by David A. Keeps
It's New Year's Eve, 1981. Elvis and the Attractions are blasting on the jukebox. Ben Affleck is dispensing stiff ones to a crowd of new-wave freaks. We're in an East Village dive, the set for 200 Cigarettes, a period comedy being filmed all over downtown Manhattan. Outside the bar; there's an entirely different drama unfolding, something very 1998. "Eddie!" someone is bellowing again and again. "Eddie! Eddie!" Affleck howls back. "FYI,Eddie is the crack dealer who lives upstairs," says the blond actress perched on a stool across from Bartender Ben. Her name is Courtney Love.
After this interruption, they
kill the scene, and she heads down East Fifth Street, surrounded by bodyguards,
her face hidden by an umbrella (it ain't raining). Three paparazzi try
in vain to get a usable picture. Despite Ben's costume - a small-collared
plaid shirt, some wack pants, and seriously Tenaxed hair - he happily
poses for the photographers. He tells them how surprised he was to see
a picture in the tabloids of himself kissing Gwyneth Paltrow, whom he
sweetly, if a bit coyly, calls his "friend." Then he hangs out on the
street, smoking cigarettes and shooting the s--t with the guys who earn
their dough invading the privacy of movie stars.
When I catch up with Ben later, he declines to share the dish he got from the paparazzi. He has a grudging respect for them. "They're hustlers," he says with a smile. Takes one to know one.
For the past eighteen of his twenty-five years, Ben Affleck has hustled his way into a PBS series, low-budget films, after-school specials, TV movies, and a Danielle Steel drama called Daddy. It was a promising enough trajectory, but it was missing two things: speed and impact. After small roles as jock A-holes in 1992's School Ties and 1993's Dazed and Confused - movies that helped put Brendan Fraser, Chris O'Donnell, and Matthew McConaughey on the fast track - Ben, along with his best bud Matt Damon, decided to rev up the starmaking machinery by writing their own Cinderfella story (with a nod to Rocky). It goes like this: Two struggling actors meld autobiographical material and a gift for improvisation into a script for them to star in; they sell it for six figures, get Gus Van Sant to direct, receive great reviews, do over $130 millions at the box office, become the youngest writing team to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and live happily and wealthily ever after. Not quite. "On the night of the awards, I just carried the Oscar around waist-high," Ben says, swigging Diet Coke on a dinner break from 200 Cigarettes. "I never had so many women ask me 'Can I touch it?' in my life. Sadly, they were talking about the statuette." It's not like he's got an Italian marble mantel for his 'paperweight,' as he calls the award. Ben keeps a modest one-bedroom apartment in L.A., but at the moment he is living out of a suitcase, shuttling in rapid succession to three movie sets. After 200 Cigarettes, he will jet off to London to portray "the bombastic, raging, whoring, syphilitic" sixteenth-century actor Ned Alleyn opposite Paltrow in a modestly budgeted Miramax film (his fifth) called Shakespeare in Love. Then he will play a renegade angel in Kevin Smith's religious satire Dogma, which is being filmed in Pittsburgh. ("I'm paying him something like $1,800 a week," says Smith, who first cast Affleck as an a--l-sex enthusiast in 1994's Mallrats and made him an indie star in 1997's Chasing Amy. "When a brother is getting offered $5 to $7 million, this is a huge testimony to his loyalty and passion.")
This month, Ben will be slipping
on the fly Italian threads and doing the couch trip on late-night TV as
well as the red-carpet routine, all for the premiere of Armageddon, in
which he tests his mettle as an action figure. In his first starring role
in a major studio summer popcorn flick, Affleck plays A.J. Frost, a wildcat
oil driller who spars with Bruce Willis, makes love to Bruce's on-screen
daughter Liv Tyler, and saves the world from a fiery collision with an
asteroid. The first month of filming was difficult, Ben recalls. He had
to adjust his performance to convey both swagger and sensitivity in the
heroic long-lens shots and sweaty close-ups that are the staple of such
comic-book-style, high-tech dramas. And he had to act inside a heavy,
claustrophobic NASA spacesuit. There were upsides. Like working with Liv
Tyler, who in the incestuous world of Hollywood romance (she was then
dating Joaquin Phoenix, who co-starred with Ben's brother Casey in Gus
Van Sant's To Die For) was already family.
