When Ben Affleck began his first year of high school at the 2,700-student Cambridge Rindge and Latin in Massachusetts, he was five-foot-two and scared to death. Then, as a junior, he experienced a growth spurt so sharp it made his legs and arms ache, and by year's end, he stood a semistrapping six-two. "People would be like, 'Hey, tall guy,' and I would be like, 'Who?" Affleck told me once. "I always thought of myself as the small guy."
Just under four years ago, the outsize success of Good Will Hunting did for Affleck's careet what hormones had done for his body, making it unexpectedly, abruptly large, even as he retained his small-guy sense of himself. With his rugged looks, a devoted young female fan base, and (it's said) an eighty-figure asking price, at the age of 28 Affleck is now full-fledged leading man, blowing up asteroids in Armageddon, running off with Sandra Bullock in Forces Of Nature, and playing rough with Charlize Theron in Reindeer Games. Meanwhile, he has nourished his indie soul with a supporting performance in Shakespeare In Love, a cameo in Boiler Room, and a romp through the resolutely noncommercial Dogma. The idea, of course, is that by burnishing his bankability in the larger-than-life movies Affleck can use his clout at the box office to get edgier scripts into production.
Now, Hollywood wants to see that clout at work and get some questions answered. If Affleck's an action star, can he nail down a male audience? If he's a heartthrob, will his estrogen brigade follow him into riskier cinematic territory? And if he's an actor's actor, will he take on the really tough roles? Will he be Tom Cruise, the guy with universal appeal who can get anything made, or Alec Baldwin, the has-all-the-tools acor (and good pal of Affleck's) who goes his own way?
Two of the movies he'll appear in next - both of which he was working on in late July - will go a long way toward settling those questions. First up is Miramax's Bounce, a romantic drama from Don Roos (The Opposite Of Sex), whose script offers Affleck the kind of emotional complexity he hasn't had on-screen since Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy. (It also costars Gwyneth Paltrow, which will no doubt heighten ongoing speculation that the two have rekindled the romantic relationship they ended mutually in January of '99. They are this close but, Affleck says, just pals.) Affleck fits snugly into the role of the assholic adman Buddy, whose eagerness to bed a toothsome blonde (Natasha Henstridge) he's picked up in a bar at O'Hare leads him to hand over his return ticket to L.A. to a heartsick husband named Greg (Tony Goldwyn) whom he's just met that day. The plane crashes, plunging Greg's wife Abby (Paltrow) into a milasma of grief. Buddy is spared and spirals down into drink and casual female companionship. Only after Buddy completes rehab does he begin his expiating search for Abby.
Affleck feels unequivocally that Bounce features his riskiest and best work to date. "If you don't like my performance in this move," he offers, "then you will neer like me or believe me in any movie, and probably should never go see another movie I do." But despite the celebrity of its leads, no one expects Bounce - least of all Alffeck - to be a commercial slam-dunk. It lacks, as he says, "any obvious Runaway Bride-esque appeal beyond the merits of the execution.
This is an observation that, at least in part, explains his other project: next summer's Pearl Harbor from Buena Vista. the $135 million-and-counting epic is the latest from Affleck's fellow Armageddon actioneers, director Michael Bay and procuder Jerry Bruckheimer. Lured, he says, by a script polished by Braveheart's Randall Wallace, Affleck has hopes that Pearl Harbor will be summer 2001's middlebrow "big-wave" hit - in the manner of The Perfect Storm - and thereby enhance his ability to get more Bounce-like fare into the pipeline. In fact, Affleck trusts in Pearl Harbor so much that he waived his fee. Sure, he's got an offer to take over Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan franchise, but what kind of actor waives his fee on a Jerry Bruckheimer picture? "You do a big-wave movie and take no money - you're either colossally stupid, or you really believe in it," he says.
