By now we’re used to his glamorous image and his often dashing on-screen persona.
But before all the flashbulbs and the magazine covers, Ben Affleck, a restless kid from a working-class family, roamed the streets of Cambridge, Mass., living only a few blocks away from the golden elite at Harvard Square.
Affleck took PrimeTime’s Diane Sawyer on a tour of the neighborhood and showed her the place he says he still loves best in the world — his childhood home. “I still have this place to go home to,” he says. “It’s like the last root.”
Inside, photos on the dining room table show the mother he adores, the schoolteacher who encouraged him to embrace books and poetry. There are also images of his lifelong friend, Matt Damon, with whom Affleck co-wrote and starred in Good Will Hunting, the film that catapulted them to fame.
For years, we’ve heard about their bossom buddy relationship. Damon, a couple of years older, had a profound influence on young Affleck, admittedly a smart kid a little too willing to get by on charm. “I would always get things like ‘not working up to his potential’… because I knew what I had to do to… get by,” he says.
“Matt was definitely more… of a kind of achiever. It was inconceivable to him that you wouldn’t get an ‘A’ or do really well,” he recalls. “So I did really well my first two years in high school and then when Matt left, I would cut class and… get in all kinds of trouble.”
Switching Gears Performing was a passion that remained constant throughout his high school years. And it was a moment right around graduation — when Affleck’s drama teacher congratulated him for his performance in a play — that Affleck says helped him through his years as a struggling actor. “I had looked up to him and I really admired him, but I was really rebellious,” he recalls. “And he said ‘if you want to do this… I think you could be successful and you should try it.’”
Ten years later, Affleck is a giant movie star, a charmer whose film roles have largely reflected that side of him. With his latest star turn, however, Affleck might be out to change that perception. With a phone call, ex-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow issued a challenge that he was initially reluctant to take on — work together on a love story called Bounce.
“We had just, broken up prior to that, [and she] was saying ‘hey, let’s go do this whole project together,’” he says. “I was a little reluctant. I certainly recognized that it was really hard work.”
“I think she thought… it was easy for me to play certain kinds of roles, because I didn’t have to… give as much or expose myself as much, didn’t have to make myself… work quite so hard,” he adds. “I think she wanted other people to see the sides of me that she saw… she knew were there.”
Bouncing In In Bounce, Affleck plays Buddy Amaral a public relations executive who through a series of tragic events, meets and falls in love with Paltrow’s character, Abby Janello. Of his work in the movie, he says that so far, it’s the most honest role of his career.
“I basically was willing to say, ‘OK, I’m going to do the work and be willing to fail,’” he says, “because [in] that movie, there really wasn’t anywhere to hide.”
Affleck speaks affectionately about Paltrow, asserting he is grateful for her persistence in working with him on the project. “She’s a very generous,very caring, empathetic person… [and] would go a long way out of her way for people that she cared about.” He tells Sawyer their breakup came out of “different senses of what was OK… what would work and what constituted compromise,” and admits it will be hard to see her committed to someone else. Still, he says, they remain good friends.
Dot Coming Along with his passion for movies, Affleck’s growing interest in politics recently led him to campaign with Vice President Al Gore. The other project taking a lot of his time and enthusiasm is an online venture he’s developing with Damon and a couple of other partners. Their Internet company, LivePlanet, will provide original entertainment content on the Web.
As he expands his artistic range with challenging roles, and delves into the business world, it might seem like Affleck is chewing off more than he can handle. Still, the actor is surprisingly pragmatic about what he does and why he does it. “I don’t want to be terrible at something,” he says. “I am drawn to things that I think I have an aptitude for.”