Ben Affleck arrives for his Playboy Interview beaming after dropping off his kids for their first day of school. For Affleck and wife Jennifer Garner, it is the familiar ordeal of dodging the cameras of 20 paparazzi who have followed every step taken by son Samuel and daughters Violet and Seraphina.
But then Affleck put himself in the maelstrom again. Surprising everyone, he signed on to play the caped crusader in Batman vs. Superman. It is a role that nearly killed George Clooney’s career, and the reaction in the press and on the internet was intense and unfavorable, with many asking if Affleck had just undermined all the career gains he’d carefully made.
Born to a schoolteacher mom and a father whose theater aspirations were undone by the bottle and who tended bar, took bets as a bookie and mopped up as a janitor at Harvard, Affleck caught the acting bug early. Just eight when he met the 10-year-old Damon, the two scored bit parts as kids before Affleck found his footing in indies such as Dazed and Confused and Chasing Amy. Then Good Will Hunting changed everything.
playboy sent Michael Fleming, who last interviewed Quentin Tarantino, to catch up with Affleck. Reports Fleming: “We met right after his Batman announcement elicited hostility he hadn’t seen since the Bennifer days. A more mature Affleck doesn’t care. After his career overhaul, who’s to doubt him when he says, ‘Trust me, I know what I’m doing’?”
When Warner Bros. named you Batman, the internet exploded with hostility. After climbing back from career adversity to win the best picture Oscar for Argo, was your initial reaction more “Not again” or “Screw you”?
It wasn’t either, really. I expected that reaction. Warner Bros. told me, “You should know what you’re getting into.” They showed me the reactions to other folks who had been cast in these roles. They said this is how it tends to play out initially.
What convinced you?
When they asked if I would be Batman, I told them I didn’t see myself in the role and I was going to have to beg off. They said I’d fit well into how they were going to approach the character and asked me to look at what the writer-director, Zack Snyder, was doing. The stuff was incredible.
It was a unique take on Batman that was still consistent with the mythology. It made me excited. All of a sudden I had a reading of the character. When people see it, it will make more sense than it does now or even than it did to me initially.
The idea for the new Batman is to redefine him in a way that doesn’t compete with the Chris Nolan Batman but still exists within the Batman canon.
I don’t want to give away too much, but the idea for the new Batman is to redefine him in a way that doesn’t compete with the Bale and Chris Nolan Batman but still exists within the Batman canon. It will be an older and wiser version, particularly as he relates to Henry Cavill’s Superman character. How much did the hostile fan reaction bother you?
I understand I’m at a disadvantage with the internet. If I thought the result would be another Daredevil, I’d be out there picketing myself. [laughs] Why would I make the movie if I didn’t think it was going to be good and that I could be good in it?
How would you have handled this a decade ago, when things weren’t going so well?
I probably would have been more sensitive. I had less perspective than I do now. I’ve learned it doesn’t matter what people think before a movie comes out; what matters is what people think when they see the movie. There’s a lot of noise in the world, and the internet magnifies that energy. My focus is on the actual execution of the movie. Would I have had that perspective 10 years ago? I don’t know. The world was different then. It seems odd to me to criticize casting if you haven’t read the script and don’t know the tone or the take. But the casting of high-profile projects seems to generate negative attention; it’s fun to give your thumbs-up or thumbs-down. I’ve had the luxury recently of doing Argo, The Town and The Company Men, films that didn’t have a high profile. You have the luxury of waiting until the movie is released before being judged. I’ve learned to think, I may succeed or fail, but I’m going to do so on the merit of my own instincts. It’s a great business in that way. You do a movie that’s successful, you get a little victory lap, and then you start at the beginning; you have to prove yourself all over again. I like that because it motivates you to work harder. I was thrilled with the reception Argo got. It was one of the great professional experiences of my life. I’m thrilled I’m working with David Fincher in Gone Girl and that I’ll direct Live by Night, this big, sweeping gangster-epic morality story.
You turned around a cold streak playing George Reeves in Hollywoodland, a film about how his acting career was destroyed after he was typecast as Superman. Did you learn any lessons to prepare you to play another caped icon?
