Ben Affleck as Christian Wolff in The Accountant (Chuck Zlotnick/Warner Bros. Entertainment)
When it comes to cultural change, Hollywood can be ahead of the curve. Long before President Barack Obama was elected to the Senate, Morgan Freeman portrayed an African-American president in 1998’s Deep Impact. When it comes to social awareness, again, Hollywood can be ahead of the curve. Before the United States released its first official report on AIDS in 1986, An Early Frost, the first onscreen depiction of AIDS, aired on NBC in 1985. These are just a couple of the ways Hollywood paved the way for social awareness.
The latest project out of Hollywood to promote social awareness, in a way, is The Accountant. Directed by Gavin O’Connor (Miracle, Warrior), Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is an autistic assassin who’s also a mathematics savant. 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.
The Accountant obviously isn’t the first film to feature a lead character with autism. Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for his portrayal of an autistic savant in Rain Man. While Hoffman kicked ass in his role, Affleck might play the first autistic character to kick ass on the big screen. Before he directed the film, however, O’Connor performed exhaustive research into the autism spectrum to ensure that Christian was as realistic as possible “to make sure we got this character right. We all have our advantages and disadvantages as people. It was important to me that we embrace Chris as an individual and never look at him as a tragic figure.”
Affleck explains his take on his character: “What resonated with me about this character was not the ways he is different, but the ways he is similar to everyone else. He grapples with the differences between himself and what is considered ‘normal,’ and those pose real challenges for him to get by in life. Deep down, he’s very much the same. He wants to be happy. He wants human contact. He wants love. He wants friendship. He has things that bother him, like we all do. He just defines those things differently from how other people do.”
Affleck and O’Connor consulted with several autism experts. They also visited a number of homes and schools.
“I was lucky,” Affleck explains. “I had my director doing research with me, which gave us a shared vocabulary. We learned there’s quite a range to what people refer to as being on the spectrum. Ultimately, I tried to strike a balance between letting the audience in on what’s going on with Christian and not doing it in an obvious way.”
O’Connor says the pair were continually surprised while doing their research.
“One day, Ben and I had a class with people on the spectrum and asked them questions to get as much knowledge as we could. Most of them were in Batman T-shirts [laughs]. Chris sort of became an amalgam of all these different details. We talked to so many people on the spectrum who are extremely witty. We watched the documentary, Asperger’s Are Us. It’s about four guys who have Asperger’s who formed a comedy troupe and do stand-up. It’s fascinating. We also met a guy who was a state championship wrestler. We were surprised over and over again.”
More social change has happened in the past few decades than happened in the past few thousand years. How much of this is due to Hollywood is debatable, but it’s undeniable. Compared to Washington, Hollywood often takes the lead in furthering social change. Anytime you can shed a new light on a previously marginalized portion of our society, it helps to erase the stigma. O’Connor might effectively sum up, not just The Accountant, but our culture in general.
“Ben and I always approached it from a place of honor and respect. I keep saying it’s a great time to be different. Let’s make a film about someone who’s different and celebrate it. He’s not different in a bad way, he’s just different. We’re all different. I love Chris and I wanted to honor him.”
The Accountant is now in theaters.