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.

"To watch the entire world have the totally wrong idea about somebody you care about and admire was painful, just as his friend," says Damon. "I can't imagine what it felt like to him. I remember Ben calling and saying: 'I can sell magazines and not movies. I'm in the worst possible place I can be.' "

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Over the next few years, everything he had built came crashing down. He already had gone into rehab for unspecified causes in 2001; then came the disappointment of his superhero-in-tights spectacle Daredevil and the disaster of Gigli, the 2003 picture in which he starred with Lopez before their relationship collapsed.

"I went to rehab for being 29 and partying too much and not having a lot of boundaries and to clear my head and try to get some idea of who I wanted to be," explains Affleck, declining to go into further detail. "It was more a 'let me get myself straight,' before it became a rite of passage."

He stays in touch with Lopez, just as he does Paltrow and his high school girlfriend, Cheyenne Rothman. "We don't have the kind of relationship where she relies on me for advice," he says of J.Lo, "but we do have the kind of relationship where there'll be an e-mail saying, 'Oh, your movie looks great.' I remember when she got American Idol. I said: 'This was really smart. Good luck.' I touch base. I respect her. I like her. She's put up with some stuff that was unfair in her life, and I'm really pleased to see her successful."

Despite the media onslaught, Affleck's closest friends remained convinced his talent was supreme.

"What always struck me was how smart he is," says his longtime agent Whitesell. "He had the biggest disconnect of anybody between the way the world saw him and the way he really is. We talked to each other and said, 'It's going to be a long road back, but we will get there.' "

When Affleck took the risk of going behind the cameras with Gone -- a mystery about two investigators tracking a missing 4-year-old girl, released by Miramax in the post-Harvey Weinstein era -- Hollywood insiders were stunned that this apparent featherweight had such depth. But the movie still was perceived either as a fluke or too dark to make Affleck a candidate for bigger films. Only Warners executive Jeff Robinov pursued him with absolute conviction.

"Gone Baby Gone was not at all financially successful," notes Affleck. "But Robinov brought me into his office and said: 'I think you're a hell of a filmmaker, actor. What do you want to do? Tell us, and we'll do it.' And I wasn't having those meetings with every studio."

Affleck opted for The Town, a $37 million drama that earned $92 million domestically. Its success shocked even cynics. The flameout, who had become a byword for has-been, was now one of Hollywood's most promising directors.

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Getting there was a direct result of the decision Affleck made around 2004.

"I was frustrated with the movies that I had done," he explains. "I knew that I had something to offer. I said: 'Here are the things I'd like to do: I want to direct movies, and I want to be in a movie that I'm enormously proud of. I want to have kids.' I set out goals. It was a bold thing because when one is accustomed to falling short, as I had been, one becomes fearful of making predictions. But I did."

Garner, whom he met on Daredevil, contributed to this thinking. "Jennifer played such a profound role in making me a better person," says Affleck. "We don't have a perfect marriage, but she inspired me; and finding myself in that marriage and having a child dovetailed with getting to be a little more mature."

Asked what drew him to his wife, he considers. "She truly is kind," he says. "She means no one any harm. She doesn't have ill will for any person. She's not competitive with other people. She's not spiteful." He laughs. "It's one of those things where it becomes almost aggravating at times. Every time I go, 'F-- him!' I see in her face that she just thinks that's petty and small."

Now Affleck is concentrating on the meaningful and large. He is developing a movie adaptation of Stephen King's The Stand and plans to reteam with Damon on Whitey, the story of James Joseph "Whitey" Bulger Jr., a Boston crime figure who went on the run for 16 years before being captured outside his Santa Monica apartment in 2011. Affleck will direct, and Damon will star.

But other matters are beginning to weigh on him just as much as film. "One gets older," he reflects, "and the things that you didn't realize were absences in your life now feel like real vacancies."

In November, he will make his seventh visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where bloody civil war has lasted 14 years (despite peace accords signed in 2003) and cost 5.4 million lives. It has become his abiding concern ever since "I came across this passage about how 10 times as many people have died in Congo in the wars since 1997 [as in Darfur] and was stunned that I didn't know."

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The filmmaker first went there in 2007. "I saw terrible things," he says. "You know: the amount of sexual-based violence against women; people suffering from preventable disease; child soldiers who needed to be integrated into society; children without schooling at all. So we started to get involved in those areas."

Two years ago, he helped form the Eastern Congo Initiative, which provides developmental aid for local communities, working with farmers who grow cacao, among other activities.

Affleck's commitment to Congo has not been risk-free. On one occasion, he was in a single-engine plane caught in a hailstorm, with a pilot who didn't know his way. "We were flying through Sudan, and the hail was really banging up the plane. The pilot was saying he didn't have enough fuel to fly back to Juba. I was terrified. It was the only time in my life where I really thought, deep in my heart, I might die."

It's a flash of the old insecurity that still remains, buried deep inside. He's older, wiser, glowing in the gleam of his new film, but the fears and anxieties still have to be held at bay. Even in his work.

"Sometimes I get insecure about being a real director because I look at the great directors, and they have such command," he says. "But maybe that keeps me critical of myself. Maybe it keeps me moving forward."

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