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Interview

Ben Affleck Knows His Way Around the 'Town'

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Ben Affleck Knows His Way Around the 'Town'
Photo Source: Claire Greenway/Getty Images
Ben Affleck is big in Russia. How else to explain the fact that not once, but twice, during our interview, he is interrupted by fans from Moscow wanting to meet the Oscar winner? Affleck gamely poses for photos as one man explains, "I'm an actor. I don't speak English, sorry. But 'Gone Baby Gone'—very, very good." Affleck thanks him for the praise, and as the man leaves he adds, "Your brother very, very good actor. You, good director!"

If anyone had doubts about that last statement after Affleck's directorial debut, "Gone Baby Gone," they disappeared with the September release of the taut, original thriller "The Town." Though he had been content to stay behind the camera with his first film, letting younger brother Casey take the lead and Amy Ryan win accolades, Affleck chose to put himself front and center for "The Town," which he also co-wrote with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard. As Doug MacRay, a longtime thief who falls in love with the bank manager he took hostage, Affleck heads a stellar ensemble that includes Jeremy Renner as Doug's childhood friend Jem. Even Renner admits he hesitated to believe Affleck could pull off the hat trick. "It was not an easy question to ask somebody, 'What makes you think you can direct and star in this thing?' " Renner told Back Stage. "But it's an honest one, right? Well, he was such an affable guy—and so insanely smart. He made me feel very comfortable, enough to be able to be very frank and honest with him. I decided, heck yeah, I wanted to work with him and swing for the fences, without a doubt."

Now, with "The Town" on countless year-end "Best of" lists and Oscar buzz growing for the film, Affleck closes out 2010 by heading another terrific ensemble—in John Welles' "The Company Men." In the all-too-timely story, Affleck plays an arrogant sales manager who finds himself downsized and forced to work for his blue-collar brother-in-law, played by Kevin Costner. Affleck gives a strong, assured performance that marks a return to form for the actor who made his early career in indie ensemble pieces "Going All the Way" and "Chasing Amy." His life then became a Cinderella story after he and childhood friend Matt Damon wrote the screenplay for and starred in "Good Will Hunting," which earned them an Oscar for the script. After that came the big-budget blockbusters ("Armageddon," "The Sum of All Fears"), the high-profile romances (Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lopez), and the paycheck movies (one titled, appropriately enough, "Paycheck"). But lately, Affleck has returned to the screen, doing solid work in smaller, supporting roles ("State of Play," "He's Just Not That Into You") while proving himself a director to be reckoned with. After a few rough years, it looks as if Affleck's storybook tale will have a happy ending.

Back Stage: You started acting at a very young age, yet people don't think of you as a child actor. Did you consider yourself one?

Ben Affleck: I was a child actor in the sense that I did do a lot of acting as a child but not in the sense that I had a mom that wanted to take me to Hollywood or a family that wanted to make money from me and it became their full-time gig. Rather, I kind of chanced into something; I got a part on a PBS television series that filmed first in Gloucester, [Mass.,] and then in Mexico over the course of a number of years. From when I was 8 to about 14, I would work on that sporadically. So I had a lot of experience, but I was still a kid; I wasn't engaged fully in it. But I knew I liked it and I had fun and it was what I wanted to do for work.

Back Stage: What were some of those early jobs like and how did they come your way?

Affleck: In high school, I got an agent, and Matt [Damon] and I used to go to New York and audition for stuff. I got an after-school special back when there were such things. I was 13 or 14. And a TV movie with Forest Whitaker called "Hands of a Stranger" when I was 15. Then I got the lead role in a feature starring Sam Kinison. "Crocodile Dundee" had been a big movie, so this was a fish-out-of-water film; it was the story of an Eskimo who came to New York City and made special friends with a teenage kid, who was me, and we bonded. I was the son of a Donald Trump–type character, played by Christopher Walken. After two days of shooting, Kinison had gone so crazy, they fired him and shut the movie down. Sam was very coked up and unreasonable and demanded all these script changes, so they just stopped.

Back Stage: At what point did you realize this was something you wanted—to be an actor, not just do this as a hobby?

Affleck: I think it was a dawning realization. As I got older and started working in a more professional capacity, I started thinking, "I love doing this, this is fun." And I started doing theater, and that's when I really got exposed to acting and started developing an appetite for it. Then I sort of took it for granted, like, "Of course this is what I'm going to do!" I never even considered getting another kind of job, except for the kind that gets you by. So after high school, I went to New York. But there had been a strike in New York and everyone told me nothing was going on, you had to go to L.A. So I went to L.A. and got a small part in "School Ties." But that got postponed—they pushed it because the guy who was going to direct it took a job running the studio and they hired another director. In the meantime, I did a TV movie based on a Danielle Steele book and I think I made $10,000. I was like, "This is huge! I'm set!" Then I went to do "School Ties," and I was with a bunch of guys my age, and I really felt at home. I went back to L.A. and started auditioning again, and I just wanted to work enough so that I could really feel like I'm an actor. I wanted to be able to say, "I'm an actor," not "I'm an actor and a bartender." I wanted to define myself that way.