From Bruce Willis - whom Affleck
reckons is the same affable guy who once was a bartender in New York -
Ben got a few bits of die-hard advice. "He told me I should be getting
points on the movie." But Ben had signed on before Good Will became an
industry; he was paid only a fraction of 1 percent of Armageddon's reported
$140 million budget. Not to worry. "Ben's the real thing," rules the movie's
producer, blockbustermeister Jerry Bruckheimer. "He's got the square jaw,
that real Americana look, without being pretty. Women want to be with
him and men want to be like him - which is what movie stars are made of."
He oughta know; Bruckheimer and Armageddon director Michael Bay have made
action stars out of such unlikely characters as Will Smith (Bad Boys),
Nicholas Cage (The Rock), and John Cusack (Con Air). Of course, the bigger
you get, the harder some folks want you to fall. Indie scholars suggest
that Armageddon is Ben's big sellout.
And earlier this year Hollywood was abuzz with the rumor that Good Will Hunting was attended by a script doctor. "It's kind of insulting," Ben responds. "We probably wrote about a thousand pages, and we benefited from the counsel of a lot of smart people - Rob Reiner, Harvey Weinstein, Mel Gibson (who hated the title). So, yeah, we sat down for a day with William Goldman, who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride, and he weighed in with his opinion. We really thought we had an in with him. Then, four months later, we were all in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, and Matt went over to him and said, "Mr. Goldman?" And he said, "Are you my chauffeur?"
It's Sunday, and when I arrive
at his SoHo hotel, Ben Affleck is dressed for the Slackademy Awards: a
Celtics cap, a promo T-shirt, army-green cargo fatigues, work boots, and
regulation stubble. For a man who has been touted as part of the Holy
Trinity of turn-of-the-century male superstars (along with Damon and DiCaprio),
he is disarmingly low-key. ("My ambition was never to be famous. I always
thought of that as a somewhat undesirable quality.")
Is it true your mom was the first person to turn you on to the work of Kevin Smith? She told me my tastes were too commercial. So I saw Clerks and I was like, "Wow, my mom told me to see a movie about a convenience-store guy whose girlfriend gave thirty-seven b--w j--s." I was accustomed to her recommending movies like Mrs. Brown.
Kevin told me, "We all just wanna be Affleck. He is my heterosexual crush." Kevin is my homosexual crush. If I were gay, the first guy I would sleep with is Kevin Smith. The second one would be Leo DiCaprio - but only for the long hair he had in The Man in the Iron Mask.
In what other ways are you in touch with your feminine side? I have a capacity for sensitivity and nurturing and that kinda thing. (laughs) And I'll give b--w j--s for work. But I'm only good enough to be the bartender in 200 Cigarettes - not even good enough to warrant a character name. (cracking up) I tell ya, you fix one pipe, they don't call you a plumber - but suck one d--k...
Thanks to Smith, you've also gotten to say things on-screen you'll never live down. Like that line in Chasing Amy - "I've had my finger in my a--, but I wouldn't say I've had a--l sex." Not true. I have not had my finger in my a--. Never once - don't believe in it. I won't let anyone else do it either.
You have said you can sympathize
with men who have performance anxiety. Has that ever happened to you?
In terms of inability to maintain an erection? (laughs)
Do you think all the young actresses sit around and compare notes on all the young actors? I'm quite sure they do. Just like you did in school. It's the collective consciousness, like Sweet Valley f--king High. It blows my mind, but it really is the same social dynamics: the same gossipy thing, the same cliquishness, the same small dating pool, the same male-monkey hierarchy weirdness.
Napoleon Bonaparte, Sir Walter Scott, Mike Conners, and Oakland Raider Gene Upshaw were all born on August 15. So too, in Berkeley, California, in 1972, was Benjamin Geza (the name of a Hungarian friend of the family's) Affleck. A year later, his Irish-Scottish parents relocated to Central Square, Cambridge, just outside of Boston. His mother, Chris, was a schoolteacher; his father, Tim, held a series of blue-collar jobs, including (shades of Good Will Hunting) janitor at Harvard. Of all his birthdays, Ben particularly remembers his third, the one he celebrated three days early. His mother was extremely pregnant and her water broke during the party. "I guess it made for some sibling rivalry," Ben muses, "because my mother tells me that maybe a year later, I casually suggested that maybe we could just throw Casey in the fire." The real tension was between his parents.