When George Reeves was Super-man you had three TV channels, and that show was iconic. Now there are so many more options. You see actors doing everything from YouTube shorts to big-budget movies. Also, television shows hold you hostage for long periods. My wife was on a show for five years. It’s the same with Jon Hamm and Mad Men. It’s conceivable you could become hostage to one role. In movies? Look at Robert Downey Jr. He’s able to be brilliant in Iron Man and The Avengers, but he can also go do Sherlock Holmes.
George Clooney kept a photo of himself as Batman on his office wall as a reminder of what can happen when you take a role for money and fame. If you had such a photo in your office, which movie would you go with?
I’d probably have two or three. [laughs] It’d be tough to choose. The only movie I actually regret is Daredevil. It just kills me. I love that story, that character, and the fact that it got fucked up the way it did stays with me. Maybe that’s part of the motivation to do Batman.
Describe what holding that Oscar statue meant to you when Argo won for best picture.
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.
Contrast that with the night you and your best friend, Matt Damon, won Oscars for best original screenplay for Good Will Hunting.
The girlfriend I was with at the time was working out of town.
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?
Like he was going to call for security?
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.
You spoke first?
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.
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.
[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?
How were you able to navigate those potential land mines better than those other films did?
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.
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?
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.
She bolstered your confidence?
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.
Your relationship with Jennifer Garner came after a very public engagement to Jennifer Lopez. Both your relationships were tabloid fodder.
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.
He’s the guy who——
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.
You can say what you want about me. You can yell at me with a video camera and be TMZ. I don’t care. But it’s wrong and disgusting to follow children around.
Once I saw my way out of it, I said, You know what? I don’t even care anymore. I’m going to focus on my job. I don’t give a shit. Take my picture. Write what you want to write. At the end of the day, what you write in a gossip column doesn’t matter. What matters is how the movie works. I found out it doesn’t kill you. But once I thought I had that figured out, I started having kids. And that is when I drew the line. What is the line?
You can say what you want about me. You can yell at me with a video camera and be TMZ. You can follow me around and take pictures all you want. I don’t care. There are a couple of guys outside right now. Terrific. That’s part of the deal. But it’s wrong and disgusting to follow children around and take their picture and sell it for money. It makes the kids less safe. They used to take pictures of our children coming out of preschool, and so this stalker who had threatened to kill me, my wife and our kids showed up at the school and got arrested. I mean, there are real practical dangers to this.
How close did he get?
He was in the pack of paparazzi. They didn’t know he was a guy who was threatening to murder our family. That makes me angry. It’s a safety thing, and there’s also a sanity thing. My kids aren’t celebrities. They never made that bargain. We were offered a lot of money to sell pictures of our kids when they were born. You’ll notice there aren’t any. I make no judgment about people who decide differently; a lot of them give the money to charity. For me it was a matter of principle. I didn’t want someone to be able to come back and say I was complicit, that it wasn’t a question of principle as much as price.
You didn’t want to be a hypocrite.
As their father it’s my job to protect them from that stuff. I try my very best, and sometimes I’m successful. The tragic thing is, people who see those pictures naturally think it’s sweet. They don’t see the gigantic former gang member with a huge lens standing over a four-year-old and screaming to get the kid’s attention. The kids are always looking down because they’re freaked out and scared of these people. And so they yell. Which is fine if you’re Lindsay Lohan coming out of a club, or me or any adult. With kids it’s tasteless at best. A lot of these photographs are being bought by legitimate magazines. In the U.K. they have a good system: If you take a kid’s picture, you have to blur out the face. It protects the privacy of children, any child. I wish we would do that here, though I don’t expect it. When my wife met with California lawmakers to get legislation passed to establish a certain distance between paparazzi and children and also to prevent the stalking behavior on the part of the paparazzi, she was opposed by the association of magazine and newspaper folks. They said it would have a chilling effect on the way the news was covered. You couldn’t chill the internet coverage of celebrities if you tried.
But do you understand why the press would worry about infringements on the First Amendment?
