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This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On Aug. 15, Ben Affleck — Oscar-winning wunderkind of Good Will Hunting, other half of “Bennifer,” skyrocketing superstar who soared, sank and sizzled again thanks to his directing endeavors Gone Baby Gone and The Town — turned 40.
He celebrated with a dinner party thrown by his wife, Jennifer Garner, at their Pacific Palisades home, attended by a handful of close friends on the brink of middle age, including Matt Damon, his WME agent Patrick Whitesell and Disney production president Sean Bailey.
“It was not fun for me,” says Affleck of entering his fifth decade. “It’s this moment of bifurcation between youth and middle age. One wants to think of oneself as young. One does not want to think: ‘Wait a minute! How can I be halfway to death?’ “
Halfway to death, perhaps, but sitting with him one late September morning at Santa Monica’s Hotel Casa del Mar, this actor-turned-director — the Hollywood embodiment of nine lives — seems anything but as he bristles with nervous energy, words spilling out of him about his roller-coaster past and glittering present.
“He’s gone to the top and then to the bottom and now to the top again,” says Damon, his friend since the two met as children. “He’s gotten the full measure of what this life in Hollywood can offer, and now he is comfortable with it.”
Nearly a decade after Affleck had one of the most ignominious falls in Hollywood history — thanks in part to Gigli and dubious PR stunts like kissing Jennifer Lopez‘s derriere in a music video — he has emerged, unexpectedly and almost suddenly, as one of the best directors of his generation. Warner Bros.’ Argo, an Iranian hostage drama that he helmed, is an early leader in the awards race. Set to open Oct. 12, it was called a “tight and tense political thriller” by THR‘s Todd McCarthy and has earned the kind of raves that once would have seemed impossible for the star of Armageddon.
All this is the hard-earned climax to a deeply considered shift Affleck embarked on eight years ago, when he set out his goals and determined never again to do work he was ashamed of. “I made the decision: ‘I’m never, ever, ever going to do anything where I don’t absolutely kill myself to get it right,’ ” he recalls.
Vanished is the man who dwelt on his deep insecurity when he and this reporter last sat down about five years ago. During that conversation, he admitted the Gone Baby Gone shoot had left him physically sick from stress. “I’m very insecure,” he said. “I’m human, just like anybody else.”
Vanished, too, is the tabloid pinata with his colorful love life, personal drama (including a stint in rehab) and career highs and lows. “I tried to ignore it as much as possible,” he says of the fuss. “There was only one way to handle a situation like that: Go straight through it.”
He addresses all this with an openness and even sweetness that would surprise those used to the more coiled figure onscreen. “I was shocked at how warm he is,” says Alan Arkin, who plays a Hollywood producer in Argo. “He’s got a great deal of warmth, and he’s not afraid to show it. He has a wonderfully open, youthful quality that you don’t see a lot in the characters he plays.”
Sitting by a window overlooking the Pacific, in jeans and a blue-checkered shirt, unshaven and sipping from a plastic cup of soda, with flecks of gray in his beard and a gold tooth he’s never bothered to replace, he has embraced the very doubts that once assailed him. “Anxiety is a kind of fuel that activates the fight-or-flight part of the brain in me,” he says. “It makes sure that a velociraptor isn’t around the corner and that you do as much as you possibly can to survive. Because Hollywood has a lot in common with Jurassic Park and its primeval-dinosaur universe.”
Affleck, the one-time party boy, now gets up at 6, goes to bed at 9 and has been married for seven years with three children (Violet, Seraphina and Samuel) under age 7. As he discusses married life, Garner, about to fly to New York, calls on his cell.
“Hey, love, are you on the plane?” he asks gently. “I’m in an interview right now, but I love you very much.” Then he quips that her trip is doubly traumatic for the actress, “First, ’cause she’s away from the kids, second, ’cause I’m in charge.”
