Ben Affleck on ‘Air,’ New CEO Gig and Those Memes: “I Am Who I Am”
The actor, filmmaker and budding mogul on the disruptive production company he launched with Matt Damon, why he’s done with D.C., getting Michael Jordan’s blessing for his new film and the advice wife Jennifer Lopez gave him for this interview.
It’s been 25 years since Ben Affleck became the youngest person to win the Oscar for best original screenplay at age 25 for Good Will Hunting, which he wrote with Matt Damon; 16 years since he directed his critically acclaimed first feature, Gone Baby Gone; and a decade since he won best picture for Argo, a film Affleck directed, starred in and produced. His four features as a director — all thrillers and dramas instead of the kind of franchise films that drive the modern box office — have made nearly $450 million worldwide.
It’s an enviable filmmaking résumé, and one that pretty much nobody brings up when you say the name Ben Affleck. But while the world has been scrutinizing his marriage, his mood and his coffee order, Affleck has been quietly building a new production company, Artists Equity, with Damon, founded on the premise of profit-sharing among not only directors, producers and actors but also crewmembers such as cinematographers, editors and costume designers.
Affleck and Damon obtained at least $100 million in financing from investment firm RedBird Capital Partners to start and made their own financial contributions to Artists Equity, with Affleck, 50, serving as CEO, and Damon, 52, as chief creative officer. “Ben and I have both been making movies for over 30 years,” says Damon. “We know the things that actually matter to people — but ask Ben to see the spreadsheets.”
Their company’s first movie and Affleck’s latest as a director, is Air, the story of how Michael Jordan’s family and a group of executives at Nike revolutionized the business with one historic sneaker deal. Air, which Amazon will premiere at the South by Southwest film festival March 18 before releasing it wide theatrically April 5, stars Viola Davis as Jordan’s mother; Damon, Chris Tucker and Jason Bateman as execs at Nike; and Affleck as Nike co-founder and former CEO Phil Knight. Making Air was “an unbelievable experience that me and my husband and even my hair and makeup team still talk about to this day,” says Davis, whose husband, actor and producer Julius Tennon, plays Jordan’s father in the film. “Ben’s an auteur and so unbelievably kind and respectful. It was one of our top experiences of being treated the way we felt we deserved to be treated.”
Over the course of two wide-ranging interviews in March, Affleck spoke with THR about what he’s learned from his ups and downs — from a tearful moment in 2007, when he realized his career wasn’t actually over, to the agony of almost wishing that it was, on Justice League. Affleck describes what it was like to wear the Batsuit once more for this summer’s The Flash, how he secured Jordan’s blessing for Air, what advice wife Jennifer Lopez gave him for the movie and this interview, and what it’s like to be a walking meme: “At a certain point,” says Affleck, “I am who I am.”
You recently had COVID. How are you feeling?
I’d had it a couple of times and been asymptomatic, and so I got kind of cavalier and a little bit like, “Wow, COVID doesn’t really actually affect me. I’m one of those people.” And then I just got annihilated. I had the no-energy COVID, where it was too much work to pick up the phone to play Octordle.
To play what?
Octordle. It’s just Wordle with more words. Don’t be impressed, it’s not harder. I was invited to join a cool little red velvet rope celebrity Wordle group. Matt [Damon]’s one of them. Jason Bateman and Bradley [Cooper], and … Actually, the first rule of Wordle is don’t talk about Wordle. Unless you get it in three guesses. I used to do the crossword compulsively in the mornings and think I was good at word games. And let’s face it, going up against actors, it’s not a high bar. I expected to do fairly well, so I was seriously humbled. You have to do the Wordle, the Quordle and the Octordle, and add up your score, and then whoever gets the lowest score wins for the day. It’s fiercely competitive, and there’s a lot of mockery and derision. So I’m in training.
You and Matt Damon are starting a company together more than 40 years after you became friends. I’m curious about the longevity of the friendship and the business relationship, and how that works.
I suppose the reason it works is that I trust him and love him, and I know that this is somebody with integrity. In this business, failure is hard, and success is confusing and can make you lose your bearings. Having that friendship as a touchstone over the years was really meaningful. One of the things we reflected on when we did The Last Duel that caused us to want to do this company together was the fact that we wished we’d kept working together more over the years. We fell prey to this idea that, “Well, if you don’t individuate your careers and do your own things, people will always associate you together. That will be limiting.”
