Every few years, it seems, we have to reevaluate Ben Affleck. Is he the garden-variety guy whose IMDb entry includes such forgettable films as “Man About Town,” “Runner Runner,” and “Live by Night,” or is he the nimble actor capable of quality work like “Chasing Amy,” “The Town,” “Gone Girl,” and “Argo,” which he also directed, ably enough to take home the 2012 best picture Oscar?
He’s probably the latter, but the Cambridge native’s career arc is all over the place. Since his first feature — he had a small role in 1992′s “School Ties” — Affleck, 49, has made nearly 60 movies, doing a bit of everything along the way. He’s been Batman and Superman. Well, sort of. In the underrated “Hollywoodland,” Affleck played George Reeves, the actor who portrayed the Man of Steel on TV.
Fairly or not, our appreciation for Affleck, or lack of it, is also influenced by the space he occupies in pop culture, which, after all these years, is still considerable. Never mind the turn-of-the-screw tabloid stories about his personal life — the issues with alcohol, Jennifer Lopez, his marriage to Jennifer Garner and their divorce, Jennifer Lopez again — who in Hollywood is memed more than Affleck, or been made to answer for a questionable back tattoo? He would no doubt prefer our focus be on the big screen, but it isn’t always.
That could change with “The Tender Bar,” in which Affleck plays a wise, working-class bar owner who helps raise his nephew, played by Daniel Ranieri (as a child) and Tye Sheridan (as a teen and twentysomething). The sweet, mostly-sunny adaptation of J.R. Moehringer’s best-selling memoir is directed by George Clooney and costars Lily Rabe and Christopher Lloyd, but it’s Affleck’s understated performance as Uncle Charlie that is charming critics and might be remembered at awards time. Portions of the movie were filmed in and around Boston last spring.
With “The Tender Bar” starting to stream on Amazon Prime Jan. 7 — it opened in theaters last month — we asked Affleck if he had a few minutes to chat on Zoom. He said sure.
Q. I enjoyed the movie, especially your performance. It feels lived-in, if that makes sense. Why did you want to make this movie?
A. The truth is, as an actor, you get a sense of what the good parts are, and they’re the parts that are well-written and afford you the opportunity to play a character that’s interesting, contradictory, flawed, and real. And also opportunities to play meaningful human moments that, hopefully, generate empathy in the audience. Those are the parts that, as actors, we’re always chasing. I’m no different than anybody else. It’s auditioning, reading scripts. It’s not mysterious when one comes along. Just as you saw the movie and thought, “Boy, that’s an interesting character,” an actor benefits from a great script. You can’t get blood from a stone. So there are two criteria for me — is the material interesting and who’s the director?
Q. Had you worked with Clooney before?
A. George produced “Argo,” so I know him quite well.
Q. What’s he like as a director? Do you typically learn from people you work with?
A. That’s the only way I’ve ever learned. My biggest superpower is being humble enough to know that there are people around who know more than me and being smart enough to know who they are and to pay attention to them. Being an actor is the best film school you can go to if you pay attention. Like [“Gone Girl” director] David Fincher, who I consider one of the very best directors alive. He’s got the taste of an artist and the mind of an engineer. I’ll go through whatever your process is if I think you’re going to make a good movie. I’ll do a million takes. Whatever. George isn’t only a talented actor, he’s also extremely smart about what will resonate with the audience. He’d say to me, “At the end of this scene, if you laugh, it’ll work a lot better.” Simple notes. They’re the best kind of notes.
Q. You seem so comfortable playing Uncle Charlie, I wondered if you knew an Uncle Charlie as a kid?
A. I’ve come to the decision that I’m going to be more circumspect when discussing my life because, in the current climate, context is meaningless and any sentence can be excerpted and used as a cudgel. But, yeah, growing up in Central Square, my dad worked at a bar called the [Prospect] Buffet, where he was a bookie, and then at the Cantab Lounge. My parents were divorced and I’d go see my dad before and after work. My brother and I were there all the time. It was very normal. So I did have that [Uncle Charlie] experience. But the truth is, my own comfort as an actor has grown. Acting is a paradoxical thing. The harder you’re working, the worse it is, and the easier, more fluid you are, generally the better it is. Directing, I only know how to do by putting in 18-hour days; but with acting, I’m more comfortable now.