She might have reason to worry, given how consumed Affleck is by work. “There are so many decisions to be made, and it’s more than you can get to each day,” he says. “There is this underlying anxiety not just about getting the movie done but getting it done really well. It keeps my head spinning — even when I am giving the kids a bath. I can be giving them a bath or feeding them, and sometimes they say, ‘Dad, pay attention!’ ”
When he’s not with his family, he’s at home working in a “sort of little office hut” or developing material through Pearl Street Productions, the Warners-based company he runs with Damon, who has remained a lodestar throughout the ups and downs and who now lives down the street from him. “We see each other almost too often,” laughs Affleck. “I wonder if his wife is thinking, ‘Is he really going to come over every night?’ “
When he’s on his own, he reads and consumes films avidly. He has just finished Laurence Gonzales‘ nonfiction book Surviving Survival, about how individuals cope with horrific incidents like being attacked by sharks; he also has been reading novelist Gillian Flynn‘s suspense drama Gone Girl and David Mitchell‘s Cloud Atlas.
Rather than watch television, he recently has immersed himself in a trip through some of the greatest films ever made — from the 2011 Mexican movie Miss Bala to director Victor Fleming‘s The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, which he viewed back-to-back — as if he wants to quench a raging thirst for the knowledge that will allow him to seize the ring within his grasp. He is intrigued to hear about Memo From David O. Selznick, a collection of the Gone With the Wind producer’s notes, and orders it immediately by phone after his interview.
He also spends time at a coastal getaway near Savannah, Ga., and in his New York apartment, where he expects to move with Garner when their kids have grown up. He plays poker on a regular basis with actor Hank Azaria and his Argo producer Grant Heslov. “It’s very, very psychological,” he explains of his attraction to the game. “It’s about weakness and strength and divining whether the other person is strong or weak.”
He goes skeet shooting and admits to owning several guns — which he has embraced since his wife faced a stalker.
“The stalker had been to our house many times and ultimately came to my children’s school and was arrested,” notes Affleck of Steven Burky, who was deemed insane in 2010 then placed in a mental ward and ordered to stay away from the Affleck family for 10 years. “It gave me a stronger sense of feeling protective about my family. There’s a lot of crazy, weird people out there. It’s an ugly world.”
Affleck has given up any notion of reforming it. After once being rumored to want a career in public office, he now says, “I loathe politics.” He supports President Obama but has not actively campaigned — partly because of his workload, partly because of his political disillusionment and partly because he is convinced the president will win the election despite the Oct. 3 debate. “I watched it backstage at Jimmy Kimmel,” he says. “It wasn’t his best performance. But I am still going to vote for him, and I am very, very confident he will win.”
As to his other interests: “Kids eat up that kind of hobby time,” he admits. “I used to ride motorcycles. I used to play basketball. And now basically I’m at home with them, or I work.”
The work itself will have its greatest test with Argo. Affleck was fresh off 2010’s The Town and in talks to helm another movie at Sony when Warners showed him Chris Terrio‘s script about real-life CIA operative Tony Mendez and his little-known plan to free six men and women who had fled the U.S. embassy in Tehran when it was seized in 1979. The escapees took refuge with two Canadian diplomats, and Mendez set about creating a phony Hollywood film, Argo (that title derives from a CIA in-joke — “Ah, go f– yourself” — though it is not presented that way in the movie), as a front to squirrel them out of the country.
The moment he read it, Affleck called Heslov and George Clooney, who had been developing the project through their Smoke House production company, “and I just launched into what my take was and didn’t stop talking for 45 minutes.”
Heslov and Clooney were sold.
“This film tonally is a very tricky piece, and he had very intelligent things to say about that,” recalls Heslov, describing the movie’s tightrope balance of comedy and suspense. “His idea was to push the thriller aspect a little more than we’d originally talked about. And he was right.”
Initially, Affleck had envisioned reworking the script himself, but the draft was so impressive and his relationship with Terrio so good that he allowed Terrio to make the changes. Together, they added a new opening that succinctly explains the Iranian revolution and how it led to the capture of more than 50 Americans, who would remain captive for 444 days within the embassy.
