In the new thriller, The Accountant, by Gavin O’Connor (Miracle, Warrior), Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is a mathematics savant with more affinity for numbers than people. Using a small-town CPA office as a cover, he makes his living as a forensic accountant for dangerous criminal organizations. With a Treasury agent (J.K. Simmons) hot on his heels, Christian takes on a state-of-the-art robotics company as a legitimate client. As Wolff gets closer to the truth about a discrepancy that involves millions of dollars, the body count starts to rise. The film costars, Anna Kendrick, Jon Bernthal, Jean Smart, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jeffrey Tambor and John Lithgow.
It’s not often someone on the autism spectrum is portrayed on the big screen. It’s even less often that someone on the autism spectrum is the lead character in a film. Affleck discussed the research involved in portraying such a groundbreaking character.
“It was a very challenging role. It required research. Gavin and I went around and visited people who are at various places on the autism spectrum. We observed their behavior and talked to them. We engaged them in everything from what their life is like to what kind of movie they’d like to see about someone with autism. We got a lot of different responses. The value was in grounding my character and making him like people we had seen in real life instead of an imagined version. My character was cobbled together from different observed traits and that’s what anchored the performance.”
Earlier this year, Affleck starred in a little movie called Batman vs. Superman as the Caped Crusader. Though Bruce Wayne and Christian Wolff are both one man vigilantes, he doesn’t think the two characters share many similarities.
“If you reach far enough, you can draw parallels between lots of different characters. This is a unique character in a unique film and that’s what drew me to it. You think you’re getting one kind of movie, but you get something that’s smarter and more interesting and more challenging. It’s thematically resonant about people who are different and what they’re capable of. It’s about how we try to protect our children from harm and we’ve suddenly harmed them more by doing so. That’s what interested me about the character. There wasn’t any one person we built the character around. We want to make sure we were doing something realistic and rooted in reality.”
When pressed about who would win a fight between Chris and Bruce, Affleck joked about fighting one of his BFF Matt Damon’s characters.
“I’ve only thought about beating Jason Bourne [laughs]. I’ve never thought about this match-up. Training was just as much a part of this as it was the Batman movie, maybe even more so. It’s a lot harder for a stuntman to do your stunt when you’re not wearing a mask [laughs].”
After the Bennifer years, with the exception of Batman, Affleck has mostly turned to more serious roles. He’s also become an award-winning director (Argo). Though he’s been happy to mix it up, it wasn’t necessarily part of a grand plan.
“It’s important for me [to mix it up]. I’m not much of a tactician about what a career should look like. I’m not a big believer in using that much strategic planning – it’s about what interests me and moves me. Part of that is variation. We all get bored doing the same thing over and over. Doing different types of movies keeps me activated and engaged.”
The Accountant shows flashbacks of Chris’ complicated relationship with his father. As a father himself, this is the aspect of the film that most resonated with him.
“I thought that was the most heartbreaking part of the story. As a parent, I face dilemmas, like we all do every day, about what’s the right way to raise children. At every little moment, there’s a crossroads with many different choices you can make. We all make mistakes, but we all try our best. When you have kids, your heart is outside your body. You feel so vulnerable. This fear of your child being vulnerable is very, very powerful. I can see why it made the father such an interesting character. It’s an interesting look at how we channel the intense emotions we feel as parents. It’s not easy.”
Since Christian Wolff is a groundbreaking character in portraying someone with a condition that has long been marginalized in our society, Affleck felt a personal responsibility to the autism community.
“The root of what we wanted to do was be truthful and accurate. We didn’t want to sex it up or gloss over things. We just wanted to peer into the reality of that life. Also, we wanted to show that being different can be different good, different better, different special. Anytime you’re going to be dealing with a real life issue that touches people’s lives, there are always going to be people with really strong opinions. Our hope is that people involved in the autism community like the movie and like that it’s a superhero story about them.
It was a lot of work because we wanted to get it right. The last thing we wanted to do was do a cartoon version or caricature. It was very challenging because he’s a complex character. Everyone we met had complex situations. Some had challenges of course, but some had these great abilities. One was a genius pinball player for instance. There was an amazing spectrum of special gifts as well. Chris does want to connect but he can’t connect. Some things can’t be fixed. He can’t put his arms around this woman and kiss her but he does connect to her in other ways. It’s the most complicated character I’ve played for sure.
It struck me how much wit people with Asperger’s have. We wanted to keep that wry, detached observational emotion some people have and show that humor in how Chris looks at the world. Gavin and I had a class with people across the spectrum. They were psyched to be a part of a movie. It was educational because I have this idea that people with autism were withdrawn. These people were quite enthusiastic and engaged. There are some people on the spectrum who, because of the way their social thinking works, they don’t observe the same social niceties. I remember one girl going, ‘I’ve never heard of you. Who are you?’ I’m like, ‘I’m just an actor.’”
He might just be an actor, but he’s an actor that could shed a whole new light on autism right now and, in the process, destigmatize it.
The Accountant opens in theaters October 14.