"Argo's" Oscar proves that Ben Affleck has reinvented himself as a great director
His circuitous route through Hollywood had him starting out as a child actor on PBS
Despite winning an Oscar for writing "Good Will Hunting," he was typecast as his role
"Naturally, my family's the most important thing in my life," Affleck has said
He hit the top at 25 winning an Oscar …only to stumble hard 5 years later. But he fought his way back. How did the boy from Beantown remake himself into a Hollywood heavyweight? “Ben Affleck: Back On Top” will air on CNN Saturday, March 2 at 10 p.m. ET.
No best director nomination? So what? Ben Affleck’s best picture win at the Oscars only serves to prove the actor has reinvented himself as one of the finest directors of his generation. “I was here 15 years ago, and I was just a kid. I never thought I would be back here, and I am,” he said during his speech. “And it doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life. All that matters is that you get back up.”
So how did Affleck manage to get back up after pit stops as a Boston boy-made-good, Hollywood sidekick, tabloid punch line and blockbuster hero? Here, we trace his trajectory from actor to auteur, and find that Affleck may have been directing his own career all along.
1980-1990 – Child star
Affleck’s circuitous route through Hollywood had him starting out as a child actor in a PBS educational series called “The Voyage of the Mimi,” a hookup that happened because his mom knew the casting director. He also became pals with a young Matt Damon – Affleck was 8, Damon was 10 – and they took drama classes together at Rindge & Latin School in Cambridge, where Damon impressed upon the younger Affleck that acting was to be taken seriously. The two took drama classes and did a few plays together. After high school, Damon went on to Harvard and Affleck tried a few colleges (majoring in Middle Eastern studies, which later helped with “Argo”) before dropping out to pursue acting full time.
1990-1997 – “Good Will Hunting” buildup
Affleck scored parts in films such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “School Ties,” and “Dazed and Confused.” He nearly lost that part to another tall, gangly actor of his generation. “Vince Vaughn and Ben Affleck were up for the same role, and they had similar physicality, but I had to pick one,” director Richard Linklater said. “I felt bad, because Vince was so funny.”
Affleck started his decades-long collaboration with Kevin Smith with “Mallrats” and his first leading-man role in “Chasing Amy,” but during the “Chasing Amy” shoot, the actor got a look at Smith’s script for “Dogma,” and was filled with envy. He, too, wanted to write films. Luckily, Damon was writing a play for a class and wanted some help. The two started to collaborate on “Good Will Hunting,” completing a draft in 1994. A bidding war started and Castle Rock bought the film for $600,000. When the question of who would direct came up, Affleck volunteered that he and Damon should do it. Eventually, that killed the deal at Castle Rock – so-called “creative differences” – and the dynamic duo had to find not only a new studio to do the film (and buy out Castle Rock) but also a director. (One of those meetings served as inspiration for a scene in “Argo,” in which someone takes a meeting only to be able to say in person that they’re going to pass.)
Affleck asked Smith to direct, but Smith didn’t dare: He thought it was “too beautiful.” But Smith did the two a favor and brought the script to Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein, who bought it for about $1 million in 1995. Mel Gibson developed it for a while before Gus Van Sant came aboard. (He had a connection with Casey Affleck, who had done Van Sant’s “To Die For.” It helps to have an actor in the family.)
1997-2002 – “Good Will Hunting” backlash
Affleck and Damon won an Oscar for writing “Good Will Hunting,” but the two actors began to be typecast as their respective roles. Damon must have been the genius, not Affleck, right? “Family Guy” mocked Affleck’s contribution, claiming he was smoking pot while Damon toiled away, and a pre-“Office” Mindy Kaling wrote a loopy play called “Matt and Ben” positing that the screenplay had fallen out of the sky.
Either way, Affleck wasn’t getting much of the credit. He started a strategy for his acting career. He would do “one for me, one for them:” an art film or something he was really interested in, and then a blockbuster or rom-com. So, in 1998, he did “Armageddon,” but also “Shakespeare in Love,” a role he almost turned down because he was going out with Gwyneth Paltrow (the first of many high-profile romances). In 1999, he did “Forces of Nature,” but also “Dogma.” In 2001, he did “Pearl Harbor,” but also “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.”
Despite his movie star status, he looked to help out aspiring actors and screenwriters with Project Greenlight and on set. “I was in ‘Changing Lanes’ with Ben,” Bradley Cooper said. “I had one scene that was cut out of the movie. But it was huge to me. They were doing two cameras at once, and I had no idea what was happening, and there was this guy, Ben, who made me feel so comfortable with it all. I didn’t mean anything to him – I was a nobody – and he was so nice to me. And good things happen to good people.” Affleck also went to rehab in 2001 for a drinking problem.
2002-2003 – Bennifer, the celebrity monster
The strategy didn’t last long, as Affleck started chasing paychecks – literally, in the case of the film “Paycheck.”
Affleck also started courting his “Gigli” co-star Jennifer Lopez while she was still married to Cris Judd. Though they complained about the tabloid attention, the two flaunted their relationship, which went public with Affleck rubbing J.Lo’s bum in her “Jenny From the Block” music video. The pair got engaged. Affleck got a makeover and became People’s Sexiest Man Alive, as the couple played house in a “Dateline” appearance.
