Ben Affleck has something to shout about
Romancer of J-Lo, husband of Jennifer Garner, beefcake specialist of Hollywood blockbusters... and director of sensitively handled film echoing the Madeleine McCann case. Ben Affleck is all these...
Ben Affleck's first film as a director, Gone Baby Gone, a harrowing tale of child abduction, received rave reviews when it came out in the US last year, but its release in Britain was postponed because of chilling parallels with the Madeleine McCann story – and the young lead actress's strong resemblance to the missing British girl.
Now, more than a year since Madeleine's disappearance, the film is finally about to be released here.
The film marks a radical departure for Affleck, whose career has more often been associated with mediocre, much-hyped popcorn films such as Pearl Harbor and Armageddon.
Suddenly he's being compared to actor/directors Clint Eastwood and Sean Penn for his sensitive handling of a complex story. Affleck, who grew up in a poor neighbourhood of Cambridge, Greater Boston, was just 24 when he joined the ranks of Hollywood's elite by winning a screenwriting Oscar with his pal Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting.
'I was immediately seduced by the movie-star lifestyle,' says Affleck, who spent much of his twenties drinking wildly and dating glamorous women – notably Gwyneth Paltrow.
'I thought I wanted all those things but I didn't,' he says. 'I never even wanted to be famous when I started acting.' It's ironic that Affleck became more famous than he could possibly imagine, but not for his acting roles.
He fell for Jennifer Lopez on the set of the film Gigli and soon the affair ensured that along with the other half of 'Bennifer' he was constantly in the full glare of the spotlight.
Surrounded by an entourage of hangers-on and bodyguards, they were never out of the headlines: 'I think Jen and I made a mistake in that we fell in love, we were excited and maybe too accessible.
'I don't think either of us anticipated the degree to which it would take on a life of its own.'
Now 35, Affleck's next film is a remake of the BBC mini-series State Of Play, with Russell Crowe and Helen Mirren. He is also about to direct a documentary in Africa about the plight of refugees. He is married to actress Jennifer Garner, and they have a two-year-old daughter, Violet.
No fate is too terrible for people who perpetrate crimes against children.
Emotionally, I think the Austrian sex offender Josef Fritzl should be killed. That is in the abstract, however. I don't believe in executing these criminals; as long we have a flawed system of determining guilt and innocence I think capital punishment is a bad idea. But in researching the film I heard about horrific cases, like a man who abducted children, held them for five months in a hotel room, abused them then murdered them. There was never a time I have more wanted to see somebody killed.
Being a father completely changed the way I felt about this film.
The McCann case and the subject of Gone Baby Gone give me tremendous concern and fear as a parent. What has happened to Madeleine McCann is terrible and it was the right decision to wait until now before bringing out the film, as we didn't want to upset the family. I started developing the movie a year or two before I became a parent. I don't think I would have been drawn to this subject or directed the film if I'd already had a child. Fatherhood made my opinions change from purely academic to acutely emotional.
After the first week of filming I was in so much pain they put me on drugs.
They actually gave me heroin and morphine derivatives. The film is tense and emotional and when it got to Friday I just gave out. I went home with a horrible headache; it felt like my head was cleaved in two. I tried to get up and I vomited. I went to the emergency room at the hospital and they gave me all these drugs, then four or five hours later it subsided a bit and I was able to go home. I don't know what triggered the pain. The intensity? The emotional subject matter? Maybe I was just tired and overworked – or you could say I have a feeble constitution.
There's a horrendous amount of abuse and neglect perpetrated against children.
It's estimated that one in five girls and one in ten boys will be the victims of sexual abuse and only one in three will ever tell anyone about it. Right there you have a terrible problem – sexual abuse takes place concurrently with children who are neglected. During research for the film, I worked with the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children [which is involved in the search for Madeleine McCann] and I found out about the extent of child abuse internationally. It is horrifying.
Behind the scenes - director Ben Affleck discusses a scene with his star, Casey Affleck
The film raises all kinds of questions about how we are treating our kids.
The child's drug-addict mother [played by Amy Ryan] is really foul and uses racist language. Your heart goes out to the little girl, not only because she's been taken by an abductor but also because of the squalor she lives in at home. I was interested in the moral ambiguity of it all. It's not entirely clear who is right or wrong or who you should be rooting for.
My brother Casey [who stars as a private detective] isn't in the movie because of who he is.