Stupid he is not. And for that he gives his mother, Chris Boldt, full credit. Boldt grew up on New York's Upper East Side, was a Mississippi Freedom Rider while a student at Radcliffe, and met Ben's father Timothy while she was teaching in Berkeley; there she gave birth to Benjamin Geza Affleck. The family moved to Massachusetts, where his younger brother Casey (who's also an actor) was born, ultimately settling in Cambridge. Under his mother's tutelage, Ben grew up gregarious, voluble, left-of-center, and perpetually interested in everything. Now, as an adult, he assiduously reads every newspaper and news magazine he can get his hands on, watches Headline News in his trailer, scanes the Internet, and can deliver detailed opinions on everything from Dick Cheney to the music file-swapping website Napster. A professional actor from the age of eight, Affleck bolted the University of Vermont in 1990 after one semester and moved to Hollywood.
Once there, he connected with his father, whose drinking during Ben's adolescence had divided the family, but whose rehab was rock solid. He also kept up with an old pal from the neighborhood, Matt Damon. Catching on that the only thing harder than finding work as an actor was finding work as a waiter, Affleck managed to eke out a living, pulling in 20 grand for a Danielle Steele TV movie, then working in two ensemble pictures that years later would be acknowledged as launching pads for a host of young actors: 1992's School Ties (Damon, Chris O'Donnell, Brendan Fraser) and '93's Dazed and Confused (Matthew McConaughey, Jason London, Joey Lauren Adams, Parker Posey). In the face of a sea of rejections, Affleck and Damon decided to write their own script, a Boston-based drama that became Good Will Hunting. Its fantastic voyage from page to soundstage was indie-Hollywood legend even before the picture was released, and the film ultimately grossed more than $100 million and won its screenwriters the Academy Award.
Fueled by Diet Cokes and Camel Lights throughout our conversations - one over dinner in Houston, the other between takes in L.A. - Affleck remained upbeate and high-spirited, even as he discussed in some detail a few black months in the middle of last year when he felt his life going off the rails.
Talk: For a guy who's pretty open and accessible, you can really generate the hot rumors.
Affleck: When I broke up with Gwyneth, somebody came to her - a friend of hers, a person I actually like - and said, "Well, I feel really bad telling you this, but I know people in the gay community who have slept with Ben." This was not a rumor that was being passed on, this was fact: "I hate to break it to you, but he's been sampling the kielbasa out there." [laughter] And luckily, if you know me, that is the one thing that is outside the parameters of what's believable, and so I was kind of off the hook, because I was able to say, "You know me - do you see how ridiculous this is?"
And I'm sure this guy really did hear it from somebody who heard it from someone who made it up. They said that about Brad Pitt, they said that about Leonardo DiCaprio - they said it about me and Matt! [laughs] I felt like we were in good company.
Talk: You did sound a little more horrified when you were linked to Britney Spears, who's a big fan or yours. "She's 16!" I think is what yousaid. Well, just for the record, she's since turned 18; she's now past the age of consent.
Affleck: Don't think i didn't have that date marked on my calendar! [laughter] Now I'm really going to get myself in trouble. I always do. I say I'm going to be really contained and really close-to-the-vest, and now I'm like, "I've got Britney Spears's 18th birthday marked on my calendar." [laughter]
Talk: All right, then. So how did you wind up doing Bounce?
Affleck: Through Gwyneth. When she first read it we'd just broken up, so things were a little strained. We were still trying to figure out how to be friends. She said,"Listen, I read this and it struck me that you should do it." Initially, I thought, "Oh, the characters are older, maybe I'm too young,' and she just said "You'll be great."
I think she knew it was something I would repsond to. Then it occurred to me that maybe she set the whole thing up so that I could have the opportunity to play this part. Not just because it would be good for my career, but because it would give me a new sense of perspective by asking me to investigate certain psychological issues. I'm not sure f she would admit to that, but I believe it. And I was really touched. That's what eventually allowed us to be friends.
Talk: What was that insight into you? You viewed yourself as being the jerk at the beginning and could redeem youself?
