From the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting to the critically panned Gigli, Ben Affleck's decades in acting have been a rollercoaster, but recently his career and private life have reached new heights. John Hiscock meets him ahead of the UAE release of State Of Play.
Ben Affleck had just come out of prison when I met him in a hotel in Beverly Hills. His temporary incarceration, he quickly explained, was all in the name of research for his next foray into directing, which delves into the gritty underworld of Boston, where he grew up. "I've been doing a lot of research with the FBI and going to prisons and talking to guys in jail and guys who've been released and it's pretty interesting," he says, grinning broadly and looking extremely pleased with himself. He has reason to feel that way. Life is good for Affleck: his wife, the actress Jennifer Garner, recently gave birth to their second daughter and he has a new film, the political thriller State Of Play, to be released here next week.
The boyish-looking actor-writer-director sitting across from me looks little different from the exuberant, baby-faced Ben whom I first met more than 10 years ago, just before the release of Good Will Hunting, the film that marked his breakthrough into the big time and earned him and his boyhood pal Matt Damon an Oscar for the screenplay. But appearances are deceptive and behind the gleaming smile and chiselled looks is a new, mature and self-aware Ben Affleck, someone who can look back on, discuss and openly regret the mistakes and mis-steps that led to his fall from grace - an insightful recapitulation rare in the egocentric world of filmmaking.
Certainly, his transgressions would have been difficult to hide, conducted as they were in the glare of publicity that surrounded him and his seemingly overnight ascent to stardom in tandem with Damon. His was the great Hollywood story, up there with the discovery of Lana Turner at Schwab's Drugstore. Good Will Hunting earned nine Oscar nominations and, in the subsequent stampede for their talents, Affleck, then aged 25, initially left the more understated Damon behind in terms of popularity. He starred in blockbusters such as Armageddon and Pearl Harbor and found himself ranked among the world's biggest film stars.
Poorly equipped to deal with the heady upheaval, he reacted accordingly. His love life made tabloid headlines, as did accounts of his gambling, drinking and other excesses. He seemed to be heading for self-destruction, like numerous other overindulged, out-of-their-depth stars before him. "I was a young kid," he says now. "I was spinning around out of control. I was overwhelmed by the sudden shift in my life."
After a much-publicised romance with the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, his personal life became increasingly disordered and he checked himself into a rehabilitation clinic for alcohol abuse. Things did not get a lot better after his release. His judgment seemed to disappear, and movies such as Bounce, Daddy And Them, The Third Wheel, Paycheck, Jersey Girl, Surviving Christmas and Man About Town sent his reputation diving and threatened to relegate him to B-list status. Then there was his turbulent romance with Jennifer Lopez, which sparked another explosion of media hysteria and, to his mortification, earned the couple the joint sobriquet "Bennifer".
The feeding frenzy of media scrutiny and derision peaked when they appeared together in 2003's Gigli, from the Scent Of A Woman director Martin Brest. It received such a critical drubbing that it affected Affleck's relationship with Lopez and resulted in the postponement and subsequent abandonment of their planned September 2003 wedding. He then disappeared from the spotlight, explaining to an interviewer later: "I took a year off. I needed time to get my head straight and figure out if I even wanted to work in this business anymore. I was tired of being lied about and taken advantage of. I was really disgusted."
That tumultuous chapter of his life raises the obvious question: how could someone so intelligent and thoughtful have made such abysmal choices, both personally and professionally? "It was probably ill-advised," he acknowledges now. "It was a little bit crazy and overwhelming, but one of the things I learnt is that life goes on, and when things seem crazy and difficult and it seems like it's just one damn thing after another, it eventually passes.
"I've done things I'm glad I did, and other things that I deeply, deeply regret. There were some things that I wish people knew more about and other things I wish they knew less about. For me, maturity has been a product of trial and error. You learn things about yourself and experience things that give you a deeper, resonate sense of satisfaction." The Ben Affleck of today is a man who is comfortable and at ease with himself. Sipping coffee and dressed in jeans with a shirt over a T-shirt, he is relaxed and affable, happy to talk freely about subjects other actors would shun.
