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Opportunity Knocked at Every Turn

Ben Affleck may seem to have a scattershot career, acting in both indie and blockbuster films. But in his affable way, he clearly knows what he wants.

March 07, 1999|Amy Wallace | 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.")

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