July 2002 By Philip Berk
Wow! Ben Affleck has changed.
He walks into his press conference with a scowl, his handsome face masking feelings of pain and regret.
We all know he checked into rehab last September — was it drinking or gambling? Details magazine claimed on one trip to Las Vegas, he tipped the dealers $100,000.
But that was last year.
Right now he has two hit movies in theatres, Changing Lanes, which got great reviews, and The Sum of All Fears in which he takes over the role of Jack Ryan, formally played by Harrison Ford.
Our interview gets off to a bad start when I ask him what happened to the Ben Affleck we used to know, the one I once described as “fun loving, down to earth, surprisingly smart — a closet intellectual — and witty enough to do standup comedy.”
How come the sombre demeanor?
Obviously I have touched a sensitive nerve, because he comes back with, “You look a little down yourself.”
Unperturbed by his response, I ask him if the pressures of too much too soon, too many movies at one time, are getting to him?
Without cracking a smile, he replies,
“You can only be carefree and loose lipped around the press until you make some joke in some room, and then it gets picked up by the press and somebody’s feelings are hurt. I look at it and go, ‘Oh I shouldn’t have said that.’ So what you call ‘a little depressed’ is the result of being more judicious of the things I say in front of people. I feel pretty carefree. I feel pretty happy. I’m at a place where I want to be. My goal always was to keep working, which is what I’m doing; so I don’t feel any great crush of pressure or anything like that. Maybe I’ve gotten a little older since the last time we spoke.”
No pressure at all?
“Anytime you have a movie opening, there’s pressure. How is it received? What do people think? What are the critics saying? It’s probably more pressure than human beings were designed to cope with. But the important thing for me is not to take it personally, to accept the fact that not everyone is going to like every movie I’m in. I don’t like every movie I’m in. But I take comfort in knowing that I worked hard and I tried my very best. If you make it a big thing that everybody’s got to love you all the time, you’re going to get upset and drive yourself crazy. So I try not to get swept up in that.”
So to stay healthy, what is he doing?
“I try to keep things in perspective, and to unwind I play sports, I exercise, I read, but the most important thing is to just get away from the work and find someone who’s not so work oriented and spend time with them.”
When it comes to choosing roles, does he have a strategy?
“I don’t have a grand over-arching scheme. I’m not like a Bond villain plotting my way around the map. I would say that these two movies are representative of what I’d like to do, Changing Lanes being the smaller character-driven acting-oriented kind of movie and and Sum of All Fears the grander big budget spectacle.
“The movie I did after Sum of All Fears, Gigli is another example of the former and Daredevil which I’m doing now of the latter. So it’s kinda like going back and forth, but it’s not by design. Mostly it’s choosing something that interests me. I don’t have a specific set of plans. It’s just nice to have the opportunity to work.”
At the last Golden Globes Awards, he presented Harrison Ford with the Cecil B. De Mille award for lifetime achievement.
Did he seek Harrison’s approval to play the young Jack Ryan.
“Yes, I did. I called him and talked to him about it. I also spoke to Alec Baldwin (the first Jack Ryan) and Tom Clancy (the author.) They were all very supportive and generous and encouraged me, which I’m glad they did because I had a really nice time doing it.
“But I’m not Harrison Ford. I could never be Harrison Ford.”
Which of the two characters — Jack Ryan or Gavin Banek in Changing Lines — does he have most in common with?
“I like to think I have more in common with Jack Ryan than Gavin, but that might just be my ego. I mean, the guy in Changing Lanes didn’t make the right decisions all the time, he wasn’t very likable and didn’t necessarily do good things. That was a more complicated, honest, and realistic character than you find in most movies, the type of role people discourage you from playing because audiences won’t like you. But surprisingly I was never asked to worry about that, which was really nice, even though I ended up playing a guy I didn’t really like. And therefore I’d like to think I don’t have much in common with him.
“On the other hand Jack Ryan is a more earnest, straightforward kind of guy, much less self confident and not at all egotistical. I hope I have more in common with him.”
Alec Baldwin turned down the Jack Ryan franchise (after the success of Hunt for Red October) much to his regret.
Does he have any regrets?
“Clearly there are choices I would like to have back, many of them are personal like taking friends for granted. But there’s no one big thing that I worry about. As I said, my life is pretty good. I feel pretty happy. I don’t have a lot of regrets.”
What role does he play in Gigli?
“Although I’m the lead, it’s basically a character role. I play this kinda pathetic guy, a money collector for a loan shark in L.A., who wants to be a New York guy. He just can’t do anything right, and he’s not too smart. He’s hired to kidnap a kid who’s brain damaged, but then he sort of botches the job so Jennifer Lopez is hired to make sure I don’t screw up, and my character sort of falls in love with her. Al Pacino plays a mafia boss. It’s probably the most satisfying movie I’ve ever done purely as an actor. I am really proud of it.”
