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Let's Try It Ben's Way
By Evgenia Peretz, for Vanity Fair (October, 1999)

A college dropout, Ben Affleck found sudden fame in 1997 after he and Matt Damon teamed up as writers and stars of Good Will Hunting. But at 27, even as he is offered up to $12 million a movie and acquires the spoils of success - the new house in the Hollywood Hills, the Tribeca loft, the five motorcycles - Affleck remains, indisputably, a guy. EVGENIA PERETZ gets him taling about the "Matt 'n' Ben Show," his romance with Gwyneth Paltrow, and his upcoming thriller Reindeer Games, for which he literally knocked himself out.

To Ben Affleck, nothing is more meditative than a motorcycle. Today he has selected his red Suzuki GSX1300R Hayabusa, nicknamed "the Blackbird Killer," to take his passenger from Hollywood to the Brentwood branch of Koo Koo Roo, the fast-food chicken chain popular among those on "the Zone Diet." The route he takes? Scenic and madeningly winding Sunset Boulevard - ideal terrain, apparently, for Affleck to do what he finds most uplifting: dodge between SUVs and BMWs, barrel up the lanes at 100 miles an hour, and play a hair-raising little game in which he weaves in and out among a line of cones set uup in a construction zone. Afflck rides a motorcycle everywhere. He owns five of them, including a Yamaha R6 and a BMW R 1100 S.

"I don't think of it as `I'm Bike Guy,'" Affleck says over a barbecued-chicken lunch, for which he shelled out the entire $8.50. "I can't stand those guys who talk to you and all they say is `Gonna put my leathers on and hit the canyons.' I'm not Adrenaline-Junkie Guy."

He may not be Bike Guy or Adrenaline-Junkie Guy, but spend a few minutes with Affleck, who's usually seen around town in baggy army pants, a T-shirt, and a leather jacket, and one thing becomes clear: he sure as hell is a guy. His best friends - and he does have other friends besides Matt Damon - are still his buddies from Cambridge, Massachusetts. They're currently camped out at his new, Mediterranean-style house (undergoing renovation) in the Hollywood Hills. He longs for the time when models looked like Christie Brinkley. He thinks Tom Cruise is a god. He stand behind Hootie. He has been known to forgo sex for video games. (A well in his Tribeca loft - yes, Affleck is bi-coastal - is lined with old-school arcade facorites, including Ms. Pac-Man and Millipede.) And, these days at least, his favorite words seem to be "chump," "weak," and, especially, "jackass." "Jackass," to Affleck, is the worst of insults. A jackass is what he fears he sounds like in profiles like this one.

Indeed, Affleck might well come across as a jackass were it not for his acute self-awarenes (which borders on the neurotic), his willingness to look like a fool, and the fact that he is naturally curious, disarmingly smart, a bit flirtatious, and lampshade-on-his-head funny. It is these very qualities, in fact, that make Affleck irresistible to men and women, and decidedly un-jackassy. These qualities have also made Affleck one of the busiest actors of his generation, a movie star without delusions of grandeur, who has bridged the gap between independent and mainstream films without getting too myuch grief for it. To wit, the 27-year-old Affleck has, in a little more than two years, kissed a boy in Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy, saved mankind from an oncoming asteroid in Armageddon, stolen scenes in Shakespeare In Love, and, along the way, picked up a best-original-screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting, which he famously co-wrote with Damon.

"He's larger than life and yet people can relate to him," says the producer of Affleck's upcoming thriller Reindeer Games, Bob Weinstein, who thinks Affleck is this generation's version of Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson. Or, as Sandra Bullock, his co-star in the recent romantic comedy Forces Of Nature, puts it, "He has that lummox quality. He's not afraid to make a fool of himself, but then he'll turn around and kick your ass."

Even the hard-boiled director John Frankenheimer, who cast Affleck in Reindeer Games - a kind of modern take on the Tat Pack heist movie Ocean's 11 - melts a bit when talking about Affleck. "He has a very winning likable quality about him," says Frankenheimer, who immdeiately thought of Affleck when he first read the script. "I've been doing this for a long time, and I've worked with some of the best and some of the worst. And he's really one of the nicest - really one of the nicest."

To hear Affleck tell it, his success has been sheer luck. "I have a personality that's kind of willing to let myself skate by," he says, "to get B's and not really try." But Reindeer Games, it must be said, provided him with the opportunity to put in a little effort. "I wanted him to like me - I wanted him to think I was good," Affleck says of Frankenheimer, who has directed 34 films, including The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Ronin. "I worked twice as hard just out of fear of having him say `You're a sham. You're a fraud.'"