Was that advice you got?
That was advice we got. And also just a function of the fact that our goal was to work as actors. The motivation behind making Good Will Hunting was to serve as an acting reel so that we could get jobs as actors, not because we wanted to be writers. So when we became successful and had the opportunity to do movies, we took them. And it’s very hard to let go of that hand-to-mouth mentality you have as an actor. The phone could stop ringing at any time, and especially where Matt and I grew up pretty modestly, it was almost irresponsible to not take a job where they were going to pay you a lot of money. My mother made, I don’t know, $30,000 a year as a public school teacher in Boston. And I remember making $600,000 for Armageddon and thinking, “This is 20 years of my mother’s salary.” It just seemed absurd that you would pass on that opportunity, no matter what it was. A thing that you have to learn — one of many things we helped one another with — is that at a certain point, it becomes very meaningful the things you turn down, in terms of the kind of career that you create.
There’s a version of your life now where you direct a movie every couple of years, go to your kids’ basketball games and hang out by the pool with your wife. So why are you adding this new role of running a company?
My wife doesn’t have a lot of downtime. But that does sound great. You’re making assumptions that I wish were true but aren’t, which is … I’ve had a number of movies I wanted to direct that were like, “Yeah, we want to do it in Bulgaria.” And I’m like, “In Bulgaria?”
One of the reasons I did it was, I’m divorced. I share custody. I don’t want to go to Austin and New Orleans and Georgia anymore and not see my kids. It just doesn’t work. These years are too important. If I miss them, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. And then I thought, “OK, well, if I’m in Los Angeles and I’m in an office and I’m doing this work, I can step out for the basketball game or the jazz performance.” So I protect those things.
Is that working?
I’ve found that people are taking me quite seriously. As an actor, people look at you, like, “He doesn’t really mean that.” But [in business] they treat it as sacrosanct. They’ll go, “Yeah, well, we were going to have that meeting with the heads of the Five Families, but you had your kid’s basketball game.” Now, my parents never came to one Little League game ever, once. But in the modern era of raising children, with three kids, 11, 14, and 17, and three schools with their individual activities, it turns out that is in and of itself a total full-time job.
You’re launching this company at a time when the movie business is changing.
When The Way Back came out, I knew. It came out the weekend they shut the theaters down with COVID. But that’s not an excuse. Because I knew as it was coming out, just the tracking, I was like, “OK, here’s a movie about a guy, son dies, gets divorced, alcoholic. Nobody’s going to go to the theater to see this fucking movie. They’re just not.” I felt it. Succession is on. Ozark. Narcos. Game of Thrones. You’re not competing with [1980s crime drama] Simon & Simon on an 11-inch black-and-white TV. There’s really beautiful stuff being made. My daughter is 17. She lives her life largely in opposition to the work her parents have spent their lives dedicated to, where she’ll say things like, “I’m not sure film is really … Do you think it’s a genuine art form?” I like the fact that she has this silver rapier tongue. But anyway, I went into it going, “OK, these movies aren’t fucking working anymore. And these are the ones I like.”
As opposed to —
The Justice League experience, the fact that those stories became somewhat repetitive to me and less interesting. Yeah, I did finally figure out how to play that character [Batman], and I nailed it in The Flash. For the five minutes I’m there, it’s really great. A lot of it’s just tone. You’ve got to figure out, what’s your version of the person? Who is the guy that fits what you can do? I tried to fit myself into a Batman. And by the way, I like a lot of the stuff we did, especially the first one [Batman v Superman].
But not Justice League. What went wrong there?
Justice League … You could teach a seminar on all the reasons why this is how not to do it. Ranging from production to bad decisions to horrible personal tragedy, and just ending with the most monstrous taste in my mouth. The genius, and the silver lining, is that Zack Snyder eventually went to AT&T and was like, “Look, I can get you four hours of content.” And it’s principally just all the slow motion that he shot in black-and-white. And one day of shooting with me and him. He was like, “Do you want to come shoot in my backyard?” I was like, “I think there are unions, Zack. I think we have to make a deal.” But I went and did it. And now [Zack Snyder’s Justice League] is my highest-rated movie on IMDb.
