THR Cover: Confessions of Ben Affleck

 Frank W. Ockenfels 3

"Argo's" Oscar-baiting director, newly 40, talks about his career turnaround, how anxiety drives him, what Matt Damon's wife might think when he comes over, and what he emailed J. Lo.

Contrary to his image as a working-class "Southie" in Good Will Hunting, and later in The Town, Affleck, the elder of two sons (his brother Casey also is an actor), grew up in relative comfort in Cambridge, Mass. His mother, Chris, had been one of the original freedom riders who went into the Deep South during the 1960s to fight for civil rights. Both she and his father, Tim, were intellectuals who gave their son the middle name Geza after a Holocaust survivor they admired. (Affleck comes from Protestant stock but is agnostic.)

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Damon -- who was 10 when he met his 8-year-old near-neighbor Ben -- remembers the cut-and-thrust of discussions in the Affleck home. "That dinner table was one of the funnest places to be growing up because of all the debates that went on -- on any subject. You had to craft an argument and a good one to survive. Ben really honed his debating skills there. He's not a guy you want to get in a debate with."

Adds Affleck: "My mother taught public school, went to Harvard and then got her master's there and taught fifth and sixth grade in a public school. My dad had a more working-class lifestyle. He didn't go to college. He was an auto mechanic and a bartender and a janitor at Harvard."

He also was an alcoholic, a predisposition Affleck inherited. "His life sort of hit the skids when I was in my teens," he says. "It was difficult. When one's parent is an alcoholic, it's hard. It was a little scary and trying, but then he got sober when I was twentysomething, and he's been sober ever since."

The two maintain a cordial relationship, though they don't see each other much, says Affleck. "My father has positional vertigo, and if he flies he gets really dizzy, so he has to drive out to California, which he does a couple times a year. We talk, but we e-mail mostly."

The problems at home peaked when Affleck's parents split before his teens and filtered into his life at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where he sought refuge in plays, appearing as Damon's son in Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit before both started auditioning for professional roles.

"I was a bit of a f--up," he says. "I got really good grades until the last two years, and then I didn't. I was having issues around my dad and my mom, and things just weren't that stable -- though that puts the responsibility on them, when really I just lost focus and stopped caring."

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While Damon went to Harvard, Affleck attended the University of Vermont, where he majored in Middle Eastern Affairs before switching to Los Angeles' Occidental College, embarking on an acting career while he and Damon were roommates in Eagle Rock, an East Los Angeles neighborhood.

He found minor success with such films as 1992's School Ties and 1993's Dazed and Confused. But it was Good Will Hunting -- the script Affleck and Damon sold to Castle Rock Entertainment for $600,000, which went to Miramax in turnaround -- that made them stars. At the Oscars, they brought their moms and soon were double-dating with Gwyneth Paltrow (Affleck) and Winona Ryder (Damon). America was enchanted. With an Academy Award for best original screenplay, Affleck was a mere 25 years old and as hot as they get.

Then something went wrong. Instead of following Hunting with equally impressive material, Affleck chose roles in such action pictures as 1998's Armageddon and 2001's Pearl Harbor, while Damon starred in Saving Private Ryan. Partly, says Damon, this was because these were big breaks for a relative newcomer and partly because Affleck thought he could fix scripts that didn't work -- only to discover the director is the fixer.

His movie choices solidified a lightweight image that, combined with romantic escapades, made him perfect fodder for an exploding celebrity press. When he went from dating Paltrow to media-magnet Lopez (buying her a multicarat pink diamond ring, to boot), he no longer was just an actor -- he was part of a phenomenon known as Bennifer (version one). Their Bentley rides, engagements, breakups-and-makeups were chronicled almost in real time. Affleck, who had risen to earn a reported $10 million to $15 million per picture, now was more infamous than famous.

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