March 1, 2020 12:10:35 am
Warning: This is not one of those celebrity profiles that uses a teaspoon of new information to flavour a barrel of ancient history. There is no paragraph where the star and the writer pretend to be pals. And, you will not get served the obligatory canned quote from Matt Damon. This is Ben Affleck, raw and vulnerable, talking extensively for the first time about getting sober (again) and trying to recalibrate his career (again).
Affleck, Oscar-winning writer, director of the Oscar-winning Argo, better actor than you remember — and, yes, alcoholic, divorced and proud possessor of a mythical back tattoo — has four movies coming out this year, including his first all-on-him movie in four years: The Way Back, a poignant sports drama that arrives in theaters on March 6. Affleck plays a reluctant high school basketball coach with big problems — he’s a puffy, willful, fall-down drunk who blows up his marriage and lands in rehab. You read that correctly.
“People with compulsive behaviour, and I am one, have this kind of basic discomfort all the time that they’re trying to make go away,” he said a couple of Sundays ago during a two-hour interview at a beachside spot in Los Angeles. “You’re trying to make yourself feel better with eating or drinking or sex or gambling or shopping or whatever. But that ends up making your life worse. Then you do more of it to make that discomfort go away. Then the real pain starts. It becomes a vicious cycle you can’t break. That’s at least what happened to me.”
He cleared his throat. “I drank relatively normally for a long time. What happened was that I started drinking more and more when my marriage was falling apart. This was 2015, 2016. My drinking, of course, created more marital problems.”
Affleck’s marriage to Jennifer Garner, with whom he has three children, ended in 2018 after a long separation. He said he still felt guilt but had moved past shame. “The biggest regret of my life is this divorce,” he continued. “I have certainly made mistakes. I have certainly done things that I regret. But you’ve got to pick yourself up, learn from it, learn some more, try to move forward,” he added.
Hollywood has certainly granted Affleck clemency. He just finished acting in Deep Water, a psychological thriller co-starring Ana de Armas, that’s due in theaters in November. He’s on Netflix this month in The Last Thing He Wanted, an abysmally reviewed mystery anchored by Anne Hathaway and directed by Dee Rees. Affleck has also been working with the Oscar-nominated Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and Damon on the script for The Last Duel.
Affleck is also zeroing in on another directing project for himself. He wants to tackle King Leopold’s Ghost, an epic about the colonial plundering of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo; Martin Scorsese has signed on as a producer. (Affleck co-founded the Eastern Congo Initiative, a nonprofit advocacy group, in 2010.)
He has not talked much about his alcoholism since completing a third stint in rehab in 2018. (The first two were in 2001 and 2017.) But the arrival of The Way Back has made the subject impossible to avoid. Affleck has also accepted that the second word in Alcoholics Anonymous does not apply to him — certainly not after he (briefly) relapsed in the fall, turning up smashed on TMZ a few months after making it known that he had achieved one year of continuous sobriety. “Relapse is embarrassing, obviously,” he said. “I wish it didn’t happen. I really wish it wasn’t on the internet for my kids to see. Jen and I did our best to address it and be honest.”
Growing up in Massachusetts, Affleck saw his own father drunk almost every day, he said. “My dad didn’t really get sober until I was 19,” Affleck said, adding, “There’s a lot of alcoholism and mental illness in my family. The legacy of that is quite powerful and sometimes hard to shake.” His younger brother, Casey, 44, has spoken about his own alcoholism and sobriety. Their paternal grandmother took her own life in a motel when she was 46. An uncle killed himself with a shotgun. An aunt was a heroin addict.
Affleck has a habit of putting himself in the cross hairs. He thought it was a good idea to star (with Damon) as a fallen angel in Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999), which Disney decided was too blasphemous for its Miramax label to release. Playing Batman as melancholy and middle-aged was certainly not a safe choice. The Last Duel has already provoked indignation on social media; Affleck and Damon play a knight and a squire who are forced to duel after a woman’s rape accusation.
And now comes The Way Back, a spare film with a 1970s vibe about a man imprisoned by alcoholism. How exactly does he make these choices? Affleck laughed. “I’ve never been very risk-averse — for better or worse, obviously,” he said. “Regarding The Way Back, the benefits, to me, far outweighed the risks. I found it very therapeutic.”
The Way Back was directed by Gavin O’Connor from a script by O’Connor and Brad Ingelsby. Jack Cunningham (Affleck) is a construction worker coping with devastating personal loss. His home away from home is a lowlife bar, the kind of place you can smell before you go in. Sometimes he holes up in his apartment to down cases of beer. He starts each morning by drinking beer in the shower, the can balanced on a sad soap caddy.
Without knowing the extent of his alcoholism, the principal at Jack’s alma mater asks him to coach the boys’ basketball team, which has even less self-esteem than he does. Melvin Gregg (American Vandal) stars as a player with off-court troubles. Toward the end of The Way Back, Jack has a powerful interaction with his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar, The Morning Show). He is in rehab at this point, and, when she comes to see how he is doing, he offers her an unflinching apology. “I failed you,” he says. “I failed our marriage.”
It’s rough stuff, especially when watched through the prism of everything that has gone on with Affleck offscreen. You can’t help but think about similar conversations that he must have had with Garner.
“It was really important, without being mawkish or false, that he make amends to her — that he take accountability for the pain that he and only he has caused,” Affleck said.
O’Connor said that Affleck had a “total breakdown” on set after completing the scene. “It was like a floodgate opened up,” O’Connor said, adding, “It was startling and powerful. I think that was a very personal moment in the movie. I think that was him.”
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