Film: Boys and girls come out to play, but for some it's time to grow up

From love interest in a low-key indie hit, Ben Affleck has blazed into the limelight as a renaissance man. Janie Lawrence is charmed
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Ben Affleck is not altogether sure he's much taken with this fame lark. Of course, he likes the financial benefits and he's not displeased by the preferential treatment that comes his way in restaurants. But as for all rest of it: "I see it as a downside of my career's advancement. It changes the nature of your life. And all your relationships." he says knocking back a Coke in a Dorchester Hotel suite.

Mmm. From where I'm sitting the 26-year-old actor looks to be coping exceedingly well with the fame game. The big grin, the barely-contained excitement says it all. Pearly-toothed and broad-shouldered Affleck is the new heartthrob on the block. Give him a year and he'll probably be adopting the standard world-weary interview pose. But, for the moment if ever there were a bouncy interviewee - "Hey, yeah!" he enthuses at regular junctures - it's Affleck. And why not? Both personally and professionally, he's the lead in his own modern fairytale.

One minute he's pretty much your average struggling actor. The next he's stepping out with Gwyneth Paltrow. So he's handsome and he's bagged the girl of the moment. Can we take some consolation in the fact he's just another muscley Hollywood Himbo, as dumb as the day is long? Sorry folks - we can't.

As a general rule, the average Himbo doesn't talk in full sentences. Much less win Golden Globes for writing them. Yes, one Globe down with a possible Oscar impending, Affleck is also smart. If all goes to plan he and his co-writer Matt Damon will be on the podium later this month, when thir screenplay for Good Will Hunting is nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category. (One of its nine Oscar nominations.)

The two actors, both brought up in Cambridge near Boston, have known each other since childhood. "Neither one of us thought we could write anything decent on our own," says Affleck. You have to hand it to him and Damon. They sold the script to a studio for one million dollars with the caveat they both took the roles they wanted for themselves. They play a couple of blue-collar workers, one of whom, Will Hunting, just happens to be able to knock out mathematical formulae in less time than the brightest college student takes to sharpen his pencil. Although Affleck has an impact as Chuckie, inevitably the high-profile role belongs to Matt Damon. That could have been tricky. Even - or should that be especially - the best friendships contain an element of rivalry.

"It was an arbitrary decision and I very much liked Chuckie. I liken my role to Mercutio. In the next movie we'll switch, and Matt will have the Mercutio role. It's ideal to work with people you care about. You have twice as much fun and you have a working shorthand. You don't have to take the circuitous route to explaining something".

In the US the film has done phenomenally well, tapping into a commercial zeitgeist. Judging from the healthy box office takings, if you're a Nineties man it's good to talk. "Matt and I have grown up in an age with duelling archetypes. The new age sensitive guy versus the old world stiff upper lip thing. Both are equally flawed so you have this strange conundrum of who we should be."

Let's face it, though, I counter - a male buddy film can never capture the intimacy of a friendship that occurs between two female friends.

"I contend that man's friendships are actually deeper than womens," he argues. But, I say, men's friendships are based on getting pissed and who won down the Arsenal.

"It's a common misconception that because men don't talk about everything, their friendships are less resonant than women's. Male friendships aren't about talking, they're about companionship and loyalty."

For a full appreciation of Affleck's acting talents, take a look at Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy. As Holden, he is the leading man who falls in love with a lesbian and delivers a moving speech on unrequited love. "I based that on the time when I was really loving somebody in vain. You get to the point where it doesn't matter anymore; to hell with the consequences." And ? "She was half-hearted. If you're completely in love you can't stand to have anything less than full reciprocity. It ended in heartbreak for me.

"There's an incredibly contradictory nature to women that demands two completely opposite things at once. You hear these laments from womens' magazines which say that women don't want a guy that's too nice or too boring. Which isn't to say that women want wife-beaters. Far from it. But they do like men that seem disinterested." And what about men ? "There's definitely a part of me that still wants the unattainable. There's the challenge - although I hope I've matured a little bit beyond that."

Clearly well-read, Affleck was brought up by his teacher mother. She had always hoped he would do something useful and loathes the attention he now attracts. He did make it to Occidental College but, after three years studying literature, dropped out. "I was paying for it myself. Straddling the fence, trying to be an actor and a writer. It was too much trouble. Good Will Hunting is my diatribe against higher learning - it's so over- priced. You can get the same education from the local library. It's insanity."

His gamble has paid off. It will be several months before he has a free day in his diary. He's just finished filming Armageddon, a special effects extravaganza with Bruce Willis. In the summer he begins a project opposite Sandra Bullock. Meanwhile he's in London filming Shakespeare in Love alongside - you guessed it - Gwyneth Paltrow.

"I was doing it before I knew Gwyneth was," he protests feebly before breaking into an English accent, currently hovering at the Sebastian Flyte stage. "Any American who tries Shakespeare is going to be crucified. It's terrifying. You British are very proprietorial about him." He beams. "When the journey's over there'll be time enough to sleep," he quotes. Did anyone mention ham? He chuckles and, spurning my hand, plants a kiss on my cheek, "This has been fun. Yeah."