Gerry Speca isn’t sure what about his high school drama lessons stuck. But clearly, something worked. On Sunday, Casey Affleck will be his third former student to vie for an Academy Award.
The first two — Matt Damon and Affleck’s brother Ben — won.
“It’s a wonderful thing. It’s a humbling thing,” Speca said. “I remember when these kids were talking about that stuff and it was a dream.”
All three say Speca played a large part in making those dreams a reality.
Casey Affleck says he guided him to a career in acting, starting at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. Damon cites him as an example of truly great teachers. And Ben Affleck even thanked him in the credits of his directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone” — after giving Speca a cameo in the critically acclaimed film.
“I wouldn’t be an actor if it wasn’t for Gerry,” said Casey, nominated for best supporting actor in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” “He both kind of turned me on to acting, why it can be fun, how it can be rewarding, and he also taught me the foundation of everything I learned.”
Added Ben: “This is a guy who’s been a central figure in my artistic life — my entire artistic life.”
And they’re not alone. Several other former students — including Aaron Stockard, who co-wrote the “Gone Baby Gone” screenplay with Ben, and Broadway and television actor Max Casella — work in show business.
Speca, a native of western Pennsylvania who moved to Boston in the early 1970s to attend graduate school at Harvard, helped run the four-year drama program at the public high school for 12 years, pushing a rigorous schedule of class work and rehearsals. Students often spent 15 to 18 hours a week preparing for a play.
More than learning how to memorize lines or to project their voices, Speca, who himself acted in plays growing up, tried to teach his students to solve problems on and off the stage. So when he had more students than available parts — and far more girls than boys — he taught the teenagers to write their own plays and their own roles.
“What I wanted a kid to come out with was a way of having confidence in him or herself, a way of achieving what they wanted to achieve,” he said.
After Speca’s classes, Ben Affleck said it was natural for him and Damon to write their own roles and try to get their own movie made, as they did with 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” which won them Oscars for best original screenplay.
“That background was our norm,” he said. “We didn’t need to be afraid of writing.”
Speca’s lessons still come quickly to the Afflecks, such as “do the work” — Speca’s mandate that students stop worrying about whether their acting was good or bad and focus instead on what was needed to finish the job correctly.
“In its simplicity, it’s very profound,” Casey Affleck said. “As long as you work as hard as you can, you could get it done.”
Speca, 60, said he enjoyed having all three of his most famous pupils as students, but he particularly liked watching Casey figure out whether acting was for him. While Damon wanted to be an actor at 13 and Ben already had paying jobs, Casey had other interests.
“And yet he stayed with it, he loved it, I think,” Speca said. “There was that sense of this exploration.”
Casey said he joined Speca’s class as a freshman because he was “sort of” interested in theater, then became involved in his summer plays and ended up staying in Speca’s classes until he graduated.
Part of his attraction, Casey said, was that Speca, who is married but has no children of his own, never treated his students like teenagers. He wasn’t afraid to set high expectations, give them responsibility or bring his own life into class, such as discussing his grief when his parents died.
“Being challenged in that way, having those kinds of expectations, it does give you a sense of confidence,” Casey said. “He always made you feel good about yourself in a real way.”
Speca left the high school in 1995, taking a break to pursue other interests, including writing. He returned to the classroom in 2000 and now teaches English, screenwriting and public speaking at Bentley College in suburban Waltham.
He sees his most famous pupils every once in a while, such as at a premiere of “Gone Baby Gone.” He appears briefly at the end of the movie, standing on a Dorchester street.
Of course, he’ll be cheering for Casey to win Sunday.
“I would love it if he did, because I know he’s worked hard,” Speca said. “Maybe what I wish for him is that because of this kind of recognition, he gets to get the work that he wants to do.”
Not that he’s willing to take credit for any past or future success.
“I’m really no different from any other teacher. You kind of go in and do what you think is right and you hope it comes out well.”