Award winning actor and director, activist, husband and father– Ben Affleck wears many hats. But the Hollywood A-lister is putting his star power to good use, taking on projects and philanthropic initiatives that touch on issues close to his heart. He shares his thoughts on his newest film as well as his interest in the Middle East with GC.
There is buzz about the Oscars and actor Ben Affleck’s name is being mentioned quite a lot. The actor turned director’s new critically acclaimed political drama, Argo, based on the true story of the rescue of six American Embassy employees caught in the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, hits theaters in the UAE November 8. Affleck, 40, plays the role of a CIA specialist who develops a risky plan to free six Americans hidden in the Canadian ambassador’s home in Tehran by having them impersonate a film crew.
In real life, Affleck’s life has become more sedate over the last few years. He has been married to actress Jennifer Garner since 2005, with whom he has three kids: Violet, 6; Seraphina, 3, and a son, Samuel, born in February this year. The family split their time between homes in Los Angeles, Massachusetts, and Savannah, Georgia. When he’s not making films and spending time with his family, the Hollywood a-lister is committed to his charitable work and political activism. His non-profit group, The Eastern Congo Initiative, works with women and children in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has one of the highest mortality rates in the world with 15 percent of the country’s children dying before their fifth birthday.
In this exclusive interview, Affleck opens up about his long standing interest in the Middle East, humanitarian work as well as how life has changed with three kids.
I thought that it was going to cast a kind of interesting and unexpected light on events that we were already familiar with that we had seen through a very different prism in the United States, and also a story that was still quite hopeful at a time when there’s a lot to be cynical about in terms of our relationships, the Western relationship with the Middle East.
Argo is a fascinating mix of Hollywood comedy and historical drama set in the backdrop of the Middle East. What drew you to this topic and story?
I really liked the idea that it was a story that was true and that also was not just informed by the events that were happening at that time but we could communicate to the audience a complicated history that preceded that and would inform that. Most Americans know a lot more about the hostage crisis than they do about Mossadegh and the revolution in Iran that was engineered in part by the CIA and the British. I thought that it was going to cast a kind of interesting and unexpected light on events that we were already familiar with that we had seen through a very different prism in the United States, and also a story that was still quite hopeful at a time when there’s a lot to be cynical about in terms of our relationships, the Western relationship with the Middle East. And it was also one that portrayed the Iranian people I think as being caught in the middle rather than sort of demigogging this idea and making the Iranians as all bad guys.
What led you to major in Middle Eastern studies when you were a student at Occidental College?
When I went into Middle Eastern studies…I’m going to date myself a little bit, but I went to college in 1990. At the time, I didn’t want to do theatre. I thought if I’m going to go to college, I’m going to learn about theater and drama and stuff elsewhere. I thought the educated artist, the educated actor was a better actor or writer.
I liked foreign policy and I liked politics. But the field that was really popular there was Soviet Studies. That was what the government jobs wanted you to have studied. That was hot and current and what was sort of happening in the world. The Middle East was a very kind of backwater department that didn’t have many people in it, and it wasn’t seen as particularly relevant to the United States. I had to keep doing independent studies with professors to make up new classes. I thought it was this incredibly mysterious, exotic, fascinating place, and I saw it as opaque. It made me want to kind of penetrate that opacity and try and find out what is at the root of this mystery, this intractable conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis? Lands that were nothing but desert and Bedouins for 100 years, and then ten years later you have gleaming skyscrapers. The whole thing seemed very exotic and interesting to me, and so I signed up.
Did you do much traveling there?
I have been there, yeah. I’ve done traveling earlier and recently to spend time with our troops there. I’ve been in Kuwait and all the Gulf Countries, Jordan, Egypt, North Africa…everywhere in North Africa, except for Libya. And Turkey (if that sort of counts). It’s a fascinating region and you find things that you didn’t at all expect when traveling there.
So during those times that you almost went to Syria or Iran, does your wife say, ‘Oh great, I come along?’ or say, ‘Can we go to Kabul instead?’
(laughs) My wife would just love to travel, having three children in a row has meant that I got to travel more than she has. So she wants to travel so much at this point, I think she would happy to come along to Tehran, but she may prefer Kabul.
Do you speak any Farsi?
I can say a few words, like ‘hello, how are you?’ (laughter)
Your hairstyle and the wardrobe from the 1970s really suits you. Did you enjoy that look?
(laughs) Thank you. I enjoyed the wardrobe more than the hairstyle, which got to be very hot. I was thinking, ‘how did The Bee Gees perform all those years (laughter) without getting heat stroke?’ The beard and the long hair was a bit of an ordeal and walking around in real life with that look, I got the occasional sideways glance. But it was fun. It was fun to do something with a different look.
What I didn’t want to do is have one of these things where you make a big thing about it because it’s ‘the 70s.’ Like have everyone wearing big choppers and platform heels, bell bottoms. I wanted the period to feel real but just recede into the background. Like if I took a photograph of all of us sitting around here right now and in 15 years showed it to somebody, you would go, ‘Oh, I don’t know when that was…. 2000 or maybe 2005? Or 2016, it could be.’ That’s what I wanted for the 70s.