Back Stage: Do you remember some of the early breaks, where you felt you'd made it?

Affleck: I got the part in "Dazed and Confused" right after that, and I thought, "This is going to be great!" We were all really excited about it. Then the movie came out, and it was great for every other actor in the movie except for me. I was the least appealing character in that movie—I was the jerk who got his comeuppance. But it was great, and [writer-director] Richard Linklater was really inspiring. From there I kicked around and did a steroids movie for HBO, which was horrendous.

Back Stage: From an acting standpoint?

Affleck: From an everything standpoint. The story didn't work, and you can't be good in something if it doesn't work. Then I did this movie "Cruz" [also known as "Glory Daze"] that was my first sort of lead. We had written "Good Will Hunting," and I was doing these knock-around parts, one to the next. I was on a series for NBC called "Against the Grain." It wanted to be "Friday Night Lights" without buying the rights, I think. It lasted eight episodes. Then I did "Mallrats," which was kind of the same part I played in "Dazed and Confused." Part of me was like, "God, am I going to be relegated to throwing people into their lockers for the rest of my career?"

Back Stage: "Mallrats" marked your first collaboration with Kevin Smith; did you have any idea he'd become so significant in your life?

Affleck: No. I wanted the lead in "Mallrats," but they cast me as the baddie. Then I got to know him, and we got along really well. "Good Will Hunting" was in development at Castle Rock, and he was really curious about what was going on. We struck up a friendship around that. Kevin claims I said to him, "We should hang out, I'm a good guy!" [Laughs] But I think that's complete bullshit. I think I said, "Give me a call if you come to L.A." And the next movie he wrote, he said he wanted me to do it. It was a $250,000 budget and this great script, and I was thrilled. We had gone into development hell with "Good Will Hunting," so I did it and we became really close. I had also read "Dogma" at some point and viewed "Chasing Amy" as a prolonged audition for "Dogma." We had such a good time. I lived on his couch, it was a tiny crew, we rehearsed it like a play. It was the only time in my life where we rehearsed a movie so we could perform it like a play, and it really made a difference. We did it and every day was so much fun, I felt like I was really doing a movie. I hadn't had a real movie, a good movie that felt like the fulfillment of my dreams before that. Even though it was a 16mm, very small movie.

Back Stage: Did that change how you wanted to do movies?

Affleck: Well, right after that, I got offered a Dean Koontz sewer monster film with Peter O'Toole. And I was like, wow! Liev Schreiber and Rose McGowan and Nicky Katt and Peter Fucking O'Toole were in the movie. The whole time I kept asking him about "Lawrence of Arabia," which I'm sure he never gets tired of. The movie was abysmal.

Back Stage: Was that "Phantoms"? Is that why the line, "Affleck, you da bomb in 'Phantoms,' yo!" ended up in "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back"?

Affleck: Yeah. I told Kevin that somebody came up to me and said " 'Phantoms' rocks!" or something like that, and he put the line in the movie: "You da bomb in 'Phantoms'!"

Back Stage: You have to be careful what you say to writers.

Affleck: You have to be careful what you say to Kevin, for sure.



Back Stage: It seems like everything changed after "Chasing Amy" went to the Sundance Film Festival; did it feel that way to you?

Affleck: When I finished "Phantoms," I'd done this other movie, "Going All the Way," and that movie and "Chasing Amy" both got into Sundance. That was really fun. There was not one camera at Sundance when I went, and even then people were saying, "It's too Hollywood!" For the first time, people stopped me on the street to say they saw the movie, and it was the most amazing experience. I will never forget how gratifying it was to feel like somebody actually saw something I did. It was a wonderful week. I liked both movies so much; I was so proud of them and felt so lucky to be there. I felt alive, truly.

Right after that, they basically greenlit "Good Will Hunting," and Gus [Van Sant] came on and attracted Robin Williams, and we started shooting in May. And everything changed.

Back Stage: I imagine you haven't had to audition for a while. Do you remember the last time you did?

Affleck: I auditioned for all those movies I just mentioned except "Chasing Amy." I remember that great, alien feeling of just being offered something. I feel like I've done 1,000 auditions that were just endless. Sometimes you read for stuff in the sense there's a table read where you all get together. But I would read for a part if I really wanted it. This business is full of ups and downs, and you can't be too proud. As a director, I've benefited from actors coming in and reading; I had an actress read for a part and get nominated for an Oscar for that part. It's just part of the business.

Back Stage: Are you good at auditioning?

