AFFLECK: There had been plenty of moments when I didn’t know where I was going to end up. I had been kicked around some and maybe left for dead. I’m not a great believer in awards and the idea that some movie is best, because it’s subjective. But standing there at the Academy Awards eased some of the pain and frustration I’d been carrying. I loved movies and felt I knew how to make good ones and had something to offer, but there was a time when I wasn’t sure I would be invited to try anymore.
PLAYBOY: Contrast that with the night you and your best friend, Matt Damon, won Oscars for best original screenplay for Good Will Hunting.
AFFLECK: The girlfriend I was with at the time was working out of town.
PLAYBOY: Gwyneth Paltrow?
AFFLECK: Yeah, Gwyneth. Matt and I just thought, Let’s take our moms. We knew they’d want to go. We go down the red carpet and see all these journalists from TV. We’re starstruck. Holy shit, is that Roger Ebert? I see Dustin Hoffman and he says, “You know, I did theater with your father.” My father is a great guy, but he drank a lot during my childhood, and when he said he knew Dustin Hoffman, I thought he was bullshitting. And there I am at the Oscars and Hoffman brings it up. “I knew your father.” So now I’m reevaluating my whole relationship with my father as we’re walking inside. Every star you could ever imagine—there’s Jack Nicholson. It was Titanic’s year, and there’s James Cameron. We sat down, close to the front of the stage. Billy Crystal comes out, starts this song, and it’s “Matt and Ben, Ben and Matt.” It was like walking through the fourth wall of your television into a weird dream, one where I’m at the Oscars and Billy Crystal is singing to me and…never mind. Then Robin Williams wins and that’s exciting. The screenplay award isn’t until halfway through the ceremony, so we’ve got time. I remember turning to James Cameron. I had never seen him before and don’t think I’ve spoken to him since, but I’m overly relaxed and caught up. I go, “Hey, how’s it going, Jim?” I remember he kind of looked at me. I say, “Don’t you think it would be cool if you knew how many votes each movie got?” He looks at me like, What the fuck is this kid talking about? Why is this kid talking to me?
PLAYBOY: Like he was going to call for security?
AFFLECK: And why is he talking about the vote? I sat down. I’m thinking, Shit, I just made an idiot out of myself with James Cameron. I’ll never be in one of his movies. Our category came up, and Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau presented it. Maybe the producer figured they’re a famous screen duo and if these guys win that will be nice symmetry. But we’d lost the Writers Guild award to Jim Brooks for As Good As It Gets, and people think if you lose that you’ll lose the Oscar. And then they read off our names. I’ll never forget the first thought I had—that I hadn’t given one second of thought to what I might say. You are an idiot. You come to the Academy Awards and didn’t prepare anything, not even secretly in your mind.
PLAYBOY: You spoke first?
AFFLECK: Matt said, “Go ahead, talk first.” Only later did I realize his show of graciousness was designed to give him a minute to prepare what he was going to say. I mumbled a bunch of stupid things. I thanked Boston twice. Probably once would have been enough. We’d won the Golden Globe, but I think the only other thing I’d ever won was some Little League trophies when I was 12. I look back on the whole thing ruefully. I had no perspective. I thanked Cuba Gooding Jr.—by now I was just saying stuff. We high-fived everybody. I hugged Denzel Washington as we were coming offstage and he was going on. Why did I hug Denzel Washington? Maybe he didn’t want to be hugged by me, a stranger. I felt like such an idiot afterward, but I have to say, we had a lot of fun that night.
PLAYBOY: Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln were fact-based Oscar nominees that weathered controversies over their historical accuracy. Zero Dark Thirty was sunk when three U.S. senators challenged scenes that indicated waterboarding had yielded info that led to Bin Laden. Argo got heat for giving too much credit to the CIA’s Tony Mendez and not enough to the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, who hid the Americans. Jimmy Carter said it wasn’t an accurate depiction, and Taylor said some negative stuff. Reportedly your film was censured by the New Zealand parliament over its role in the movie, or lack of one.
AFFLECK: [laughs] I didn’t know. Does that mean I’ll be arrested if I go to New Zealand? I can’t be in any of the Lord of the Rings movies?
PLAYBOY: How were you able to navigate those potential land mines better than those other films did?
AFFLECK: I don’t think we did any better than anybody else. Fact-based stuff leaves you exposed to criticism, and it’s difficult in a world where campaigning has metastasized into taking shots at the other movies. People definitely took shots at Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and particularly at us. Ken Taylor felt he played a greater role in the rescue of the six than we portrayed in the film. He wanted a bigger part, but we explained the movie wasn’t about him; it was about Tony. They’d already made a movie about Ken. We liked all the stuff about Tony that wasn’t known until it was declassified. The issue over historical fidelity is like the Batman thing, where people are able to vent criticism instantaneously, and small issues can catch fire and become contagious. Even with Good Will Hunting there was a rumor that Ted Tally really wrote the script and then that William Goldman had written it. It’s the same as negative campaigning in politics. There are people who want to celebrate their movies, and others, whose faces you never see and names you never read, who push this other stuff. Competition brings out the best and worst in us.
PLAYBOY: You’re a decade removed from Gigli, when focus on your romantic relationship with Jennifer Lopez hurt your career. Back then, who helped you figure out how to climb out of the hole?
AFFLECK: That hole was a series of movies that didn’t work and one in particular that was widely mocked because it had a funny name and overlapped with the tabloid situation. It became a perfect storm. Then Paycheck was mediocre, Surviving Christmas was bad, and I sunk into a morass. I thought, Okay, I want to get out of this. My wife was definitely around then. Getting to know her, falling in love with her and being connected with her gave me a foundation to reach out and say, Okay, I’m going to do Hollywoodland; I’m going to direct Gone Baby Gone. Those were the steps forward I needed to put positive stuff on the board. She is by leaps and bounds the most important person to me in that respect. Over the past 10 years she has allowed me to have a stable home life while accomplishing my professional goals.
PLAYBOY: She bolstered your confidence?
AFFLECK: I was frustrated. A lot of smart people out there made choices they thought would work on some of these movies. Some of it is luck. Everybody has movies that don’t work; I just had a run of them. But I also looked at it and said, “I didn’t work hard enough. I wasn’t diligent enough. I wasn’t dedicated enough.” I made that realization. But once I’d made it, the most critical thing was that she said, “If you’re going to work 24 hours a day, that’s cool. I’m going to be here.” That allowed me to think, Okay, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to kill myself over this next period of time.
PLAYBOY: Your relationship with Jennifer Garner came after a very public engagement to Jennifer Lopez. Both your relationships were tabloid fodder.
AFFLECK: The crucible by flashbulb. It was magazines then, and those days are more or less gone. Now it’s online, but it’s the same thing. At the nadir of that I felt I was being treated worse than Scott Peterson, who at least got the benefit of the word alleged when they talked about him.
PLAYBOY: He’s the guy who——
AFFLECK: Murdered his wife and tossed her over the side of a boat. The point is I felt like I was at the bottom. I became the guy people could kick around, even if they hadn’t seen the movie, because they saw other people taking shots. I thought it was unfair. But some of those people later wrote nice things about my work. I’ve learned not to take it personally.
PLAYBOY: But often it is personal.