It is hard to believe from his handsome, wrinkle-free looks, but he has been a professional actor for almost 30 years, appearing in more than 40 films, and he bears the attendant emotional scars of a life lived mainly in the public eye. He was raised in Boston, where his mother was a schoolteacher and his alcoholic father dabbled with the local theatre company while earning a living as a bartender and caretaker, among other jobs. His parents divorced when he was 12, and he and his younger brother Casey were raised by their mother. As a child, Ben began appearing in television adverts, and when he was eight years old he was cast in The Voyage Of The Mimi, a television show filmed aboard a whaling ship that gave him his first taste of the exotic life of an actor on location.
"That was my first pay cheque," he recalls. "My mother let me spend some of it on comics, and she put some of it in an account that probably went to pay for summer camp." He made his feature film debut in 1992's School Ties, which also featured his pal from childhood, Matt Damon, and he went on to appear in several more movies set in high school. However, neither he nor Damon were happy with the roles they were being offered so they decided to write their own. Within a year they had completed Good Will Hunting, about a troubled mathematics genius, and Affleck had embarked on the hedonistic, havoc-wreaking chapter of his Hollywood life.
"I've certainly made mistakes but I'm really lucky to be where I am now and extremely blessed," he says reflectively. "Looking at it in that larger context, it's easier to absorb the things that I feel are disappointing. The only thing that really, really disappoints me is when I feel like I should have known better. That's what kills me. Anything else I can live with. You know what I mean? The ones where you just go, 'Ahh, why did I do that? I knew that was a mistake!' Other than that, on balance, I'm pretty good."
Much of his current feeling of wellbeing stems from his marriage to Jennifer Garner, whom he met in 2002 when they were filming the comic book-based adventure Daredevil. Although Affleck was generally considered miscast and the movie did not perform well enough to spawn the expected sequels - it was clobbered at the box-office by SpiderMan - the two actors hit it off and, when the Bennifer affair finally imploded, they began a low-profile romance.
They were married in June 2005 and their daughter, Violet Anne, was born six months later. Another daughter, Seraphina Rose, was born in January this year. Like any proud husband and father, Affleck talks in superlatives when discussing his family. He appears to be on the verge of pulling out family photographs to share. "I have tremendous respect for my wife, and as an artist and as a person she is just spectacular," he says. "She is one of the finest people I know. She has a tremendous sense of decency, is supremely intelligent, and she has extraordinary ethics. She's an incredible mother and I adore her.
"Being a father is the most important thing that has ever happened to me and I suspect ever will. My daughters are extraordinary and it has kind of recalibrated my perspective on the world. "I love being a father. It has made me think more seriously and thoroughly about the world and what kind of role I have in it: you know, the kind of cliché about what sort of place my daughters grow up in. It's made me think very specifically about my own behaviour because when you're on your own you can make all kinds of a fool of yourself, but looking at myself as a father, caring so much about what they see and wanting them to be proud of their dad and wanting them to see a responsible, healthy, loving father has changed me a lot and has led me into a kind of larger perspective on the world."
His marriage and new-found domesticity coincided with an upturn in his acting career, which received a much-needed boost with his performance in Hollywoodland, in which he played the original Superman actor George Reeves, whose own fall from grace ended in an apparent suicide surrounded by mysterious circumstances. He followed that with another strong role in Smokin' Aces, which was quickly forgotten in the face of his directing debut with Gone Baby Gone, a dark, moody film about the disappearance of a young girl in Boston. He cast his brother Casey in the leading role of the detective and the teaming won praise from critics, many of whom were of the opinion that Affleck's greatest talent was behind the camera rather than in front of it.
Surprisingly, he next opted for a return to acting fluff as part of an ensemble cast in the romantic comedy He's Just Not That Into You, but he shows his genuine ability in the political thriller State Of Play, in which he plays a rising young politician involved in a mystery that includes some of America's most promising political and corporate figures. Based on a six-hour BBC TV series, State Of Play was filmed in Washington DC and also stars Russell Crowe as a veteran newspaper reporter and Rachel McAdams as a young blogger. Helen Mirren plays the tough editor trying to cope with the demands of her corporate bosses while dealing with a story that exposes a web of murder and corruption. It is an intelligent, well-made political thriller that eschews special effects and car chases in favour of a coherent and engrossing story.
