'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Ben Affleck ('The Way Back')

Ben Affleck
John Russo

"One of the things that happened to me was that I was forced to really honestly look at myself — my failings, my shortcomings, my character flaws — to find accountability, to not hide or run from feelings," Ben Affleck says on The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast as we discuss his 2018 trip to rehab, from which he headed directly to the set of Gavin O'Connor's The Way Back, in which he gives the performance of his career playing an alcoholic hired to coach the high school basketball team for which he once starred.

"And," continues the fast-talking, whip-smart 48-year-old actor, writer, director and producer, whose 40-year career has been like one giant roller coaster, "I developed a much greater access — this sounds very actory, so forgive me — to the full range of my emotions. I have had so many more life experiences and so much more to bring to a performance. Now I feel like a much, much better actor than I've ever been. And I love it."

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You can listen to the episode here. The article continues below.

Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot,Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, KevinHart, Carey Mulligan, Seth MacFarlane, Amy Adams, Will Ferrell, Julia Roberts, Jake Gyllenhaal, Glenn Close, James Corden, Cate Blanchett, Sacha Baron Cohen, Greta Gerwig, Conan O'Brien and Kerry Washington.
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Ben Affleck was born in Oakland but raised with his younger brother, Casey, as everyone knows, in Boston — Cambridge, specifically — by his mother, a grade school teacher, and, until he was about 10, his father, a onetime theater writer-director who later worked as a janitor and bartender. (Affleck says his father was "mostly unemployed and an alcoholic," sometimes "living on the streets.")

When Affleck was 7, a casting director friend of his mother invited him to audition for a local PBS children's series, which he landed and "really liked." A year later, Matt Damon, a fellow aspiring actor two years his senior, moved into a house two blocks away — their bedrooms were visible from one another's — and they became fast friends. Affleck introduced Damon to his agent, who also signed Damon, and the youngsters began traveling together to Boston and New York for auditions. (Both were extras in 1989's Field of Dreams.)

During high school, Affleck and Damon took theater classes with Gerry Speca, an instructor who inspired them both and became something of a surrogate father for Affleck, encouraging him to continue acting after graduation. ("Gerry Speca was definitely the most important influence on me creatively, professionally and maybe personal-development-wise, as well," Affleck says.)

After procuring their diplomas, Damon enrolled at nearby Harvard, while Affleck went off to the University of Vermont because his high school girlfriend had moved nearby. Both soon dropped out and moved to Los Angeles (Affleck attended Occidental College for a short time), where they began co-writing a script based on an idea that Damon had at Harvard, hoping that it would result in parts they could play.

Over the six or seven years between the conception and realization of Good Will Hunting, both Affleck and Damon began landing supporting parts in other films. Affleck was almost exclusively cast as bullies — in Robert Mandel's School Ties (1992), Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993) and Kevin Smith's Mall Rats (1995).

Meanwhile, the Good Will Hunting script attracted the interest of Castle Rock Films — but, in a move reminiscent of Sylvester Stallone and Rocky, Damon and Affleck refused to sell it unless they were cast as janitor savant Will (inspired by Affleck's father) and his townie friend Chuckie, respectively. "No one wanted us to play the parts," Affleck recalls, but Castle Rock relented. However, just when things seemed to be coming together, the project stalled over a disagreement about who should be hired to direct the film. Only at the last minute was it was rescued by Harvey Weinstein, who read it at the urging of Miramax regular Smith, and a commitment by Robin Williams to play a key supporting role.

Even before cameras rolled on Good Will Hunting, its creators' respective stocks were rising: Affleck had convinced Smith to write a leading role for him, and the resulting indie, Chasing Amy, proved a Sundance sensation in early 1997; and Damon was cast by Francis Ford Coppola in The Rainmaker, which came out that November. Good Will Hunting, meanwhile, was released in December, and was warmly received "in the wake of" Titanic. On Oscar night, James Cameron's epic claimed the lion's share of awards, but Good Will Hunting was presented — by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau — with best original screenplay. (In that moment, at age 25, Affleck became — and remains — the youngest-ever winner of a screenwriting Oscar.) "That was the day when we became famous," Affleck notes. "And then my life really, profoundly changed."

