Balancing act

After a three-year hiatus, Ben Affleck returns to acting in He's Just Not That Into You. He talks to Kaleem Aftab about directing, parenthood, and bouncing back

"If you can't handle being the object of satire, then you really have skin that is too thin to be in the entertainment business or in public life," Ben Affleck says.
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Ben Affleck's performance as Jennifer Aniston's uncommitted beau in the romantic comedy He's Just Not That Into You is the first time that the Boston native has appeared on movie screens in three years: some would argue that this has been a blessing.

The surprising thing about the 36-year-old actor's absence is that it came just after he won the coveted Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival and received critical plaudits for his performances as the former Superman actor George Reeves in the biopic Hollywoodland. It's not that Affleck has been completely absent in this period. He directed his first feature film, the excellent adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel, Gone Baby Gone, showing a talent behind the camera that many have argued he has lost in front of it.

The reason for Affleck's sabbatical has its roots in the actor's meteoric rise and equally steep fall from grace. In 1997, the then fresh-faced actor was being feted alongside his best friend Matt Damon as the best thing to hit American cinema since synchronised sound. The friends had written and starred in Good Will Hunting, directed by Gus Van Sant. In 1998, their entry into Hollywood's elite was capped when the duo received an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

The public expected great things and Affleck didn't seem to deliver. His failure was made all the more glaring as Damon moved from strength to strength. "I don't know what audience expectation was after Good Will Hunting," Affleck says. "I did all kinds of unusual and different movies: Armageddon, Shakespeare in Love, Forces of Nature and Dogma. Basically, I did the best that I could get, the most interesting and diverse films that were available to me. Sometimes it was because I wanted to do a certain type of movie, sometimes it was because I liked the script. Sometimes it has been about making money or just having a job. Other times I've wanted to have the pressure of trying to be Jack Ryan. It's interesting, all these different movies and how they are perceived."

For the most part, the films had mixed critical reception, and even with Oscar successes such as Shakespeare in Love, Affleck's reputation as an actor plummeted. However, it is not difficult to argue that some of the adverse reaction was unfair and largely because of Affleck's much publicised engagement to the singer and actor Jennifer Lopez. The couple were dubbed Bennifer and there was a certain amount of Schadenfreude in the media reaction when the couple announced that their wedding was postponed and then cancelled. Merited or not, Affleck had become the actor that the public loved to hate.

His three-year break from the big screen has been during a coincidental and dramatic upturn in his private life. He met and married the actress Jennifer Garner and in January the couple had their second daughter. "Fatherhood has made me more sensitive and probably more caring, in a way," Affleck says. "I thought that I was a caring guy already, but being a parent has made me feel things more acutely."

But it's taking longer for him to bounce back in front of the camera - so much so that it became easier for him to direct rather than act in Gone Baby Gone. "When I originally bought the rights, I was going to act in it and try and find a director," he says. "Then I started to search for the money to direct it, and once I did that, I thought I couldn't be in it. It was just too much. I wouldn't be able to do either job well, if I did them both, and I just wanted to do a great job.

"The first movie is five times as important as your second or third in terms of the impression that it makes. Just in terms of myself and my soul, I didn't want to spend all this time in my life working on something that wasn't good." It turned out that Gone Baby Gone was really rather good. Affleck could even take pleasure in watching his younger brother, Casey, produce another sterling performance in the lead. Indeed, Affleck revels in the excellent notices Casey has received since he wowed audiences with his performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

"I knew Casey would be right for this part because he knew the city and this world," Affleck says. "He has had the benefit of not being very well known, and so he could surprise the audience because the audience didn't have any expectations of him. And that is a tremendous asset. When you don't know what to expect and something good happens, it seems twice as good." It's a position that Ben knows only too well, and he follows this statement with a warning that resonates, as it comes from a man who has been burnt by success. "Now when Casey does a movie and people know that he's good it will make less of an impact, so he'll have to work twice as hard to surprise people. However, I have every confidence in him."

Square-jawed and clean-shaven, Affleck looks every bit the film star in person. He also seems to have come to terms with the fact that he became a figure of fun, and that's partly why he decided to take a break from acting. "I think that the entertainment media - particularly people who write in magazines - part of their job is to be funny and lampoon," he says without a hint of anger. "That's a big part of the gig. If you can't handle being the object of satire or criticised and you can't take a joke, then you really have skin that is too thin to be in the entertainment business or in public life. You have to be grown up and deal with it. "

He also says that directing a film and taking time out from acting has had a positive effect on his acting career: "I've always had a good respect for the job but I think it will change the way that I approach my own work. I learned a lot about acting from making Gone Baby Gone. I've really learned to appreciate how much of acting comes through making good choices. In the last three years or so, I've begun feeling really good. From being in Hollywoodland and then watching these actors and this movie, I feel like I've been around some stuff that has been really interesting and healthy to watch as an actor."

He has wisely chosen his return to be in an ensemble film, where there are so many big names - Aniston, Jennifer Connelly, Scarlett Johansson and Drew Barrymore - that the spotlight will not be focused solely on him. The bigger test will come later in the year when he stars in Kevin McDonald's big-screen adaptation of television's State of Play and Mike Judge's comedy Extract. But as Affleck puts it, "After Hollywoodland, when everyone congratulated me on my comeback before I had even been away, if in the next movie, people say, 'Congratulations on your comeback', I'll know it's good."