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Affleck's flicked off the critics
7:00am Saturday 10th November 2012 in NewsXtra
Once famous for film flops and being one half of 'Bennifer' with his then fiancee JLo, Ben Affleck's now proving a Hollywood power player. Ahead of the release of Argo on Wednesday, November 7, which he directed and stars in, Affleck talks about helming movies, his friendship with Matt Damon and early Oscar buzz.
By Susan Griffin
Self-assured, smart and engaging, Affleck - who turned 40 this year - is a man who's clearly found his stride as he releases his third directorial offering.
Called Argo, the film's based on true events that took place during the Iranian revolution in 1979, and it's already garnering critical acclaim.
"If I was making a political movie I'd say it but this is a movie about imperialism, about democracy and the tyranny of totalitarianism," says Affleck, who studied Middle Eastern affairs at university.
He's come a long way from those days when he was vilified for his film choices, following the glory of his screenwriting Oscar for Good Will Hunting in 1998, with childhood friend Matt Damon.
There were successes, such as Armageddon and Shakespeare In Love, but as the Noughties rolled in so too did the flops, such as Pearl Harbor and Paycheck.
And who can forget Gigli, the unanimously loathed movie in which he starred alongside his then fiancee Jennifer Lopez?
But, just when people had written him off, Affleck put in a sterling performance as the ill-fated actor George Reeves in the 2006 noir drama Hollywoodland.
He followed that up with Gone Baby Gone a year later, a brooding thriller about child abduction (its UK release was delayed until summer 2008 because of similarities to the Madeleine McCann case) which also starred his brother Casey.
Adapted from Dennis Lehane's novel of the same name, Affleck not only co-wrote the script but directed the film too, and in 2010 he penned, acted in and helmed heist thriller The Town, which earned Jeremy Renner a best supporting actor Oscar.
"I don't think I'm a better actor than director, or better writer than actor. I just try to make movies and to me these things are all co-mingled," says Affleck.
He was looking for another movie to direct after The Town when he got the call-up from Warner Bros studio.
"They said, 'We're going to send you our best script'. I thought they were just saying it but it was a true page-turner," he says.
The events of 1979 are indeed like something straight out of a movie.
When militants stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took 52 people hostage, six Americans managed to slip away and find refuge in the home of the Canadian Ambassador.
In the knowledge that it was only a matter of time before they were discovered, Canada and America asked the CIA to intervene.
Their top 'exfiltration' specialist Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, hatched an outrageous plan for the six people to pose as a Canadian film-making team on a location scout so they could simply fly out of the danger zone.
"Tony was friends with a famous make-up artist and knew it was a viable prospect for movie people to be travelling around, checking out different locations," says Affleck.
Part thriller, part pastiche of Seventies Hollywood, one of the biggest challenges the film posed Affleck as a director was its juxtaposition of life-or-death drama and dry comedy.
"The humour was an important part of the script," he says, "but it was the hardest line to walk. My main concern was making sure the laughs did not jeopardise the sense of urgency or realism."
Luckily, he had the likes of Alan Arkin and John Goodman handling most of the comedy.
"They say directing is 90 per cent casting and it's in evidence here. Everybody showed up, they knew what they were doing, and often they came up with ideas that were more interesting than mine," he admits.
Although notoriously private, Affleck reveals that his take on the role was helped by the fact he could relate to the character.
"One thing I could identify with in Tony's life was how being away can take a toll on you because you miss your family," says the actor, who's father to Violet, six, Seraphina, three, and eight-month-old Samuel, with his Daredevil co-star wife Jennifer Garner.
"Children don't have the ability to replace their emotional needs with the understanding that you'll be home at some point."
Believability was the watchword of the entire production, but Affleck says it was never his intention to make a documentary.
"I didn't want it to feel like a history lesson because who wants to see that?" he says, before revealing that it was his mother who instilled his interest in politics.
"She was a freedom writer and we grew up with a real sense of responsibility," he says.
It's partly why Affleck, a former child star who starred in numerous school plays with Damon ["We were like a caricature of these precocious guys who took themselves way too seriously"], felt an academic degree would be more useful than a qualification in acting.
But he remembers Middle Eastern studies as being "a very lonely major".
"Everyone was studying the Soviet Union but it turned out my degree was even more relevant to our lives than I knew at the time," says Affleck, who actually left for LA to pursue acting before graduation.
He was promptly cast in a Danielle Steele movie called Daddy.
"I made 20,000 US dollars and thought, 'That's it! I won't have to work again'," he recalls, laughing.
Two years later he starred in cult hit Dazed And Confused, playing high school bully Fred O'Bannion.
"After that people would go, 'He can play the bully', and ultimately I found myself really frustrated and bored by it," he says.
Damon was having an equally trying time, which is why they decided to write their own screenplay and Good Will Hunting was born.
"We saw it essentially as our acting reel," admits Affleck, who played the best mate of Damon's genius janitor in the film.
Initial reactions to the screenplay were mixed, but then director Gus Van Sant and Hollywood heavyweight Robin Williams signed on - and the rest, as they say, is history.
Affleck may soon be revelling in more Oscar glory, as Argo could well place him in the frame for the best director gong.
Side-stepping the topic, he says: "Right now I'm more interested in humans coming out and buying tickets!"
Extra time - movie men on both sides of the camera
:: George Clooney: The screen heartthrob has directed three feature films and earned an Oscar nomination for one in 2006, Good Night, And Good Luck
:: Clint Eastwood: The legendary actor and director has earned four Oscar nominations for helming films, winning two - for Unforgiven in 1993 and for Million Dollar Baby in 2005.
:: Robert Redford: The golden boy of Hollywood followed up acting by directing nine films, earning two nominations for Ordinary People in 1981 (which he won) and Quiz Show in 1995.
:: Ron Howard: That nice boy from Happy Days is now one of the most revered directors in Hollywood and has earned two Oscar nods, for A Beautiful Mind in 2002, where he walked away with the golden statuette and Frost/Nixon in 2008.
:: Argo is released on Wednesday, November 7
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