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COVER STORY

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

"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]."

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