What was your tipping point when it came to Ben Affleck, the moment you threw your hands up and said, "Enough"? Was it when he and Jennifer Lopez canceled their wedding? When he bought her a Bentley? When she fried up chicken cutlets for him on TV? When his career became secondary to their celebrity? Maybe it was the precise moment that he put his hand on her bikini-ed butt in the "Jenny From the Block" video.
Until that point, the nation feasted on the details – his strip-club visit, the six-carat rock that he gave her. The Latina bombshell – with her fur coats and high heels, her ex-husbands and her appetites – and the handsome, square-jawed movie star! She's Bronx, he's Boston!
Then indigestion set in.
"Our relationship was written about so much that it just alienated people," says Affleck, who claims that he is as sick of the spectacle as you are. "I feel like a guy who is almost at the finish line. Then I'll sort of disappear for a good long time, and not be ... this person."
The pair's year-and-a-half romance ebbed in January, and now Affleck is in the awkward position of having to talk about Jersey Girl, a film that actually documents their falling in love. Affleck plays a music publicist whose wife, Lopez, dies in childbirth soon after the film begins.
Jersey Girl is no Gigli fiasco – it focuses much more on his relationship with his young daughter and his later love interest, played by Liv Tyler, than it does on Lopez, whose face has been banished from the ads and posters. "This is my favorite thing that I've done," says Affleck, lounging in his office at his L.A. production company, which is staffed with swinging young employees who sift through tapes for the Project Greenlight cable series that he co-produces for Bravo. Affleck recently asked Jersey Girl director Kevin Smith, his longtime pal, if he was angry at him for suggesting that Smith cast Lopez as his wife. "It was more a way of saying, 'Hey, I'm sorry. I didn't mean for this to happen.' I felt badly that the tabloid craziness would overshadow what is a really personal work."
Affleck, unlike most other actors, is tall in person (six feet three). He wears jeans, work boots and a gas-station jacket. Usually gregarious, he is incredibly closed off on this particular day. He won't make eye contact, and there are uncharacteristically long silences before he speaks.
"You caught me at the tail end of a life spent entertaining the press, and I'm a little bit weary of it, having been betrayed hundreds of times," he says. "But don't worry. I'll warm up." He looks at the floor.
OK, then. Who gets the ring? "That's a ballsy way to start," Affleck says with a brittle laugh. "There was no ring. It was a fraud perpetrated on the American public." He won't reveal the reason why the two split. "I haven't had conversations with my close friends about this relationship."
Smith has his own theory on the breakup. "I totally blame the media," he says. "It's tough to live your life under a fucking microscope, and now turn that microscope into a high-powered, shooting-into-space telescope that's constantly focused on you like a laser. I think that really played a big, big fucking part."
Affleck says that he still talks to his ex and allows that the split was mutual. "I think any relationship that ends, by definition, ends mutually," he says. He clears his throat. "Sensible people are able to recognize that. I mean, relationships are mysterious and hard to fathom, but when it doesn't work, it doesn't work, and you just have to accept it gracefully."
He tosses a baseball in the air, faster and faster. "I'm not that interested in assigning blame, because I think it's illusory, anyway," he says, although he does agree with his ex-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow's recent comment that he makes life hard for himself. "She's probably right about that," he says. "I trust her opinion about most things. Not all, but most. I think I probably do get in my own way."
That said, he maintains that he is an easy person to live with. "I'm a very pleasant, low-maintenance guy," he says. "I'm not picky about things, like the house has to be this way or that way. I don't have some particular way I like to eat, or 'We have to go to this restaurant.' " He lights a cigarette and takes a vigorous drag. "But really living with somebody is about more than who does the dishes and if they pick up after themselves. And in some ways I'm probably not the easiest guy in the world." He is restless, for instance. "I have lots of interests, lots of energy, but there's definitely a negative side to that as well."
He and Lopez first lived together in Philadelphia during the filming of Jersey Girl, then afterward in Los Angeles in Lopez's house. Now that he has moved out, he is staying with friends while he searches for a place to rent. He was interested in one house, but someone else had put an offer on it first. "It was Nelly," he says ruefully. "Me and Nelly, vying to rent a house. Nelly got it, by the way."