Affleck: Actually, I learned how to audition when I started directing. I realized, "Oh, this is what works, this is what doesn't work." So many times I didn't know the lines; I just thought I'd just hold the pages. Only when I started directing did I think, "No one has ever gotten a part just from holding their pages." Don't even bother going in if you haven't memorized it or can at least play the scene. So many times I didn't make the time to do it, and I would go in and stumble through and wonder why I didn't get the call.

Back Stage: Do you recall your worst audition?

Affleck: There's so many. I remember one; it was a name actor directing a movie. I was so excited because I got to meet the actor. It had a funny name and they sent me the sides, and I couldn't figure out what was happening. It seemed like there were these different kinds of beings—aliens or something—and some people were attacking other people. It was very difficult to understand. And they were on horses. I just didn't get it. So I went to the reading and read it through and the guy looked at me with a frown. I said, "So this is like a science fiction thing, right?" And just the look on his face was so disgusted and offended. And he said, "This is a Western, man!" I thought I got it, but obviously not. It was a good lesson in just laziness. Don't go in the door unless you're prepared.

I heard him say as I left, "Young actors today… need to do their homework!"

Back Stage: Your recent choices seem to show you gravitating more toward ensemble work. Is that a conscious decision?

Affleck: I've found that I've had the best time playing in ensembles or character parts where I could do something different. "Good Will Hunting" is a part like that. So is "Boiler Room" and "Dogma" and "Hollywoodland." I just did this movie that nobody saw—"Extract"—and I just feel you have more latitude to try things; it's much more satisfying. They mirror the things I did early on that I liked, like "Dazed and Confused." You can do both; "The Town" is a lead role, but an ensemble movie. Same with "The Company Men." Also, I'm attracted to the chance to work with good actors. I care about that more than about being the lead in a movie.

Back Stage: Has that changed for you—was there a time where you would only take leads?

Affleck: There was a part of me that had a built-up frustration from never getting the leads. Always being the bully character, or feeling marginalized in some way. So the starving man gets to the table and he wants to eat. Eventually I figured out that's not the thing. It's the part you're playing and its integrity and quality, not its size. It's a cliché, but it really is true. That's led me to where I am today.

Back Stage: Did that have anything to do with films like "Paycheck"? I single that one out because I spoke with a co-star of yours in the film who said they started making different choices after that movie.

Affleck: The problem with that movie is it was a really good script and it caught a director at the wrong time in his life and a studio who didn't really care about investing in it. It had a great cast—Aaron Eckhart, Paul Giamatti. That script was really interesting. It's an interesting story, and there's a way to do that movie and make it good. It was fine; it was serviceable. I wouldn't say that movie changed my life necessarily, but I recognized that doing that kind of serviceable studio movie is not the road to anything interesting or satisfying, career-wise. It was after that movie that I took some time off and then did "Hollywoodland" and started prepping "Gone Baby Gone." So I suppose it's a line of demarcation in some way. So I don't hate on the movie so much. I wasn't all the way engaged as an actor the way I should have been—obviously, or it would have worked better.

Back Stage: But how much can you change that? How much control do you have as an actor?

Affleck: You can change it only so much. You're a little bit in thrall to who you're working for. Oftentimes, people see an actor on a poster and think they're responsible for the movie—sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad ways. And the actor is responsible for a lot, don't get me wrong. A huge part of directing is casting. But at the end of the day, it's not the whole thing.

Back Stage: I've heard that as a director, you're very involved in casting every single part in a movie.

Affleck: Yeah, I hope every director is. To me, that's where you make the movie. When we did "Good Will Hunting," I asked Gus what the secret to directing was and he said mostly casting. "Changing Lanes" was an amazing experience for me, and one of the things I learned from director Roger Michell is how important it is to cast every part like it's the lead. Extras, day players, one-line, two-line—they have to all be great. It's hard; you've got to find the right people. But you know what? The right people are out there; there are so many gifted actors out there. It's a joy to work with them. And most actors are not used to being empowered so that they can succeed. They don't get given the opportunity to be told to take risks, try something different. Somebody who really roots for them so that it involves sacrificing other things, like time, for the sake of performance. I found that when I adopted that position with actors, they really responded. They worked harder, they got really into it. Actors don't want to be treated like cattle or like idiots, and actors have a tremendous amount to bring to the table. Every actor in the movie is, in effect, writing and directing the movie with you. If you open the door to letting those good ideas in, you're the one who benefits.

Outtakes
– Other films include "Forces of Nature" with Sandra Bullock, "Pearl Harbor," "Daredevil," and "Jersey Girl"
– Appeared as himself opposite Jimmy Kimmel in the viral video sensation "I'm F-cking Ben Affleck"
– Is finishing up an untitled movie directed by Terrence Malick, co-starring Javier Bardem and Rachel McAdams
– Of being on a set: "It's like film school, only without tuition—they pay you!"

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