Ben Affleck: Return to the Fold
By Peter Wallace
A spectacular cinematic rise, followed by an equally dramatic fall from grace: Ben Affleck’s career has had more than its fair share of highs and lows. But with newfound self-acceptance and a rediscovered sense of faith, this once bright young thing has turned his many flaws into future strength.
It’s not been an easy time of late for Ben Affleck. In 2017, the two-time Academy Award-winner hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons after a high-profile relapse into alcoholism. Never one to be far from the prying lenses of the world’s paparazzi, images of Affleck, shabby and sombre-faced, were splashed across the world’s biggest entertainment news outlets.
This proved to be the final straw in his on-again, off-again marriage to fellow Hollywood star and mother of his children Jennifer Garner, with the pair finalising their divorce a year later. And all this occurred against a backdrop of professional instability – from the poor reception of his high-profile turns as Batman/Bruce Wayne to his long-time connections to disgraced super-producer and now convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein.
‘I have always felt that the public has a very distorted image of me,’ Affleck, now 47, says. ‘I never felt like that guy the press was writing about. Early on, I tried to play with that image and give the impression that I knew it was a game and that I hoped the public would understand I'm not taking myself seriously. But somehow all that got warped and I became part of a media circus. I blame myself, I could have avoided it, but I thought I could manage things and still have my integrity intact. It didn't work out that way and I really suffered because of that.’
It’s fitting, therefore, that Affleck’s latest film – for which he is receiving rave reviews – is something of a mirror to his recent real-life fall. In The Way Back, Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a former construction worker and alcoholic who seeks redemption as a high school basketball coach. The off-screen parallels of the central performance where not lost on Affleck.
‘I felt really emotionally connected and in tune with where I needed to be, character-wise,’ he told hometown outlet Boston.com. ‘Ultimately it was an inspirational movie. It’s a movie about overcoming adversity, and it had a message of hope that really resonated with me and really still does now, and it’s probably the performance I’m most proud of.’
Early signs seem to suggest The Way Back is a welcome return to form for Affleck, who shot to fame alongside childhood friend Matt Damon as the writer/stars of 1998 classic Good Will Hunting. The film cemented the pair as two of the industry’s brightest young stars, and Affleck dined out on leading man status for some time after – but by the early Noughties, after a series of film flops, most notably Daredevil and the critically-mauled Gigli, Affleck’s career had taken a nosedive.
‘I don’t want to blame everything on Gigli but obviously it wasn’t the right film and it was definitely the wrong time for that film to come out,’ he says. ‘I did so much popcorn stuff and I didn’t quite realize that there are good popcorn movies and bad popcorn movies. I also found myself at the end of that period with this horrible feeling that I was trapped inside a whole tabloid situation. I felt as if I was an actor on a soap opera that I had no control over. I’d just look at the paper every day to find out what I did in this week’s episode.’
Now approaching his milestone fiftieth, Affleck has long been an elder statesman of cinema by virtue of his precocious fame, if not his age. As someone who has tasted both the best and worst that fame has to offer, he worries that today’s world makes it easier for young actors to find their every mistake broadcast around the world.
‘In the 50s, there were only three networks, only a few “studio-approved” magazine stories, and some publicity tours that were much more low-key. Newspapers weren't giving celebrities anywhere near the coverage you get today. It was a much different thing. There was a kind of polite distance that the media tended to keep from celebrities. It had not become the kind of cult of personality, culture of celebrity, continual, carnivorous, voracious machine of fifteen outlets and the internet, bloggers, gossip, just additional layers upon layers. There’s a demand. It’s a really different, faster, almost immediate news cycle now.’
And though success in The Way Back is sure to catapult him back into the limelight – especially given those past troubles – there’s a sense that this time the star is determined to show the discerning public the real Ben Affleck.
‘You have to separate your identity and your happiness from whatever's going on with your career,’ he says. ‘It's not about getting the big pay cheque. It's not about being a star. That's not going to make you happy.’
Integral to this personal renaissance is Affleck’s recent revelation that he has rediscovered his faith after years in the proverbial wilderness. Following in the footsteps of now-former wife Garner, who went through a high-profile readmission into the church during the filming of 2016’s Miracles from Heaven, Affleck recently revealed to Beliefnet that he goes ‘to the Methodist Church.’
‘I got introduced to Christianity a little bit later in life,’ he explained. ‘I struggle with my faith, I struggle with belief, but I do see there's something enormously beautiful and elegant about the notion that we are all sinners, and that it's our job to find our redemption, to find God's love, to redeem ourselves, to live the best life that we can, to love one another, to not judge one another, and to forgive one another.’