Affleck is self-effacing, without actorish false humility, and will beat you to any punch line about himself, making jokes about his save-the-world film roles and calling Gigli a "bomberoonie, the Ishtar of our time." The phone rings in his office.
"I can't pick up," he bellows at his assistant. "The light isn't flashing."
"It is, too," she hollers back.
"Quit talking about the light flashing," yells another employee.
"You see the respect I get around here?" he says, punching the phone buttons.
In person, Affleck is deeply likable. Quick-witted, with a ribald sense of humor, he's an excellent mimic, endlessly entertaining with a stream of constant "bits." An equal-opportunity flirt who loves bantering back and forth, he's the sort of guy who leaves a party and everyone else trails out five minutes later.
"He's not completely obsessed with himself, like other people in his profession," says his pal Chris Moore. "He can talk about who should be the next president, or why he thinks it's OK that the Red Sox didn't get A-Rod. And he's just been a real loyal friend. He's always found time to be there when I needed to talk to him."
Affleck is fully aware of the schadenfreude directed toward him and studiously avoids reading magazines or watching any TV shows in which he might be featured. "Otherwise I'll just get bent out of shape," he says. "I'm not even going to jump up and down and send letters to the lawyers anymore. I tried suing. It doesn't work."
Affleck is used to sniping – a mini-backlash occurred after Good Will Hunting, with gay rumors and whispers that he and Matt Damon didn't write the script (in Matt and Ben, an off-Broadway play about the pair, the script falls from the sky). Some fans have been upset with Affleck's subsequent roles in big-budget popcorn flicks such as Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, preferring that he stay on the Chasing Amy path as a John Cusack for Generation Y – a smart, sensitive everyguy.
But it was his union with Lopez that really rankled, particularly when her glittering lifestyle drew him in, and he traded his scruffy jeans and Red Sox caps for slicked-back hair and velour tracksuits (although who among you has not had a wardrobe tweaked by a new love?).
Affleck says he doesn't know why their union caused such a hostile reaction. "Hopefully I can get far enough away from it in time to be able to get a better sense of it," he says, although he suspects the hostility "had something to do with race and class. That pushed a button. This is a country that flew into a gigantic uproar about Janet Jackson's breast. There's still a heavy-duty puritan influence going on, and we still hold ourselves to a pretty chaste ideal, which includes, buried within it, the tradition of people being with people like them. We were thought of as two different kinds of people, not just racially but culturally." Perhaps that's why the tabloids have gone easier on Lopez dating singer Marc Anthony. Affleck lights another of his menthol Marlboro Lights. "Basically, it just came down to, Wow, I never thought those two would get together.' "
Affleck and Lopez met on the set of Gigli in December 2001, when she was still married to dancer Cris Judd, but it was during the filming of Jersey Girl, the following summer, that they fell in love. As did the public: This reporter was present on the last night of filming on Park Avenue in New York, when the frenzy was just cresting. On that day, the two were on the front page of both the Daily News and the New York Post, and a hundred-strong mob of rambunctious paparazzi was gathered at the edge of the set, hoping for more shots.
Suddenly the two appeared – he in sharp suit, she looking lusciously beautiful in a fur coat, towering high heels and bare, tanned legs. The crowd went berserk. They shot a scene, over and over, in which they chitchat for a moment and then he kisses her. Their make-outs continued after Smith yelled, "cut," and were so intense that it felt invasive to watch.
The day before was even more frenetic, when Smith filmed in Central Park for a scene in a horse-drawn carriage. "It was bizarre," says Smith. "These were just guys in guerrilla-warfare outfits, snapping photos like we were in the DMZ. As soon as we would yell cut, voom, they would just descend like a cloud of locusts. I was like, 'Jesus Christ, why? Like two famous people have never fucked before?' "
The film was shot mostly in Philadelphia, where the pair shared an apartment. Affleck recalls it as a "great, wonderful time."
