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Movies

Issue date:
June 26-28, 1998


"Thank God for unanswered prayers"

Actor Ben Affleck thanks his lucky stars he flubbed an audition for TV's Beverly Hills, 90210 and, instead, blasted onto the big screen just in time to be this summer's newest action heartthrob.


In this story:
Armageddon set to launch career
Affleck's parents divorced
The Matt Pack

Related story:
Ancient "Armageddon": The real story of what smashed into Earth millions of years ago.


By Stephanie Mansfield

Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck remembers the poorest he's ever been. It wasn't too long ago. The young actor, trying to make it in Hollywood, was out of work and out of cash. "My roommate and I used to fight over the change in the couch to buy chicken."

Now, at 25, his days of the $1.29 chicken special are history. This week he becomes a master of disaster with co-stars Bruce Willis and Liv Tyler in Armageddon. His debut in a mainstream, megabudget movie follows an extraordinary spring, when Affleck took home an Oscar for the Good Will Hunting screenplay, co-written with childhood pal Matt Damon, and stole the heart of Brad Pitt's former angel, Gwyneth Paltrow, "the woman that I love."

And that's just the beginning: The epitome of the scrub-to-starter Hollywood dream, Affleck has half a dozen more movies in the works.

Stardom, yes. Sudden, no.

"I did some TV," Affleck recalls. "I made $60,000. I was 19. You think you're rich. I bought a car, moved to a nicer house and was out of money in six months. I was like Daddy Warbucks -- go out, pick up the check, everything was on me." He tried college but dropped out to go back to Hollywood, where he noodled a script about a genius who works as a janitor at a prestigious university. He got laughed out of a writing class when he worked up the nerve to read it out loud.

The script? Good Will Hunting.

Today, so strong is his appeal as a romantic leading man that Affleck already is one of the most bankable actors of his generation. Witty and whip-smart, he is embracing success with equanimity, simple rejoicing and boyish enthusiasm.

"For Ben, the things that usually are a drag" -- long days, reshoots, interviews -- "seem to be a lot of fun," says Good Will director Gus Van Sant, who has dropped by a photo shoot to catch up with his friend. "It's a big ride for him."

And Armageddon is set to launch him. Previously regarded as an "indie guy" because of his penchant for small-budget independent films -- Dazed and Confused, Chasing Amy --Affleck was tapped for the role of A.J. Frost, sidekick to oil driller Willis. The men are given 12 days to train and become astronauts to save the world from an asteroid. Indeed, the 6-foot-2-inch, hazel-eyed Affleck should do for the orange NASA spacesuit what Mel Gibson did for the kilt.

This evening Affleck wears a white T-shirt, black leather jacket, boots and black jeans. His mahogany hair is cropped and his face is burnished after a vacation in Acapulco with Paltrow. Behind the wheel of a black '69 Cadillac, dragging on a cigarette, he conjures up every cliché of the young buck. Cocky. Chisled. Testosterone-charged. On the patio of a hipper-than-hip West Hollywood bar, he orders cranberry juice and settles into a chair that seems too small for his muscular body. On his right biceps is a tattoo of barbed wire. But Affleck defies the Brando stereotype: He is well-read, sensitive, generous and somewhat protective.

His "female side," he says, comes from being raised by a single mother, Chris, in Cambridge, Mass. She taught him "empathy, consideration, manners. Lack of pretension. Humility. My mother was such a sweet, kind woman, it gave me a sense of responsibility for women."

"Beautiful women scare me," he confides. They're "more trouble than handsome men, let me tell you. A lot of handsome men are shy. But women are taught to trade on that beauty, and they take advantage."

And another thing about women: They "want you to read their minds. It's maddening. I'm not telepathic! Men want to be with the woman they're attracted to; women want to take that guy and make him different."

Is he pliable? "I can bend real far," he says, smiling. "But then it snaps back."

Affleck's parents divorced when he was 11. Dad Tim, says Van Sant, "was known as a brilliant guy, a philosopher. And he did work as a janitor, and also did local theater in Cambridge. This was in the '60s."

While the Will Hunting character draws on Tim Affleck, his son says it isn't biographical; the elder Affleck later became an auto mechanic, struggled with the bottle and enrolled in an alcohol and drug rehab clinic, where he now works. The actor is asked if that is why he has quit drinking. He smiles. "I just wanted to stop. I started regretting some things I did when I was drunk. It's funny to be obnoxious or out of control, but then it's like, 'I think I hurt that person's feelings. I made a fool of myself' or 'I didn't want to kiss that girl.' I have almost no inhibitions, so it's dangerous for me."

Though he was never in juvenile detention like Will Hunting, Affleck's teen years do reflect excesses. "I did all the reckless, stupid things you do -- get in fights, get drunk in public. ... It's seductive to just go wild. I got so much of it out of my system, I don't feel the need to do it anymore. Now it's kind of depressing to be bombed at 3 in the morning."

As for relationships, Affleck once said that "almost every relationship I've ever been in has basically been a train wreck." Does that still hold?

"Thus far, that has proven true. I have a real capacity for the head-on collision." He and his girlfriend of seven years broke up last fall, just as his career was taking off. "I'm so compromising. ... Then it blows up. I'm trying to be able to say [things] right there. ... That's what I'm trying to do in my current relationship. Deal with the repercussions at the moment. Because down the road, it's worse."

He was introduced to Paltrow by actress Winona Ryder, who is seeing Damon. Affleck calls Paltrow "the smartest woman I have ever met."

As for marriage, "I'm waiting. I'm not gonna get married any time soon. What do I need to marry now for? I'm 25. Getting married now would lead into being the 32-year-old divorcé."

He says he's definitely more confident now, and mindful that one doesn't need much power in one's business to become insufferable. Van Sant gave Damon and Affleck only one piece of advice on handling their good fortune: Don't be mean.

"I've had people be incredibly rude to me," Affleck says, sipping the last of his juice. "I went in once to this lady, the first year Beverly Hills, 90210 came on. I had no money and my agent was like, 'Just go do it. It's stupid, but no one will ever see it.' I went in and I tried to do something interesting in a subtle way, and the lady casting director called my agent and yelled at her, saying, 'He was just embarrassing. He was quiet and we couldn't hear him. He'll never be on Beverly Hills, 90210."

Affleck leans back, laughing softly. "And I never was! Thank God for unanswered prayers."


The Matt Pack

First the Rat Pack, then the Brat Pack -- now Hollywood brings you the Matt Pack: rising stars who have been linked with the Oscar-winning duo of Matt Damon and his lifelong friend Ben Affleck.

Winona Ryder, 26
Latest love interest of Damon and best friend of Affleck's girlfriend, Gwyneth Paltrow.

Minnie Driver, 27
Starred with Damon and Affleck in Good Will Hunting. Her brief relationship with Damon was highly publicized -- as was their breakup.

Chris O'Donnell, 29
Starred in School Ties with Damon and in Circle of Friends with Minnie Driver.

Claire Danes, 19
Starred with Damon in The Rainmaker (and, yes, also dated him during filming).

Photo Credit : GREG GORMAN FOR USA WEEKEND


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