They also worked on redefining Affleck’s character, based on Mendez. “He was a little bit more broken in the draft that we got,” notes Affleck. “He was older, an alcoholic. And I changed that and made his personal stuff revolve more around his family and losing his marriage.” Ultimately, he says, that was “the wrong choice because I ended up cutting most of it out. I cut out six or seven minutes from the final film, which is a lot.”
Other characters were merged, and some situations simplified, which later would lead to complaints from former Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor that his country hadn’t been given its due. Affleck addressed those concerns with a card at the end of the film that explains how the CIA plot complemented Canadian efforts, which he expands on in a long interview planned for the DVD.
In preparation for the movie, he flew to Maryland and met with Mendez, who took him to a bar that turned out to be a CIA hangout — the very hangout where agent-turned-spy Aldrich Ames had met some of his Soviet contacts. He was surprised how taciturn Mendez was. “He was extremely withdrawn and very unassuming,” says Affleck, adding that he only came to understand this when he saw the 2001 Errol Morris documentary about the operative, The Little Gray Man, showing how blandness was crucial to his work, allowing him to blend into alien environments.
With Mendez on board (joined by John Goodman as real-life Hollywood makeup man John Chambers, Bryan Cranston as a CIA staffer and Arkin as a fictionalized producer), the CIA opened its doors beyond anything Affleck had experienced when he’d worked with the agency on 2002’s Tom Clancy thriller The Sum of All Fears.
Invited to visit, he was astonished that “every hallway had a pretty elaborate lock on it, and every door had a lock, and there were no windows to see in any of the rooms, so everything was secure. Some of the offices had two computers at every desk, one with huge stickers that said: ‘This is connected to the Internet. No classified information.’ I wanted to use that, except there were no computers in 1979.”
He also was surprised how low-key the place seemed, even when he stepped into its holy of holies, the futuristic Operations Center, where supersecret material and personnel were whisked away before he arrived. His impression of inactivity changed two weeks later, “when they killed Osama bin Laden.”
Thanks to the CIA’s reverence for Mendez, Affleck received permission to shoot several sequences at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va. — though “that meant having the trucks show up at 2 in the morning, so they could all be searched down to the screw. I’ve shot in a prison, and the search they put you through was nothing like this.”
Most of the film, remarkably, was filmed in and around Los Angeles, with a Hancock Park mansion standing in for the Canadian ambassador’s residence, where the escapees hid out. (In reality, they were kept in two separate places in Tehran.) Zsa Zsa Gabor‘s home was used for the Hollywood producer’s (she was upstairs during shooting, but too sick to come down), and the Ontario International Airport, 35 miles east of L.A., substituted for Tehran’s.
A 65-day shoot began in California then relocated to Istanbul, Turkey, for a month. Affleck had hoped to use real-life Iranian immigrants in Turkey for all the crowd sequences but well into filming found that “we couldn’t get one person of Iranian descent who speaks Farsi to be in the movie because they’re all so terrified of what that would mean for their family back home. We were completely f–ed.”
(Some of those scenes later were re-staged in Los Angeles, where there are about a half-million Farsi speakers, says Affleck. They and the CGI shots that transformed signs in English gave the film a rare authenticity and allowed it to be made for a modest $44.5 million.)
Shooting in Istanbul had its challenges, especially when Affleck came down with the flu while still acting and directing. “He was really, really sick, with a fever, the whole thing, and he didn’t take a day off,” says Heslov. “At the worst point, he left a bit early, and he had to be feeling really terrible to do that.”
His enthusiasm was matched by the extras, who often numbered around 2,500 and occasionally got out of hand, especially once when Affleck was in his car. “People were yelling and chanting and throwing stuff and having fun — and it all sort of bled over,” he explains. “I was a little scared, although I tried to summon up that director’s arrogance. All the great directors, I think, are arrogant; so I thought, ‘This is the time when I get out the bullhorn and say, ‘Back off!’ “
He didn’t, alas. “I must not be doing something right,” he jokes.
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.)
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.”
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.
“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.’ “
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.
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.”
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.”