Ben's father drank a lot and
had a short temper. (He is now a recovered alcoholic working at a rehab
and living in Indio, California, "the city where Jimmy Swaggart got busted
with the hooker," Ben informs me. "We've got a nice kind of fraternal
relationship that I value.")
When he was eight, Ben met
a kid who lived two blocks away. Matt Damon was two years his senior,
and his mother, Ben says, was also an "activist lefty" teacher. "My mom
was trying to get me to do more work around the house and would say, 'Well,
Matt's mom makes him cook once a week,' " Ben remembers. "So I first knew
him as a guy who was really setting a bad precedent in the neighborhood."
They played Dungeons & Dragons, video baseball, and shortstop in Little
League, watched Godzilla and Kung Fu double features on Saturdays, followed
the adventures of The Super Friends and The X-Men.
He and Matt took acting classes, and Ben introduced him to his agent when Matt was sixteen. "I guess you could say we were theater nerds," Ben recalls, "which certainly wasn't as cool as playing on the basketball team." Particularly because their school, Cambridge Rindge and Latin High, boasts such alumni as Patrick Ewing and Rumeal Robinson. There was the usual teenage wildness: "Underage drinking, pot smoking, and all the attendant shenanigans," Ben recalls. Though she disapproved, Ben's mother let him and his friends hang out and drink beer in the basement, he says, "just so she'd know we were home as opposed to driving around - which we probably would've been doing." When he turned sixteen, Ben bought a smelly brown '77 Toyota Corolla wagon for $400 and became the designated driver for his posse. He cut classes, forged some letters, and got a few grand out of the trust fund his mother had set up from his acting jobs. He also ushered at a movie theater, did construction work, and spent summers looking for acting jobs in New York. After high school, he followed his girlfriend to college in Vermont; that lasted a couple of months. Ben moved to L.A. in 1990. His first apartment, on Cherokee Avenue, "was in Crack Central," he says. Inspired by Lawrence of Arabia, he took up Middle Eastern studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles but never graduated; by then he was eking out a living as an actor. Matt settled in L.A. in 1992, when the two friends began the long process of writing Good Will Hunting. They sold the script to Castle Rock, enduring years of rewrites before Kevin Smith, who reportedly wept on the toilet while reading it, sent it to Harvey Weinstein, cochairman of Miramax. "By then, we would've done dog walking to get the thing made," Ben says, laughing. "I still have to mow Harvey's lawn every Sunday morning."
Matty D calls from the set of Dogma. Ben is "the best young actor around," he tells me, though he didn't always think so. "When I was fifteen, I walked up and got right in his face and told him that TV was one thing and that he could get by on his looks, but if he wanted to make it in the theater he was gonna have to start taking his work more seriously."
Now, of course, you two are a screen team. Ben likens you to Crockett and Tubbs, Starsky and Hutch, Spock and Kirk. Milli and Vanilli?
In an homage to The Godfather II, Ben memorably said, "If I ever woke up with a dead hooker in my hotel room, Matt Damon would be the first person I'd call." Would you return the favor? Yeah. It's kind of an unspoken agreement that somehow got spoken.
Did you have a code of conduct when it came to women? If one of us said we were interested in a girl, it was pretty much drawing a line in the sand. If your best buddy goes after your girl, he isn't much of a friend.
And Ben is somewhat responsible for introducing you to your current girlfriend. Oh, we can't talk about that. (laughs) They really are calling me to makeup, dude. Ben's terrific. And it's great to have this huge, life-changing transition happen to your best friend, to be able to bounce some thoughts off somebody who knows exactly what you're talking about. If you want to know anything else...
Just one thing. Have you ever sung the song "Ben" to Ben? (singing) "Ben, the two of us need look no more." Yeah, I used to love Michael Jackson . . . "We both found what we were (his voice cracking) looking for. With a friend to call my own, I'd never be alone if you, my friend, would see you got a friend in me." There it is, right?
