Site hosted by Build your free website today!

That Was Ben, This Is Now
By John Brodie, for GQ (May, 2001)

Or is it Ben There, Done That? At age 28, Ben Affleck has become the poster boy for living large. Oscar? Check. Tabloid-fueled fling with a starlet? Check. Starring role in a $135 million epic about Pearl Harbor? Check. So what’s left to do? As John Brodie learns, plenty. (Did someone say Congressman Affleck?)

Ben Affleck has a date. Not with a Bond girl. Neither is it with the former Star Wars heroine the New York Post claimed he snogged, nor with Chelsea Clinton, whom the Star trumpeted as his “secret romance” last fall. No, tonight’s date is with what in industry parlance is known as a nonpro, a mere mortal, someone a buddy has set him up with. So, when I meet him at his three-story Hollywood Hills spread, I’m disappointed he’s not frantically slapping on some Jovan Musk.

Instead, he ushers me past his two Cadillacs (a 1969 Sedan de Ville and a 2000 DTS), and gamely agrees to talk about his personal life. “I’m not Mansion Guy,” he says, alluding to the way most men in his shoes would be raiding Hugh Hefner’s sugar shack. “I’ve literally gone back to that stage where you meet somebody and ask them, ‘Hey, you want to go out to dinner?’ I almost feel like I should be taking notes to report to Chuck Woolery.”

As we talk, he shows me around the five-bedroom home that Gwyneth Paltrow dubbed the Persian Conversion – her allusion to the design challenge Affleck faced in undoing the previous owner’s vision of domestic fabulousness (Southern California meets Middle East luxe). Affleck’s own style might be best described as Haute Machismo – what almost any guy in his twenties would dig. Most of us – thankfully – lacked the monetary muscle to actualize our crib dreams at that time in our lives; otherwise, we’d be stuck with living rooms featuring Bob Marley murals and stadium seats from Soldier Field.

But while Affleck has avoided these pitfalls of postcollege taste (a vintage Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid poster does, however, draw a bead on visitors as they enter the house), his home is like many that belong to single guys in their late twenties – this is a hostel where out-of-town buddies crash while in town. And it shows. As we enter a downstairs guest room, Affleck points out a single mark on the wood floor. “That’s where Matt Damon nearly burned my house down,” he says of his writing partner’s penchant for smoking in bed during his stay last summer. Down the hall, Affleck pushes open the door of the second guest room, and a bouquet of dirty linen, stale beer and nicotine tickles my nose. Perhaps if Keith Richards were in residence, this olfactory flashback to my freshman dorm would have a certain charm. But Affleck, staring at the mess kicked up by a friend’s brother whom he has hired as a Guy Friday, grunts and closes the door. Eager to leave the scene behind, we walk up two flights to the living room, the centerpiece of which is an antique pool table. Affleck suggests a game – but first offers me a draft Guinness from his bar. As he pills the tap, there is a gurgle, a sputter of brown foam, a hiss of air and, finally, nothing.

“This thing was full last time I was here,” Affleck mutters. After a moment of silence, he yells for his Guy Friday. When he appears, Affleck questions him about this unpleasant turn of events. Almost too predictably, the kid gives a mealymouthed answer about how “the keg guy was supposed to come by.” Surely, if we were in a cartoon, this would be the moment when Affleck’s eyes would spin, steam would shoot from his ears and he would yell in his best approximation of Fred Flintstone’s boss, “Guy Friday, you’re Guy Fired!” Affleck, however, merely shakes his head and tells the kid to leave the room.

“He’s like any knuckleheaded 19-year-old,” Affleck says to me. “I was like that when I was 19, but I can’t say, ‘Hey, fuck nut, you’re shitcanned!’ because he’s my buddy’s brother. So I end up saying, ‘Don’t drink all the beer, man.’”

Affleck pulls up a barstool. “I guess I’ve started to realize there’s some value in growing out of communal living, surrounding yourself with your friends all the time.” His voice is low and weary. He mentions he’ll soon sell this place, upgrade his New York digs and find a smaller, more secluded house in Los Angeles – because he’s noticed an additional law of physics that Sir Isaac Newton missed: The number of houseguests will rise to match the number of bedrooms in a house. His days of placing buddies on his payroll are over as well. He’s learned that the posse life never works out. It just breeds resentment, he says, because it’s impossible to be someone’s friend and his boss.

As our conversation continues, bouncing from his thoughts about Donna Tart’s novel, The Secret History, to the percentage of bonds in his portfolio, it dawns on me that a change has come over the 28-year-old since the last time I interviewed him, five years ago on the set of Good Will Hunting. Back then, he was a nobody, unable to get enough fool-born jests. Now that life of arm-punching and jokes seems to be wearing him. The gossip columns’ answer to Prince Hal is struggling to become Henry V.