"They'd come to the set together, they'd get made up together, they'd be in their trailer together," says Smith. "If you found one, you'd find the other. If we had any problem with the movie, it was that you'd want to go get them, but the trailer was rocking. So you'd just let them be."
The couple announced their engagement in November 2002, but signs of strain appeared by next summer. The tabloids reported that Affleck, in Vancouver to film Paycheck had frolicked with strippers at Brandi's Exotic Nightclub, although he dismisses reports of hanky-panky. "There have been plain, baldfaced lies people have told about me for money," he says.
Then Gigli was fricasseed, making just $3.8 million on its opening weekend. A few days before their scheduled September wedding in Santa Barbara, California, the pair issued a statement saying the nuptials were postponed due to media scrutiny. "That really was the truth," Affleck says. From there, the relationship seemed to limp along, finally ending in January.
"It was weird," says Smith. "In the course of time from Jersey Girl's wrap up until now, it was watching the entire life cycle of the public's fascination, then revulsion and the fallout."
Did the two fan the flames of interest? There's no need to read between the lines of Lopez's song "To Ben," for instance: "I think God made you for me/A mix of passionate fidelities/Baby, you're so complete/I write this song to let you know /That you will always be to me /My lust, my love, my man, my child, my friend and my king...."
Madonna, of all people, even weighed in. "To a certain extent, they courted the media attention," she said. "At the end of the day, there needs to be a part of the relationship that you keep private."
Affleck shakes his head. "You can probably file that quote in the dictionary of clichés under the heading of 'pot and kettle,' " he says, throwing his baseball. "I mean, I didn't do a book with me naked."
He maintains that the two "lived regular lives" and that much of the overexposure happened without their participation. So why, for instance, did he phone Howard Stern last December when he knew full well Stern would ask about J. Lo's ass?
"I loved it," says Affleck. "With Howard, you know what you're getting. It's not CNN, where there's some snide prick named Anderson Cooper pretending to do real news, when there's nothing substantive about it at all."
While a dig at Cooper is always welcome, it doesn't answer the question. How about his comment, beamed all over the world, that sex with Lopez "lasts for ten minutes?" Why go there? "I'm doing foreign press for some movie," he says, "and this Australian lady says, 'How does it feel to have your sex life be so much an object of everyone's fascination?'" He sighs, exasperated. "And I said, 'What do you mean, they're fascinated? It's not like there are people outside my window, clocking it, going, "That was only ten minutes!"' It was a bit. Then it sort of turned around."
Affleck grabs his keys. He wants to go on a field trip to show just how misinformation can mutate. "Let's take a drive," he says, heading to the parking lot where his black Beemer awaits. First, he busily discards the ten empty soda bottles piled in the front seat, then he turns up a Johnny Cash CD and imitates Cash's cover of U2's "One." "One love," he sings in a deep drawl that sounds more like John Wayne than Cash. "One liiiife." He laughs. "On road trips, people say, 'Stop singing, please, you're ruining the music.' "It's a perfect California day, golden and crisp, and the air rushing by smells like gardenias. Affleck guns the engine, weaves in and out of traffic and grins. This is sort of fun, being in Lopez's stilettos for the day. Whoo!
"For fuck's sake!" Affleck says at a hesitant driver, before running a red light. "I learned to drive in Boston," he says, "and there's a certain kind of make-your-own-way thing that happens."
Affleck applied that same philosophy to his career. He grew up in Cambridgeport, an ethnically integrated part of Boston, with younger brother Casey, also an actor; mom Chris, a schoolteacher; and father Tim, variously a janitor, bartender, mechanic and bookie. "He made some book, yeah," says Affleck. "When we got a new washing machine or a VCR, my father said, 'You can thank Steve Grogan.' He was the quarterback for the Patriots, and everybody in New England bet on the Patriots, and Grogan was constantly fucking up, and he had bad knees."