Q. You’re also not young anymore.
A. Lamentably, that’s true.
Q. I mean, you have kids, so maybe that also prepares you to play a role like this?
A. All life experience prepares you. I’m not the kind of actor who’s so brilliant I can imagine any circumstance or reality. The way I learned — at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, with [drama teacher] Gerry Speca — is you write a biography, imagine what the character’s been through, and build a backstory. Also, I’ve just lived life, gotten to know a lot of different people, had different relationships, done a lot of therapy, and gone through a process of really trying to change myself and grow. If you’re not living in a way that’s honest and connected to who you really are, you don’t know what makes you sad or resentful or happy because you’ve built a whole elaborate story internally to mask what’s really going on. When you pull that all away, I’ve found I know where sadness is, where pain is, where joy and love are.
A. Actually, no, it’s exactly what one would like to play any role — to have lived it, experienced it. [For “The Town”] I went to [prisons] MCI-Norfolk, MCI-Cedar Junction, and Souza-Baranowski, and talked to guys who robbed armored cars, because I had no idea what that life is like. I can relate to people who drink. I don’t want to offend anybody, but Boston is a very heavy-drinking town. Maybe it was just my group of friends, but I don’t get that sense. Sobriety is difficult, I know. It’s a lot of work. There may be people who are going through this process now, thinking to themselves: “Everyone’s telling me, it’s going to get easier and it’s [expletive] and it never does.” Well, speaking for myself, it does. I lost the obsession. I want to write a movie about this, actually: You can’t change anybody. The cure for alcoholism is suffering. And you suffer until your brain sort of says “no mas.”
Q. You mentioned Boston. Do you ever get tired of being “the guy from Boston”? People don’t care where Clooney grew up, or Tom Cruise, but you’re “the guy from Boston.” Did “Good Will Hunting” do that to you?
A. Look, if not for “Good Will Hunting,” I’d just be a guy, never mind a guy from Boston. When my acting career got cold and it was hard for me to get a job, I wanted to direct, and I wanted to do something I knew a lot about, so I picked Boston. I picked “Gone Baby Gone” and then I picked “The Town.” At that point, I said, no more, and I chose “Argo.”
A. There are things I’m known for that are a lot less pleasant than being from Boston.
Q. You made “The Tender Bar” during the pandemic. What was that experience like?
A. I don’t think anyone wants to get used to it. It hinders acting in the way it hinders all of us: We’re people that want to connect with one another. We want to communicate. We’re tribal. This thing is going to define my kids’ generation. They’re the pandemic kids, and that sucks.
Q. People used to mention your name in relation to running for office. Is that something you ever seriously considered?
A. People wanted me to run against [former US Representative Michael] Capuano in the, you know, the old Tip O’Neill district.
Q. It’s the Ayanna Pressley district now.
A. Right. She probably would have beat my [expletive], so I’m glad I didn’t run. Even though she’s from Ohio, I have a feeling she would have cleaned my clock. But, yeah, I did a lot of campaigning [in 2004] for John Kerry, because I liked him; the Democratic National Convention was in Boston; I felt strongly about gay marriage; and I felt George Bush and the war in Iraq was wrong. But I didn’t want to run for Congress. I looked at the life of people in Congress and it was a constant process of glad-handing, begging for money, and being beholden to people. It’s so depressing. I thought it was miserable and corrupt and ugly. So I started the Eastern Congo Initiative. We’ve given away $20 million to Congolese community-based organizations in one of the poorest places in the world and I’ve been there 15 times. That’s what I do.
Q. Have you read any of the reviews of “The Tender Bar”?
A. I haven’t. I don’t read reviews anymore.
Q. You should. They’re good.
A. I’ll read a good review. I’m not above a little flattery, believe me.
Interview was edited and condensed.