In his role as Rudy Duncan, a down-on-his-luck ex-con who gets pulled into a casino robbery on Christmas Eve, Affleck, for the first time, is on-sceen in virtually everyscene. For the first time, he gets to engage in some "hard-core-style sex," with co-star Charlize Theron. And - also for the first time - he finds himsel on the receiving end of actualy physical pain. He gets chased by a vindictive gang of truckers. He falls into freezing water. And, throughout, he has his face pummeled by the trucker-in-charge, played by Gary Sinise.

And so it should come as little surprise that, in the midst of shooting, Affleck experienced his first Grade 3 concussion when, while filming a prison brawl, an inmate played by the Washington Redskin's 315-pound defensive tackle, Dana Stubblefield, accidentally slipped and landed on Affleck's head, knocking the actor unconscious. "I don't remember what happened. I saw the tape later, and it's hard to tell. But the noise is kind of unmistakable. I just go `Whoomp! Bang!'" says Affleck, suddenly looking and sounding like an 11-year-old skateboarder relating his latest awesome wipeout. "And mhy head goes `Boom!' Bounces off the concrete. It's like `Whack!' Knocked me so stone-cold out that I don't remember a thing. That was the day I realized I had no chance of playing in the N.F.L." He sounds sincerely disappointed.

Is there anyone in America who doesn't remember exactly when, why, and how Ben Affleck became Ben Affleck? Naturally, he did it in typical guy fashion - alongside Matt Damon, his best friend from down the street since Affleck was eight years old. First, they starred in the sensitive 1997 buddy picture Good Will Hunting, in which Damon played a working-class math savant and Affleck had a smaller but funnier role as his wisecracking sidekick. Then, at the Oscars, they scored major points by bringing their moms as their dates. Before you knew it, Ben 'n' Matt hysteria was full-blown (notwithstanding a vocal minority who considered their whole aw-shucks thing a big, annoying act).

"It was sych a good publicity thing for marketing people," says Damon later at Affleck's house. "We ended up just talking about our friendship, which is really kind of a weird thing to do.... Hey, Ben," he asks, "what do you think about whoring out our friendship for personal gain?"

"At a certain point, some things in your life shouldn't be used to sell movies," Affleck replies. "Hey, I have two sphincters! See my movie!"

In the public mind, Affleck and Damon have become Hollywood's very own Bert and Ernie. Damon can't go on location without people wondering what in the world has happened to Affleck. For Affleck's part, the men renovating his house call him Matt, and he is routinely congratulated for his work in Saving Private Ryan. On Affleck's coffee table in his Tribeca loft sits a recent issue of YM magazine - someone's idea of a joke, Affleck sweats. Ben and Matt are on the cover, promising "Every Juicy Detai!"

Just as their friendship has become a warm and fuzzy American legend, the story behind Good Will Hunting will forever be a part of Hollywood lore: that it all began in 1992 with 40 pages that Damon churned out for a writing class at Harvard; that, after showing it to Affleck, then a struggling actor in L.A., the two worked it into a script; that it was briefly a "NASA thriller"; that they eventually amassed 1, 500 pages; that they sold the script to Castle Rock Productions; that the project was put in turnaround, largely because Castle Rock demanded that the film be shot at a location cheaper than Boston; that the two were given 30 days to find a producer; that, with just 3 days left, Harvey Weinstein rode in like a white knight and purchased it for $1 million.

Weinstein also agreed to shoot the film in Boston, which allowed Affleck and Damon to feel more comfortable doing the Boston accent, which, for obvious reasons, is near and dear to their hearts. "It was the whole reason I did the movie - just to do the accent," Affleck says, not entirely facetiously. Given any opportunity, he will launch into full-voltage riffs about Boston landmarks - for Jordan's furniture commercials ("I think these sofas haffta go!") to the pride surrounding the brutal winters ("Stock up on wahta, it's the Noreasta!"). He endlessly amuses himself with the names of Massachusetts towns ("You don't know me, fucker, but I'm from Hull. Bitch, I'm from Lynn. You don't know Medfield, Come down to Medfield, then we'll see what the fuck's up!")