Affleck: It's not quite so literal. Part of it was about seeing hat an important part of life and growth as an adult is to look at youself in a critical and honest way, and recognize the things you're doing that are hurtful to you and to others. And part of it is trying to make some peace with that and trying to be a better person without lying to yourself.
Those were the parallels. I'd come out of a really crazy time in my life where everything seemed very out of control. I mean, this isn't the euphemism for a three-week stint at Hazelden or something. It's that my life changed so much so quickly that I lost any sense of who exactly I was. You struggle and you've got this shitheap car and this rathole apartment, and you think, "If I could just fix this, I'd be okay." Then you can afford a new car and a nicer place, and what you're left with is the realization that that actually wasn't your problem. I made some poor choices in terms of the direction I took in my life.
Talk: You experienced the kind of success that offers anyone a wide array of opportunities.
Affleck: Sure, there's certainly that.
Talk: Women and drink.
Affleck: Yeah. Women, drink, and a kind of cavalier attitude toward others and what's important. There aren't even any specific details I could give you, other than the fact that I wasn't really happy. I didn't feel good about who I was or what I was doing, and by all indicators I should have been. I mean, I was happy about the success of Good Will Hunting, but it wasn't as simple as just not being happy. Yeah, I'm glad I've achieved the things that I've achieved... but I've also been really unhappy with a lot of things in my life, particularly last year between April and August.
Talk: What was going on?
Affleck: I had broken up with Gwyneth, and we'd been together since October of '97. I felt very adrift. I can feel this pressure to vaildate people's fantasy of what my life is life. People want to live vicariously, so I get this all the time: "Hey, how about the chicks?" And I tend to go, "Yeah, yeah, it's great" and the truth is, that would have been great if all of this had happened when I was 19. But at the time I thought, The thing to do is to be That Guy. So I thought, Okay, I'll go to these parties. I'll try to embrace this life people think I have: Fun Guy, that whole thing. And I found myself even more miserable. There's nothing quite so sexy or individualist to say except that I switched through a whole set of different personalities trying to find one that would fit. And then I just became progressively unhappy and lonely. I'd let relationships that were important to me lapse...
Talk: What hoisted you out?
Affleck: I didn't have any epiphany. I didn't turn to Jesus. I didn't...
Talk: Wake up next to the wrong person?
Affleck: A friend of mine calls it the Mud Tutrle Blues. I was like, "Why the Mud Turtle Blues?" He goes, "Because you wake up and you are as low as you can possibly be." And a lot of people will accommodate you: "Oh, it's great, you should live that way." You live like a rock star. It's really just kind of like living like a drunk. Living like somebody who is not thinking about consequences enough, or who doesn't have any idea who they are.
Talk: So did you wind up getting closer to the people who mattered to you after all this?
Affleck: I think so, yeah. I started trying. Sometimes it means confronting somebody: "Look, I know you've been angry at me and maybe I have been unreliable in some ways, and maybe I have been flaky, and maybe I have rationalized behavior that I shouldn't have, and..."
Talk: Whom did you say that to?
Affleck: A couple of people, a couple of people. People who would see my mentioning them by name as a demonstration of exactly the kind of thing they got pissed off at me for to begin with.
Talk: Duly noted.
Affleck: People whom it wasn't easy to say it to. You have to earn trust.
Talk: Wasn't all the misbehavior a long time coming? Somewhat deserved?
Affleck: For three years I was this struggling actor trying to get Good Will Hunting made, do you know what I mean? Every conversation: "How is that movie going that you guys wrote?" I'd have some long story about development or this or that, and all I could think was, I'll just go work as hard as I can. I'll go over the scenes. I'll do more researh. I'll watch more movies. I'll read more books. I'll think harder about it and do all this work and then maybe I'll get somebody to say yes, somebody to validate this, someone to say, "You're not crazy. Yes, I recognize what you're doing."
