Ben Affleck Opens Up About Nearly Losing His Career and How He Made His Big Comeback
Hollywood superstar makes his Stern Show debut ahead of his new film “The Tender Bar”December 16, 2021
Hollywood superstar Ben Affleck was an open book during his Stern Show debut Tuesday morning, speaking candidly with Howard about everything from his headline-grabbing relationships—new and old—to what it was like to accept an Oscar from First Lady Michelle Obama and screen legend Jack Nicholson. Connecting from the editing bay of his Southern California home, the 49-year-old writer, director, and movie star also opened up about his years’ long quest for sobriety and the highlights (and lowlights) of his improbable career. Ben, who rekindled his romance earlier this year with entertainer Jennifer Lopez and will soon be starring in a new George Clooney drama, is unquestionably at the top of his game in 2021, but he would be the first to tell you his time in the limelight has been filled with valleys as well as peaks.
He (along with lifelong friend Matt Damon) gained celebrity status almost overnight after writing and starring in “Good Will Hunting,” which led to starring roles in subsequent blockbusters like “Armageddon,” “Dogma,” and “Pearl Harbor.” Then Ben’s career hit a rough patch. After a few flops and some bad press, he suddenly felt like Hollywood’s punching bag.
“Three movies in a row bombed. I became the most un-fucking cool guy in the world,” Affleck said, telling Howard he wasn’t sure if his career would ever recover. “I remember telling Matt … ‘Somehow I ended up in this worst of both worlds where I can’t sell any movie tickets but I can sell tabloid fucking magazines by being on the cover.'”
“It was like hell,” he continued. “I’d have given it all back at that point to work at 7-11.”
Down and out with nowhere to turn, Ben gave it ago behind the camera and directed “Gone Baby Gone” in 2007. It was a nerve-wracking affair. “Every cell in my body knew that if that movie didn’t work: ballgame. The first weekend I went to the hospital with a migraine,” he recalled. “I was terrified, but I knew I had an idea and I believed in it.”
The movie was only a moderate success, but it allowed him to direct and star in “The Town,” which he described as “a decent hit,” and “Argo,” which won him another Oscar.
“I feel like I had to make it twice in the business. Once as an anonymous person and once—which was harder—with like headwind. [It was] like, ‘Yeah, we know who you are. We just don’t like you,’” he told Howard, adding, “That [was] probably the hardest thing I’ve done professionally.”
Suffering as the Key to His Sobriety
Professional setbacks aren’t the only ones he’s overcome since finding fame. Like his father before him, he struggled with substance abuse.
“I used to go to meetings and hear all these old timers say, ‘I’m a grateful alcoholic and the obsession left me a long time ago.’ And I’d get so angry. I’d be like, ‘Fuck you. You’re not grateful. What are you grateful for? … And the obsession left you? … I’m dealing with problems. I want to have a drink. How about that?’” he told Howard. “And I resented that for a long time.”
He was committed to staying sober back then, but he struggled with the fact some part of him still wanted to drink. That desire didn’t really go away for good until he realized the true cost of giving into his demons.
“The cure for addiction is suffering,” Ben stated. “You suffer enough that something inside you goes, ‘I’m done.’ And I’m lucky because I hit that point before I lost, really, the things that are most important—not my career or money, it was my relationship with my kids. And when I felt as if it impacted them, I recognized it—it was the worst day of my life—I made amends.”
“Since that day, I swear to Christ, I have not ever wanted to drink once. Ever,” Ben continued. “Now, I’m that asshole who’s like, ‘I’m grateful. I actually got to be a better person through this process, and I’ve lost the obsession.’”
Jennifer Garner, J. Lo, and Those Darned Paparazzi
Ben told Howard that doing right by his three children with actress Jennifer Garner has been the guiding force in his life, affecting everything from the couple’s choice to part ways in 2018 to his and superstar entertainer Jennifer Lopez’s decision to rekindle their romance in 2021.
“My responsibility to my children is the highest responsibility I have. I would never do anything that is painful or destructive to them if I can help it. That being said, I know that my life affects them. I dropped my [nine-year-old] son off at school two days ago and … heard [other people] go, ‘Oh, Ben Affleck, Ben Affleck!’” he told Howard. “The kid looks at me and goes ‘Hashtag, welcome to my life.’”
