Every time I've had the pleasure (and I assure you it is a pleasure) of crossing paths with Ben Affleck, he's been trying to give up smoking. He's either vigorously chewing Nicorette, or optimistic about quitting his unsociable teenage habit. It's no different when we meet in a luxurious Beverly Hills hotel suite to discuss his new offering, Surviving Christmas. This time, the former Hollywood bad boy is furiously sucking on a plastic nicotine cigarette, Groucho Marx style. "Yeah, I like to rock the nicotine inhaler every now and then," he puffs.
You never quite know what you're going to experience when you're in Affleck's company. He is one of the most intriguing and amusing of the Hollywood A-listers. Always good humoured and self-deprecating, Affleck is like a big, friendly dog that never stops wagging its tail. Spend five minutes in Affleck's aura and you know this man was destined to be in the spotlight.
At 6ft 2in, the jeans- and sweater-clad Boston native, who is blessed with matinée-idol looks, has swapped pounds for muscle and is the epitome of ruggedness. Today, Affleck is clean-shaven, with hair the right side of messy, and is looking far better than he has in a long time - well, since before the recent media backlash and the tabloid photos of him moping about town, after the split with his former fiancée, Jennifer Lopez.
Affleck has charm, but there's more to him than a pretty face, as evidenced by the Oscar for best screenplay that he won, when he was 25, along with his childhood friend Matt Damon, for co-penning Good Will Hunting. Since then he's taken on dramatic roles in Armageddon, The Sum of All Fears and Daredevil. But in Surviving Christmas, it's his slapstick comedy skills that are getting a workout.
Of his eclectic career path, he says: "I have definitely noticed that I care less about certain things. Other actors are like: 'You can't do that', or 'You can't do this. This will position you in the wrong way.' That's not my thing. And obviously so, because you can see I don't craft or cultivate my career.
"But I would really like this movie to work, just because I'd like to do more comedies. I have a lot of fun doing them. It was really hard for the producers to believe I could do a comedy. This is the kind of movie where a studio says: 'OK, I'll only make this movie if we can get Mike Myers, Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey...' Ben Affleck doesn't scream 'comedy'."
His last three films have been financial flops. There was Paycheck with Uma Thurman; the unwatchable Gigli, where he fell for co-star Lopez; and the under-appreciated Kevin Smith romantic comedy, Jersey Girl, opposite Liv Tyler. At this point, Affleck could do with a hit to sustain his $15m-a-movie price tag. Surviving Christmas may not be the vehicle to flip his career around, but it does prove he has natural comedic timing on camera, as well as off.
Affleck is not one for wallowing. He frowns: "I really don't give a shit anymore. I mean, how much worse can it get? It's not like: 'What if someone says mean things, or the movie bombs?' Well, I know what that's like. The truth is, I wanted to do comedy."
"Not giving a shit", as Affleck describes it, has been the key to rising above the "Bennifer" media maelstrom that has followed him for the past year. Gigli received such poor reviews that people suspected their engagement was a ploy to promote the film; but Affleck and Lopez showered one another with such lavish gifts that, as one American critic observed, "If this is a publicity stunt, it is one of the most expensive in history!"
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Affleck wooed J-Lo with Harry Winston diamond earrings and, most spectacularly, a 6.1-carat pink-diamond engagement ring that screamed out for 24-hour finger-guards. By contrast, the most costly present J-Lo laid on Affleck was upping his star wattage. He fast became weekly tabloid fodder as the professional Hollywood boyfriend, having already had a high-profile romance with Gwyneth Paltrow and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it relationship with Pamela Anderson. Sparks ignited for Affleck and Paltrow on the Shakespeare in Love set, and she later brought him on board to play her love interest in the romantic comedy Bounce (another film that failed to make a dent at the box office).
Now, Affleck appears to have found love again, this time with his former Daredevil co-star, Jennifer Garner, 32, who stars in the TV show Alias. Affleck also has a cameo in her upcoming film, Elektra. Garner, who is extremely low-key, is the antithesis of the flamboyant Lopez. So maybe Affleck is moving in the right direction, romantically speaking?
Puffing away, (and coughing simultaneously), he monotones: "I've finally learnt how to say: 'No comment'. To appear in the tabloids is a real learning curve and a steep one at that. You had better learn quick or you get burnt.
"I've had a few embarrassing experiences, but for the most part my attitude is that if it's going to happen, take it with a grain of salt and accept that it's a part of the game and try to have a pretty thick skin about it. Otherwise you can get yourself into a tizzy and have a nervous breakdown."