Talk: A friend of mine and I were trying to come up with a really inflammatory question to ask you. So [tongue in cheek] how did you get Matt to stop taking so much credit for having written Good Will Hunting?
Affleck: [laughing] That's not inflammatory. That's just his nature. Actually, Matt's pretty good about that. We have actually not had a lot of difficulty. He almost felt bad, because at the time I took the whole writer thing very seriously. In retrospect, if I'd known then what I know now, I would have expanded the part that I played. Matt had a bigger part in School Ties and he had been a lead in Geronimo. Both movies totally bombed, and nobody was offering him any parts, but you could make the case that he was the actor. I'd only had supporting roles, and there wasn't a lot of room [in the script] for us both to star, especially beause we needed to have a big name [Robin Williams] in order to get it made. So I felt like, Well, okay, we'll cut my scenes out.
But it became a story that was very much abuot this one kid, so all this attention wetn to Matt, initially. And I thought, Did I just stupidly screw myself out of this like a complete idiot? Am I that stupid?
Talk: You slept with the writer.
Affleck: Yeah, exactly. I really did sleep with the writer. People looked at me like, Are you crazy?
Talk: I get the feeling that Matt wories that all his success might be taken away from him.
Affleck: I think we're both worried it'll be taken away from us, but he's much more conservative than I am. I probably err too much to the side of "I have Britney Spears's 18th birthday on my calendar." I remember some article about me came out when we were doing Armageddon and Bruce [Willis] said, "Well, enjoy it, because once there's nothing else good to write about you, the only thing left to write is bad." And I thought, That's just happened to him.
but I thjink Matt errs too much to the side of being cautious. Matt is like, "I won't say anything, and I won't do anything, so that I can't get hurt."
Affleck: Matt's always talking about - well, we call him International Superstar Matt Damon, because Matt's very shy about the idea that he's in movies. The one time he ever tried using [his celebrity], he was with his brother and his dad and they had to get in somewhere and the place was closed. He was banginf on the glass, saying, "I just want to get in there for five minutes." He had a few drinks in him. The guy [inside] is staring at him, and he's like, "Could you please let me in? I'm international superstar Matt Damon!" They guy was like, [definitively] "We're closed. We are closed ." [laughter] You never want to assume that somebody knows who you are, for fear that you'll be mortifired when they go, "Who?"
Talk: You and Matt also invested money together, right? With the now-notorious Dana Giacchetto's Cassandra Group. Did you lose a chuck of change?
Affleck: The truth is, no, he was a money manager, and the business manager that I was with was saying, "This guy is supposed to be really good. I'm going to give him a little bit of money," and he gave him a little bit of money, and he was doing really well. Then Matt and I became uncomfortable with the way in which he seemed to want to publicize himself - the whole Hollywoodness of it. I also started to look into some of the companies that he had investments in and had to wonder - I mean, Jay Moloney was running one, and I knew that Jay was a trouble guy, so it seemed to me to be a very tenuous thing. So we took our money out of there almost a year to the day before he got indicted or whatever he did. The kicker was that our names were listed in Variety as prinipal investors in this company, and that was not true.
Talk: What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about you?
Affleck: This idea that I'm cocky. I'm always described as "cocksure" or "with a swagger," and that bears no resemblance to who I feel like inside. I feel haunted and plagued by insecurity, and I feel afraid a lot of the time, and I oftentimes wish I were more That Guy; I wish I were more fearless. I think it would help me in a lot of ways.
And the idea that I'm this frat guy is odd, because I only went to college for one semester. I was never in a fraternity. It speaks of a kind of upper-class upbringing that I didn't have. I think what they mean is, "This guy is a party guy" and he doesn't give a shit. And I would imagine that that interpretation of me has been somewhat damaging to me professionally, jus because I wouldn't want to work with somebody who I thought didn't take it seriously.
Talk: See I think when they say Frat Guy, what they're really saying is U.S. Male, in a culture right now where most of the actors under 30 have a kind of androgyny to them, or a softness. You come off as a more knid of straight-ahead man.
