Opportunity Knocked at Every Turn

Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

Ben Affleck likes money as much as the next guy, but for a friend, he'll still work cheap.

Consider the small role the 26-year-old actor took in Billy Bob Thornton's upcoming comedy "Daddy and Them," whose entire budget--about $4 million--is dwarfed by Affleck's current asking price. Last fall, Affleck spent two days on Thornton's Arkansas set. Affleck's fee for portraying a Chicago lawyer: next to nothing.

"I said, 'All you have to do is put me up in the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock in the Paula Jones suite." It was the place where 'it' did or didn't happen," Affleck said happily, recalling that President Clinton's deposition about his alleged sexual indiscretion with Jones was on TV during the "Daddy and Them" shoot. "So I watched Clinton's testimony in the Paula Jones suite! That was my payment. That, and getting to watch Billy Bob direct and Brenda Blethyn act."

Affleck--whose sweet, muscular performance in "Armageddon" last year, combined with the Oscar for best screenplay he won with Matt Damon, has earned him a growing reputation as a hunk with brains--made a similar bargain on DreamWorks SKG's biblical animated feature "Joseph," a direct-to-video release for which he recently voiced the main character.

"You don't get any money or anything, really. I got a hat," he recalled, grinning as he flung his size-13 black Reeboks up on a desk at Pearl Street Productions, the West Hollywood-based company he and Damon set up last year. What made playing Joseph valuable to Affleck: spending time with DreamWorks exec Jeffrey Katzenberg. "He's really smart. That made it worth it."

If you were building a prototype for a turn-of-the-century movie star, Affleck might be it. Hip and handsome, with a goofy charm that nicely masks his ambition, Affleck is tampering with the time-honored Hollywood formula that equates an actor's star power with the size of his paycheck. Though Affleck is drawing $6 million for his role as an ex-convict in director John Frankenheimer's "Reindeer Games," which begins shooting in Canada next week, he is nevertheless continuing to mix big films and small, leading roles, supporting parts and cameos.

If the two poles of male movie stardom are the sensitive, waifish heartthrob (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the strong-jawed action hero (Harrison Ford), Affleck is somewhere near the equator, searching for a middle path. In recent films, he's shown he can be sexy or nerdy, sensitive or Neanderthal. At ease center stage or on the fringe, he doesn't hesitate to make fun of the one person many a superstar won't mock: himself. But as laid-back as he can appear on-screen, off-screen he is driven.

As he officially enters the ranks of mainstream leading men this month, starring opposite Sandra Bullock in the romantic comedy "Forces of Nature," he says he's not about to change course. Why fix what's not broken?

"It's not just me being altruistic, or art-for-art's-sake," he explained of his penchant for mixing big-ticket roles in studio movies with quirkier parts that pay scale. "It's helpful to me."

Already, Affleck has got solid indie roots--de rigueur for today's serious actor--having appeared in Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused" and Kevin Smith's "Mallrats" and "Chasing Amy." He followed the sleeper hit ("Good Will Hunting" in 1997) with a mega-budget blockbuster action flick ("Armageddon"). Even when he takes a relatively small part, he strikes gold: "Shakespeare in Love," in which he plays a likably vain thespian, got more Oscar nominations this year than any other film.

"What makes a movie star, whatever that ridiculous term means? We used to want a bunch of testosterone and muscle. Now, we want a '90s guy--self-deprecating, who can be as emotional and honest and delicate as he can be strong and swashbuckling," Bullock said when asked about her 6-foot-3-inch co-star, who not only emotes in "Forces of Nature" but also performs a striptease on top of a barroom table.

"Ben is very free," Bullock continued. "He doesn't get embarrassed about showing something affects him. You can see it on his face, which I think women like. And for men, he's so funny. He's so big, he can be a total goof. He's not just a handsome man sucking in his cheeks. The guy is all about the world of work. He's got a lot in his head."

Lately, Affleck has been hard to miss. Here he is in the audience of "Saturday Night Live," popping up to joke good-naturedly with the host, ex-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow, about their recent breakup. ("We just broke up a month ago," he reminded her as part of the gag, which was scripted at the last minute when someone else backed out. "Didn't you read about it? It was in all the papers.")

Here Affleck is backstage at the Mike Tyson-Francois Botha fight in Las Vegas, prompting gossip by having a conversation with barely dressed bombshell actress Pamela Anderson. (He insists the meeting was no tryst: "It's just not me--not that she presented the opportunity.")

Here he is on TV's "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher," arguing with Christian activists about the relevance of Clinton's sex life. ("My contention," he said mischievously, "is that having an affair makes you a better leader.")