Isn’t that because Zack Snyder’s fans are so intense online?
Say what you want, it is my highest-rated career movie. I’ve never had one that went from nadir to pinnacle. Retroactively, it’s a hit. All of a sudden I was getting congratulated for the bomb I’m in. But I was going to direct a Batman, and [Justice League] made me go, “I’m out. I never want to do any of this again. I’m not suited.” That was the worst experience I’ve ever seen in a business which is full of some shitty experiences. It broke my heart. There was an idea of someone [Joss Whedon] coming in, like, “I’ll rescue you and we’ll do 60 days of shooting and I’ll write a whole thing around what you have. I’ve got the secret.” And it wasn’t the secret. That was hard. And I started to drink too much. I was back at the hotel in London, it was either that or jump out the window. And I just thought, “This isn’t the life I want. My kids aren’t here. I’m miserable.” You want to go to work and find something interesting to hang onto, rather than just wearing a rubber suit, and most of it you’re just standing against the computer screen going, “If this nuclear waste gets loose, we’ll …” That’s fine. I don’t condescend to that or put it down, but I got to a point where I found it creatively not satisfying. Also just, you’re sweaty and exhausted. And I thought, “I don’t want to participate in this in any way. And I don’t want to squander any more of my life, of which I have a limited amount.”
So if DC came to you now and said, “Do you want to direct something?”
I would not direct something for the [James] Gunn DC. Absolutely not. I have nothing against James Gunn. Nice guy, sure he’s going to do a great job. I just wouldn’t want to go in and direct in the way they’re doing that. I’m not interested in that.
I heard you say recently, “Fifteen percent of movie budgets are waste.” Which 15 percent are you talking about?
I don’t believe in the whole “I get paid even in failure” thing. It always struck me as bizarre that I walked away with so much money from Gigli and everyone else got flattened. Seems a little bit like I was not aligned quite with the investors in that regard.
The studios and the people who make the movies are increasingly separate, from different worlds. They don’t understand one another’s values, and there’s suspicion. And it creates conflict. I was on [my 2016 movie] Live by Night, and they were dressing an extra — it must have cost $700 to dress this extra in the period. Five hundred feet away from the camera. And we were waiting while they did the touch-ups. And it was just like, “Guys. This is not meaningful, but it’s taking away from the time and the resources we have to do something authentically enough that it moves the audience. They don’t care if the curls are 1930 or 1920.”
How did you approach Michael Jordan about the story you’re telling in Air? Did you know each other?
I periodically play cards sometimes with Michael, and we’ve got mutual friends, and … None of it sounds good, OK? And it’s not like he’d be like, “Oh yeah, Ben’s my boy.” (Imitating Jordan’s voice.) He’d be like, “Yeah, I know him.” Jordan is — he’s a hero to me. And I know how important and meaningful a figure he is, in particular in the African American community. If you’re going to fuck around with talking about Michael Jordan, do it respectfully. Nobody’s asking you to do a hagiography, but get it fucking right. I’ve never known anybody with that kind of charisma and power who walks into a room and it just reverberates. And is it him or is it the way people treat him? Is it your memories of him? I don’t know, but it’s powerful. I said, “Please, can I come out?” And he was great. “Yeah, no problem. Come to the golf course.” Went out, met with him. I waited for him to finish playing. I don’t golf myself. Because I just feel like it eats people’s lives up.
I look at golf like meth. They have better teeth, but it doesn’t seem like people ever come out of that. Once they start golfing, you just don’t ever see them again. So anyway, I waited. I have to be very clear, this is not the authorized Michael Jordan story. He was not compensated in a way that would be appropriate if this were that. If you’re going to do a Michael Jordan story, they should back the fucking truck up. This was me saying, “Mike, I’m not going to make the movie if you’re not cool with something about it. I just won’t do it. I want to know what’s important to you.” He was very clear. He was the one who told me about [Nike executive] Howard White, who wasn’t in the original script, who’s played by Chris Tucker. And I said, “Any anecdotes about your dad?” And without going into any more detail, he actually talked about his mom, who wasn’t really in the script. That’s when I understood what the movie was. Talking to him about his mom was incredibly moving, and I realized, “Oh, this isn’t about Nike.”
