Photograph: Carlo Allegri/AP
Ben Affleck has completed a remarkable U-turn from box office turn-off to respected directorial talent. Matt Mueller asks him, warily, how he did it.
Ben Affleck must long for the day when curiosity about his time as one half of “Bennifer”, the original and much-mocked celebrity fusion couple, finally vanishes for good. When I broach the topic at the Toronto film festival, where he's in town banging the drum for The Town, the 38-year-old star only just stops himself from rolling his eyes. He shifts around in the chair he'd been reclining in quite comfortably in a way that suggests he can't quite believe he's being asked to rake over these coals again. “That stuff happened when Barack Obama was a state senator from Illinois,” he mutters. “I mean, it's another day now.”
He's right: in Hollywood, redemption can lie just around the corner, and Affleck's own rehabilitation act has been underway since 2006, when he began atoning for his cinematic sins (Gigli, Daredevil, Surviving Christmas) with dense, image-enhancing turns in more serious films: the likes of Hollywoodland and State of Play.
However, Affleck has made his biggest strides behind the camera. The first film he directed, Gone Baby Gone, was greeted by rapturous reviews, from critics amazed the granite-jawed star had managed to bring the gloom of Dennis Lehane's novel to the screen and create a magnificently authentic portrait of blue-collar Boston. The hometown setting, of course, gave Affleck an advantage, so it's not surprising he's returned to a Beantown setting for his second movie as director.
“It does provide a crutch, definitely,” he admits, “as opposed to going and making a movie in London, where part of me would be feeling lost and unsure of myself. By the same token, I didn't want to do Boston again, because I don't want to be typecast as Mr Johnny Boston film-maker. That's limiting, but I liked the challenges this movie presented.”
Affleck struggled to find anything he wanted to direct after Gone Baby Gone, until producer Graham King approached him with a script based on Chuck Hogan's crime novel Prince of Thieves, set in the Irish-Catholic Boston district of Charlestown, once the bank robbery capital of America. Initially, Affleck intended only to star, but found himself gripped by the tale's amalgam of love story, character study and hardboiled noir.
The Town is an altogether brasher, more commercial affair than Gone Baby Gone, and sees him tackling his first major set-piece – an urban car chase that's part Ronin, part Amores Perros, and a virtual squeal-by-squeal recreation of an actual pursuit that occurred in Boston's North End. Being “the pope of Boston”, as he was once dubbed, enabled Affleck to grease the wheels necessary to shut down a historic neighbourhood for his purposes, but the budget wasn't so generous that logistical problems such as rain didn't badly muck up his schedule. Actors claim they get a buzz out of shooting action scenes, but when I ask Affleck if he did as director, he grimaces. “No. It was stressful. It gave me a lot of anxiety, more than anything else.”
He's also quick to stress that he doesn't want to snatch too much praise for himself. “We had a great stunt team, a great second unit and a magnificent cast,” he declares. “When Jeremy [Renner] runs across the street, those cars were stopping inches from him. I would never have had the balls to do what he did. I thought he was going to get hit every single time he did it. But it just illustrates that people give too much credit to the director. I always feel uncomfortable showing up and going, 'Yes, I did that.'”
The Town proves two things. First, that Affleck is rediscovering his brawny on-screen mojo. Whereas he cast younger brother Casey as Gone Baby Gone's private eye, this time he felt confident enough to step into The Town's starring role of a born thief falling for the woman (played by Rebecca Hall) who could ruin his life. “The first time I was afraid. I knew it would be too much for me to do both things, and I needed [Gone Baby Gone] to be about me directing,” he says. “But it's like you're a marathon runner: I know I can finish a marathon, now let me try for time.” Second, the legacy of his tabloid past still hangs like a dark cloud over his career, judging by The Town's evasive marketing campaign. Memories of Affleck's all-American features standing front and centre on posters for Armageddon, Pearl Harbor or Gigli are distant. The Town's US poster depicts men in nun costumes and rubber masks wielding assault rifles, while the international campaign deploys the tagline “From the director of Gone Baby Gone” – which might stroke his serious film-maker's ego, but is an indicator that studios still feel anxious at Affleck's potential for being an audience turn-off.
“That's not something I'm too interested in. I don't care about whose head is what size,” he counters. “It's an adolescent preoccupation. I love the iconography of the nuns, it's very striking. I was surprised they did that for the international poster, because I don't think a huge number of people saw the movie. Maybe they did it just to be nice to me.”
He's dismissive of the notion that he's still feeling aftershocks from the Bennifer era (while also offering assurances that we need not fear an on-screen pairing of himself with his wife, Jennifer Garner). If he feels any lingering sense of injustice about the mockery that was heaped upon him during his relationship with Lopez, he's not interested in sharing it. “I don't get into wanting to go back and relitigate [sic] a bunch of stuff,” he says. “But that acute tabloid attention is destructive. It's destructive to your sanity, it's destructive to your ability to work. I can't think of a single example of somebody who's been thrust into that situation where it's either made their life better or their career better. I opted to downscale my presence, but that also dovetailed into a time when my life evolved. Life changes. I got some greys in my hair now and I have a different way of looking at things. I don't obsess about my place on the Hollywood ladder.”
Affleck credits an ingrained level-headedness for guiding him to his current position: as an actor who is back in the frame (he recently replaced Christian Bale on Terrence Malick's next project, a romantic drama co-starring Rachel Weisz), and as a film-maker with talent and promise. “I've never held myself up particularly high when I had movies that worked, and I never held myself all that low when I had failures,” he states. “Failure is a function of risk, and I like where I am and I like that people have responded by and large to this movie and Gone Baby Gone, but I don't fool myself into thinking that that makes me a genius. The next movie I do I could work as hard as I did with the same intention, the same integrity, and it could easily fail. So am I a hack then? There's a tendency to want to affix significance on certain moments, but you're bounded by your opportunities. The rest is in the hands of the movie gods.”
He still sees acting as “my day job”, and with nothing lined up, admits that the gap before his next directorial undertaking could match or even surpass the one between Gone Baby Gone and The Town. “I'm going to do this job [with Malick] and after that, I'm going to be looking for something interesting to me and if I don't find it and that means sitting on the sidelines for a while, then so be it, I'll sit on the sidelines,” he says, confidently.
And as long as he's on the sidelines, at least, no one is asking him about being half of Bennifer.