And hey, isn't that him idling in traffic on San Vicente Boulevard, chatting with a couple of road repair workers who recognized the dude in the 1970 Chevy Malibu convertible as none other than A.J., the fresh-faced oil rigger in "Armageddon"?

"They wanted to know if I drive this all the time or if it's for a movie," Affleck said later of his huge blue boat of a car, one of his most prized possessions, which he keeps in Los Angeles. "They were nice guys."

If the bicoastal Affleck, who has an apartment off Sunset Boulevard and a loft in Manhattan, already seems ubiquitous, however, true omnipresence is just around the corner. In addition to his roles in DreamWorks' "Forces of Nature" and in Thornton and Frankenheimer's two films for Miramax, he's part of the huge ensemble cast of "200 Cigarettes," Paramount Pictures' New Year's Eve-themed '80s comedy that opened last month. Affleck also plays a renegade angel in Smith's much-anticipated and controversial "Dogma," due in theaters this fall (the actor's seventh Miramax film in three years). He has a small role (three monologues) in first-time writer-director Ben Younger's Wall Street drama "The Boiler Room" for New Line Cinema, and he has just announced plans to independently produce (with Damon) a $2-million comedy-romance called "The Third Wheel." Oh, yeah: They're both in it.

"We're paying for it basically by me and Matt each taking a cameo, which means that a foreign sales company can justify giving us $2 million," he said, leaning back in his chair with a Camel Light in one big hand, a diet Pepsi in the other.

Asked to describe the guiding principle behind his career, he demurred at first ("You get yourself all tied up trying to develop a Machiavellian overview. You're fooling yourself if you think you can strategize in that way"). Then, out of his mouth came the Affleck motto: Make yourself happy.

"One of the things that Gwyneth taught me is to maintain a level of work where interesting people that you like want to work with you. And you do that by doing things you think are interesting, not by playing into some expectation," he said, making one of several fond references to his former leading lady, whom he still describes as "dynamite." "Rather than expect to do well by luck, to hope fortune smiles on me, my philosophy is you've got to satisfy yourself. . . . Maybe I have something to prove, but I want to keep surprising people. I like the fact that people say, 'Look, even Ben Affleck was in "Shakespeare in Love." And he wasn't that bad!' "

Affleck's modesty appears startlingly genuine, much like the rest of him. Who can forget how effusive he and Damon were when they won their Oscars last year? ("There's no way we're going to do this in less than 20 seconds!" Affleck yelped during their acceptance speech.) Even more touching, remember who they took as their dates that night: their mothers.

"Ben has always had an incredible charisma. People are just getting introduced to it through film," said Damon, Affleck's best buddy for 18 years, from the San Antonio, Texas, set of "All the Pretty Horses," Thornton's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel. "It's hard to think of your best friend as a movie star, but the fact that he is [stems from] the extent to which parts of the real him come through. He is somebody that everybody wants to be around."

"Ben is definitely a charmer and a half. And the nice thing is it's sincere," agreed Smith, who gave Affleck his first leading role, in "Chasing Amy," and also helped get Miramax to produce "Good Will Hunting" at a time when other studios weren't biting.

Affleck says that while he is indebted to many, Smith and Miramax co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein were most instrumental in building his career. Smith, meanwhile, told Playboy magazine last year that he has a crush on Affleck, whom he called "a god among men."

"He has a level of gratitude that you don't usually see in front of the camera," Smith said recently, noting that even as busy as Affleck is now, he still occasionally signs on to Smith's Web site to converse with fans. "People tend to forget that they owe their jobs to the people who come to see you. You're only as good as the lowest fan who digs you. The nice thing about Affleck is he doesn't feel he's owed it. It's something you earn."

Frankenheimer, who says Affleck was his first choice for the lead in "Reindeer Games," has noticed that same quality in the actor.

"I needed a very vulnerable actor, a very masculine, strong actor and a very, very good actor. Ben is all those things. But the other thing is I really love is his work ethic," said the venerated director, who has involved Affleck--at the actor's request--in much of the pre-production process. "He approaches the work with great enthusiasm, great respect for the process and great professionalism. That means a lot to me."

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Gus Van Sant, who directed "Good Will Hunting," once said that Affleck, when excited, resembled nothing so much as "a giant golden retriever with a ball." But as surely as Affleck comes off as one affable puppy, he is also one shrewd hound. He may be navigating his own route to stardom, but he's not confused about what he wants. And he's willing to do what it takes to get it.

Director Michael Bay, for example, recalls being reluctant to screen-test Affleck for "Armageddon." But when he did, heeding producer Jerry Bruckheimer's advice, Affleck won him over.

