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.
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