"The Boston accent is more of an attitude than an accent," Affleck explains. "Underneath everything you say has to be the attitude of: You're an asshole, I know better than you, fuck you." It's an attitude Affleck knows well. Dinner at the Affleck's home, in Central Square, Cambridge, was characterized by heated debate on any topic, including whether to have the television on while eating. At times Affleck's reality wasn't so far fromk the scrappy existence depicted in Good Will Hunting. In addition to Ben and his younger brother, the up-and-coming actor Casey Affleck (who played Ben's weaselly younger brother in Good Will Hunting), there was Affleck's mother, Chris, a public-school teacher, and his father, Tim, an alcoholic and a frequent gambler who worked as a janitor, an electrician, and a bartender. "At the end of the football season," Affleck says of his father's tendency to bet on the games, "there would either be tough times or we'd get a VCR." The parents divorced when he was 12, and Tim is now a counselor in an alcohol-rehab center.

Affleck's neighborhood was largely African-American. So while other white kids from Boston were spending the 80s listening to the Cure and writing Goth poetry, Affleck (then called "Biz" to Damon's "Matty D") was listening to Prince and break-dancing in a nylon Puma sweat suit. "I was a real chump," he says.

Perhaps. But he was still on his way to starting his acting careet. When he was seven, a casting-director friend of his mother's got him a tiny role in the independent movie The Dark End Of The Street. By age eight, after winning a part in the PBS science series The Voyage Of the Mimi and a brief stint as a Burger King pitchboy, the young wiseass was hooked. Even as Affleck and Damon were starring in plays at Cambridge's Rindge and Latin high school, they were plotting their paths to glory. They had a joint bank account, designated strictly for New York excursions (the upcoming auditions and all), and even conducted "business lunches" during which, Damon recalls, "we'd bascially sit over our cheeseburgers and not talk about anything." When Damon went to college at Harvard, little changed. Affleck hung out with Damon's new Ivy League friends and did his part to help drain the beer supply at the Delphic, the frat-boyish "finals club" Damon belonged to.

For Affleck, college held considerably less appeal than it did for Damon. After two months at the University of Vermont, he dropped out - much to the dismay of his mother, who Affleck says, "always wanted me to be a history teacher." And so it was on to Los Angeles, where he and another friend lived in a one-bedroom "shit hole" on Franklin and Cherokee - "the Times Square of L.A.," as Affleck puts it. Between auditions, he spent his time rustling up the $300 rent and generally living a Slacker-style existence in which he spent too much time fielding calls from someone named "Fat Ed." "He'd always call and be like `Yo, this is Fat Ed. Motherfuckers owe me $70 for groceries!'"

Luckily, it wasn't long before Affleck was getting movie work - the 1992 prepschool drama School Ties, Richard Linklater's 1993 Dazed and Confused, and Kevin Smith's embarrassing 1995 homage to New Jersey, Mallrats. Invariably, Affleck would be cast as the lunkhead, perhaps because he had yet to grow into his leading-man looks. Most of his roles required him to beat the crap out of some pencil-necked pre-adolescent. "I'd always go in for the lead," says Affleck, "and they'd be like `You're interesting as Steve. We'd like you to read Bruiser.'"

Smith saw that Affleck had more to offer, and cast him as the main character in Chasing Amy, the 1997 Sundance hit that landed Affleck on the indie-film map. Playing an insecure, flabby, goatee-wearing cartoonist, Affleck got to do some hard-core, scenery-chewing emoting, including a monologue in which he pours his heart out to a yammering lesbian, played by Joey Lauren Adams. The scene was profoundly informed by Affleck's personal life at the time; he was in the process of breaking up with his highschool girlfriend. "I could strongly identify with the feeling of unrequited love," says Affleck. "Basically, I was in love with someone for years and years. And ultimately I felt like she just didn't love me in the same way - which was extremely painful."

Affleck would never admit that he likes to talk about mushy stuff - "It would be very difficult for me to say, `That hurts.'" But get him started on any topic - including love and relationships - and he's virtually impossible to shut up. Nothing sends him on a sentimental roll quite like Gwyneth Paltrow, his girlfriend of a year with thom he split last January.

"Gwyneth has a lot of things that haven't come across in her public image," says Affleck, who is forever defending her against the perception that she's an ice queen. "She's extremely funny, she's extraordinarily smart - not just because she's a 1,600-on-the-S.A.T. girl, but smart in the way that she kind of gets it," says Affleck. "She's actually the funny, down-to-earth fat girl in the beautiful girl's body." He is equally valiant about their well-publicized breakup. "People's stories always seem more interesing and more full of intrigue from the office-gossip perspective," says Affleck, perhaps referring to tabloid accounts that had Paltrow alternately sneaking around with Joe Fiennes, Viggo Mortensen, and ex-boyfriend Brad Pitt. "But when you're on the inside of your own relationship, you know the anwers to those kinds of questions are much more mundane than when it's all shrouded in mystery and infused with conjecture: `I heared he caught her in a menage a trois with a transvestite and two Pygmy lesbians!"

