The Crowning Achievement of My Life as an Actor

f ew people in Hollywood history have experienced higher highs or lower lows than Ben Affleck has over the course of 40 years in the business. A two-time Oscar winner (for co-writing Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon and for producing Argo) who also is a tabloid target (from “Bennifer” to back tattoos), the 48-year-old father of three (with former wife Jennifer Garner) is back on the upswing and could garner his first-ever acting Oscar nomination for Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back, in which he plays his most personal role yet: an alcoholic who has blown a lot of opportunities but is offered a shot at redemption.

Here, Affleck recounts his life and career from the start. Where were you born and raised, and what did yourfolks do for a living? I was actually born in California. My mother was teaching at a kind of alternative school in Oakland at the time. My parents moved back to Boston a couple of years later, and I grew up there. My mother was a public school teacher.

She didn’t believe in money because she married my father, who was a janitor and a bartender but mostly unemployed and an alcoholic. But his being a janitor — he was a janitor at Harvard — was the inspiration for Matt’s character being a janitor in Good Will Hunting. We switched it to MIT because it was about math. But I thought my father was a brilliant guy and a genius and underappreciated. Luckily for me with my own children, kids tend to sort of think the best of and worship their dad.

You started acting atthe age of 7. My parents did not want me to be an actor. In fact, they knew so many miserable, struggling actors who didn’t make any money that they really discouraged me. My father kind of fell out of my life once his drinking became really extreme — he moved out of the house when I was 10 or 11. It just so happened that my mom’s best friend, who was a casting director in Boston, brought me in at random because she was looking for little kids for a PBS TV series that WGBH was producing out of Boston. I auditioned for this thing, The Voyage ofthe Mimi, and as luck would have it, randomly I got it. And then I really liked it, and I worked a lot, but my mother also made sure I had a normal life. You and Matt Damon metthrough your moms. You were already working and you had representation. Did Matt getrepresentation through you? Matt Damon would be pushing a broom if it wasn’t for me! (Laughs.) You can make that the headline of your story. Matt moved from Newton into the city when I was 8 and he was 10. I had already started Voyage ofthe Mimi. I got a small-kids agent from New York. Matt was really interested in acting and had done some. He would proudly tell me about his experience at the Wheelock community theater and tell me how I didn’t understand real acting because it wasn’t about your looks, it was the theater, it was about your soul and your integrity — I got a lot of lectures from Matt, although it’s interesting because he hasn’t done a play for 25 years! (Laughs.) But yeah, we became friends. And I said, “Why don’t you come down to meet my agent?” And my agent signed him upon introduction. And he and I started working. We would usually go up for the same things.

I would want to get it, but if I didn’t get it, I wanted Matt to get it. We were never competitive in an ugly or bad way. Eventually, Matt goes offto Harvard. You briefly attended the University of Vermont before moving to Los Angeles and starting at Occidental College. And then Mattleft Harvard and came outto live with you. Matt left Harvard, came out to L.A., and we lived in Eagle Rock. It was cheap and close to Occidental, where I was taking classes. And we were writing Good Will Hunting. You’ve got to remember, this was when, like, Reservoir Dogs and Slacker and Clerks, Do the Right Thing and the whole sort of DIY thing was just starting, this idea that you didn’t have to have a studio make your movie if you just wrote a cheap script. And so we thought, “This would be a great acting reel for us,” because we thought we were