"The first time someone said, 'Yeah, go look up Ben Affleck,' I said, 'I saw "Chasing Amy" and he's got a fat face and a goatee,' " said Bay, who tested Affleck while "Good Will Hunting" was still in production. Bay recalls the broad-shouldered actor "sitting there on the couch, with big wide-stretched arms, saying, 'I want to be in a Michael and Jerry movie so bad!' He was reciting quotes from my other movies. I said to Jerry, 'He's a geek.' And Jerry said, 'No, he's going to be a star.' "

Bay offered him the job but set a few conditions.

"I wanted him to work out and to get a tan, because he needed to look like he worked on an oil rig and to stand his own with Bruce [Willis]," Bay said. "And I wanted to fix his front teeth, because I like low angles and I'd already planned a lot of the shots low, at chin level, so you'd see a lot of teeth."

Affleck didn't hesitate. He got capped--on Disney's dime. And the movie, for which he was paid about $600,000, gave him a global celebrity that, while it feels weird at times, he clearly enjoys. No snob, he.

"It wasn't my childhood fantasy to work with Truffaut or to be in 'Das Boot.' I was bored by those movies--my mother dragged me to them as a kid. I like 'Midnight Run' better than I like 'The Bicycle Thief.' I really do," he said, ticking off the movies that made him want to be an actor: "Back to the Future," "Lethal Weapon," "Blade Runner," 'Die Hard." "I was 5 years old when 'Star Wars' came out and I saw it, like, 20 times. Doing 'Armageddon' represented fulfilling a childhood fantasy."

Affleck grew up in a middle-class section of Cambridge, Mass., near MIT. His mom, Chris, was a fifth-grade public schoolteacher. His dad, Timothy, held a variety of jobs and had a drinking problem. Affleck was the oldest of two (his brother, Casey, is also an actor), and he remembers often playing the role of peacemaker.

At the age of 8, he landed his first acting job on a PBS series. Two years later, his parents divorced and, though his father lived nearby, Chris Affleck became the primary parent. Initially, she admits, she wasn't wild about her kids pretending for a living.

"Acting is one of those things--what are the chances that you're going to make it? And if you do, you get too much money and too much attention," she said by phone from Cambridge. "It's not like trying to turn seaweed into food to feed the hungry masses. I guess I worried it was frivolous."

But Ben was hooked. With Damon, who lived down the street, he studied drama, acted in high school plays and dreamed of being in movies. After graduating, Affleck enrolled in the University of Vermont. A semester later, while Damon toiled at Harvard, Affleck quit school and headed for Los Angeles.

"When I first got here, I was 18 and I would have done anything that wasn't a male-on-male adult picture. I needed the experience," he recalls of those years, which brought occasional paydays (for TV movies, mostly), a few more college credits (from Occidental College) and several periods of poverty.

In 1992, Affleck got his first film part, in "School Ties," a drama about a Jewish football star (Brendan Fraser) at an anti-Semitic, WASP-y prep school. Affleck was paid $50,000 for the small role; Damon, who had followed his friend to Hollywood, got the bigger part as Fraser's arch enemy. The next year brought "Dazed and Confused," in which Affleck played an overzealous bully, and a short-lived TV series called "Against the Grain."

When money got tight, Affleck lived for a while on Damon's couch. Only when he was cast in Smith's "Mallrats" did his career start to pick up speed. But memories of the lean years still make him cautious. When he bought his New York City loft, for example, he paid in cash--"So no matter what happens, I could work at Subway and pay my [maintenance fees]."

"It's a roller coaster, and he's very aware of that," says Affleck's mother, a down-to-earth woman who sends her eldest son copies of the Nation to read, critiques the scripts he is considering and remains one of his closest advisors. "He's got a lot of sense. He knows you could be up one day and down the next. That reassures me."

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It was to create more choices for themselves as actors that Affleck and Damon set out to write "Good Will Hunting," which began more as a thriller than as a tale of male friendships. Affleck says he got some ideas from his father, who, like the film's lead character, had once been a janitor at an exclusive college (the elder Affleck has been sober since 1990 and now counsels at a California rehab center).

The script sold in a frenzied bidding war in the fall of 1994, with Castle Rock Entertainment paying more than $1 million if Damon and Affleck would also star. Getting the movie made, however, proved more difficult--it ended up in turn-around and would never have been produced, Affleck says, if Smith hadn't used his clout to open the doors at Miramax.