I think the First Amendment and the public’s right to know are adequately served by photographers who are at least 100 feet away. They all have 300-millimeter lenses. I’m a photographer myself, and I can tell you with complete confidence that you can get a fine picture. I understand we won’t be able to prevent them from taking photos of children or get them to blur the faces, even though I think that would be preferable. But at the very least there should be a bubble of safety. We do that at football games: You can’t just come on the field. We do that with politicians: You can’t photograph the president from any distance you want.
You took a lot of heat for making movies with Jennifer Lopez when you were a couple. Is that why you and your wife don’t work together?
Yes. Well, my wife and I made Pearl Harbor and Daredevil. With our track record, I don’t know if anyone’s looking for a three-quel.
You’re not Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn? Exactly. I think it doesn’t work. It’s already hard to get people to suspend disbelief, and then you have married couples in the same movie. People know about the marriage, and they’re not willing to acknowledge the couple as anything else. And marriage is boring to people. They say, “I’m married 20 years. I love my wife, but I have that at home.” People want to see the kindling of new romance in movies. It’s exciting, but not when it’s a couple they know has been together for 10 years.
You developed a political profile campaigning for presidential candidates Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama. How did that come about?
I grew up in a house with a mother who was a teacher and a Freedom Rider—very left-wing Democrats living in a heterogeneous working-class neighborhood. I picked up a lot of those values there, and I brought them with me when I showed up in Hollywood. In 2000 the Gore campaign said, “Hey, would you come do this with us?” And I did. I thought I had a responsibility, so I campaigned for Gore. Kerry was a Boston guy, and I felt an organic connection. And then Obama in 2008. Over time I became disillusioned, mostly with the pernicious effect of money in politics. I realized it was about raising $56,000 through a couple of dinners and those bundlers who bring in $1 million or $2 million. Those people are dedicated, and they believe in what they’re doing. I believe in why many of them are doing it. What I don’t believe in is that we now have the need to do it. And for me personally, it started to feel gross.
Being used as a prop to schmooze people and try to milk the teat of the donor for money. We’d do it sparingly. Matt and I did a thing for Elizabeth Warren, whom we like and who won. We did a fund-raiser for Cory Booker, whom we also like. People now know me as a Democrat, and that will always be the case to some extent.
Does that polarize viewers?
It does, and you can bifurcate your audience. When I watch a guy I know is a big Republican, part of me thinks, I probably wouldn’t like this person if I met him, or we would have different opinions. That shit fogs the mind when you should be paying attention and be swept into the illusion.
__Still, won’t that happen whether you take positions on candidates or causes? __
I have misgivings about it, counterbalanced with the larger things I care about. I don’t blindly do this stuff when it makes it harder to do my own job. And there’s an awful lot of gross money-raising going on that has made me want to pull back a bit from pure electoral politics. So I started an organization called the Eastern Congo Initiative after I found what I thought was the worst place in the world. Five million people have died in 15 years. One in six kids doesn’t live to see the age of five. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has almost no functioning state security apparatus. There are regions in this country where two out of three women have been raped. It’s an incredibly broken, needy part of the world, and nobody was working there. I thought, Okay, I’ll take that on. If I’m going to raise money, that’s what I’ll raise money for. That feels like a good way to spend my time.
Will you campaign for Hillary Clinton in 2016?
I haven’t abandoned it, but I look at working in politics again with a more jaundiced eye. Hillary does excite me, in the same way the potent symbolism of the first African American president was what thrilled people about Obama. It’s similar with Hillary and gender equality. The idea that 100 years after women got the right to vote, to have a woman president would be exciting.
You’ve been approached to run for office and told you could win. How seriously did you consider it?
I don’t give it serious thought, because it would take me away from what I consider to be the prime of my storytelling career. I feel more in touch with that and what I want to do than I ever have. I wouldn’t step away from that for anything. I also know people are probably bullshitting when they tell you that you can win. It turns you into a professional fund-raiser. I don’t know what the future holds when I’m 55, 65 or 75. Right now it’s about making movies I believe in, that I think will thrill and entertain and be meaningful to audiences.
When you played a congressman in State of Play, one of the politicians you patterned your character after was Anthony Weiner.
Which goes to show you how sharp my dramatic instincts were. I was tuned in.
