Ben Affleck: On the comeback trail

Is it a bird? Is it a turkey? Ben Affleck is playing the first actor to succumb to the 'Curse of Superman'
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The Independent Online

It's hard not to be impressed by Ben Affleck. Looking sharp in a dark grey, fabulously fitted suit and dark green shirt, the 34-year-old actor is handsome, charismatic, articulate, charming and funny.

If stardom were measured on personality alone, he'd have been the next Tom Cruise. But Affleck's career hasn't hit the expected heights and we're discussing what is in effect his comeback role, as TV's doomed 1950s Superman, George Reeves. His portrayal in Hollywoodland is expected to earn him a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his work alongside Adrien Brody, Bob Hoskins and Diane Lane.

There have been false dawns before. For 2002's Changing Lanes, a visceral tale of road rage and racism, Affleck was truly nefarious for the first time in his career, and the reviews were glowing. "Changing Lanes definitely made up for all those terrible Pearl Harbor reviews," he says. "I am so happy that film worked out so well, especially when I was playing a deeply flawed guy who made a lot of bad decisions and certainly wasn't admirable in any way."

The surprising box-office success of The Sum of All Fears, an ill-conceived attempt to re-imagine Harrison Ford's already fully realised hero Jack Ryan, with Affleck in the lead, had afforded him the freedom to make Changing Lanes. "My simple plan then was to make some money in the eyes of the people who run the town, so that they would think, 'OK, this is a guy we can put in a movie and are more than likely to make our money back.'"

Hollywood has always been a juggling act for any ambitious actor working within the creative and fiscal constraints of the studio system. After a broadly successful late 1990s, Affleck took flak for the high-profile failure of Pearl Harbor in 2001, and was trying to figure out the game. In 2003, he gave us Daredevil, a lackadaisical comic-book adaptation which, ironically, led not to Daredevil 2 but to a spin-off for his co-star Jennifer Garner's character Elektra.

Then, Affleck's liaison with Jennifer Lopez heralded the execrable Gigli (with Lopez). Paycheck followed, for John Woo (without Lopez, so obviously an improvement), and Surviving Christmas at the end of 2004 (as bad as Gigli, but fewer laughs).

Then "Bennifer" was no more and Affleck disappeared, presumably to dust himself down after the media mêlée their romance generated. "It is nice to have that tabloid period diminish," he says wryly. "I started out wanting to be an artist and do stuff that was beautiful and that I could be proud of. Then I think I kind of got cynical and decided, 'Make the money and do these popcorn movies.' So I did that. There are good and bad popcorn movies, but ultimately at the end of that period it was just kind of a horrible feeling to be trapped inside and have that whole tabloid situation with my personal life."

There's a wistfulness in his voice when he talks of the media world depicted in Hollywoodland. "It was really different. There were three TV networks and one kind of studio-approved magazine. There was a certain polite distance. If you were Rock Hudson everyone knew you were gay, but it just didn't get written about. That's not how it would be now. I'm not sure exactly how it would be for Rock Hudson, but it would be really different.

"Interestingly, George Reeves sort of heralded the beginning of this period we are in now. It was that sort of schadenfreude thing, a slightly detached putting-down of people who are supposed to be elevated. When Reeves had a car crash, the headline was 'Superman crashes car' or 'Man of Steel faints at sight of own blood'." When Reeves died (Hollywoodland explores whether the fatal gunshot wound really was self-inflicted), only Superman's name appeared in the headlines.

Although Reeves found fame, it was not the career the actor had envisaged. He was an idol to children, but not to the industry, and he was only moderately paid. "There's a line in the film where someone says, 'It should have been enough for a life, what George Reeves had,'" Affleck says. "But for me, it's about what is a condition of humanity, whereby nothing is ever enough. It's that feeling, and ambition, which drives people to achieve yet also keeps us perpetually dissatisfied.

"Everyone can understand that contradiction and those contrary impulses, and recognise that those things are really painful. We think, 'Why is my life not living up to my dreams? Well, if I just had this, I'd be happy.' Finding out that that's not the case is really at the root of it for me, and it really transcends Hollywood, although Hollywood is a really good example of that because it is so extreme.

"I can remember reading a quote once from a very well-known actor, who said, 'I wish everybody could have millions and millions of dollars so they'd understand that it doesn't make you happy.' I didn't have any money then, but I understand now why he was saying that. He was struck by the same realisation I was; that money doesn't make you happy. In fact, you have the exact same sense of yourself and your life."

Of the post-Lopez period, he says: "I just needed to reassess what I want to do with my life. And now it's great. I have a family. I'm working on things I like. I just directed this film called Gone Baby Gone [based on a novel by Mystic River author Dennis Lehane], which was extraordinary, terrifying, wonderful, horrible and great at the same time.

"Someone once said to me, 'If you want self-esteem, do estimable things. And I think that's a really good piece of advice. I like the road that I'm on, and that road means taking accountability for some of the mistakes I have made. And not being small, petty, jealous, insecure and competitive. So I'm in a nice place."

The actor has spoken for years in interviews about his desire for a family. Now he's married to his Daredevil co-star Garner, with whom he has a daughter Violet, almost a year old. His family, he says, has "fast become the most important thing" in his life - further evidence, if it is needed, of the distance Affleck has travelled since J-Lo and Gigli.

Hollywoodland is out on Friday