Does he think he suffered from overexposure? Affleck nods: "Sure, I suffered a lot. But it's not like the end of the world and it's not who I am. I lead quite a pleasant life and I'm able to divorce a perceived reality from my actual experience of life."
He grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his younger actor brother, Casey; his father, Tim, a social worker; and his mother, Chris, a schoolteacher. His parents divorced when he was 11. Affleck had always set his sights on performing. He made his acting debut in a burger commercial at the age of seven, and it was at about this time, at a Little League baseball game, that Affleck met Damon. Their friendship was sealed by their mutual respect for the arts.
He dropped out of university to head for Hollywood, where roles in Dazed and Confused, Mallrats and Chasing Amy raised his profile while he crashed on friends' couches and went out to auditions. Then he co-wrote the script for Good Will Hunting with Damon - both made sure they included parts for themselves. It sold to Miramax for $600,000 and ended up being directed by Gus Van Sant, as well as starring Minnie Driver and Robin Williams, who picked up an Oscar for best actor.
Hollywood quickly noted Affleck's leading-man potential, and, just a year later, the director Michael Bay sent his protégé to bulk up and get his teeth capped, before saving the world from an asteroid attack in Armageddon. More followed: Dogma, Boiler Room and Changing Lanes were high points; Deception, Pearl Harbor and Gigli were among the lowest. "God help me if I ever do another movie with an explosion in it," Affleck winces. "If you see me in a movie where stuff is exploding you'll know I've lost all my money."
Like so many members of young Hollywood, Affleck succumbed to the "too much too soon" syndrome and, in July 2001, checked himself into Malibu's Promises rehabilitation clinic to be treated for alcoholism. (Today his energy level is so rampant that it's daunting to imagine an alcohol-affected Affleck.) He says he's been sober ever since, and has even curbed his all-night partying, with the exception of a rare poker game.
Today, a wiser and more focused Affleck emerges. He's clear on one thing: money does not buy you happiness. He taps his plastic cigarette on the table, as if flicking imaginary ash. "Money can buy you a full hand release at 80 bucks a pop. That makes me happy for a minute, but then I'm filled with shame and loathing," he deadpans. "The big difference for me in terms of money is if you can pay your bills, and you don't have to worry about your lights getting shut off, then you really don't need to get all that stuff at Barneys.
"It's like Christmas: it's all advertising, and the first rule of selling somebody something is to make them seem inadequate. Make them feel like they need it." Affleck is on a roll here. "Like fabric softener. Nobody really needs fabric softener and yet, all of a sudden, you feel like a jackass if you don't have fabric softener, so people buy it. And that's how Christmas has become, because 50 per cent of all retail sales happen in December. You are bombarded with this stuff - money will make you happy, and keeping up with the Joneses. Obviously that stuff doesn't make you happy, otherwise there wouldn't be all these unhappy rich people. They'd all be happy in their jacuzzis and OK, some of them are."
I think for a minute Affleck has forgotten he's promoting a Christmas movie and good cheer and all that, but you have to admit, the guy makes a valid point. In Surviving Christmas, Affleck plays Drew, a wealthy advertising executive who is lonely. He has some painful associations with Christmas, which he decides to cure himself of by going back to his childhood home and performing some arcane cleansing ritual on the front lawn. James Gandolfini plays the owner of the house, where he lives with his wife (Catherine O'Hara) and teenage son. He gives Drew a guided tour of his old home and our hero gets an idea: he wants to spend the holidays with these strangers, and he will pay $250,000 for the privilege. Christina Applegate plays the grown-up daughter who comes home for the festive season, and her presence allows Affleck to stop channelling Lucille Ball and to start acting like a gracious romantic lead, which is his forte.
So, I ask, is it true what they say - is it lonely at the top? "I'm lonely every day - that's why I used to drink so damn much!" Affleck quips, suddenly. "Now I'm sober, I never feel lonely. Only happy."
He sighs: "But this is definitely a town full of people who are ready to hand you an umbrella when the sun is shining. I do have real friends and the rest of the people I view as completely suspect."
Let's hope the little Affleck believed in Santa Claus. "I remember asking my mother, 'How did Santa know that that was just what I wanted?'. I think it freaked me out more than anything else. It gave me like a weird 1984 feeling, like Big Brother was watching me. I sure wasn't happy with that, because I was humping the bedposts and I hoped Santa didn't know that too."
'Surviving Christmas' is released on 3 December
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