The next year, Affleck was back at the Oscars as a star of Shakespeare in Love, which pulled off a best picture upset over Saving Private Ryan, in which Damon played the title character. But Affleck truly became a movie star through giant tentpoles like 1998's Armageddon and 2001's Pearl Harbor — both Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer productions — and was also named People's Sexiest Man Alive in 2002.

Then it all almost went away. He had a run of several critically demolished films — Daredevil in 2003, Surviving Christmas and Jersey Girl in 2004, and Gigli in 2005 — and, in the midst of it, began dating, and got engaged to, his co-star from the latter two films, Jennifer Lopez. That period coincided with the rise of tabloids like Us Weekly, In Touch and OK, as well as the internet, creating greater demand for celebrity gossip and paparazzi photos. And thus was born the "Bennifer" soap opera.

"You know, there's always a story of the month, and me dating Jennifer Lopez happened to be that tabloid story at the time when that business grew exponentially," Affleck reflects, though he shuts down any notion that he or she ever courted the attention. "Still, to this day, [some] will go, 'I see you out there in the paparazzi and the pictures!' It's like, 'Yes, I left my house and took out the trash. It's not like I'm trying to—' And it's still like, 'You were taking a pap walk!' As if, if you leave your house, you're only doing so in the hope that you could be so lucky that you could end up as the sixth item in The Daily Mail. It's absurd!"

He says of Lopez, with whom he split in January 2004 but remains friends: "People were so fucking mean about her — sexist, racist. Ugly, vicious shit was written about her in ways that if you wrote it now you would literally be fired for saying those things you said. Now it's like, she's lionized and respected for the work she did, where she came from, what she accomplished — as well she fucking should be! I would say you have a better shot, coming from the Bronx, of ending up as like [Justice Sonia] Sotomayor on the Supreme Court than you do of having Jennifer Lopez's career and being who she is at 50 years old today."

As for Affleck? His career was left in a shambles. "I was actually in the very worst position you can be in in this business, which is you can sell magazines but not movie tickets," he recalls. "People were just saying, 'You're worthless. You're talentless. You're a hack. You're a cad. You're a nobody. You're shit.' And I guess I function well when I have something to prove." He notes, "I never thought to myself, 'I have no talent. I really am an asshole. I really am some jerkoff shallow frat guy.' I've never even been inside a fraternity, not that I have anything against it.'"

In partnership with his agent then and now, Patrick Whitesell, whose loyalty he marvels at, Affleck committed to doing whatever was necessary to make a comeback. As he puts it, "I sort of had to make it in the business twice, because I became so cold and so not cool and so out of it that I had to totally reinvent my career. And it was harder [the second time] because before I was just starting at the start line, but now I had to start a mile further back because people didn't have no perception of me, but [instead had] a negative one fostered by a really reckless and irresponsible tabloid press that would just write things that weren't true."

Affleck's resurrection began with landing and winning strong notices for a humble character part in 2006's Hollywoodland, playing the tragic Hollywood figure George Reeves. And it continued with an artistically, if not commercially, impressive directorial debut, 2007's Gone Baby Gone. ("I hadn't had a [Rotten] Tomatoes score above a six in quite a few years," he jokes.)

He found that he liked acting and directing, and was able to do both in two films that followed shortly thereafter: 2010's The Town, which had a much bigger budget than Gone Baby Gone, $37 million, and made a lot of money, too ($154 million worldwide); and 2012's $44.5 million Argo, a giant critical and box office hit — $232 million worldwide — for which he won every major best director award except the Oscar (he was infamously snubbed when the nominations were announced), and won the best picture Oscar, too. The comeback was complete: 15 years and a lot of tumult after Good Will Hunting, he was again on top of Hollywood.

