It may be time to reassess Ben Affleck. Again. Over the course of a career that began two decades ago with a memorable role in Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused,” Affleck has been all over the Hollywood lot.
His resume includes plenty of forgettable fare, inglorious IMDb entries such as “Pearl Harbor,” “Paycheck,” “Daredevil,” and, of course, “Gigli.” But just when irrelevance seemed like it could be around the corner, Affleck recovered, showing himself to be a savvy actor — see “Hollywoodland” and “The Town” — and, with “Gone Baby Gone” and the Oscar-winning “Argo,” a first-rate filmmaker, a director worthy of our attention.
So what’s next? The success of “Argo” has meant Affleck can write his own ticket, and he is. But instead of becoming another, say, Alan J. Pakula and just directing a taut, well-told feature every few years, he’s returned to acting. At 42 and still movie-star handsome, Affleck is determined to be in front of the camera when he’s not busy behind it.
That explains why, to the great surprise of fans of the never-ending Batman franchise, he’s taken the role of the Caped Crusader in director Zack Snyder’s forthcoming “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” And why he’s starring in the most hyped film of the fall, “Gone Girl,” director David Fincher’s movie based on the monumental bestseller by Gillian Flynn.
In the movie, which opens on Friday, Affleck plays Nick Dunne, a Scott Peterson-like character who’s accused of killing his wife, played with wild eyes by Rosamund Pike. Flynn, for one, is a fan of Affleck’s performance in the movie.
“I think it’s one of his best,” said the author, who adapted her book for the big screen. “We see him in kind of an alpha-male role. We see him in the likable buddy role. And he has to do all that as we wonder whether he killed his wife. Ben has to walk a very interesting and very strange tightrope in the role, and I think he does it wonderfully.”
Affleck has been doing his part to promote “Gone Girl,” but because he’s currently shooting the Batman movie in Detroit, his time is limited. Very. We got 12 minutes on the phone with him last week, which was just enough to talk about his new movie and what’s next.
Q. Hello, Ben.
A. Hey, Mark. How are you? How’s Boston?
Q. It’s OK. It’s actually quite beautiful today, but enough about me. Let’s talk about “Gone Girl.” It was an enormously popular book. But sometimes it’s difficult to live up to the expectations of readers. Did you have any concerns about that?
A. My concern was more about the fact that I’d read the book and the first thought I had was, “I don’t know how anyone would make this into a movie because of the structural challenges.” I just didn’t know how to do it. So it’s really a testament to David [Fincher] that, in my opinion, he did such an expert job. It’s definitely not something I could have done.
Q. The characters are what drive the narrative in the book and the character of Amy, well, on screen she’s . . . complicated. Do you think women, in particular, are going to view this movie and think “Jeez, what’s going on with this?”
A. To me, this is in the mold of movies like ‘Indecent Proposal’ or ‘War of the Roses,’ movies that were, well, some were thrillers and others were dramas. They asked provocative questions about relationships between men and women. And when you do that, naturally you’re going to get all kinds of reactions. Without speaking for David, I think that’s the point, to get men and women coming out and flushing out our respective views on relationships.
Q. Your character is dark, but it’s also ambiguous, as it needs to be. You haven’t been a bad guy often on screen. I know it’s acting, but I wonder if you thought you could sell yourself as someone capable of this kind of thing.
A. First of all, any time you have to play a character, your first job is to empathize with the character and to see the world through their point of view and not make judgments about the character. Part of what Nick represents, thematically, despite the aspects of his character that are dark, is the male view of relationships. I tried to adopt that, although my own marriage, thankfully, is quite a bit different than the one in this movie. Nonetheless, I think you can tap into the ways men and women misunderstand one another. I knew that it had to be a nuanced performance. David wanted a very natural, warts-and-all kind of thing. You see the naked man, the soft underbelly. It couldn’t be a performance with any vanity, otherwise it wouldn’t feel real. That was the organic side of it. In terms of the technical side, and the thing that concerned me the most, was not like, Hey, this guy may or may not be a really bad guy. But rather calibrating the performance, so the audience only learns so much along the way and sort of leans in the direction that the filmmaker wants them to lean.
Q. Tell me about the portrayal of the media in this film. You play a character besieged by the media. In interviews, you’ve talked about elements of your personal history that were helpful in playing the character. The media does come off looking like a pack of jackals.
A. I mean, my own experience with the media is not this, but in some ways a parallel to this in the sense that I do know what it’s like to not recognize myself on the television screen, or in print, in the way I’m being characterized. But really the critique of the media in this movie is not so much about celebrity media but in the way in which the cable news monster needs to be fed, you know, every 15 seconds. And what it feeds on is scandal and outrage and sanctimony. It’s reductive and it’s salacious and it’s meant to keep audiences outraged and engaged. That’s why we have so many famous criminals. Notoriety is sort of the next best thing to fame. Maybe they’re the same thing.
Q. Your friend Matt [Damon] has talked about the roles that he chooses, and how often they’re based on the director. What’s your own perspective? Was Fincher a factor in doing this movie?
A. I would have done a staged reading of a telephone book with David because he’s so brilliant. He hasn’t made a bad movie and he’s also somebody, as a director, I felt I could learn from. In terms of what it was like working with him, he’s a master. He’s got a certain meticulousness, a specific sense of what he wants and how he wants the movie to be. Sort of like the watchmaker approach. He’s down to the finest knobs and switches.
Q. I assumed after “Argo” and “The Town” that [your brother] Casey [Affleck] was the actor in the family, and you would be the director. Why are you acting?
A. Because I love acting. It’s very satisfying. I’ve been doing it for 30 years and I can’t imagine not doing it.
Q. But it does take you away from directing. Talk to me about the status of your next directorial project, a movie based on Dennis Lehane’s “Live by Night.”
A. It’s been greenlit. It’s supposed to start shooting in July and I’ll start prepping in March. We got a budget, we got locations. . . . The irony is I originally wanted to do the whole thing in Boston, and I went to Boston to scout, and you can’t find an inch of the city that hasn’t been so thoroughly renovated that it’s beyond recognition from the 1970s, never mind the ’20s and ’30s. Unfortunately, although I will shoot some time in Boston, I’m going to have to build sets and use visual effects for backdrops and that sort of thing. The Boston of the ’20s and ’30s is long gone.
Q. You’re on the set of the “Batman” film at the moment?
A. I sure am. Well, I’m not on the set right now. We’re shooting nights and it’s before work, but I’m in Detroit.
Q. What can you tell me about it? Are you going to be a good Batman?
A. I can tell you that I’m very excited and it’s very exciting. I can tell you that in my entire career, I haven’t had so many people come up to me and say how much they’re looking forward to the movie. Naturally, that’s a lot of pressure, but I love the script, I love the director, I love the studio. I’m very much looking forward to it, but it’s two years away so it probably doesn’t bear talking about anymore.
Interview was edited and condensed. Mark Shanahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.