How surprised were you when he was undone the first time, came back and had his Gotham mayoral aspirations dashed when it was exposed he was still sexting, under the moniker Carlos Danger? Are politics more of a shark tank than Hollywood?
Yeah, D.C. is a little more of a shark tank than Hollywood because I think there’s a zero-sum game at play. You have to be out for me to get in, and the harder I hit you, the better it is for me. In Hollywood I’m a great believer in the idea that there is room for many people to succeed. There are a lot of long lives in this business.
Let’s reminisce about a few of your movies. Tell me what pops into your mind. Dazed and Confused?
That’s where I learned that an actor could contribute to a movie beyond reading lines. Richard Linklater sent a note to all the actors that said, “If this movie is produced as written, it’ll be a massive underachievement.” We were all 19 and 20 and down in Austin, and all the actors started to write their own ideas and their own little scenes. It demystified the process for me in an important way. And I was in Austin with all those young people that summer, and I was the only person who didn’t have sex.
You tell me. Maybe it was the hairdo.
Your character was so loathsome you didn’t get laid?
You know, I can’t explain these things.
__Next: I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three Picture Deal at Disney. __
That was the first thing I directed. I was into directing student-film shorts. My friend Jay Lacopo had written this untitled 12-page screenplay. I gave him a title and he said, “You direct it.” I thought, Well, I don’t understand screen direction, but sure, I’ll direct it. We shot that for a couple of days and——
And you’ve been living it down ever since?
I don’t know. It’s pretty good, actually. Some of my best work.
One of the best experiences I’ve had. We all lived in Kevin Smith’s house. We rehearsed it like a play. We shot on 16 millimeter. I got the chance to do the kind of acting I had never done before. Not knowing if anyone would ever see this cheap movie was freeing. It didn’t seem like a movie, more like people running around with a video camera.
My introduction to big-budget Hollywood. I went from Chasing Amy a year before to being in a movie that cost $150 million, or whatever it was. We shot for 100 days with cool indie actors like Billy Bob Thornton, Owen Wilson and Steve Buscemi. We had fun.
Is that the first time you really made money? How did you handle it?
We had sold the Good Will Hunting script for $600,000, and we split it, 300 grand apiece. After taxes, $125,000. And then we each bought cars for $50,000—I bought a Jeep Cherokee—so we were down to $75,000. By the end of the year we were flat broke. So I had experience running through 600,000 bucks. And then on Armageddon I made another $600,000.
Pearl Harbor was a wonderful experience. I got to know my wife, and there were a lot of people I liked. It was a disappointment because I thought we were making an iconic movie that could have been made before the war, a Titanic kind of movie. It ultimately ended up being like Armageddon in World War II. You can make Armageddon about oil drillers on an asteroid. You can’t make Armageddon about the Doolittle Raid because that’s history and people take that seriously. You talked about being picky over historical accuracy. Michael Bay, the director, wanted a more commercial tone, and it was commercial, a big hit. People say Pearl Harbor was a bomb. It was absolutely not. It did half a billion dollars, but it became a light piece of entertainment.
Roger Michell taught me casting. He showed me that if you cast every tiny part as if it were the lead, you can create a whole world of people you can live in as an actor. I met Bradley Cooper. I liked working with Sam Jackson a lot. My memory is of Roger taking what could have easily been a 1970s genre action film and turning it into a rumination on anger and morality.
You forgot your cast mate Sydney Pollack, also a great director.
Oh my God. I grilled Sydney about all his movies, and there were so many. I remember him saying, “Of the seven movies.…” I said “Wait a minute. You directed seven movies?” He said, “No, I directed seven movies that star Robert Redford.” [laughs] So many amazing stories. His Stanley Kubrick stories.…
Can you tell us one?
Sydney was acting for him in Eyes Wide Shut, and Stanley wanted him to hold a glass in a specific place. Sydney told him, “Stanley, I wouldn’t do that. It’s not real.” And Kubrick said, “Real is good. Interesting is better.” He’s the reason people are afraid to cast actors who are directors, because after one or two takes he’d be muttering, “Come on, I think we got this. Don’t we have it?”
The Sum of All Fears.