Is that why he took out a full page ad in Daily Variety (which cost him $12,000) singing her praises?
“It was what I wanted to do — express how professional, hard working and dedicated I thought she was. That was important to me. In this business people love to talk about other people especially when they can say something bad. Nobody really wants to say this person was really great, showed up, worked hard. I thought it was appropriate for me to say it because it was true. ‘It was a terrific pleasure and honor for me to work with you.’ I still feel that way. Jennifer is a consummate professional. Because she’s a rock star as well as an actress I thought she was going to be a diva. I’m sort of ashamed that I had that preconceived notion, but now, having worked with her, I think she’s a very sweet family girl from the Bronx, very grounded. She worked as hard as anybody I’ve ever come to work with, which is really impressive, and that was my way of saying Thank you.”
His endorsement was non political.
How does he feel about actors who use their celebrity to promote political issues?
“I’d say in general you should not discuss anything you’re not familiar with. But if what you do is intended to raise awareness for a good cause, I think it’s a good thing. But it can be sort of obnoxious to hear actors talk about politics. I try to limit my own public discussions on politics to my dinner table, to the people who have to suffer it because I cooked them dinner.”
Are men or women better listeners, and does he like giving advise?
“When it comes to taking advice, I don’t think anybody really has the ability to listen. The only real teacher is experience. But in general I’d say women are better listeners than men; they tend to be more discussion-oriented, more process-oriented, whereas men tend to be more, ‘I don’t know.’ This may be a gross exaggeration but like the cliche about men not wanting to ask directions, probably it’s grounded in some truth. Men are not quite as good at listening to what other people have to tell them.”
A documentary about his production company, which he himself co-financed, showed him off as arrogant and cocky?
How did he react to that?
“It was fun putting it together but I felt in some instances I was misrepresented. It’s a horrible thing to see yourself in a documentary capacity particularly if you’re used to seeing yourself in a very controlled capacity. There was one episode where I pick up the phone and call Harvey Weinstein, the way it was edited made me look much more flip than I really was. I thought it oversimplified the phone call.”
Jokingly he adds, “A lot of other people depicted in the film also felt like, ‘Well I didn’t quite come across as the great guy I really am,’ but that’s the nature of exposing yourself to this kind if thing, and I felt it only fair if I was going to ask all these other people to do it, to sort of do it myself. And all in all I’m proud of it; it definitely took an honest look at the film making process. The fact that it kind of polarized people and that people have strong opinions about it means we were doing something right.”
He won an Oscar for the script of Good Will Hunting
Is he still writing?
“Writing is a weird thing. Sometimes you sit down, it’s just like touching keys, you don’t know what order to put them in. And then sometimes it starts to unravel, it just rolls out. So it’s something I really like doing because it’s both a solitary kind of personal activity and a pure expression of what you want to say. I feel it’s one of the things I will continue to do for the rest of my life. A lot of times it’s just for myself, which is even more liberating because then you can write whatever you want. No one’s ever going to see it. If you could do that all the time, you’d probably be a better writer.”
Did he ever think he’d be cast in leading man roles?
“I was always told I couldn’t play those parts. You’re too big. You’re better for the bad guy roles like in Dazed and Confused. I was in danger of being typecast as the high school bully, throwing teenagers against their lockers. In fact I was self conscious about convincing people I could be a leading man. There was never anybody waking around telling me,‘You’re so handsome.’ I always thought to myself, ‘If I could only look like Brad Pitt.’ I never thought of myself as a leading man.”
Are he and his brother actor Casey still close?
“Yes we are. I am very close to him. I like my brother a lot. I think he’s an extraordinary actor, and I think he’s a great, great person. In fact I’m going to make it over to London next week to see him in the play he’s doing with Matt Damn (This Is Our Youth.)
Any chance he might do theatre?
“I was talking to Liev Schreiber about that.”
(Schreiber, also in Sum of All Fears, is a respected Broadway actor.)
“We’d like to do a two character play in New York sometime next year.”
Is he dating anyone at the moment?
“There’s nobody that I’m dating right now or that I take to the movies or to dinner, but if I were I would hastily call a press conference to notify you.”
What can he say about the expensive home he bought in L.A.?
“It’s a place I bought with mostly land because Los Angeles, unlike many cities, you can kind of feel a rural sense. It had a house on the property that burned down. So now it’s almost two acres of land with two little guest houses, and that’s what I live in because I don’t really have a family and I don’t really need more space than that. I have two dogs, so they can run around, plus I found out the bigger the house you have, the more house guests you’re going to end up with; so I have plenty of grounds for my dogs to run around and my little houses, one is like an office and the other is where I sleep. I like it.”