Like a true movie star, Affleck is determined to keep the details of their relationship hidden. Like a true guy, he can't quite help himself from doing the opposite. An amateur photographer (his curret passions are his Widelux camera and his Adobe Photoshop), Affleck keeps several albums of his work in his loft. Amid pictures of Cambridge, his mother, and his brother, are picture of Gwyneth: Gwyneth with flowers in her hair, Gwyneth waking up in the morning, Gwyneth dressed as Romeo on the set of Shakespeare In Love, Gwyneth about to head into Makeup. "Isn't she pretty?" Affleck says wistfully, gazing at the last image. "She's much more beautiful just natural like this than when she's all done up." He's lost in a Gwyneth moment. "I'm getting sad." But he's no sucker, and makes it clear that there will be no weeping here.

Affleck wasn't always so evolved in this department. Think back to the height of the Ben 'n' Matt frenzy, in 1997, when Affleck was daiting Paltrow and Damon was seeing her friend Winona Ryder. "It was so gay," Affleck says in the eight-year-old-girl sense of the word. "If I had gone by the tabloid stories of it, I would have been like `Look at these fuckin' chumps. I just want to smack these people.' And I kind of wanted to smack myself," he admits. "But it's one of those things you kind of can't help. What are you going to say? `Look, dude, don't go out with her. It'll look really weak.'"

Cringe-worthiness wasn't the only issue. Moer than anything, Affleck was concerned about how the tabloid stories would affect those around him - such as his ex-girlfriend. He likenes the tabloids to "the friend who says, `I don't want to get invovled, but I did see Cathy blowin' three guys.'" Equally bothersome are the tabloid items describing Affleck as a rabid Lothario - buying out all the condoms in a 7-Eleven in Wisconsin (a state he's never set foot in), and getting cozy with Mariah Carey, Pamela Anderson, and, most recently, navel-baring pop star Britney Spears. "Britney Spears is 16 years old, O.K.?" says Affleck, rolling his eyes. "Can you dig it?"

Nor has Affleck been exluded from one of Hollywood's favorite games: Guess Who's Gay. His sexuality has been the subject of blind tabloid reports, and Affleck is often told that it's a foregone conclusion in the gay community that he and Damon are in love - a nugget that Affleck seems to get a particular kick out of. According to Hollywood gossip, says Affleck, "not only is every [actor] gay, but somebody has a friend who slept with them. Maybe there are gay people who are in the closet in Hollywood - I'm sure there probably are - but I'm sure they didn't sleep with Henry's friend." As for his own sexuality, Affleck says, "I like to think that if I were gay I would be out. Rupert Everett-style."

Though Affleck has learned to handle the rumors with panache, his sudden fame and formidable wealth (he is now offered up to $12 million per picture) have been a bit harder to reconcile. "It's a tricky moral issue for me," says Affleck. "[Sometimes] I feel that maybe I should just keep $50,000 and give everything [else] away." His healty Cambridge-liberal guilt is hard to miss. Even Frankenheimer, who briefly met Affleck's mother, couldn't help but notice that Affleck's "childhood was well formed and that he grew up with the right values." On the other had, Affleck is too smart to pretend that he doesn't enjoy "priming the pump." "I once read an interview with a young actor who was saying, `I'd like to live in a country house - the kind that Henry Miller lived in," says Affleck. "And I always thought, I want to live in the hous ehtat Reggie Miller lived in."

True to his guy-with-a-conscience form, Affleck has found himself somewhere in the middle: Sure, there are the two homes, the five motorcycles, the marble-bathroom, the four computers, and the wo cars (a Chevy Malibu and a '69 Cadillac Sedan DeVille, which he shares with his brother). But he also gives a klot of his money to charity and to "needy individuals, whom I seem to come across with increasing regularity," has recently purchased a house for his mother, and, let it not be forgotten, often eats lunch at Koo Koo Roo. Yes, he implies, on occasion his behavior veers toward the prima donna-ish - he's been known to snub the press at movie premieres. But when he complains about anything, he feels "rachky," and when he catches himself trying to escape conversations with aggressive fans - by, say, claiming he needs to "go to the bathroom" - he feels, well, "shitty."