I met Morgan Freeman, which was great because I was able to ask him to work for free when we did Gone Baby Gone. We shot The Sum of All Fears in Montreal, and it almost killed me. That town never closes. The food is amazing, the drink is amazing, the girls are gorgeous. It’s not a place to focus on your work.
Gone Baby Gone. I was terrified. Everybody said, “This is going to suck. Ben Affleck is directing. This movie’s going to be shit.” I was very discouraged by it and didn’t have a lot of support from anybody really, except my wife. And Matt.
Critics were impressed with your cast. Your star, Ed Harris, is known for not suffering fools.
No, he does not suffer anything. I’ve always gotten along with and respect actors. It becomes clear after a minute or two talking to me as the director on a movie that I care about them doing their best work and that I give them all the latitude and time they need and that I understand the story and I’m not going to ask them to do anything that doesn’t make sense. That’s a lot for an actor to hear.
I got confidence from Gone Baby Gone that I could get through a movie, shoot it and have it make sense. The Town was a step up in trying to execute on the genre components. The movie borrowed a lot from Michael Mann’s Heat. Look how well they did it in that movie—you can’t do it any better. I took that realism and tried to apply it to our action stuff. There were a lot of techniques we used. Some worked, and others we didn’t put in the movie. Ultimately it was about making a slightly bigger, slightly more Hollywood movie and wrapping it around a drama that had themes that were meaningful to me. I thought, If I do this right, I will be considered for more stuff. And then Jeff Robinov at Warner Bros. handed me Argo. I read it and immediately knew I had to make it, that it was perfect.
How about some movies that were considered flops but might have been memorable milestones for you. Gigli?
Gigli’s where I learned to direct. Martin Brest, the guy who did Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run and Scent of a Woman, is a great director who understands how to help an actor. The love he had for what he was doing, the care he took with the performances and the way he made it about the story and the actors rather than imposing some sort of artifice or style on top of it—all that rubbed off on me when I shot The Town.
Daredevil. Can you put your finger on where it went wrong?
I think it would be impolite to say so.
The Rotten Tomatoes rating is not in direct proportion to how important a life experience a movie was. The hit movies I’ve done did nothing for me personally.
I bear a share of responsibility. You can’t divorce yourself and say it was everybody else’s fault and not mine. I was there. But by the same token, actors are often afforded too much credit and too much blame. These things are risky by nature, and I have worked as hard on ones that didn’t work as I did on Argo. Sometimes it’s in the hands of the movie gods. You think something’s smart and that it will resonate, you bust your ass, and it just doesn’t congeal. That’s why I judge directors by their successes. Everybody’s capable of missing, but there aren’t many who are capable of doing something special. Considering the career adversity you’ve overcome, should we not be surprised that your memories of failures are more vivid than of hits? Do you dwell on failure?
No, it’s something else. Look at Daredevil. That’s where I found my wife. We met on Pearl Harbor, which people hate, but we fell in love on Daredevil. By the way, she won most of the fights in the movie, which was a pretty good predictor of what would happen down the road—my wife, holding swords and beating the living shit out of me.
The Rotten Tomatoes rating is not in direct proportion to how important a life experience a movie was. Surviving Christmas is a one tomato, which means a shitty movie. Again, it should’ve been better, could’ve been better. To me, meeting James Gandolfini and getting to know him at such an interesting and important period in both our lives, and the degree to which we bonded and became friends, is something I wouldn’t trade for anything. He was a lovely man, and so tough on himself. Most of the good things in my life have come out of movies that didn’t work very well. That made that movie a great experience, despite what people said about it. As you point out, like Pearl Harbor, Daredevil and Surviving Christmas. The hit movies I’ve done did nothing for me personally.
You got into some trouble overdoing it when you were young and had Hollywood at your feet for the first time.
I wasn’t married. I showed up in Hollywood, and all of a sudden girls were talking to me. I thought, Wow, what changed? So I had a lot of girlfriends and a lot of fun. I definitely ran around, and I hit the wall a few times and made some mistakes. But that’s part of a young man growing up. I think it was the only natural reaction to the situation I found myself in. It’s part of what has allowed me to have more perspective now as an older guy.
