In the crime thriller “Runner Runner,” Princeton grad student Richie Furst (played by Justin Timberlake), believing he’s been swindled, travels to Costa Rica to confront online gambling tycoon Ivan Block (played by Ben Affleck). Richie is seduced by Block’s promise of immense wealth, until he learns the disturbing truth about his benefactor.
When the FBI tries to coerce Richie to help bring down Block, Richie faces his biggest gamble ever: attempting to outmaneuver the two forces closing in on him. Here is what Affleck and Timberlake said in separate interviews at the Los Angeles press junket for “Runner Runner.”
Interview With Ben Affleck
How does it feel to play a bad guy, especially when you’ve played so many good guys?
Affleck: I was really excited to play a guy like this, even with the character in “Argo,” and I did a Terrence Malik movie [“To the Wonder”], these characters that were really opaque and reserved and didn’t say much because of who they were and what they did and so on. So I was really looking for a part where I could play somebody who was in those more genre, pulpy things with monologues and “chew scenery” kind of parts.
I had so much fun in this little movie I did called “Boiler Room” about 10 years ago, and I hadn’t gotten to do something that fun since. And this [Ivan Block] character is in the mold of great cinema characters like Michael Douglas in “Wall Street”: seductive, unapologetic, that kind of thing. I was thrilled. The writing alone just made me excited for a chance to play it.
What was your favorite part of working on “Runner Runner” with Justin Timberlake?
Affleck: Justin, he’s such a talented guy. People say that a lot, but when I got a chance to hang out with him when I did this movie, it becomes really apparent. There are very few people who can do things on the level that he does.
It’s really kind of special to hang out with him. He can sing, he can dance. He writes music and produces music, and thinks about it in a way that’s interesting. He can act. And he’s also this insane athlete. It gets to the point where you don’t want to hang out with him anymore because he makes you feel badly about yourself.
But I really like Justin. I really respect how hard he works and the road that he’s taken and the preparation he puts into acting. He’s dedicated. It’s really easy for a guy like that to go, “Look, I’m really a huge music star. I don’t need to work hard. I don’t need to dedicate myself.” But he really does. I just have a lot of respect for Justin.
How does Ivan rope Richie into his world?
Affleck: Ivan Block is a guy, to me, as far his relationship to Richie, represented what young men (well, I’m not a young man anymore) gets seduced by certain ideas about fast money and the ends justifying the means. This kind of ideology we saw be so destructive in the financial crisis and elsewhere, where men give themselves permission to behave badly. And they do so because they see male role models telling them, “Hey, this is how it works. This is what we do.”
And they have a whole line of sophistry that they use to seduce and they use to exploit them. And also, they engage in really bad behavior, and they want company. And so, that’s who Block was with Richie in this movie. And I thought that was a way in which this movie, which is pulpy and a thriller and kind of a noir set in this location also touched on stuff that is really relevant to me in the world.
What do you think the attraction is to online gambling?
Affleck: I think online gambling is sort of gambling on crack. We’re in a casino now, and here you have to walk them in, take your credit card out and get some money and play cards. If you lose, there’s sort of a process to it, and you can go home and separate yourself from that. The thing about online gambling is that it’s never away, it’s always accessible. And so, if you have an issue with gambling, it’s designed to take advantage of that.
So that’s what’s really insidious about it and kind of pernicious. Myself, I don’t like to gamble online. I like to go to casinos and play blackjack and poker, although I don’t have enough recreational time these days in my life. But before I was married and had kids, it was fun, but I wouldn’t play online, personally, because I think you’re very likely to get cheated, frankly.
Did you try online gambling as research for the role? And if so, what did you learn?
Affleck: I did plenty of research for this role. It was a world I knew a lot of about and thought was really interesting. I had often thought about making a movie myself. In fact, I thought of the title “Runner Runner” because it’s such a unique world. I’m going to Costa Rica, where you have these weird server farms surrounded by barb wire and guys with gigantic amounts of money that’s throwing off, and the sort of crazy dynamics that creates with all these young men who can buy anything and fortunes being built and lost in a day.
I thought it was a really interesting setting for a movie. It was something I was already interested in and knew about when they came along and asked me about it. So it was also appealing in that way. That’s a big part of what I think interesting about that movie: the allure of finding out about that world.
Is it fair to think of Richie Furst as a good guy who’s caught up in bad things? And his involvement with Ivan an honest mistake?
Affleck: I think it’s fair to say about Richie that he’s a guy who’s interested in a lot of things that guys are interested in and to not separate him out from the population as being better or worse. What’s interesting about Richie is that he can be almost anybody. He gambles online, he thinks he gets cheated, he goes to Costa Rica. And what he sees presented to him is the ultimate capitalist entrepreneurial life. “If you work hard, you can make billions. This is where fortunes are made. All you have to do is dedicate yourself.” That’s very appealing.
That’s something that’s appealing to everybody, from Horatio Alger stories to what we see in reality shows every day. And he kind of falls for that. The lie in there is the fast money. And ultimately, it does prove to be a Ponzi scheme, and he gets sucked into it. What we find out about Richie is that he has the character to recognize it and the strength to get himself out.
How is “Runner Runner” a cautionary tale?
Affleck: I think it would be a mistake to view “Runner Runner” as a cautionary tale about gambling. Obviously, there are parallels to gambling. We all know that. We know that Internet gambling is shady.
But what people don’t know necessarily is that ideology behind building organizations like this in online gambling is very seductive and very illusory. It can seem like a really good idea. It can seem like what people told you to work hard and get ahead, but when someone shows you something and it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
Interview With Justin Timberlake
Did you reference anything in your portrayal of the Richie character?
Timberlake: Maybe a little Bud Smart for Richie. I think that’s the one that sticks out in my mind: that eager-to-please, willing to win, will risk it all, willing to go outside your moral compass and be ambiguous about it. I think what happens to Richie is … he’s a good guy, and he tries to dig himself out of a hole, and he keeps digging deeper and deeper.
You said you worked really hard on “Runner Runner.” Can you elaborate?
Timberlake: That’s part of your job as carrying the movie, not just in the actual scenes, but carrying the morale of the movie as you’re shooting. I’ve seen some great actors doing that when I was playing a supporting role in a movie. It does make a difference. I’ve learned from some great actors who’ve done that.
With Ben and I, he’s as collaborative as I am. And I think our characters on screen as well, they play really well together, because we had that chemistry off screen. We just wanted to make the best movie we could possibly make. That’s all anybody on set wants to do. And if there’s anybody on set that doesn’t want to do that, you don’t want them around. You just want everyone there to make the best thing you want to make.
Ben has become a director of movies. Has that inspired you to also do that too?
Timberlake: Absolutely. I sort of dreamed about directing before my career as an actor took off. I’ve directed stage before in so many capacities on tours. I put that together. You have to. Otherwise, it’s your statement. It’s your voice, and that has to come through. And a lot of my shows in the past have been more theatrical than others, but you really get the bug for it when you direct on stage.
What is your favorite performance by an actor?
Timberlake: There are so many. Let me preface it by saying that there’s no way you can narrow it down to one performance. I can think of some Meryl Streep performances. I did love Nicholson in “The Shining.” That was a great performance. That was the first that popped into my mind.
For more info: “Runner Runner” website