He has flown to Los Angeles on this January afternoon for a mere eighteen hours. He has his date tonight. In the morning, there’s a board meeting for LivePlanet, the Internet/entertainment company he cofounded with Damon, American Pie producer Chris Moore and independent producer Sean Bailey. Then it’s back to New Yotk to finish shooting Changing Lanes, a drama about a New York lawyer who snaps after a fender bender. Costarring Samuel L. Jackson, the movie is essentially a big-budget art film in which Affleck will traverse terrain similar to that covered by Michael Douglas in Falling Down. After that, Affleck will get another $10 million to star in The Sum Of All Fears, the fourth installment in the Tom Clancy franchise. Taking over the role from Harrison Ford is not the only big move he’s making this year – this month he stars in Pearl Harbor, Disney’s $135 million entry in the summer blockbuster derby.

Meant to do for December 7, 1941, what Saving Private Ryan did for D day, Pearl Harbor marks Affleck’s second collaboration with the high-octane creative team of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay. Unlike their last project (Armageddon), in which Affleck played the hot young pistol to Bruce Willis’s levelheaded hero, Pearl Harbor rests squarely on Affleck. Written by Randall Wallace, then pen behind Braveheart, the movie is a departure not just for Affleck but also for Bay; it’s his bid to make an epic rather than his usual action fare. In ambition, scope and tone, it’s closer to Titanic. Which means that Affleck, as the film’s emotional center, can’t fall back on his usual arsenal of quips and smirks to get him out of tight dramatic spots. If the film is to succeed, he must drop the crutch of irony and execute an acting triple jump of believability in heroic, tragic and romantic circumstances. In short, he has to grow up – be a leading man with the emphasis on man.

Bay knew all too well where the potential pitfalls lay with his star when he told The New York Times last year, “There are just certain Ben things I didn’t want in this.” When I asked Bay to clarify what he meant by “Ben things,” he responded, “I wanted a really heartfelt performance and sometimes Ben will say things with a little but of a smile. And I was trying to take that little smile out. I was always joking with him on the set: ‘No, Ben, don’t give me Forces Of Nature! Give me Pearl Harbor!’ And that would make the crew laugh.”

For most of the past year and a half, Affleck has indeed tried to work irony-free in movies like Boiler Room and Bounce. He reveals that he aspires to the level of craftsmanship of Nicolas Cage and Tom Hanks (“Hanks turned a volleyball into a character. That’s a pretty amazing feat”) but also admits that he still has a way to go. “There’s not a genre that I’m uncomfortable with. The frustration is that I feel I’m capable and confident in a lot of different areas, a jack-of-all-trades, but there’s not one where I feel I’ve found that next degree, that next level of mastery.”

When it comes to his professional life, however, Affleck’s desire for mastery extends beyond his acting career. A stalwart Clinton defender, he confides he fantasizes about running for Congress. He also hopes his Internet start-up will become his ticket to financial independence. “I look at a guy like Robert Redford. He’s got his Sundance Institute. Sometimes he directs. Sometimes he acts. But there’s not any pressure to keep doing it, and acting isn’t his sole means of supporting himself,” Affleck says by way of explaining motivations for moguldom. “I wouldn’t be unhappy to reduce the amount of acting I did and wait until I found something that was so moving or inspiring that I had to do it.”

But one has to wonder if, with the creation of LivePlanet, Affleck is acknowledging on some subliminal level that it’s not enough to be an actor pulling down $10 million a picture. As they say in Hollywood, there’s box office and then there’s bank. There’s being an actor for hire, and then there’s being the puppet master who pulls the strings. Lest we forget, one of the first swains seen squiring Paltrow around town after she and Affleck split was condiments baron Chris Heinz, son of the late U.S. senator and the scion of the ketchup fortune. What lesson should a guy take away from that other than: If you want to rock’n’roll with the Social Gen X Rays, you have to put your Gulfstream where you mouth is.

On September 29, 2000, Affleck met with Steve Jobs at the Apple Campus in Cupertino, California, to persuade him to sponsor a LivePlanet idea called Project Greenlight – a screenwriting conrest in which the winner (subsequently announced as Pete Jones, for his script Stolen Summer) gets $1 million to make a feature for Miramax Films. The timing for the sit-down with Jobs was not particularly propitious. The day before, Apple’s market capitalization had dropped almost 50 percent. Adding insult to injury, Affleck and Damon that week were on the cover of Fortune(headline: WHAT DO THESE GUYS KNOW ABOUT THE INTERNET?)- the same issue Jobs was holding when Affleck entered with his partners, Chris Moore and Sean Bailey.