Does it also make you wish you were back in a less complicated time? In the 70s, there were no cell phones or Facebook. Did it make you think about how much better life was then?
Well, I will tell you it’s just harder and harder to make a movie with any tension in it, because you go now, ‘Well, why doesn’t he message her on Facebook?’ or, ‘He would just Tweet it and they would all be saved.’ Or, ‘So just pick up your cell phone!’ It would be impossible to get around all the ways we have to communicate with one another. There is something nostalgic definitely about that time when, if you left your house, people just couldn’t get a hold of you. They might call and someone would say, ‘He’s out. I don’t know where he is and he will call when he gets back.’ If you needed to call someone, you found a payphone and you didn’t know who was trying to reach you. I felt like it was freer. By doing this period movie, I noticed this difference. I noticed how much more tightly we’ve wound ourselves to one another, and in some ways it’s good, but in some ways I ask myself, ‘Do we really want to be tied this closely to one another all the time?’ But I guess that’s for a different movie.
Can you talk a little bit about where you are at in life and in general and turning 40…
Oh my God! (laughs)
Which is the new 25 obviously, but…
40 is the new 15, interestingly enough. I am in my sophomore year. I really feel like, and I don’t want to jinx anything, but I really feel as good, if not better, than I have felt in my life.
I really like what my relationship is to my work right now, and I really like the opportunities that I’ve had. I work harder than I ever had. At the same time, I have a much more rewarding home life than ever. And my wife is just a spectacular woman. I’m in a place now that’s very, but my psychology leaves me to think, ‘Oh, something bad must be happening. When is the other shoe going to drop,’ because I feel so blessed that I am just trying to keep focused on things as they are.
So the biggest shift is that you have to watch princess movies at 40?
(laughs) Yeah, I’ve got a long life ahead of me of watching princess movies.
You haven’t had a $100 million movie since Daredevil in 2003. That was followed by Gigli and Surviving Christmas. Did you make a decision to step off that treadmill and get away from those movies?
The Town was 92 million, so I’m very close to 100 million (laughter). Internationally, it crossed 100 million, so I’ll take exception to your statement, only in that regard. The rest of it what you say is definitely true. I spent a lot of time on a certain kind of treadmill, chasing a certain kind of movie, trying to keep up a certain kind of pace. I got to a point where in some measure the choice was made for me and some parts I also made the choice myself, which was that I was going to step off that for a little bit too, take a break. I wanted to direct, so I was going to start focusing on directing, I want to continue acting, but kind of in the way that HollywoodLand or State of Play or movies where I wasn’t necessarily out in front as the lead, but I could do more interesting things that were a little more below the radar. Then I felt kind of ready to act and direct with The Town, and it was a refocusing. I have a very, very different life than I used to have and I much prefer the life that I have now. I do things that I am much more interested in now, and I think I am a little bit more mature and I don’t chase the idea of what my life should be, and I try to think about what I would like my life to be, and then think about ways that I can get there. And yes, I definitely made some movies that didn’t work. That’s for sure. And I wish I hadn’t, but I certainly wouldn’t give that back if it meant that I didn’t get to end up where I did now.
How do you spend your time when you are not working?
I used to have all these hobbies and stuff, and those all went away when I had kids. When I am not working, I am home and as you say, I am watching Princess movies or I am playing games or doing that stuff. I don’t have time to try and learn the guitar as I was before, there are a couple of guitars in my house that are just gathering dust. They haven’t been touched since my first child was born. So mostly I am running around with the family, because I also do some traveling. I also work with the Eastern Congo issue in Africa and I make way for that as part of my life and I give that some bandwidth, so really, there’s nothing else left but for my family, which is wonderful.
The Making of Argo
With the recent attacks on American government compounds, a film about American diplomats trapped in revolutionary Iran seems more relevant than ever. “How often do you get to make a movie on this subject matter, particularly in a world where some of the war films that had been made had been a little too depressing for audiences over the last 10 years?” Affleck said.
Speaking recently at the San Sebastian film festival in Spain, Affleck remarked that his goal when making the film was to stick to the facts. “First of all, you’d never believe this story if it weren’t true,” he said. “But my goal was for it to be factual. I have friends that are Democrats and friends that are Republicans. I have friends that are Americans and those that live abroad. I wanted everyone to see it and be able to take something from it because it was based on facts.”
The screenplay for the movie is based on the 2007 Wired magazine article “Escape From Tehran: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Iran.” With its mix of political drama and Hollywood satire, critics are saying the film is a shoe in for a best picture Oscar. Affleck says in directing the film one of his greatest challenges was developing smooth transitions from the tense Iran scenes to the more humorous moments, which have gained buzz for Alan Arkin playing the role of veteran Hollywood producer.