Yep. That was beautiful. Hey thanks, man. It brought tears to my f---in' eyes.
"Ben has this strange effect
on women," says Third Rock From the Sun's French Stewart, who costarred
with Affleck in the little-seen college comedy Glory Daze. "If they get
within fifty feet of him, their pants will fly off their bodies." Ben
lost his virginity in high school. "It was such the latchkey generation
that you always knew that somebody's parents wouldn't be home before five,"
he says. When he was nineteen, his mother got panicky about AIDS. "She
was still sufficiently prudish that she wasn't able to sit right down
and say 'I hope you're using protection,' so all of a sudden, bowls of
condoms started appearing in the various bathrooms of the house." Early
on, Ben was into the communication thing. "I would always ask questions.
You could impress women later on, 'cause you'd be like, 'Well, as far
as I know, women generally like to be talked to for two or three minutes
before coitus begins.' Where I grew up, that was considered highly evolved."
Despite this, he has referred to his past relationships as "train wrecks":
The girl he followed to college.
No, Ben says, he and Matt never double-date. "That's a little Chuck Woolery for me. . . . Maybe it makes good copy, but I always skip through those parts of articles."
You can honestly tell me you're not interested in who's doing who? Well, maybe I care, but who wants to hear some boring actor's wishy-washy New Age take on relationships and how difficult it is under the media glare? It may be difficult to f--k five women at once without getting caught, it may be difficult to go down to the porno theater without somebody going "Hey, isn't that that guy from . . ." But when you've got a chauffeur and a huge house with a gate and security - that's not my idea of difficult.
But surely you can understand why people obsess about celebrity couples? I think it's genius that Barbra Streisand and James Brolin still hit Sizzler. But I can't do the Suzanne Somers "lay out my romantic history in the magazine" thing . . . It just becomes some tired moron trotting out his relationship with some other person who's in a movie. I mean, there's nothing more embarrassing than reading the article about the person who's so in love, and two weeks later they've broken up.
Which is pretty much what happened with your long-term girlfriend Cheyenne. I wasn't even thinking of that. But you know, that is a good example. We spent the last year in counseling trying to figure out if it was going to be tenable, and ultimately decided that it wasn't. It was written about in the tabloids, like "Ben Affleck dumps his longtime girlfriend for this starlet," and it's kind of painful, because you hate to have your character impugned in that way. I guess that's why I've decided to not discuss it, although I'm not doing a very good job.
So you might as well address the wild rumor that she slugged you for kissing a foreign actress. What is true is that we had broken up, and she was still moving out and felt I was being insensitive. We got in an argument at a party, and we were upset and animated. It was not a fistfight and I was not kissing another woman. That's a blatant lie perpetuated by people who clearly find that more interesting than the truth. But then, I've certainly been responsible for exaggerating stories, so I can't complain too much.
You are going out with Gwyneth Paltrow, but didn't you once say, "Stay away from actresses"? Yes. Because the business is really hard on women, because you gotta be hot. Part of the problem is fashion magazines like Details that run ads of ultrathin women. You're supposed to be, like, six two and a hundred pounds. I mean, that's nasty - seriously, you stop menstruating at that point. And you get real thick, furry hair on your arms.
That doesn't quite answer my question. You think it's hypocritical to say you shouldn't date actresses and then go out and date them. Yeah, but life's more complicated than that.
There's probably a lot of guys who would kill to have that kind of complication in their life. Why? Because they think I'm sleeping with a chick that's hot? And they're like (channeling Jeff Spicoli) "What's that like, dude?" Well, if they're not virgins, then they know what it's like, theoretically. People say, "Oh, you worked with Rose McGowan - I think she's the hottest chick in the world." But prolonged and real exposure to real people rubs away this kind of gloss. It's just some girl sitting there, eating a hot dog at craft service, going, "Oh my God, Ben, you're such a pain in the a--!" That's Rose.
But we digress: Your dad knew Gwyneth Paltrow's dad, right? No. Her mother, Blythe Danner, met my father at the Theatre Company of Boston. So we knew one another.
But at some point your feelings toward each other changed? I'm gonna have to give you the Ronald Reagan on that and just say I have no memory whatsoever.
