By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
There are no second acts in American lives, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. He obviously didn't know Ben Affleck.
Once whirling at the center of a tabloid-media hurricane, reveling in a high life that Gatsby himself would have envied, Affleck rode fame's rocket from its heights (a screenwriting Oscar at age 25 for Good Will Hunting, an engagement to Jennifer Lopez) to its inevitable splash-down (flops like Gigli and a breakup with J. Lo).
End of Act 1
"That's about when I realized I didn't want to be the guy in the tabs. So I changed my life," the stubble-faced star says, sitting down for a bit of breakfast at lunchtime in his restaurant of choice, a retro diner where the waitresses actually are waitresses, not models handing out head shots.
Act 2 opened with Affleck marrying Jennifer Garner in 2005 and having two daughters. It continued with him getting critical kudos for acting in 2006's Hollywoodland and directing 2007's Gone Baby Gone. And it leads us to The Town, out Friday, which he directed, co-wrote and stars in opposite two of today's hottest male actors, Jon Hamm (Mad Men's hunk-in-chief) and Jeremy Renner (Oscar-nominated for The Hurt Locker).
Though Act 3 has yet to be written, there's already buzz that Affleck, 38, may be on the road to a new career, trading monikers such as paparazzi-magnet and that-guy-who's-friends-with-Matt Damon (who shared the Oscar for the Good Will Hunting script) for a hard-won reputation as a director who can deliver taut dramas with commercial underpinnings.
"Being away for a while has helped Affleck reinvent himself, and he's absolutely found a niche making these small but great movies," says Jeff Giles, executive editor of Entertainment Weekly. "Soon, I think, temptation will come, big studios asking him to do big projects, which may or may not be his thing. At least he understands from his own past the good and the bad of the big paycheck."
Flirting with fear
During Affleck's mid-decade heyday (think 2003's aptly named Paycheck), he was pulling in $15 million a movie. That's about $4 million less than the entire budget for Gone Baby Gone, which starred his brother Casey as well as Amy Ryan, who nabbed an Oscar nomination for her role as a Boston single mom whose child is abducted.
That directorial debut planted a seed of terror in Affleck, and he's happy about it.
"It's a double-edged sword being the director. You get the praise but also the blame," he says, sucking down a Diet Coke. "It's like a roller coaster, and The Town is my second time on it. This time, at least, I know that upside-down loop won't kill me.
"But that fear is healthy. Because I know one thing. I just want each movie to work so I can do another one. I want to tell great stories."
If Affleck has a secret movie-making sauce, it's one whose recipe is well known. "Simple," says Affleck, his face-splitting grin revealing a chipped front tooth. "Great writing. Great casting. And have the director get the hell out of the way."
Affleck's candor is what ultimately led Renner to sign on.
"I really wasn't too sure about it initially, because I've played a lot of heavies before I made The Hurt Locker," says Renner. "But when I met with him, well, I fell in love."
Renner laughs. "Here's how it went down. I said, 'What makes you think you can direct and act at the same time?' And Ben says, 'I don't know.' That was it for me. He has zero ego and is all about the project."
The Town certainly plays to one Affleck strength: It's set in the blue-collar Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, not far from where he grew up.
The story, based on the novel by Chuck Hogan, follows the lost lives of a gang of bank stick-up men. Affleck and Renner play the leaders, who have vastly different views of their futures. Hamm plays the FBI agent hot on their trail. In greenlighting the project, Affleck says, Warner Bros. execs urged him to keep a commercial audience in mind.
"The business is getting bifurcated. There are big tent-pole projects and then the small and often marginalized dramas, and I wanted to consciously do something in the middle," he says.
And ... action!
In The Town, that translates to a mix of solid character development and hair-raising action sequences that recall Point Break and The French Connection.
"At one point, I think, Ben wanted to shoot a monologue of sorts and the studio basically said, 'Uh, no,' " Renner says with a laugh. "But hey, had we wanted three more days to shoot (the movie's climax) at Fenway Park, I'm sure they would have signed the check."
Renner says Affleck's directorial style is "intelligent and collaborative," with conference sessions in front of the monitors often suggesting new approaches to a scene.
Hamm, who says Gone Baby Gone woke him up to Affleck's helming talents, appreciated the "kindness and curiosity he exhibits on the set." In fact, Hamm had passed on the project when another director had been attached to it. But when he read Affleck's tighter version of the tale, he said yes.
Nabbing Hamm and Renner, both of whom were first choices for the director, is a good sign that Affleck's Hollywood star is rising, says Tatiana Siegel, film reporter with Variety.
"He's made some very savvy choices, between adapting the book that was Gone Baby Gone (written by Shutter Island and Mystic Riverauthor Dennis Lehane) to choosing Amy Ryan and directing her to a nomination," she says. "All that makes people want to work with you. Everyone wants to direct in this town, but not many get the chance to do it. Once, maybe. But twice is another matter."
Sharing the credit
Affleck is quick to deflect praise and points to actor/director heroes such as Clint Eastwood and Warren Beatty as sources of inspiration.
"Those guys make it look easy," he says. "The toughest part of it all for me is the constant fear that something's not going to work. Ultimately, you're judged by your successes, so for me it's about finding those tiny moments each day that work and wind up in the movie. There's a lot of grunt work and frustration, though. It's like you're looking at a 500-foot-tall mosaic from 6 inches away."
Affleck said his job was made easier by his cast, which also includes Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) as the movie's catalyst. Renner managed to create a local hood "who is kind and fun-loving but admittedly with a huge layer of scariness," while Hamm "is really my idea of a man's man, which made it easy to portray him as a hero."
As for the director's turn in front of the cameras, it often felt as if no acting was employed, Renner says.
"I really wanted to get the (Boston) accent right, but Ben was adamant that it not be too polished," he says. "So we just hung around the neighborhood a lot, went to bars, talked to a lot of people. Ben said, 'It should seem like we grew up together.' Almost all of my scenes are with him, and they couldn't have been easier."
Easy hasn't been in Affleck's vocabulary for a few years now. Directing is an all-consuming job - from pre-production through hours huddled in dark editing rooms - and one that often doesn't mesh well with a family life (Garner has temporarily curtailed her acting to be with the couple's daughters, Violet, 4, and Seraphina, 1) or leave room for humanitarian efforts (Affleck leads the Eastern Congo Initiative, which helps refugees of that war-torn land).
"Next I may take an acting job, because while that can involve work, it's not as crazy as when you're directing," he says. "But I'll keep hunting for that next project that I believe in deeply, because it's only those projects that are worth pouring your heart into, the ones you feel you can really do right.
"Getting to direct The Town I considered a real victory, and I will feel similarly if and when I get to do one more movie."
And would he maybe, just maybe, consider filming somewhere other than his beloved Beantown?
Affleck laughs and leans back into the diner's vinyl seats.
"Yeah, I'm afraid I'm running out of Boston neighborhoods to shoot in," he says about the starring burgs of both Good Will Hunting and Gone Baby Gone. "Maybe for the next one I'll move over to Rhode Island."