But Affleck isn’t just searching for forgiveness from his fans or his family – in a very real way he has recently been able to forgive himself.
‘I started out wanting to be an artist and to do stuff that was beautiful, and that I was really proud of. Then I think that I kind of got cynical and decided that I was going to carve out a niche for myself, set a period of time aside and just say, “Screw it.” And make money and have this and do that and have a more mainstream career. I'm coming off a period of re-evaluation where I've just been trying to rethink my career and what I expect from it and how I'm going to achieve what I want.’
But though Affleck has often worn himself down with worry and fears that he's not living up to his own expectations, there is no doubting his social conscience. Rather than relying on high-minded talk, he has invested considerable time and money in projects such as the East Congo Initiative, an economic development programme he co-founded in 2010 that has since poured in millions of dollars of aid into the war-torn region.
‘I'm an American working to do my part. I want to look back and say that I contributed to society in a way that is commensurate with the blessings I've had in life. Targeted investment will drive economic growth and produce jobs...We also have to support women and children against very oppressive circumstances.’
Having been raised in a social activist household, Affleck has long been a champion of numerous social and political causes inside the US and abroad, and has been particularly concerned about the devastating impact of a long-standing civil war in the Congo.
‘I think most people are empathetic and see people who are struggling and are responsive to that, but for me, having my own children definitely added to that sense of global responsibility and made me feel even more for other people's suffering. I cannot imagine what it would’ve been like driving my wife to the hospital pregnant, about to give birth and thinking to myself, “There’s a 15 percent chance that our child won’t live to be five years old.”’
And where once Affleck’s relationship with his family was the desired fodder of tabloid editors around the world, now his continuing amicable bond with Garner and children Violet, Seraphina and Samuel should stand as something of a touchstone for divorced parents everywhere.
‘The birth of my children has been the most beautiful and important thing that has happened to me. Watching my children grow up has changed me in many ways and made me a better person. I see it as my role and privilege to be able to help them become good people and to teach them to be respectful, thoughtful, and caring. When you have kids, what's that expression, “Your heart is outside your body.” All of the sudden you feel so vulnerable and this fear of a child being vulnerable is very, very powerful; it's not easy.’
Time will tell if Affleck’s newfound self-acceptance survives the pitfalls of fame. Post-The Way Back he is set to star in two big-budget blockbusters, Deep Water and The Last Duel. Tentative steps back have become great strides – and the success of these projects could mark the start of a new chapter for the star, or dredge up memories of painful past failures in film.
‘I started out in the film business with a lot of great aspirations and ultimately you realise that it's a very uncertain world. You can have a lot of success and then suddenly everything can go wrong. I know how this business works and one thing I've learnt about my profession is that, just like in life, things are always going to change. I had a lot of luck, but I also worked hard to achieve whatever I've done. I think there's always going to be a strong correlation between success and hard work. I look at the careers guys like John Huston and see how they had big hits and big misses and lived big lives. That’s OK with me as a model. I don’t mind the high stakes gambling nature of this profession. If it’s a hit, you’re a hit, and if it’s a bomb, you’re a bomb. That’s just the way things go. There’s something uniquely American about that.’
Equally all-American is Affleck’s resolution to keep going through thick and thin, though one hopes the coming years prove somewhat less of a struggle.
‘I'm not leaving anything. Even though a lot of people might like to write my epitaph now, I feel I have my best work ahead of me. I'm going to do better films, I'm going to wait for the right roles, and I'm not going to put myself in the position of wondering why I'm not doing the films I always dreamed about when I was a struggling actor, working on Good Will Hunting and wanted to be part of great movies. I've been able to achieve a lot more than I ever expected and I feel very lucky to be where I am, considering how things didn't always go my way. I've always been the same person and I've always wanted to do interesting projects and take risks. Directing was something I wanted to do even though a lot of people were sceptical, and the probability of failure was high. But I knew I wanted to take that step and that's worked out very well for me, so I feel very grateful for everything that's happened.’
It’s hard not to want Affleck to succeed, whatever his past indiscretions. The current glare of press attention is unforgiving in the extreme, and for someone who was thrust into Hollywood as something of a wunderkind, the path Affleck has travelled has seen his one-time arrogance fade away in the wake of accepting outside support – from peers, friends, family, and God.
‘One of the things that I found most beautiful about faith are these extremely powerful ideas that are very, very relevant, probably more relevant today than ever. Because there's a little bit more of an attitude of “find something somebody did wrong once and get rid of them.” And that to me feels unnecessarily judgmental. It's that “He [who is] without sin cast the first stone.” I think that