Affleck: That I have no problem with. I think a lot of that waif thing is just poseurism - a way of putting something between you and the rest of the world. Physically, no one has ever accused me of being either waify or androgynous, but I'm not good-looking enough to suffer from the leading man disease.
Talk: The leading man disease?
Affleck: If you're so good-looking that it's all anybody ever talks about, you'll shave your head and have lice and make yourself as ugly as possible so people will look at your work.
Talk: And they still tell you about how unpopular they were in high school.
Affleck: It's like the supermodel thing: "I was gawky. I looked like a duck." Michelle Pfeiffer: There wasn't a day in your life you looked like a duck. You have been dropdead, smokin' fine since the day you came out of the womb. The doctor was like, "heavens. Make suer to follow up on this down the road." [laughs]
Talk: Speaking of babies, Pearl Harbor features lots of young actors. Is it strange to be the old guy on the show?
Affleck: This movie makes me feel like I'm 100 years old, like I walked through the set of the WB or something. People look at me like, "Well, you've done this before." I'm like, "What are you talking about?"
Talk: But when you were 16, weren't you auditioning for The New Mickey Mouse Club? I think it was right after you'd been in hat Sam Kinison movie that got shut down.
Affleck: That was all I have to pimp! "Well, I was in a movie. Now it looks like I'm going to be a fucking Mouseketeer."
Talk: No shortage of humiliating experiences, I guess.
Affleck: I remember I got called for a movie called To Live and Drive in L.A., which was ultimately called License to Drive.
Talk: The Corey Haim-Corey Feldman movie! Wasn't Heather Graham in that also?
Affleck: Heather Graham was in that. I was probably 16 or 17. I remember that audition to this day. I was the scene where he finally gets his license, and he's supposed to sing, "I'm a free man" to the tune of "Soul Man." [laughs] And if you can imagine a more humiliating thing to be asked to do. I really challenge you to put it forth. I went in there and they're like, "Okay, go ahead." I literally got one bar into it, and they're like, "Thank you, thanks so much, thanks," I'd spent all night working on my "Free Man" song!
Talk: Your options have really changed in 10 years. Are you going to play Jack Ryan in The Sum Of All Fears?
Affleck: It's not set in stone, but I'm negotiating to do it. I'm not sure whether or not Philip Noyce wants to return to direct; I'm sure he's going to talk to Harrison [Ford] about that. I mean, before I commit to do the movie, that's something that I'm going to do: call him up and - I don[t know if I can get his homenumber - but I wouldn't do it without his blessing. I'm as big a fan of those movies as anyone else, although I'm also a huge fan of the one Alec [Baldwin] did with Sean Connery. I was just talking to [Alec] today: He's in Pearl Harbor, so he was going, "yeah, you've got to do it, you've got to do it." It's a great role, and what I think is really great about it is that what drives those stories is that character[s intelligence. As opposed to so many of them where he's their best sharpshooter or their strongest guy. Plus [Excitedly] I get to go to CIA headquarters in Langley. It is kind of the belly of the beast, but it seems like it's be a facinating trip.
Talk: I;m sure they're a lot of fun there.
Affleck: Oh, I'm sure that gang is a barrel of laughs: "So should I pretend not to know you if I see you in the streets of Yemen?"
Talk: Is there stuff you turned down that you wish you hadn't?
Affleck: The movies that I have passed on that have come out, and I go, "Damn it, it turned out really well."
Talk: Such as...?
Affleck: [Shaking head no] It's just rude to the other actors, because then it looks like - you know. I once overheard a very distinguished and well-known actress giving advice to a younger actress about how to conduct herself, and she said, "Never talk about the roles you passed on or who is well-hung." [Laughter] Gwyneth did that once, mentioned a movie she passed on in a conversation like this one. She got such a rash of shit for it.
Talk: What's it like acting in scenes opposite somebody with whom you have so much history?