"This is probably the last movie that will ever be set in a newspaper," predicts Affleck. "We're at an interesting time of transition, where newspapers are being wiped away and destroyed by the internet. For better or worse, the blogs are taking over now and the verdict isn't in. It's going to change and it's scary and we're all trying to figure out what it means. One of the things I really like about this movie is that it takes a bold look at the provocative question: how it is going to work?
"It is a movie that has substantive themes. The stuff we're talking about is not the kind of thing we usually talk about in interviews? the internet, media, politics and where the direction of journalism is heading. It's usually about things blowing up and explosions and that kind of thing. Some movies can't sustain a 15-minute discussion but this one can really bear some scrutiny and even engender some real dialogue about these deeper issues."
These deeper issues interest Affleck above and beyond the content of the film. The Boston Globe reported last week that he had expressed shock on hearing that The New York Times Co might close The Boston Globe, which also runs Bostom.com, unless it gets concessions from the paper's unions. ''I fundamentally misunderstood what was going on," Affleck told the paper. "Boston.com has 5.6 million readers a month, and yet this hugely successful newsgathering operation is going out of business."
For Affleck, State Of Play also had the added attraction of allowing him to indulge his passion for politics by meeting with Capitol Hill politicians, including Rahm Emanuel, now the White House chief of staff, as preparation for his role. "I was looking for people who were rising stars in Congress," he says. "I was given some names and I thought they would all be too busy to see me but they were all concerned that we get the movie right because they felt that Congress had been misrepresented and that people didn't understand that congressmen worked hard. Rahm was extremely interesting because he obviously understands a lot about how the House works and he was kind enough to explain it to me. Hopefully some of what he and the other guys had to offer is present in the film."
a committed activist, Affleck promoted the Democratic ticket in 2000, supporting Al Gore in the presidential campaign and Hillary Clinton in her run for a Senate seat. In 2004 he actively campaigned for the Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, prompting speculation that he himself would consider running for Kerry's open Senate seat, which he denied. Now a strong supporter of President Barack Obama, Affleck is optimistic about the future despite the dire state of the US economy. "I believe in his agenda and I think he's an extraordinary leader," Affleck says. "It's hard because he's facing the most extraordinary set of challenges that have faced a president in the last 40 years in their first 60 days in office. Two wars, an economy in collapse and we have this accelerated expectation? the bloggers, the newspapers, 24-hour cable news. You know, Eisenhower golfed all day long, but there's no doing that anymore.
"I think by and large Obama is doing a good job. I want him to succeed and I'm rooting for him very hard. I don't think in my lifetime we have ever needed a president to succeed more than we need him to because I can't remember a time when we were struggling as much as we are now." Affleck uses his celebrity and political connections to help promote charitable causes, particularly the plight of refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year he went there several times to conduct interviews and teamed up with the United Nations to release a short film about the crisis.
"I got interested because I read that millions of people had died in the Congo and nobody was talking about it. It seemed like one of the most pressing, critical humanitarian issues in the world, and that moved me to get involved." He is also active with Operation Gratitude, which supports US troops overseas, and Feeding America, which provides food for those who cannot afford it. While he works to help those in need, Affleck's personal future looks bright. He is about to begin work on The Company Of Men, which centres on a year in the lives of three men (Affleck, Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones) trying to survive a round of corporate downsizing at a major corporation. Then he will return to his directing project, provisionally called The Town, although, he says, "I'm still not yet 100 per cent sure on the title."
He has not yet cast the film, although he is saving a role for himself, and he is reluctant to give too many details. But his enthusiasm is evident. "It's loosely based on a number of real guys who were armed car robbers from Charlestown, a little neighbourhood in Boston that produced the highest number, per capita, of bank and armoured car robbers in the world. It became like a trade which was passed down from father to son, and the movie is about a group of guys who got involved in the trade and robbed armoured cars."
He grins at the thought of it. It is time for him to go, and there are more prisoners awaiting his visit. State Of Play opens on April 30.