Affleck and Co. began the meeting by citing Runner, one of LivePlanet’s hotter concepts, a TV reality show that will debut later this year on ABC. In the show, a contestant must trek across the country while viewers try to capture him for prize money. On his journey, the runner must “hit” certain destinations (such as a McDonald’s in Denver) during a prescribed window of time. With each episode the runner is not caught, the bounty on his head – as well as the prize money he can win – increases. (A companion Web site will allow armchair Tommy Lee Joneses to trade leads on the fugitive’s whereabouts.) If the runner is not captured, he wins $1 million.

Though Affleck and his partners had already raised $3 million in start-up funds for LivePlanet from an array of investors including movie executive Joe Roth and Oracle’s Larry Ellison (and would pick up an additional $12 million from other tech investors during the economic doldrums of last fall), they left without Jobs’s financial endorsement. It was one of many learning experiences for the actor on the road to becoming an entrepreneur. In fact, last summer LivePlanet was having a hard time being taken seriously by Apple’s ad agency, let alone the company’s business-development staff. If not for Affleck, however, the LivePlanet brain trust would not have met with Jobs. “When it’s time to get a big meeting, Ben’s not afraid to say, ‘I’ll make that phone call myself right now,’” says Bailey of his partner’s understanding of when and how to spend his celebrity capital. To get the meeting with Jobs, Affleck called Richard Cook, the chairman of the Walt Disney Motion Picture Group (and, as one of Disney’s top film executives, someone who had an interest in keeping the Pearl Harbor star happy). Cook had a good working relationship with Jobs, who is also the CEO of Pixar, the computer-animation company Disney put on the map with Toy Story. Cook called Jobs. Affleck got his meeting.

If Afflek simply wanted to cash in on his fame, however, he could have taken a Shatner huckster gig. To his credit, he dropped acting for six months to study the entrepreneurial world. Some of the cramming was financial: Affleck is the same investor who, several years ago, did not notice immediately when convicted financier-felon Dana Giachetto misappropriated into his own account $20,000 of Affleck’s savings, or when Giachetto invested $200,000 of Affleck’s and Damon’s money without their approval in a risky company called Global Source.

Some of the cramming was sociological: Dave Roux, a venture capitalist with Silver Lake Partners, whose firm invested in LivePlanet, remembers staring out the window of John Bentley’s, a Woodside, California, restaurant as a stretch limo ferrying Affleck and Co. pulled up. In Silicon Valley, Affleck learned he had to labor against the perception that people from Hollywood just want to get paid. “We were worried these guys might be doing this for a hobby,” says Geoff Yang, who has backed companies like Excite and now LivePlanet, “but every time we had a meeting with them and raised some concerns, they would come back and address those concerns and morph their thinking. That’s the mark of a really great entrepreneur.”

The transformation over the past four years from Good Will Hunting to Desperately Seeking Venture Capital, from leading man to business man, has brought a new set of challenges – like remaining true to his roots. For instance, whereas Elvis bought his mama a Cadillac, when it came time for Affleck to buy his mother a car, he opted for a Volvo. Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that the King was from Tupelo, and Affleck hails from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his mother, Chris, an elementary-school teacher, still lives in the house where he and his younger brother, Casey, grew up.

Affleck’s mother raised them after his parents divorced when Ben was 11. His father, Tim, acted and directed with the Theater Company of Boston and held odd jobs around Cambridge before heading west, where he works as a substance-abuse counselor in Indio, California. For most of his adolescence, Ben was estranged from his dad; the two became closer when Ben went to L.A. to break into movies in his late teens. These days, they’ve reached a peace. Of the change from childhood rage to adult acceptance of his old man, Affleck tells me, “Your moral absolutism really begins to crumble. As you get older, you experience some of the grays in the world. Maybe you don’t ever forgive some things, but the things that bother you stop eating you up.” Affleck is still sensitive to how the press has reduced his father to the throwaway one-liner of “the alcoholic dad.” Almost as if to prove otherwise, he makes a point of showing me some of his father’s photography that hangs on his bedroom wall near a vintage photograph Gwyneth Paltrow gave him. One of his father’s images appears at first glance like a bright lunar landscape but, on closer inspection, reveals itself to be cars rusting away in the desert.

The perquisite of his fame that has brought him the most pleasure, however, is helping out his mom, as when he bought her a second home, on Cape Cod. About the car, Affleck adds that he wanted to get her a Lexus SUV with gold rims to cinch her image with her students as ghetto fabulous. “Puffy showed up at Matt’s birthday party, and I made my mom take a picture with Puffy, so the kids in her class already think she’s a goddess.”