Tim drifted from the family when Ben was eleven. "My mother did the lion's share of the raising of my brother and me, but she was a great mom," he says. "Unconditional love, that was her thing."He maintains close ties with Chris, who keeps her son down to earth, insisting that he stay over when he visits his childhood home. "My mother gets all mad at me if I stay in a hotel," he carps. "I'm thirty-one years old, and I don't want to sleep on a sleeping bag down in the basement. It's humiliating, you know what I mean?"
Affleck didn't have much contact with his father during his teen years, but he later reconnected with him after his dad, an alcoholic, went through recovery. Tim now lives in Indio, California. "I visited with him yesterday," says Affleck. "My dad's a good man. We have a good relationship."
Affleck himself got sober after a month long stint in rehab in 2001. "It's not something I think about all that much anymore," he says. Although after the breakup, he did get a flood of calls. "They say, 'Hey, are you OK? You need to talk?' So that's kind of a constant reminder." He laughs. "Then I'm too irritated to have a drink."
Affleck's father was also an actor, which sparked his son's interest at a young age (although Affleck Sr. cautioned him by saying it was "the stupidest fucking job in the world"). He and his best friend Matt Damon, who lived two blocks away, would conduct "business meetings" about their acting careers in the high school cafeteria. "It was just us sitting there in a nerdy way and saying, 'We should go to New York for this long a time, and then probably move to L.A.,'" he says."Meanwhile, we auditioned for all kinds of terrible things."
Young Ben would do anything: student films, corporate videos, a slew of commercials. "I did a Levi's 501s commercial when 501 Blues were the big thing," he says. He briefly attended the University of Vermont, then dropped out and moved to L.A. to live with a gang of young wanna-be actors. "I was turned down for everything," he says, waving to a carload of smiling teens who honk their horn. "Dead Poets Society. I lost License to Drive to Corey Haim." At one point he nearly wavered from his goal when he was sent to see a friend of a friend who was an older struggling actor. "He had all these birds," he recalls. "He really wanted to get stoned, and I never liked dope all that much, and it was harsh and I was really paranoid. And he told me, 'I've been an actor for thirty years, and you know how much I've made? Eight thousand dollars.'" Affleck was ill for a week. "I don't know if it was the guy's weird marijuana or his bird-flu virus, but it was an all-around horrible experience."
Meanwhile, Damon was a student at Harvard who was also being cast in one disappointing role after another. Out of frustration, in 1993 the two started writing Good Will Hunting, about a troubled math genius from the wrong side of town. "I've always been insecure because I only had a little bit of college and knew a lot of people from fancy schools," Affleck says. "All that sort of resentment in Good Will Hunting about people who went to college came from me feeling on the fringe."
Good Will Hunting earned nine Oscar nominations and made Affleck and Damon instant stars. "It was like being on a roller coaster," Affleck says. "You know, it's exciting, but what you're aware of mostly is just the sense of movement. It's hard to digest, even in retrospect."
As he coasts down Sunset Boulevard, Affleck reluctantly admits that he trusts his charm more than his talent. Even if he is able to command $15 million a picture, he knows the pitfalls of too many big-studio movies. "You do too many and people start to think of you as Action Guy," he says. "I always felt like Larry Bird, the guy who had to work harder than the next guy. I always felt like I had to compensate in so many different ways. I mean, I don't think anybody really believes they're the cure for cancer." He laughs. "And I have been told both. I am cancer, and I'm the cure.
"Jersey Girl allowed me to try new things as an actor," says Affleck, but he's not sure he agrees with Smith's assert on that his smoldering feelings for Lopez amped his performance. "There's also the Frankenheimer school of thought," he says. He recalls being pulled aside by John Frankenheimer, who directed him in Reindeer Games, the 2000 thriller in which he co-starred with Charlize Theron. "He said, 'I'm going to give you a speech I give every actor. Don't fuck the leading lady. Leave it on the screen.'"
Affleck smoothly pilots the car around a corner. "You never totally feel like you're from here," he says, gesturing. "L.A. feels temporary, like a hotel room. You can keep going back to it, but it never feels quite like home." He pulls into the parking lot of a favorite Mexican joint called Paquito Mas.
