families when they’re so engrossed in their work," Cooper says during interviews at Sundance Saturday. "My dad certainly did that. He had a beautiful wonderful wife... and we’d be lucky if he got home by eight. But in some respects, American men have this storong idea of acquisition of things and it's real important to them. I don’t get it."
It's from personal experiences like these that the actors in "The Company Men" cull from, the feelings of despair and loss, and in the struggle to score a job even when there's none to be had or 50 other candidates are up for the same one.
"I feel like that’s part of the gig, as an actor, you define yourself by the opportunities you get. I know actors that are out of work for years at a time. If they thought their work was equal to their resume, they would probably huck themselves off the top of the building," DeWitt tells HitFix.." Someone said to me very early on in my career, when you go in the [audition] room, you should pretend you have a little oozy in your bag. Your oozy can be like 'my grandmother thinks I'm really awesome' or 'I did a nice thing for my neighbor.' Everybody needs that little stockpile of stuff that’s really important."
"Actors are really unusual. You never have that stability that those other jobs have promised people. Your next job could be your last. Who knows if you get that next audition. So it's also why actors get moved by other actors' big comebacks," Affleck says. The 37-year-old actor internalized his movie role by "doing the homework" -- doing internet research, talking to corporate workers still employed, those that were laid-off, constructing a biography based on a guy he went to school with whose career arc resembled Bobby Walker's.
"I like to have a script as early as I can. I make no bones about it, I'm so insecure as an actor anyway, I spend every night studying it, working on it, thinking about it, be prepared for what I think John might want," Cooper says. "There’s enough life experience that I can bring to a character like this, I can't see how we can’t all relate to it in some way... I still live in the split-level ranch that I bought in 1994, and I had no business buying it. But I still live there, and I’m still trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. [My wife] and I make a point of realy living below the radar of this whole Hollywood nonsense."
How did Jones prepare? "Just look at the world around you. I read the Wall Street journal and New York Times every day. That’s all I did," he says. "No personal stories... Most of my family are secure. Most of us are not gonna notice something like a recession."
Affleck and DeWitt brought the conversation back to the economy, and how actors' unstable work in a way reflects on the farce that is now job security.
"The promise we're told is go for the stable job that gives you the 401k and the benefits -- don’t go be a creative person that doesn’t promise any pension. That’s the exchange, that was the expectation," DeWitt says. But in this uncertain world in the American job force, "A lot of corporate America didn’t sign up for this."
"They would be sculptors if they'd known," Affleck adds. "They would have a drink and painted during lunch instead."