There is an “I’ll show them” attitude in how you built your career. Does that go back to dropping out of college after a professor embarrassed you?
Matt and I were writing Good Will Hunting and living in Eagle Rock. I was going to school at Occidental. I had a creative writing professor who asked us to write 20 pages of anything, free-flowing, no-rules type stuff. I brought in 20 pages of Good Will Hunting. I started to read it and she said, “Stop, stop, stop. That’s not an acceptable literary form. Screenplay is not literature.” Then she allowed the class to weigh in and make jokes at my expense. I stood there mortified, my face turning red, a classic moment of humiliation. She said she expected something else from me in two days. I walked out and never went back.
I quit school and never went back for one second more of classes after that. I just said, “Fuck it. This is not helping me. I’m going to do this on my own with Matt.” I don’t think I’m the only person who has used something like that as motivation.
What kind of influence was your father? He did everything from tend bar to write, direct and produce. And he was a bookie.
Yeah. Not in that order, but yeah.
It sounds like his dreams went unfulfilled.
Yeah. My dad was—is a very gifted writer and thinker. He worked in a theater company in Boston with Dustin Hoffman, with Robert Duvall. He knew Jon Voight and James Woods, all of whom have come up to tell me this subsequently. My dad had ambitions but also a troubled life. He had a lot of tragedy in his family, a lot of pain, and he drank to ease some of that pain. Once you start drinking too much, it’s hard to fulfill your ambitions. He became a pretty serious alcoholic. He’s sober now. He’s been sober for 20 years, and I think it’s incredibly admirable. But when he was drinking, he fell apart. My mom kicked him out, and then he was kicking around and living on the street.
What does that do to a son who also has creative aspirations?
That was a formative period for me. It caused me to obsess about success and money, because my dad ran out of money and got kicked out of his house. I obsessed about how important money was. It got wired into my DNA, and that obsession probably caused me to do some movies I shouldn’t have.
How did your dad’s struggle inform your voice as a writer?
My dad definitely didn’t push me into this. He worried, based on how difficult his own experience was, and he was caught between that and not wanting to discourage me. He was working in the theater and then he was a bartender, and that’s when he was making book a little bit. He was making a lot of money betting against the Patriots, basically. And that’s how we got our first VCR and washer-dryer. My dad used to say, “You can thank [Patriots quarterback] Steve Grogan.” He got canned from that job and ended up a janitor at Harvard. That’s where the Harvard janitor dynamic in Good Will Hunting comes from.
That character was your father?
Yeah. The tension of the friendship between the Robin Williams character and Stellan Skarsgård’s professor character was sort of me and Matt’s imagination of my dad and the guys he was in the theater with who went on to become successful. Pick any one of these famous guys. The notion was, Yeah, you’ve done well, but you’re not better than me. You know?
Matt Damon has been your friend since you were eight. What’s the value in a long-term friendship like that?
I probably can’t overstate the degree to which he’s been helpful, even in that it’s psychologically good to have somebody you trust, who’s going through it too, who can understand what you’re going through and whose opinion you respect. Matt just moved down the street from me, so he lives closer to me now than when we were growing up together in Boston. Our kids hang out together; we have barbecues. I was at his place two nights ago. Having a friend you’ve been connected to since you were a little kid, that’s grounding. Matt and my brother Casey are the two people I rely on the most, emotionally and professionally.
Isn’t there a competitive nature between you? Who wins at poker?
I’m still the better poker player, probably, though neither of us plays much anymore. Matt was talking about getting a game going in his house. Yeah, we’re competitive, but we learned to handle it early on. We would take the train from Boston to New York to audition. We both felt, Look, I want to get the part, but if it’s not me, I want it to be you. It was a healthy way of acknowledging you want what you want, but you’re also rooting for the other guy.
Since you don’t play cards anymore, what is your current guilty pleasure?
A 1966 Chevelle, and the slight guilt comes from its carbon footprint. [laughs] I try to stay away from too much guilty stuff. Between working and then being home and spending time with my kids, I don’t have too much time. I still have my motorcycle, which I don’t drive too often. You have to have something, some contact with that part of yourself that’s not just putting shoes on kids.