Affleck: You know, it's interesting. My mome asked me the same questions. She knows me pretty well. She doesn't ask me questions that are too far afield. And she said, "Well, what is that like?"
It was a little bit awkward because we weren't together [anymore]. Buut no more or less awkward than with somebody you don't know at all, who's sort of straddling you with some tiny pad shielding her private parts from yours. It's really helpful, but not in the way that you think, not in a literal way. To be doing a scene in a movie- whether it's a love scene or anything else - has much more in common with another scene in a movie than it does with the time you actually had sex. You're not thinking, "Oh, this is just like the time we really did kiss each other." It doesn't work that way. Stuff that's directly out of your life just wouldn't work in the movie. It's hard to just kind of throw in, "Hey, you be the parole officer, and I'll be the convict." [laughs]
Talk: Sometimes when I'm watching married couples doing a love scene, I'll think, "Oh, he must like to do that."
Affleck: Maybe if it's like a certain neck kiss or whatever, you're probably seeing it. I think the problem with married couples is that you're seeing the old 1-2-3, Hike! Do you know what I mean? [laughter] Like it's a rerun: "Oh, yeah, I remember that episode of Cheers."
Just knowing actors, I would think their sex lives are much weirder than anything they could put on-screen. Actors tend to have - and I do exempt myself from this - some strange sexual proclivities. Also I think actors would be too insecure to do their real thing, whatever it is.
Talk: Hmm. Well, it seems as if two actors always struggle to keep love alive.
Affleck: It's hard. Inevitably, whatever example you point to: "You see, it can work," that couple breaks up. Even though I don't know them at all, I was really heartbroken to see Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid split up. It's just another blow to the ever-dwindling list of actors who've managed to have lifelong, monogamous relationships.
Being in the position that I'm in now, I tend to look at a lot of these older actors and say, Well, where are their lives now? Who do you want to be life? So many of them just seem so unhappy and so fucked up: confused or lost or bitter or hateful or venomous or in agony. None of them are happy. And you think, God, I don't want that life. But, you know, it's hard for everybody. I mean, my parents weren't actors. They couldn't make their marriage work.
Talk: Well, you seem to have a pretty chummy thing going with Don roos. maybe that's the answer to everything.
Affleck: [laughing] We were taling about what it is that makes a movie work, and Matt was like, "I don't know, maybe it's just about working with a gay director." Of course, on the set, Gwyneth was constantly complaining that she felt underappreciated. She was like, "God, I've never been on a movie set where the director paid less attention to me." And I'm like, "All right, now how do you like it?" When I first met her, I'd walk into a room and be invisible, literally invisible. It was astonishing o me the way people would look right past me. I think it was probably good for Gwyneth to finally have a little taste of that. [laughs]
Talk: But you're not exactly lounging in obscurity. Didn't you make a trip to the White House?
Affleck: Camp David. We went to screen Good Will Hunting and I was sitting directly behind the president of the United States! And I realized suddenly that a certain monologue was going to come up [on-screen]: "I might as well club a baby seal and hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard - Christ, I could be elected president" is how the monologue ends, and when I remembered it was coming I was filled with panic. So the only thing I could think of to do was to start laughing really loud before the punch line about the president, to act as if I was just finding it funny for the first time and hope he wouldn't hear it!
Talk: What did he think?
Affleck: Said he liked it. He was really sweet, actually, really kind. It was a week or two before the Lewinsky scandal broke, and the thing that I was most struck by, even then, was the degree to which he and his wife seemed to genuinely love each other and enjoy each other's company. They were very affectionate - and like, in the dark, watching the movie. I mean, no need to be, nobody was [from the] press. It was just me, Matt, Gus Van Sant, and Harvey Weinstein. You know what I mean? And Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger both liked the movie.
Talk: Can't keep those two away. Get out the limbo pole and start doing the Jello-O shots.
Affleck: [laughing] It got crazy, I'll tell you that.