I said, “So, do you have any ideas about who would …?” And immediately I was like, “Oh, fuck.” Because I’m about to ask him who to cast. And if I don’t get them, it’s going to look to him like I ignored him. It’s actually hard to get actors. And I knew who he was going to say because it was the same person that I’ve wanted to direct for so long, who I think is … I don’t think there’s an objective best actor. But I do think there’s a group of people who you can say, “These are the best actors in the world.” And Viola’s quite obviously among them. And [Jordan] looked at me real straight and — by the way, there’s one line for the mother character in the movie at this point — and I’m thinking, “Oh my God, he wants me to offer this to Viola Davis. How am I going to offer Viola Davis a movie with one line? That’s not going to happen.” But he was like, “That’s my mom.” He was dead serious. “Viola Davis, that’s my mom.” And that was it. Discussion was over. However it happened, it wasn’t his problem, but it was going to fucking happen. And I was like, “OK, Mike.”
How did you get Viola Davis?
Begging. I’m sure it was because I said, “Michael Jordan wants you to play his mom.” It certainly wasn’t “Ben Affleck wants you to be in his movie.” She’s not comfortable with sycophancy or obsequiousness. You can tell it chafes her. I just treated her with respect, which is to say, “When you’re ready, let me know. We’ll be here.” I want what she does in the movie to be a surprise — because as I started writing and working with Matt, and Jen [Lopez] gave me some great lines too — it just started getting better.
What was Jen’s input on the script?
Oh my God, she’s brilliant. She is incredibly knowledgeable about the way fashion evolves through the culture as a confluence of music, sports, entertainment and dance. She helped me in talking about the way in which a part of the reason why Jordans [the shoes] were so meaningful is because culture and style in America is 90 percent driven by Black culture. Black culture has historically pioneered music, dance, fashion, and it’s then been stolen, appropriated, remarketed as Elvis or whatever. And in this case, [Nike], a white-run corporate entity, was starting to do business with African American athletes in an identity affiliation sales thing. They were really taking value from what Michael Jordan represents and who he is. I don’t think the meaning can be overstated. They’re going to switch from “Hey, guys, we are a nice shoe,” to “If Mike has it, you want it.”
What you expressed about white America using Black culture, as a white filmmaker telling this story, do you risk replicating that dynamic?
I wouldn’t make a movie whose central premise is the appropriation of Black culture for profit by white Americans. That’s not my film to make. I’m telling a story that’s about a combination of things, and this is one aspect of it. I’m not going to omit it because to omit it would further compound the disrespect. What I am going to do is talk to people who understand it better than I do and who can help me contextualize it, and that was [costume designer] Charlese [Antoinette Jones], that was Viola. Chris [Tucker], he gave me monologues, he gave me scenes, and it was very organic. And that’s why I was like, “I want Chris paid as a writer also. I want to be very clear that he is a contributing voice to this movie.” We [Affleck, Damon and Tucker] didn’t end up asking for [writing] credit on the movie. But it’s important for me to say Chris Tucker is a fucking really good writer.
Why did you make the choice to never show Michael Jordan’s face in this movie? You cast a body double and you shot him from behind or in profile.
Jordan is too big. He exists above and around the story, but if you ever concretize him, if you ever say, “Yes, that’s Michael Jordan,” we know it’s not, really. It’s fake. I thought if the audience brought everything they thought and remembered about him and what he meant to them to the movie and projected it onto the movie, it worked better.
What kind of conversation did you have with Nike about how you would portray the company?
I did not have a conversation with Nike because I didn’t feel the same sense of personal responsibility [as I did to Michael Jordan] because it’s not a history of Nike. There’s interviews and books about that.
The operating principle of Artists Equity is that people who work on a film have an ownership stake in it. How did that work on Air?
I was talking to [cinematographer] Bob Richardson. He’s a genius. And I said, “Bob, what if I gave you a million bucks to save me five [million]? Could you do it?” And he goes, “Fuck, I’ll save you 10.” There are people who just have their hand on the wheel in ways people don’t understand. Your editor, producer, DP, first AD, production designer. The idea is you get really good people, and you say to them, “Look, if we’re able to accomplish what we set out to accomplish, you’re going to participate in a very significant way in the delta between what the movie costs to make and what we sell it for.” The people who were bonused on this movie, like Bob and all the crew, their bonus was a piece of the pool of the sale [to Amazon]. Almost all of them are, on a weekly basis now, the highest-paid crewpeople in history, by a multiple.