Nobody who sees the film could possibly think that. It was my job to help Casey flourish. I knew that he would be great and that he was going to surprise people. When you are working with your brother, there is always the risk that the discussions could degenerate [into rows]. But we both knew we had to take it seriously.
I attribute many of my own failings to watching too much TV as a kid.
Sometimes, abuse is as simple as leaving your kids in front of the TV all day and thinking that it is sufficient parenting. Sometimes, it's as bad as we see in the movie, where there is real neglect. Jen and I are fortunate because only one of us works at a time, so we can do our own childcare. But that's extremely unusual. I think TV is bad for kids when their brains are developing – so I keep it to a minimum with my daughter.
I want to show people a world that they never normally get to see.
I grew up in a poor, tough part of Boston, very much like the neighbourhoods in the film. I wanted to reveal what it is really like in one of those areas the audience would never have access to – bars they would be too scared to visit. We would go in to the bars that were full at 8am and we'd say: 'OK, you guys are in the movie'… and we would buy them all beers.
The cops nearly arrested us a couple of times because they thought we were drug dealers.
We were working in parts of town where there was a lot of drug-dealing going on and a couple of times the cops swooped on us. Once they talked to us because there was a human trafficking ring in a house nearby. It was wild. We would show up in the worst parts of the area and we came across some pretty terrible stuff.
When I was growing up, a friend of mine was stabbed and killed for his jacket .
Another friend was killed in high school and there was a boy whose mother was a prostitute. There were kids who were abused at home and families with drug addicts and alcoholics, and there were kids I knew who went to jail. A few died. My mother was a teacher; my father was a janitor and a bartender. I knew kids whose parents were firemen and cops – they ran the whole gamut of jobs. It was a very close-knit community and by the same token it was unstable and violent and hostile. It's that mixed feeling that I wanted to capture in the film.
I wasn't particularly tough but I was always in fights.
I don't really remember winning decisively – at best there were draws. I was pretty small – I was only 5ft 4in as a teenager and then when I was 16 I suddenly grew about a foot. But I always thought of myself as a little guy and when I grew I was still incredibly gangly and awkward and unco-ordinated. I was not going to take anyone down on the streets of Boston…
My father was an alcoholic and there was a cycle of addiction in my family.
He was an addiction counsellor for many years and turned his life around in a very laudable way. But having such serious addiction issues has a major impact – it colours who you are and becomes part of you. I had my issues and went to rehab, which was a good thing for me. Of course I brought my own experiences to the film. The only real insights you have are your own experiences and you use them to try to be empathetic.
I would be delighted if Barack Obama became President.
I first met him in 2004 when I introduced him at an environmental rally in Los Angeles and I've been supporting him ever since. I think Hillary Clinton would be fine as President, but Obama is genuine – a real force. I think he will actually inspire people in the US and the world. I am not hopelessly naive. I really imagine that's possible, and I don't think that it would be possible with Hillary – and I am quite sure that would not be possible with John McCain.
Affleck: 'I don't miss being a bachelor at all'
When I first became famous and had money I went wild and crazy.
It was because I didn't really have any money while growing up. I was a really young guy who grew up with the school of thought that says: you try to be successful, make as much money as you can and when you do you buy a bunch of stuff and enjoy the fruits of your labour. But eventually I discovered that consumerism wasn't particularly rewarding and didn't ultimately reflect who I was. I just felt empty.
I don't live in an ashram but I live far more simply these days than people imagine.
I gave up the Bentley. I have just one car, a black Audi S8 and a Suzuki GSX1300 motorcycle that I don't even ride any more – it just sits there and gathers dust. We have one house – in LA – and our biggest extravagance is holidays; international travel. The only difference between having money and not having it is that it gives you the ability to pay your bills, take care of basic needs and take care of your family.
I beat 90 other players at poker.
It's one of the things I am most unashamedly proud of in my life, winning the California State Poker Championship four years ago. I'm no longer the reigning state champion because I didn't defend my title, but I still enjoy playing with friends in LA. I don't play nearly as much as I did now I have a family, but I do love it. It is really fascinating – there's maths in the game but it also involves intuitive evaluations of other people. You have to be able to read people, which is fun and I think I'm good at that.
I don't miss being a bachelor at all.
And I don't regret any of my past relationships. I had a good time and ran around and had fun. Now I'm just a happy guy. When I think about the path of my life, I know I did the right thing ending up being married to my wife, because I wouldn't change where I am. I am a product of everything that came before. 'Gone Baby Gone' is released on June 6
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