Affleck started getting superhero roles (“Daredevil”) and acting alongside Jennifer Garner, as the two movies he did with Lopez – “Gigli” and “Jersey Girl” – suffered at the box office. “If you have a bad day at work, it’s alive forever,” Damon said in his defense. “That part of the business is always a little weird, because you don’t always get the exact thing you expect.” Four days before the wedding, Affleck called it off, and started questioning what he wanted in life.
“I had some stuff work, and some stuff didn’t, and I ran afoul of the press a little bit,” Affleck admitted. “It caused me to question, ‘What do I want to do in this industry? Do I have anything to offer? What should I be doing? How can I best express myself?’”
2004-2010 – Recovery
J.Lo moved on to Marc Anthony, and blamed the media scrutiny for the breakup. Affleck began his own reinvention by swapping one Jennifer for another – Lopez for Garner – as he dated and then married his “Daredevil”/”Elektra” co-star (after a brief bit of enjoying his single status). Now Affleck was a family man.
Even though his partner was also a celebrity, she was a more respected one, and the two didn’t court tabloid attention in the same way, focusing on their family instead. (This new side, however, didn’t mean an end to comic shenanigans. Remember the Jimmy Kimmel video, “I’m F—ing Ben Affleck”? But this time, he was in control of the punch line.)
“Naturally, my family’s the most important thing in my life,” Affleck said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t do other stuff in your life. In fact, having a family makes whatever achievements you’re able to have that much richer. If it was just me, and I go home sort of alone, I’d think, ‘Whoa! Whoa!’ If something good happened to me at work, it doesn’t have the same resonance it does when I’m able to share it with people I love. And any time you become a richer person and have more substance, it makes you better as a filmmaker.”
In 2007, Affleck leveraged his acting career into his directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone,” which film critic Kurt Loder said was “a much more interesting film than ‘Argo’ and really captured the working-class Dorchester milieu. He drew a tough, tight performance from his brother Casey and the rest of the cast is terrific. Dennis Lehane’s novel is a great story, and Affleck nailed it.”
It won Amy Ryan an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress and received a lot of critical acclaim, but only earned $34 million at the box office. Both Loder and Damon said it should have earned Affleck a best director nomination.
The box office showing didn’t deter Warner Bros. exec Jeff Robinov, who asked Affleck, “Do you want to direct and star in movies?” Affleck said, “Well, I’ve directed one movie and it was a bomb.” But Robinov told him, “I really believe in you,” and offered him a deal. “I kind of thought I was being punked!” Affleck said. “But Jeff seemed to believe it.”
In 2010, Affleck directed his second film, “The Town,” which scored an Oscar nomination for Jeremy Renner for best supporting actor and earned more than $154 million. This put Affleck back in the category of Hollywood heavyweight, so even when he takes bit parts in ensemble pieces, his real work now is as a filmmaker.
2011-2013 – “Argo”
Affleck and Garner worked out a system in which they would take turns making a film, which mostly ends up with her being home with the kids, because they’ve had an infant every time he has directed. But while he was visiting her on set in Atlanta during the making of her film “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” he came across the script for “Argo.”
“I couldn’t believe how good it was,” Affleck said. “I talked to Grant (Heslov) and George (Clooney) – and it’s not name-dropping if they’re your producers! – and we took it to Warner Bros. And they went with me making this period Iran drama where I was the youngest person in the movie. I felt so flattered.” (In turn, former CIA agent Tony Mendez was flattered that Affleck would also be portraying him, “even though he’s not good-looking enough,” he joked).
Affleck had to combine a tense thriller with a comedy that takes place over the course of a very unwieldy series of events with a lot of players, while also trying to keep the essence of the story true. He was able to break out of his pigeonhole with “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town” as a director of Boston crime stories. He also poked fun at himself with John Goodman’s line about even a rhesus monkey being able to direct a film.
His actors called him meticulous yet relaxed, which set a tone on set that allowed them to feel like they could take chances without being judged. “We traded off on being each other’s bosses,” Bryan Cranston said. “If he was being too bossy directing me, I would come back at him hard when we were in character: ‘Get your ass in here!’ A little Heisenberg. Drop my head a little bit, do the eyebrows.”
As a form of rehearsal, Affleck had the six characters playing the houseguests live together for a week before shooting. “He put together these boxes full of time lines, down to who the shah is, what’s going on with Carter, what were the big movies of the time, what was in People magazine,” Scoot McNairy said. “Any question you had, Ben had the answer, or you went through the box.”
“What Ben has, like George Clooney when he directs, is attention to reality and detail,” producer Heslov said. “In that, they’re very similar. They both know what they want and how to get it done. But they’re also very different. Ben is much taller.”
Affleck still doesn’t consider himself a real director – “Capra is a real director, Scorsese’s a real director, Spielberg’s a real director,” he said. “I want to keep refining myself, keep growing and pushing.”
But even if he still is a work in progress, his work isn’t. “Have you met one person who didn’t like it?” asked Richard Kind, who plays the screenwriter in “Argo.” “Did it make a lot of money? Very pro-American? Very pro-Hollywood? Beautifully done? In every aspect – screenwriting, directing, acting? That’s why it should be best picture. This was the best ‘Argo’ it could possibly be. It’s the best movie, and it’s fun!”