There's a knock on Ben's trailer door. It's Gwyneth. "Oh, I missed you," Ben says. "Let me give you a big . . . hug." "What's with the hair?" she asks, pointing to his gelled-up, early-Greg Brady Afro. "Adam Ant, babe. It's horrifimundo." "I kinda like it," she replies.
It's time for Ben to do his scene. On the walk over to the loft where he's filming, he wraps his arms around her and they kiss. Gwyneth shivers. It's a bit chilly. "You're so thin," he says. "Let me give you my coat." Inside, Ben has some important acting to do. After his costar, Nicole Parker, finishes a telephone call, he pulls her back into bed for a snuggle. Gwyneth,who's Concorded over from London, talks to Ben's friends Derek Milosavljevic and Soren Garcia-Rey on the sidelines. "You have great timing," I tell her. "Thank you. Though I'm not sure I understand," she replies. "You arrive just when Ben was refusing to talk to me about you." "He's a clever boy."
Back in the trailer again,
Ben is hanging with his high school homeys Soren, who is now his assistant,
and Derek, who is sometimes his stand-in. Along with them and Matt, his
other best friend is his only sibling, Casey, who played the pain-in-the-a--
friend who bickered with Ben throughout Good Will Hunting. Together Casey
and Ben are rebuilding a '69 Cadillac Sedan de Ville. The brothers each
have a tattoo, a Native American fraternity symbol. Ben doesn't want to
talk about lame stuff like tattoos. Or the fact that his other one, on
his right biceps, is a barbed-wire ring just like Pamela Anderson's. "I
had mine first, Pam," he says, "thank you very much." He's scarfing some
Chinese chicken and rice. He's a solid 180 now. He'd gotten down to a
buff 165 to play a Korean War vet in last year's Going All the Way and
also trained hard for Armageddon, which led to an abs-ahoy GQ cover earlier
this year. "It became 'Ben Affleck Bellies Up to Stardom,' " he says with
a laugh. 'What if it was just 'Ben Affleck Has a Small P---s'? That probably
would've been less appealing. Although I'm hung like a jury, my friend."
"When we were in high school, no one was screaming out his name," Derek
says. "Now there are girls coming up to him with magazines to sign." "It's
all about deification," Ben says with a shrug. "Matt Damon's always been
a really smart, funny, interesting guy, but didn't elicit shrieks from
teenage girls until very recently." And, presumably, he gets more shrieks
than you? I ask. "What are you talking about? Like a . . . shriek-o-meter?"
Ben is indignant. "F--- you! I think I skew toward mature, sophisticated
women. I'm willing to cede the whole male audience to Matty - he is huge
on Santa Monica Boulevard." Armageddon should change all that. Along with
his skills as an actor and writer, it should also confirm Ben's ability
to put butts in cineplex seats. Which is fair exchange for the seven arduous
months he spent on the film. And in the middle of it all, he was breaking
up with Cheyenne. One day last summer, when it was all going down, Ben
went to this empty travelers' church.
Ben and Matt have three additional screenwriting commitments - one with Castle Rock, the company that first bought Good Will Hunting, and two with Miramax, which released it. They are considering several ideas: Oliver in the Mix, a story about a halfway-house counselor; a romantic comedy called Like a Rock; and a possible adaptation of Balling the Jack, a novel by Frank Baldwin about a problem gambler who ends up literally betting his life away. They may end up directing, codirecting, starring, costarring - any or all of the above. Which should see them through this century. In the meantime, Ben Affleck enjoys the simple pleasures: his motorcycle, counting cards at blackjack, collecting movie soundtracks, making little music videos on his home computer, taking pictures with his new Widelux camera, reading books (his latest: Caleb Carr's The Angel of Darkness), palling around with his Boston friends, dating actresses and declining to talk about them. Armageddon will make Affleck a household word. There's only one more thing he could ask for: to clear his first name. I play him Matt's serenade. "You'll probably put that on the internet, " he growls playfully. "I've been tormented by kids about that song. I've never been particularly proud of the fact that the name Ben in pop culture has always been about a rat or a cuddly bear or that simple fellow from L.A. Law. And it's always been used to imply a lovable dim-wittedness." Until now, that is. From here on out, it's all about the Benjamin.