good at the Boston accent. That was really our only ambition for Good Will Hunting. After a few years of playing assholes in movies like School Ties, Dazed and Confused and Mallrats, along comes yourfirst real showcase, Chasing Amy. I just openly sort of sucked up to Kevin [Smith,the director of Mallrats] and pandered to him and was like, “I’m really not a dick. I don’t know why I keep getting cast as a jerk.” And he wrote Chasing Amy for me. The studio did not wantto use me or Joey [Lauren Adams] or Jason [Lee]. They had established stars in mind, and they were going to give him a real budget. Butthey said, “If you want to use your ‘friends,’ ” as they put it, “you have to make the movie for $250,000.” He agreed, and that was my firstlead. He was the first person who believed in me. Chasing Amy was a hit at Sundance in 1997. In the meantime, Good Will Hunting finally came together and was released atthe end ofthat same year. Titanic was the big story atthe time, but your movie did well,too, and you and Matt wound up winning the best original screenplay Oscar. You were just 25, which is stillthe record forthe youngest screenwriting Oscar winner. That was the day I feel like we became famous. We became famous because so many people watched us on TV win that prize, and it was such a good story. The sort of soap opera of our lives was interesting — and this would go on to be the story of my life The next year, Shakespeare in Love, in which you appeared, won the best picture Oscar over Saving Private Ryan, in which Matt appeared. But you were already onto larger-scale movies like Armageddon and then Pearl Harbor, both Bay/ Bruckheimer productions; you were People’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2002; you were a Hollywood A-lister — and then it kind of all fell apart with Daredevil and Gigli in 2003, Surviving Christmas in 2004, Jersey Girl in 2004 and, in the midst of it all, the whole “Bennifer” thing. There’s always a story of the month, and me dating Jennifer Lopez happened to be that story at the time when the tabloid business grew exponentially, when they realized, “There’s actually a 10-times bigger audience for our product than we’re selling to.” There was a ton of resentment against me and against Jennifer. 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. 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. Jennifer came out ofthat difficult time really well, and so did you. In 2006, you gave a great performance in Hollywoodland, and the year after, you made an impressive directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone. Any other agent in the world besides Patrick [Whitesell] would’ve dropped me, handed me off to the junior guy, whatever. He didn’t do that. He was like, “We’re going to fucking make this better.” He stuck with me. And Hollywoodland was a really good thing. We had to fight like crazy — Patrick’s the reason I got it. I loved the part. Obviously, I could identify with [George] Reeves, having done Daredevil. I was really proud of that performance. Gone Baby Gone was never going to be a big commercial movie — it ended up actually going into a little bit of profit because of home video sales — but I’m enormously proud of it. The opening of that movie is still probably my favorite thing I’ve ever done, so I didn’t really care if it didn’t make any money — Pearl Harbor made $500 million, and people weren’t saying nice things. But Gone Baby Gone got good reviews, and I hadn’t had a Tomato score above a 6 in quite a few years. And itled to the films you directed for Warners in which you also acted: The Town, Argo and Live by Night. I was surprised when Jeff Robinov and Sue Kroll said that they wanted to have a meeting. They said, “We think you’re a great director, a great actor. We think you can do this.” Fifteen years and a lot of drama after your Oscarfor Good Will Hunting, you win the best picture Oscarfor Argo. Argo was one that just fell into place in every single way — the right actors, the right location, everything that I wanted to do I was able to do, and it all just sort of worked. And I’ve had experiences where it just doesn’t. It’s an up-and-down business. Speaking of which, overthe eight years since, you’ve been a part of tremendous successes, like Gone Girl and The Accountant. But you’ve also been knocked around. Coming offthe Argo comeback, when you had so much good will, people were surprised that you signed on to play Batman, something that George Clooney — yourfellow Argo producer and a former Batman himself — says he advised you against doing. That’s what George claims. I don’t know. (Laughs.) On top ofthat, Live by Night was the firstfilm that you directed that flopped, and you obviously had a period of personal struggles leading up to The Way Back. I like Live by Night as much as any of my movies. It was my fault — I wanted it to come out when it did. Warners told me that, and I didn’t agree. It was a mistake. I did Batman because I wanted to do it for my kids. I wanted to do something that my son would dig. I mean, my kids didn’t see Argo. 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 those things — and even if you were, that they would go well. But I wore the suit to my son’s birthday party, which was worth every moment of suffering on Justice League. And yes, I started drinking too much around the time of Justice League. 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 [even] 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. 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. You literally came from rehab to the set of The Way Back. Yeah, from one of the times that I went into recovery, which were several. It took me several shots at it to get it. It’s not an easy thing to do. But 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. What made you wantto tackle a story so close to the bone? You had worked with Gavin O’Connor on The Accountant. I was like, “This is a great acting role, and I know how to do it.” I understand alcoholism — it doesn’t require any further research on my part. I was the Daniel Day-Lewis of that movie. 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 scenes that were emotional and difficult? Every day, I came home feeling elated and thrilled. I’m not sure that a performance of yours has ever been this wellreceived. 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, re-creating 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. 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.

Leave a Comment