Do you want Artists Equity to stay independent or do you want a studio deal?
The first-look deal is going to be a dinosaur very soon. It’s a horrendous deal. You’re restricting yourself in unimaginably disastrous ways for a few shiny trinkets. The experiment for me is to say [to the studio], “Don’t worry about what the budget is. That’s my job. I’m going to do my best with the budget. I’m going to guarantee you and cover all the overages. And, by the way, director, actor, company, all on the hook for overage.”
So is there a scenario where your DP would have to pay money if you went over budget? Crews usually don’t assume that kind of risk.
They’d make much less because we’d go, “We went over, guys, so you’re going to get paid like a scale movie.” So the compensation is, if we do very well, Bob should do galactically well, so should our first AD, and so should Chris Tucker, Viola Davis, Matt Damon, who are driving the value. At studios, historically you’d go in, pitch, and then they’d quietly go back to marketing and distribution and say, “Well, let’s run the numbers.” And they’d go to the territories and talk about genre and stars. Now, it’s a much more coarse process. They say, “Well, we have 118 categories [for content]. We know X works and Y, and so we’ll pay Z for that.” But there’s no formula for something being good. At Artists Equity, we have a joint venture with a data research AI-modeling company that has a lot of consumer information. We can reach out to people and go, “What are you watching? Do you like this?” The inscrutability around the streamers is very frustrating because you go, “Are people watching this or not?”
Do the streamers give you data on your movies?
No, they won’t.
Let’s say one of your old movies is a hit on a streaming service and —
Well, last year, [my 2010 movie] The Town licensed for $15 million again. Because it streams. That’s the other big tenet of our company: We seek to retain the negative, to be the copyright holder, which we share with the artist. Being the copyright holder, even if it’s in 15 years when it reverts — and it should revert — you should own it because if it works, if it’s Shawshank Redemption, they’re still fucking watching it. The biggest thing on Netflix is Friends. There’s enormous value in libraries. And the streamers have overreached and recaptured too much value. The old gross days, you could really make money. They’ve taken away some of that value, so I need at least to be able to know, “Hey, look, I know people are watching. I know what this is worth to you.”
Amazon is releasing Air in theaters. When you started on this movie, did you envision it for streaming or theaters?
I assumed it would be a streaming movie because I thought maybe dramas would never come out again in theaters. The Way Back, when they pulled it, I was so heartbroken. And then [former Warner Bros. Pictures chairman Toby Emmerich] was like, “We’re going to rush it onto iTunes.” And then I got all these emails and calls and people saw it. That was the day I thought, “Well, shit, I’d rather people see the movie. I like a theater as much as the next guy, but a tree falling in the woods.” And now there’s an enormous pressure that I feel here. I mean, I hope that it works.
Why aren‘t you on Instagram? Your wife is very good at it.
My wife’s a genius at that. I don’t know if there’s anybody who understands Instagram better than her. In fact, she gave me a talk this morning before this interview. She thinks that because of experiences that I’ve had, I’ve become very guarded. And she’s right. I view these things as land mines, where if you say one wrong thing, your career might be over. I had a really painful experience where I did an interview where I was really vulnerable, and the entire pickup was something that was not only not right, it was actually the opposite of what I meant.
This is when you were on Howard Stern and you talked about drinking toward the end of your marriage to Jennifer Garner?
The idea that I was blaming my wife for my drinking. To be clear, my behavior is my responsibility entirely. The point that I was trying to make was a sad one. Anyone who’s been through divorce makes that calculus of, How much do we try? We loved each other. We care about each other. We have respect for each other. I was trying to say, “Hey, look, I was drinking too much, and the less happy you become, whether it’s your job, your marriage, it’s just that as your life becomes more difficult, if you’re doing things to fill a hole that aren’t healthy, you’re going to start doing more of those things.” I think I was pretty articulate about that. It was the New York Post who deliberately mischaracterized it in order to make it clickbait, and everyone else then picked it up, and it didn’t matter how many times I said, “I do not feel this way. I’m telling you, I don’t blame my ex-wife for my alcoholism.” So, yeah. It’s hard. But anyway, so [Jennifer Lopez] tells me today, “Relax, be yourself. Have fun. You’re actually a fun guy who is real and genuine and you just seem so serious.” Do I seem serious? But as in many things, she’s really right. And she loves me. She’s looking out for me. She’s trying to help me. So it’s like, maybe I ought to fucking listen to her.