The rest of the story is well-known: the landing of Robin Williams as a co-star and Van Sant as director, the box-office success (it grossed $138 million domestically), the Oscars (in addition to the screenwriting prize, Williams won for best supporting actor). Now, as Affleck and Damon putter away on two other scripts for Castle Rock and Miramax (tentatively titled "Halfway House," about a residential home for the mentally ill, and "Like a Rock," a romantic comedy), Affleck is realistic about their place in the screenwriting pantheon.

"We ended up getting an Oscar, but I see that as a nod to the movie as a whole," he said. "People responded to our movie. But I think people also liked the back-story--we were young, we weren't jaded, it really meant something to us to win, or even just to be there."

It still does.

"Ben is a very serious actor, and he wants to be taken seriously," said Damon. "He's read all the books, he's taken all the classes. He studies it. He thinks about it. When people see the package--a 6-foot-3 really handsome guy-- they think of the frivolity of Hollywood. It's the exact opposite of what he really is."

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Paltrow, who called Affleck "the most intelligent man I've met under 45," agreed.

"He's a brilliant actor," said the Oscar-nominated actress, who--like Affleck--declined to discuss the reasons they ended their yearlong romance. "He has a huge range and impeccable timing and real depth. I think it's great that it's coming out slowly, bit by bit."

Damon may have had the lead in "Good Will Hunting," but it was Affleck who carried what Van Sant calls the movie's "big moment"--near the end, when Chuckie (Affleck) knocks on an apartment door and discovers that his best friend (Damon) has finally taken his advice and left town.

"He finds his friend is gone, he just sort of looks at the door. And you can read the whole movie on his face," said Van Sant. "I remember in our original cut he looked at the door, back at his car, back at the door and he leaves. To my editor, economy was better. But I said, 'We have to make [the take] as long as possible because he's doing such a good job.' This was the tear-jerking scene of the movie. The whole movie built up to it. And [Affleck] doesn't make a mistake."

There are other moments--his desperate declaration of love in "Chasing Amy," for example, and even his brief, haughty performance in "Shakespeare in Love"--where Affleck shines as an actor. The question now is whether he can find parts that make the most of his regular-guy appeal.

In "Forces of Nature," which opens March 19, Affleck says his role is more like the real him than any previous part: Ben Holmes, a loyal, monogamous groom-to-be whose attempts to get to his Georgia wedding are complicated by a free-spirited travel companion (Bullock) and a hurricane. He says he liked the unconventional script, which raises issues "close to my heart: questions of commitment and risk and certainty." Plus, he said, he was eager to play someone who wasn't cocky and full of himself.

"The guy is wimpy and goofy and scared and bedraggled and bewildered and overwhelmed and indecisive," Affleck said, delivering this laundry list in a way that sounds improbably attractive. "It was an opportunity for an un-vain performance, a chance to lighten up."

But according to Bullock, even a lighter Affleck is intense.

"His mind works constantly," she said, sounding a bit like a protective older sister. "He completely chews off every nail. He's always going. He'll extend himself to 50,000 different places really wanting to be there. . . . I hope he finds a place he can be quiet. I wish for him a place where he can say no."

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In fact, Affleck has begun turning down work. His mom recalls one "horrible" script she lobbied against in which "every time anybody opened a closet or a refrigerator, it was full of body parts." But being choosy doesn't mean slacking off. Affleck is making a study of Hollywood, picking the brains of the smart and successful. While working with DreamWorks, he's getting to know Steven Spielberg and he calls Miramax's Harvey Weinstein a friend.

Affleck says he wants to direct his own movies and might someday even want to try his luck as a studio executive. And he and Damon are also doing some television, executive-producing a miniseries being developed at Fox--a dramatization of Howard Zinn's nonfiction book "A People's History of the United States," which they made famous with a mention in the "Good Will Hunting" script.

"As long as I have the opportunity where I'm getting scripts I consider worthwhile, I'll continue acting," Affleck said one morning recently, sporting his usual take-nothing-for-granted manner. "I've made more money already than I ever thought. And I functioned happily with the bare minimum for a long time. I don't need that much. The most important thing is to not have to do work you don't want to do."

Plunking down at a table at Hugo's, a West Hollywood eatery, he ordered a light breakfast. Then he apologized for it--first, to the waitress for inconveniencing her with a special order (an omelet of six egg whites, one yolk), then, to a reporter for acting like "one of those actors who exists on parsley and wheatgrass."

"I'm really a pizza-and-beer kind of guy, but the price for that is I sometimes have to work to get in physical condition," he said, explaining that to play an ex-con for Frankenheimer, he needs to buff up. "The diet and exercise is what they pay me for. The acting is free."

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