"Hey, Ben!" says a grizzled Koo Koo Roo patron who, in his full biker regalia resembles a 70s-era Hell's Angel. Instead of running to the rest room, Affleck stands, bear-hugs the man, and launches into a long discussion about teeth. The interloper, you see, is not a Hell's Angel at all; he's Affleck's dentist, Dr. Stan Goldman, and Dr. Stan Goldman, like almost everyone who has crossed Affleck's path, is a serious fan.

"Love this dude," Affleck says after Dr. Goldman congratulates him for his work in Shakespeare In Love, bums a Cmael Light, and takes off on his Harley. "I got sent to him by Disney when we were doing Armageddon. Fixed my tooth. My tooth was cracked and fucked up."

It the $100 million Jerry Bruckheimer asteroid juggernaught marked the moment when Affleck began worrying about his teeth (the whole set looks better than it used to), it was also he event that propelled Affleck from indie boy to action star - and spawned the inevitable talk about "selling out." It is an accusation that Affleck finds preposterous. "How many opportunities do you have to go onto the space shuttle? To go into neutral-buoyancy laboratory?" he says. For one thing, Affleck was raised on Star Wars. For another, he realizes that "just because a movie's independent doesn't mean it's good." Yes, he remains involved in several upcoming low-vudget projects (Kevin Smith's beleaguered religious send-up Dogma, Ben Younger's Wall Street drama The Boiler Room, Billy ob Thonrton's southern comedy Daddy and Them, and Jay Lacopo's The Third Wheel, a romantic comedy about a date gone haywire, which he and Damon are producing). But nothing lights up Affleck's bullshit meter like a lousy art-house film with a pretentious title. "I'm always like 1Yecch," Affleck says, cringing. "You know, Manny and Chuck with the Strawberries, or whatever it is. I want to see Enemy of the State.

Which is not to say that Affleck plans to spend his careet spraying bullets into gangs of international terrorists or delivering Bruce Willis-type lines such as "Yippee Kai-Yay!" with a straight face. In Affleck's oppinion, there's nothing so inane as "the best there is" movies. "[Hollywood] can't make a movie unless the lead guy's the best so-and so," says Affleck, launching into testosterone-pumped movie-trailer voice. "It's always like `The best valet parker there ever was! And now ge's back for one... big... party!'"

If anything has characterized Affleck's role choices, it's the instinct to keep looking for what's different. "his wheels are constantly turning," Sandra Bullock says. "I don't think he can turn his head off."

And so Affleck, burned out on Armageddon's "deep-core drilling," chose to do Shakespeare In Love, despite fears that the cast was "going to be a bunch of R.S.C. knighted British people who were going to hate me and make fun of me." Next was Forces Of Nature, which touched a nerve. "I identified with that dilemma, that fear of commitment," Affleck says of his character, a conservative groom-to-be who questions everything when he meets the free-spirited Bullock. On a few occasions, Affleck even rewrote dialogue in hopes of making the scenes more honest. "He'd brainstorm, and he'd get quiet for 20 minutes," Bullock recalls, "and we'd know what that meant. He was writing 12 pages of dialogue."

I wished they had used more of my stuff," Affleck admitts. "In retrospect, I think that movie would have been better served to be edgier.... If [Bullock's character] had been taling about sex toys," says Affleck, "that would have freaked this guy out, and he would have been made uncomfortable."

If Affleck is looking for a little discomfort, now is his moment. The new film Dogma - in which Affleck and Damon play angels with a penchant for automatic weapons - has come under attack by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which thinks the film ridicules the church. (Affleck views the controversy as, in essense, "three guys who had this little jury-rigged operation in Duluth who were trying to get their names in the papers.")

More emotional turbulence may be ahead for Affleck, as he begins shooting Don Roos's romance Bounce, opposite Gwyneth Paltrow. And with Reindeer Games, the world will see what Affleck looks like as a victim. "I saw him as a throwback protagonist," Affleck sats of his most recent character. "The hard-luck protagonist who doesn't look good all the time, who's constantly getting shit on, and who has the opporutnity for a wry loser's irony. He kind of reminded me of my dad," he says. "Not that my dad's a loser, but [he has] that though-luck sense of humor.

And this it appears that Affleck may be nearing the end of guy territory and approaching manhood, a secure place to utilize some of the skills he's picked up from various directors - directing, alas, is yet another target Affleck has set his sights on - and to explore the jackassery that he fears so intensely. Among the many issue that Affleck is now confronting are, he explains, a litmited capacity for compromise and a lack of willingness to put his energy into a romantic relationship. "The reason I'm single," Affleck says, "is because I woundn't want to be with anybody right now who would be willing to be with me."

And, just for a moment, Ben Affleck sounds a little like Woody Allen. But only a little.