A few weeks later, I meet up with Affleck on the Disney lot. He has returned from New York in order to complete additional photography on Pearl Harbor. As we sit in his trailer between setups, Affleck, decked out in an Eagle Squadron uniform, tells me about his latest Internet adventures. When I ask how his desire to be an Internet mogul jibes with his growing up in a pro-union, liberal household, Affleck responds, “My fantasy is that someday I’m independently wealthy enough that I’m not beholden to anybody, so I can run for Congress on the ground that everyday people – be they singers or poets or bankers or lawyers or teachers – should be in government. The government shouldn’t be controlled by a professional class of politicians.” He leans back and taps out a fresh cigarette from his pack. The moment is slightly surreal. Chatting about politics, the McCain-Feingold bill and term limits with a man in uniform, I fell as if I’ve just walked into the antimatter version of Ronald Reagan’s trailer on the Hellcats of the Navy set.

Realizing he is walking a fine line between political and pompous, Affleck cuts the seriousness of the moment with a flash of self-deprecation: “Not to get too Susan Sarandon on you,” he adds. He then takes the wink away and continues,” But part of what I’d get off on would be the oration, the speechmaking and the idea of leading. That’s the other problem in the modern focus-group presidency. Nobody leads anymore.”

On the subject of the modern focus-group presidency, I ask whether he still stands by Bill Clinton. (Affleck has two letters from the former president framed on the wall of his study; the only other politician whose missive hangs on this wall of fame is Senator Edward Kennedy.) Affleck takes a long drag of his cigarette before likening Clinton’s image problems with Monica Lewinsky to Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein’s reputation for bullying filmmakers into cutting their movies to fit his vision. “Harvey makes a lot of mistakes, just like anybody does, but it’s unfair to call him Harvey Scissorhands, especially when any other studio would say, ‘Fuck, we’re not even going to distribute those kinds of movies.’”

As he talks, I don’t know which is more unnerving: that the cochairman of Miramax Films and the former leader of the Free World are somehow equated in Affleck’s mind or that I don’t even blink at the comparison. Affleck goes on to say he finds it childish the way critics of the two are unable to separate their personal excesses from their professional accomplishments. Of Clinton, he asks and answers his own rhetorical question, “Who cares what you think he did with an intern? That’s not what you hired him for. You hired him to run the country.” He also was appalled by the shameless way members of the administration wrote self-serving tell-alls. Suffice it to say, George Stephanopoulos will not be getting the nod to hang at Ben’s loft in Tribeca anytime soon. Of Stephanopoulos’s All Too Human: A Political Education, Affleck offers this thumbnail literary critique: “That guy’s a Judas.”

The former commander in chief is not the only member of the Clinton clan Affleck will defend. He campaigned for New York’s junior senator. And he is a Chelsea supporter. When he spent time with Chelsea on Hillary’s campaign trail, he found her bright and “so aware of the scandal and so nonplussed by it.” Just then m his publicist appears at the door to the trailer. Unfazed, Affleck continues, “She has a shockingly idealistic belief in the power of public policy and government to change people’s lives for the better. In a world full of cynicism, she manages to be optimistic, which I was thunderstruck by. If it were me, I’d be plotting to firebomb Ken Starr’s house.” Figuring this is as good a time as any to surprise him, I pull from my satchel a copy of the Star that ran the cover that linked him with Chelsea. (CHELSEA HAS HOTS FOR BEN AFFLECK! Was the headline inside) Saying he was more amused than annoyed by the article, Affleck shows me how the paper took a podium shot from a political rally and cropped it so it would look as if Chelsea and the “movie hunk” were having a soulful tete-a-tete. He quickly adds, “I don’t know if it’s true that when that story ran, somebody called Hillary and said, ‘They’ve got Ben and Chelsea dating.’ Supposedly, she said, ‘Well it would probably be good for both of them.’ Which I have to assume means it would clean up my act and expose her to the real world.”

A knock on the trailer door, this time from a PA, indicates Affleck is needed back in his fighter plane, so I decide to quickly finish this round of truth or tabloid and check the veracity of the various liaisons in which the gossip columns have named him recently.

“Famke Janssen?” I ask, curious to know whether he has lived out every guy’s fantasy of having a Bond girl.

“She’s somebody I know. We were at dinner with a bunch of other people. Then, by the time it got to the tabloids, we were like dry fucking on the table. But no. Nice girl. Friendly. A sweet person, but, c’mon, she just got divorced. Shoshanna? Same deal. Not dating her.”

And as he buttons up his uniform, I wonder how short a trip it would be from playing the hero of Pearl Harbor to walking the halls of Congress. Affleck has learned from experience that no matter how hard you try, perception outstrips reality; otherwise people would know him as a guy who spends his leisure time shooting hoops, reading, writing, e-mailing and having a beer with his buddies. Instead, he is the crown prince of the bicoastal demimonde, the alpha-male Kabuki figure of our media-drenched society. “I’m envious of my tabloid self,” he says, underscoring the difference between who he is and what he is. Then he slips into character, steps out the door and heads back to the set, ready to make the cinematic world safe for democracy.