"Watch what happens," he says. Sure enough, just as we take our seat at an outdoor table, a photographer appears. "See the guy in the truck, in the pink shirt?" he says. "That took three seconds. That's good stuff. You'll be the 'unnamed female.'" Often, he says, the valets tip off the paparazzi to make some extra cash.
He tells me to hide my tape recorder and to act naturally. While the guy snaps away at a discreet distance, Affleck talks about his future plans. First, he is off to a poker tournament. He rebuffs all the "hysterical stories" about his gambling problem. "I don't even play blackjack anymore," he argues. "I play poker, where you are playing against other people. There's no edge, there's no house, so you're not destined to lose." He resents the theory that as an addictive personality, he has traded booze for Lopez and Lopez for gambling. "That's the most common thing said about people who have been in twelve-step programs," he says. "If you're associated with any one of those, you must have other problems, too." His stint in rehab, he says, should be seen positively. "Here's a sensible guy who wants his life to go in a certain direction, so he cuts the problem off at the pass so he can have a good life. He's someone who has a pretty good watch on himself. Instead it's seen as 'This guy's crazy.'"
Affleck's next movie is a comedy called Surviving Christmas, and after that he hopes to phase out leading roles and focus instead on directing and writing (he's currently adapting a novel by Dennis Lehane, the author of Mystic River). "I'm not making any grand proclamations, but I would like to act in supporting roles, where it isn't incumbent on me to promote the movie and talk about my personal life," he says.
His friend Chris Moore says his relationship put a spin on his public image that "was unfair, but not hard to understand." When Affleck spoke recently at the Daytona 500, some of Moore's friends were there. "They said, 'I hated him when he was dating Jennifer, but I love that guy – he was funny as hell.' I mean, he has that charisma. He is that guy for real." He laughs. "But you can't go shake everybody's hand to get them to love you again."
While Affleck lays low, he wants to do a little traveling, perhaps visit Damon in India while he shoots a Bourne Identity sequel. "It's not like I'm getting all Alanis Morissette, like, 'Thank you, India, for my peace of mind,' but I've worked really hard, and now I have the opportunity to do things like this," he says. Perhaps now he'll slow down just a little. He is starting to feel his age for the first time.
"I play this basketball game once a week," he says, "and now I'm that guy who wakes up in the morning and says, 'Ooh, my back.' The guys I play with are the exact guys that when I was nineteen, I said, 'Look at these sad, sorry bastards. That will never be me. They sweat so bad that they would slime you if you touched them. They're real slow and all they did was foul you.' And now that's me."
The photographer outside the restaurant is losing interest and is beginning to back away. "Let's hold hands as we leave," he says. Nah, too obvious. He puts his arm around me, and the guy moves closer. "You're too stiff," he says in my ear. "Gotta loosen up." I assume a guilty expression as we run to his car. I'm J. Lo for the day! Damned if it isn't sort of exciting!
The photographer follows in a car. "I take great pains to avoid them knowing where I'm staying here," Affleck says, gunning the engine.
Despite the carnival that his life has become, he is upbeat. "I'm not saying, 'Woe is me,'" he says. "I have a good life, and I take responsibility for everything I've done." He is a little shellshocked, but he is not contrite. "I'm not one of those guys that got arrested," he says. "I didn't actually do anything wrong." He pauses. "Is there something I would do differently? Not really. I suppose the temptation is to say that I wouldn't have done any of the press we did for Gigli, but you're paid really well to do these movies, and the expectation is that you're going to support them."
He shrugs. "Being optimistic, I can say that I had the opportunity to experience something that not many people get to experience," he says. "You can liken it to space travel. Although it's probably a lot less pleasant than being in space."
Affleck has finally given the photographer the slip, and now he has a meeting with Jay-Z, who wants to discuss a cross-branding opportunity. Affleck struts a little. "I have a lot of street cred, I don't know if you noticed," he jokes. Then he waves goodbye. "I hope to God they run the pictures," he calls as he leaves.
There was a bidding war for the photos of the "unnamed woman," and the winning tabloid ran the story the following week. The Lord, it seems, was listening.
This story is from the April 1st, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.