In The Accountant, Ben Affleck plays Christian Wolff, a quiet, unassuming CPA who works out of a small, non-descript Midwest office. But he has two unique characteristics: he is a math savant whose autism largely keeps him from “normal” social interaction with people, and his little business is actually a front for his real work: doing the books for some of the world’s most dangerous criminals and their outfits. When he takes on a large company called Living Robotics as “legitimate” client, he discovers that corruption and greed aren’t just confined to his other customers – a revelation that sends him and another low-level employee (Anna Kendrick) at the company on the run for their lives.
Also starring J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, Cynthia Addai-Robinson and John Lithgow, The Accountant was directed by Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) from a script by Bill Dubuque and marks the first time we’ve seen Affleck onscreen since he pulled on the cape and cowl in last March’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. At a press conference held for the film recently in Los Angeles, Affleck spoke about the challenges of creating a realistic portrayal of autism.
“Gavin and I went around and spent time with people who were at various places on the autism spectrum,” said the actor/director. “We observed behavior and talked to them and engaged with them in everything from what their daily life is like to what type of movie they’d like to see about someone with autism. We got a lot of different responses, but really, the value was in grounding the guy and making him like real people we had met and seen in real life, rather than just an imagined version of what it might be.”
Affleck added that the character was based on behavior and mannerisms he observed in a number of different people on the spectrum, instead of just one specific person or mode of conduct. “There wasn’t any one person where we thought, ‘Okay, we’re going to build a character on this guy.’ It was more Gavin and I meeting people and observing things, and when we’d see something that felt close to what we were doing in the movie, we’d make a note of it. We wanted to make sure we were doing something realistic and that was rooted in reality, so it was about putting together those behaviors. A lot of them were observed, and some of them were stolen. That’s the way you do it.”
Asked what he worried about most in playing the character, Affleck answered, “What we wanted to do was be respectful and be accurate, and to tell a truthful story. We didn’t want to try to sex it up or gloss over things. We just wanted to peer into the reality of that life. Also, I think it was a good thing showing that different can be good, better and special. Obviously, anytime you’re going to deal with a real-life issue like this, that touches people lives and that is really important to some people, there are going to be a lot of people with really strong opinions and feelings. Our hope is that people in that community, who are on the spectrum of autism, like the movie and like that it’s a superhero story about them. That was what I got from the people that I met with. That’s what they wanted to see.”
As for how some of the people he met reacted to him personally, Affleck said, “The Batman character has a lot of fans. It turns out that’s a well-known character (laughs), so that was fun. I don’t think the movie had come out yet, though. There are some people on the spectrum who, just because of the way their social thinking works, they don’t observe the same social niceties or have certain tact. I remember one girl was like, ‘I’ve never heard of you! Who are you?!’ And I was like, ‘I’m just an actor.’ I got a lot of fun reactions. The biggest reaction was that people were psyched to be a part of making a movie. They understand that they were coming up with ideas for a character. They really wanted to volunteer and help out. It was also educational because I had this idea of autism being withdrawn, but these people were actually quite enthusiastic, engaged and fired up about participating, in their own unique ways.”
The other secret that Christian Wolff holds close to his chest in the film is that he is a trained and ruthless assassin himself, capable of defending himself in a heartbeat – a necessary skill when you’re dealing with some of the world’s worst villains, even as their bookkeeper. Asked if Christian is like Bruce Wayne in any way, Affleck joked, “He has the same chin,” before continuing, “If you stretch hard enough, you can draw parallels with a lot of different characters, but this is a really distinct, unique character in a unique film. What drew me to it was Gavin and his work, and the fact that it was very unusual. You think you’re getting one kind of movie, and then you get something that’s smarter, more interesting and more challenging, and is thematically resonant for people who are different and what they’re capable of. It’s about how we try to protect our children from home and, in some ways, harm them more by doing so.”
Affleck added that his training to play Batman, while helpful, was not as difficult in some ways as his training for the action scenes in The Accountant, which utilized the Indonesian style of fighting known as pencak silat. “Gavin was very concerned about the action being real and good, which is something he’d done very well in Warrior, for example,” he explained. “So training was as much a part of this as it was for the Batman movie. In fact, even more so with this because it’s a lot harder for the stuntman to do your stunt when you’re not wearing a mask. So, I had to really be on top of my game and work hard with some really great professionals who were very helpful and really good at the stuff, and they educated me about this fighting style. It was a learning experience.”
One thread that The Accountant does share with Affleck’s work as Batman is the presence of J.K. Simmons. In The Accountant, the Oscar winner plays U.S. Treasury Agent Ray King, who is on Wolff’s trail, but will make his debut as Commissioner James Gordon in next year’s Justice League opposite Affleck and a fistful of other superheroes. Although Affleck and Simmons have very little screen time together in The Accountant, Affleck said, “It was great to work with J.K. again. I wish we had the chance to do more. Hopefully, we will in the future, so it was a nice tease. It’s also really cool, when you do a part in a movie, you don’t know what the other actors are doing when it’s compartmentalized, like this story is. It was a real treat to get to go and sit down and watch the movie, for the first time, and go, ‘Oh, that’s what they were up to! I really should have brought my A-game. They’re pretty good!’”
Although Affleck said that it was “too far away” to talk about his own solo Batman movie, which he is co-writing and will direct, he did reflect that his own career choices – playing an autistic hero in The Accountant, directing the upcoming thriller Live by Night or immersing himself in the world of DC comics as Batman – aren’t the result of any sort of master plan.
“I’m not much of a tactician when it comes to what a career should look like,” he admitted. “I’m not a big believer in that strategic level of planning. It’s more about projects that interest me and move me, and part of that is variation. You would get bored doing the same thing, over and over again. With Batman, The Accountant and Live by Night, I’m lucky that I’ve had the chance to do things that are completely different. It keeps me activated and engaged, and hopefully doing my best work.”
The Accountant opens in theaters nationwide on Friday (October 14).