As if being the product of a celebrity couple wasn’t difficult enough on them, he believed the press surrounding his and Garner’s split made their children’s lives even harder. “During the divorce, [the media] printed fucking horrible lies … Anything you read about that was bullshit,” he told Howard. “The truth was we took our time, we made the decision … we grew apart, we had a marriage that didn’t work. This happens. It’s somebody I love and respect but to whom I shouldn’t be married any longer.”
“Ultimately, we tried, we tried, we tried—because we had kids—but both of us thought, ‘We don’t want this to be the model our kids see of marriage.’ I felt like we did it amicably, we did our best,” Ben continued. “Did we have moments of tension? Did we have disagreements over the custody? Was stuff difficult for us? Did we get angry? Yes, but fundamentally it was always underpinned with the respect that I knew she was a good mom.”
His Friendship With Matt Damon
While America didn’t discover their bromance until 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” Ben’s friendship with actor and creative partner Matt Damon dates way back to their childhoods in Boston. “I was eight, he was ten … the brief moment where he was taller than me,” he joked of Damon before talking about the individual paths they took after the success of that movie. “The truth is … we are really lucky, because I went and worked with him, did this script, it worked out, and then we went off and we chased our careers.”
Collaborating again on 2021’s “The Last Duel,” Ben had a newfound appreciation for their working relationship. “We were writing it together and for the first time I was like, ‘You know … we’ve been through this process with other people, … we work really well together, we have a good thing, we complement each other,’” he remembered. “I said, ‘What are the odds? That two guys who grow up a block apart in one place … we kind of helped each other in a great way … how many times has that happened in history?’”
Insisting that they never intended to be writers, Ben revealed the accolades they received for their performances in “Good Will Hunting” propelled them into bigger roles. “‘Fuck the writing thing, they’re hiring us as actors,’” he recalled before noting they were conscious of the negative side of being grouped together. “We also thought, ‘Oh, we don’t want to be Laurel and Hardy ‘cause it’s going to like pen us in’ … You get to be a cultural thing [and] it never feels comfortable … Billy Crystal did this whole song … I got so accustomed to the Matt and Ben mythology.”
At least one person unaware of that mythology was Ben’s “The Town” co-star Blake Lively, who only discovered the connection when he took her on a tour of the old neighborhood. “We drove around. I said here’s this, here’s that … that’s where Matt Damon lived … she goes, ‘You know Jason Bourne?’” he noted of the actress who, perhaps thankfully, was too young to have known about Ben’s famous friendship with Matt.
Making ‘Good Will Hunting’ Great
While “Good Will Hunting” helped make them superstars, Ben insists the early versions of it were anything but good. “The first script was shit, it was dogshit,” he told Howard matter-of-factly, claiming it was a conglomeration of popular films from the past. “It was like a little ‘E.T.,’ a little ‘Beverly Hills Cop,’ … the feds were after Will … it would have been a takeoff of a crummy ’80s comedy with a ridiculous premise about some kid who’s really smart.”
When they connected with Rob Reiner and Liz Glotzer at Castle Rock entertainment, they were taken aback by the notes the producers gave them. “‘Take all that shit out … that’s not what’s good about this movie, we don’t want that. We just want the guys, the shrink, and the friends, and the girlfriend,’” he recalled them saying. “We were like, ‘You’re fucking crazy.’ … We were 22 years old and only at 22 years old do you think you know everything.”
Despite not knowing everything, Ben and Matt knew at least one thing – to insist on including the iconic “How do you like them apples?” line. “[Director Gus Van Sant] said, ‘Well, I don’t know … is it juvenile, is it rubbing it in?’” Ben recalled. “I was like, ‘Fuck yeah, it’s rubbing it in!’”
Ben was also quick to give credit to co-star Robin Williams for helping the movie come to light in the first place. “They never would have made it without Robin … He was the biggest star in the world at the time,” he noted before complimenting the late actor and comedian’s friendly nature. “I took it for granted at the time because I just thought like, ‘Yeah, he’s nice to us. We’re working together.’ … But he was really generous and nice.”