However, the eight years since then have been anything but smooth sailing for Affleck. Just six months after the Academy Awards, he baffled the industry — and lost a lot of goodwill — when it was announced that he had signed on to play Batman in Zack Snyder's Warner Bros. comic book adaptation Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Here was a guy who had been given in a second chance, and this was what he wanted to do with it? Did he need money that badly?

That film came out in 2016 and had the eighth-biggest opening weekend on record — but also registered at just 28 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. He reprised the character in Suicide Squad (2016), which received even worse reviews, and in Justice League (2017), Todd McCarthy's THR review of which noted that Affleck "looks like he'd rather be almost anywhere else."

Around the same time, Affleck's biggest-budgeted directorial effort, 2016's Live by Night, bombed. His marriage to actress Jennifer Garner, with whom he has three children, came to an end. And, he acknowledges, "I realized I was an alcoholic."

How does he look back at that time now?

"I did Batman because I wanted to do it for my kids," explains Affleck, who has agreed to don the Batsuit one more time in The Flash, which is due out in 2022. "I wanted to do something that my son would dig. I mean, my kids didn't see Argo." He continues, "Zack [Snyder] wanted to do a version of the Frank Miller Dark Knight graphic novel series, which is a really good version of that. Unfortunately, there are a lot of reasons why things go the way they do in the movie business, and just because your face is on the poster doesn't mean that you're dictating all of those things — and even if you were, that they would go well." He adds, "I wore the suit to my son's birthday party, which was worth every moment of suffering on Justice League."

Affleck continues, "I started drinking too much around the time of Justice League, and it's a hard thing to confront and face and deal with. I've been sober for a while now, and I feel really good — as healthy and good as I've ever felt. And the process of recovering from alcoholism has been really instructive. I think it's great for people who aren't alcoholics, you know? Like, 'Be honest. Have integrity. Take accountability. Help other people.' It's a good set of things that they teach you. It took me a little while to get it — I had a few slips, like most people — but I feel really good." He adds, "If you knew how many actors and directors and writers were alcoholics or compulsive in some way — I mean, it's the most ordinary thing in the world in Hollywood. I've worked with actors who showed up drunk! And that was not me. I drank, like, alone in my living room and just passed out, like, with scotch. But I got sober."

Indeed, as mentioned, he came from his most recent stint in rehab directly to the set of The Way Back, where he was under the direction of O'Connor, who had helmed one of his few successful post-Argo movies, The Accountant. "I was like, 'This is a great acting role, and I know how to do it,'" Affleck says, cracking, "I understand alcoholism — it doesn't require any further research on my part. I was the Daniel Day-Lewis of that movie!" He adds, more seriously, "You would think it would be painful, but it was kind of joyful to feel myself accomplishing the things I set out to do."

The Way Back was released in the United States on March 6, 2020, just days before the pandemic shut down movie theaters (it was quickly made available for streaming), and Affleck's work was greeted with raves. The Atlantic, for instance, called it "the rawest and most natural performance Affleck has given in his career." And, in this most unusual year for the movies, it could lead to his first-ever acting Oscar nomination.

"I feel both humbled and enormously proud of it," Affleck says. "I wanted to leave something behind that was really representative of what I felt was the best I could do. I felt that I was capable of doing something more than I had done and going deeper and really finding deep and authentic emotional behavior, recreating that, creating empathy in the audience and doing something that was really meaningful to me. The Way Back is the one movie that I would show people if they wanted to know about me as an actor."

He elaborates, "It felt like the crowning achievement of my life as an actor. I don't feel like I need to find some other movie to say, 'Look, I can do this!' I mean, I think I've done 50 movies now. And The Way Back is definitely, in my view, my favorite of my performances, not only selfishly as an actor, but also because it's about something meaningful and important."

Affleck seems to feel that, perhaps in more than one sense, The Way Back saved him: "I was so grateful that I got to come to work and play that part every day and do this for a living. It really changed my life, you know? And since that movie, I've just felt: I love my work. I'm going to choose things that are interesting to me. I'm not interested in doing stuff that's trying to be commercial. I want to be a good father, most of all. And that's kind of all I need."