Yesterday there was a news cycle devoted to your parallel parking.
Dude, you know how many people can get in that spot? That was world-class Boston finesse. Granted, I did decide maybe I’m not going to bump these people anymore because it’s the Pacific Palisades and they may view bumping the bumper differently than we did back home, but it was so fucking snug. I’ve never gotten a spot that good. It was not parking assist either. It wasn’t blocking anything, but I’m sure it was like, “Ben Affleck blocks traffic.”
Did you mind the “Ben Affleck having a bad time at the Grammys” meme?
No. I had a good time at the Grammys. My wife was going, and I thought, “Well, there’ll be good music. It might be fun.” At movie award shows, it’s speeches and, like, sound-mixing webinars. But I thought this would be fun. I saw [Grammy host Trevor Noah approach] and I was like, “Oh, God.” They were framing us in this shot, but I didn’t know they were rolling. I leaned into her and I was like, “As soon they start rolling, I’m going to slide away from you and leave you sitting next to Trevor.” She goes, “You better fucking not leave.” That’s a husband-and-wife thing. I mean, some of it is, I’m like, “All right, who is this act?” Like, I don’t keep up. My wife does, obviously. And yeah, it is your wife’s work event. And I’ve gone to events and been pissed off. I’ve gone and been bored. I’ve gone to award shows and been drunk, a bunch. Nobody ever once said I’m drunk. [But at the Grammys] they were like, “He’s drunk.” And I thought, that’s interesting. That raises a whole other thing about whether or not it’s wise to acknowledge addiction because there’s a lot of compassion, but there is still a tremendous stigma, which is often quite inhibiting. I do think it disincentivizes people from making their lives better.
How has talking publicly about your alcoholism impacted you?
I became — out of no desire of my own — one of the poster boys for actor alcoholism and recovery and the whole thing. And the best part about that is that sometimes people call me up and they’re like, “Hey, can you help me out?” And it makes me feel so good to do that. The big trick of 12-step is the reason they want you to help other people is because it actually helps you more. And often what I’ll say to people is, I would avoid [your addiction] coming out if I were you. You don’t need to be anybody’s poster child. You don’t need to fucking tell anybody. That’s why there’s two words on the front of the book. They’re just as important, both of them: Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s always anonymous.
Can you tell me about your performance in Air as Nike founder Phil Knight?
Phil is an interesting guy. I got really interested in Buddhism because I have a difficult time with the theistic aspects of AA. I’ve just always been a skeptic. One of the things I like about Buddhism is it’s like, believe what you believe. If this doesn’t seem true to you, don’t believe. We’re not going to burn you alive. Anyway, so here’s this guy [Phil Knight]. He talks about Buddhism, Eastern philosophy. He also talks about being a ruthless capitalist. So right there, I think this is a guy of many contradictions, which is fun to play. There’s a tension between having once been the entrepreneur, the guy selling shoes out of your car, and now running a big company, being responsible for everyone’s jobs. That’s a real change. And how do you reconcile that? The way he vacillates [about spending to sign Michael Jordan] but in the end goes for it. When we tested the movie in Vegas, people cheered. I was happy because I thought, “Good, they get it.” But I did not expect the audience to stand up and cheer for Phil Knight. I think it speaks to the fact that in this culture, we venerate capitalists. It’s our version of the divine right of kings.
I showed it to Paul [Thomas] Anderson, my favorite director of all time. He knows I really look up to him. And he was like, “This is just a fun movie. I like this movie.” And I’m thinking, “Is it a masterpiece?” Because I think he really is a genius. This guy knows how to do this. Sometimes I get a sort of a [Antonio] Salieri feeling around him. Yeah, I’m good enough to know how great you really are. See, this is me being myself. Let’s find out if it becomes clickbait.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the March 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.