Williams might have been a huge star, but it didn’t affect his work ethic one bit. “He would finish the day, do 30 takes and be like, ‘I don’t think we got it, we got to go back tomorrow morning,’” Ben remembered the actor saying. “And I was like, ‘What, are you kidding me? It’s great, Robin.’”
Before Howard let Ben go, he proclaimed his love for his speech in 2000’s “Boiler Room” — a fact that came as no surprise to the actor. “New York guys love that movie,” he said of the film in which he plays a co-founder of a corrupt brokerage firm. “[They] always bring it back to me and talk about it.”
Looking back at the experience with great fondness, Ben revealed the inspiration for that famous bit of dialogue. “To be honest … that always came from the Alec Baldwin speech in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross.’ That was the model, the archetype for that,” he revealed. “It was the first time I got paid like a bunch of money for a short time—like three days I got a million dollars, so I kind of felt like that guy.”
‘Argo’ Snub Yourself
Ben’s Hollywood comeback was cemented when “Argo,” a film he directed and starred in, took home Best Picture at the 85th Academy Awards. Howard imagined that must’ve been a gratifying moment for an actor who’d overcome a lot.
“I’m not going to lie, that was the single most sort of self-satisfying moment,” Ben recalled. “For so long, I felt I gotta prove I belong here. I gotta show these people … I mean something, I’m worth something.”
While “Argo” took home multiple Oscars and scored several other nominations, Ben didn’t win Best Director. He wasn’t even nominated. On Tuesday, he admitted the so-called snub caught him off guard. “I did assume I was going to get nominated because everybody said it,” he told Howard.
“I’m proud of the movie,” he continued, before cracking a joke about how it won awards for pretty much everyone involved but him. “The only guy who fucked up was the lead and the director? I can do the math on who the asshole is here,” he laughed.
Ben considers his children when making career moves, too, and he told Howard he agreed to star as the Caped Crusader in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” just to impress them.
“I wanted to do a movie for my kids—for my son—that they would see and be proud of, and now I realize your kids by definition are never proud of you,” he laughed. “They love making fun of you. My kids only want to see ‘Armageddon.’ Like, ‘Tell us again how you’re an astronaut.’”
He believed he was an interesting choice to play Batman, but the internet begged to differ. In 2013, an online petition to have the actor replaced received 97,019 signatures. Eight years later, Ben can still hardly believe the backlash.
“Really? 100,000 of you signed a fucking petition? You don’t have anything better to do with your day than sign petitions?” he laughed.
The Future of Hollywood
Between the rise of digital streamers and the onset of the pandemic, Hollywood has undergone several seismic changes over the past decade and now less people are venturing out to see movies in theaters. 2021 has been an especially challenging year for big-budget releases and Ridley Scott’s action-epic “The Last Duel,” co-starring and co-written by Affleck and Damon, was no exception.
“I loved the movie,” Ben told Howard. “Nobody saw it in theaters. Not a fucking soul. I didn’t love it any less.”
As Ben saw it, the industry had undergone a permanent change. “The days of fucking crowds of people waiting in line for ‘Ordinary People’ are over,” he said. “People my age, they want to pause it, take a piss, watch the rest tomorrow.”
He predicted movie studios might stop taking risks on all but the safest of projects, like kids’ films and Marvel movies. Even so, he was confident the shifting landscape would give rise to something new. “The streamers are making great stuff. ‘Succession’ is as good as anything you’re going to see. So is ‘Ozark.’ So is ‘Narcos: Mexico,’” he said.
If anything, he believed data points toward people consuming more TV and streaming more movies than ever before. “I think it leaves somebody like me—hopefully—in a [good] place,” Ben said, pointing toward his most recent project, “The Tender Bar,” a George Clooney-directed, Amazon Studios-backed adaptation of J. R. Moehringer’s popular coming-of-age autobiography. “Amazon sells air conditioners … [“The Tender Bar”] is a very minuscule portion of their investment.”
“The Tender Bar” opens Dec. 17 in theaters.