Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
October 8, 2012
Years after Ben Affleck directed critical and commercial successes “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” many stories still peg the director/actor’s latest effort “Argo” as a comeback.
“That narrative has been going around for a while. I was like the GQ 2006 Comeback Man,” says Affleck, who does admit that he’d take back some of the movies he starred in if he could. “I guess I’ll know if a movie doesn’t work because they’ll be like, ‘You’re not coming back with this one; this isn’t the comeback one.’”
That storyline should be played out for good now. Affleck’s effective, real-life political thriller “Argo,” opening Friday, reiterates that the once-lambasted star of flops like “Gigli” and “Daredevil” is no joke—in front of the camera or behind it. The movie, based on documents declassified by President Clinton in 1997 about a secret CIA rescue operation launched during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, has huge Oscar buzz. Affleck stars as CIA operative Tony Mendez, who cooks up a plan to rescue American hostages by having them pose as a film crew for a movie that no one is actually making.
At the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the 40-year-old Oscar winner (for co-writing “Good Will Hunting” with Matt Damon) considered his best work, his preferred method of execution and how he’d weave together items even more disparate than Hollywood, Iran and the CIA.
You praised Chris Terrio’s “Argo” script and embraced the challenge of weaving together different tones and elements like Hollywood, the CIA and Iran. I’ll give you three other concepts, and you tell me how you’d pull a story out of there: Wall Street, the Eiffel Tower, Victoria’s Secret models.
I think you have to start with the Victoria’s Secret models. And just see if the other elements make their way in at any point. I’m not sure they need to be in the story. I think you have a movie already with the models.
What’s the story? What are they doing?
The models are on the run. There could be an attack at a shoot. They have to escape. I don’t know; I’m still working on it.
“It was agony” is how you described the terror of directing your first two movies. What’s something in “Argo” you think you wouldn’t have been able to pull off without that prior experience?
Well, a lot. I just definitely learned a ton from doing two movies and feeling like I grew and knew how to handle different situations and was a little bit more confident. It was still a healthy amount of fear. I think fear can be a good driver if it doesn’t overwhelm you. If it gets you up early in the morning and keeps you working hard … but one of the nice things is I wasn’t quite as fearful as last time.
What percent of the shoot would you say you felt those nerves?
It wasn’t nearly as strong. “Gone Baby Gone” I had the fear that maybe I really couldn’t do it. Maybe I wouldn’t finish the movie. Maybe something terrible would happen. “The Town” I was more just fearful of executing the action stuff. That was new. This one, it was the tone. Combining these three tones, making it funny and tense. I thought was a really daunting [task] directorially. So that was where I was focusing my anxiety.
You mentioned that many recent war-related films have been too depressing for audiences. How much do you think people need that lightness in their true stories to want to see them?
I don’t know, ‘cause there’s been great war stories and stuff. It just seems to ebb and flow in terms of levels of popularity, audiences, the zeitgeist. It’s impossible to say. I think you’re 100 percent right, though, that if there’s levity in it and there’s a release valve for audiences and they can laugh, I think they’re going to have a better time at the movies. And that’s one of the reasons why I really liked the comedy in this movie is to not just make the movie just a thriller or just a war story and give them something they could genuinely laugh with.
If you were in a position where you had to choose, would you rather be hanged or beheaded?
I would opt to avoid both.
That’s not an option.
“Death is not an option.” Huh. I guess it depends on the method of beheading. I mean the guillotine’s pretty merciful, but there’s some other ways that are pretty grisly.
It’s the guillotine.
I would say morphine overdose. Quiet, in my sleep. One of those Kevorkian [operations], or whatever they do.
I was going to say the third choice is being locked in a room and listening to LMFAO for the rest of your life.
Well, I suppose that’s one option as well, yeah.
That would not be preferable?
No, no. I don’t even like thinking about ways (to die), to be honest with you.
Not everyone is up for being honest about their past work, but you recently said “Chasing Amy” was not your proudest moment as an actor. So what is your proudest moment?
I mean, the only thing that I wasn’t proud of in “Chasing Amy” was how terrified I was to just give a simple kiss to Jason Lee. Although if he were sitting here right now I don’t know that I’d have grown any. My proudest … you know, I really like “Good Will Hunting.” That was a big deal for me. I actually did like the acting in “Chasing Amy” a lot. I liked “Changing Lanes.” “The Town” and this movie are also proud for me because of the level of preparation as a director to amp up for the acting. A lot of times though it just comes down to script and director, and for me as an actor I’m either going to benefit from or suffer from whoever’s doing those jobs.
What goes through your head when you see a headline like, “From laughing stock to respected filmmaker?” Is it, “Great, they respect me” or “Why does it have to be a backhanded compliment?”
I would say that mostly what goes through my head is the extent to which the headline writers are always trying to grab the viewer’s attention. It seems like the media more and more, whether it’s on the Internet [or otherwise], the press wants to say, “So and so lashes out!” And then you read it and nobody’s lashing out at anything. It’s just sort of an eyeball-grabbing move.
The beginning of “Argo” notes rumors that the Shah’s wife bathed in milk. If you could bathe in anything, what would you want to bathe in?
[Laughs.] Not milk. Can it be bathwater, or does it have to be something different?
I’ve never done one of those mud baths or whatever, but if I have to pick something I guess it’s one of those because they’re at a spa and other people must be doing them for a reason. If it was milk, it would probably want to be skim. Or two percent.
Whole would not be a good choice.
Whole you’d be like floating. And that wouldn’t be good.
I’m excited about your role in Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder.” What do you think of this concept of filming hours and hours of footage and actors not knowing what will be in there?
Well, that’s a bit of the nature of the game. Certainly the nature of all the movies I directed. With Terry, I think you have to keep in mind when you go see the movie that it’s not the conventional three-act drama with scenes and dialogue. It’s a lot of music over [the images], and the dialogue’s not [synced]. The girl who I’m obsessed with speaks in French and voiceover. It’s really just impressionistic. It’s an impressionist film. Those kind of films where everything’s probably the most mysterious to you as an actor because you’re not sure whether you’re just being used as a dob of paint or whether this is going to be the centerpiece of something. And I don’t know if Terry knows either. I think he experiments throughout the movie and then really does the painting in post.
Would you ever do that? Use some people extensively and then possibly cut them out completely?
Well, I suppose I would cut people out if it didn’t work. He didn’t really cut anybody out. Everything in the movie was more or less like to the extent that it was in the movie. Rachel Weisz did a day, and she didn’t end up—Barry Pepper did a couple of days, and he didn’t end up in there. Olga [Kurylenko]’s sort of the lead and she’s kind of the centerpiece of it, and me and Rachel [McAdams] are sort of orbiting her. But I have cut stuff out of a movie. You don’t really know what’s going to work until you get to looking at it and cutting it together.
If Argo Tea wanted to do a tie-in with “Argo,” what should the drink taste like to suit the movie?
Argo Tea, that’s pretty good. It should taste a little bit like—to suit the movie, that’s interesting. Because we have three different components: there’s the end movie that’s in Iran where the tea would probably taste like the Persian tea or whatever it is they drink. It seems to be they’re always drinking. In the beginning [with] the CIA, you’d want to taste like an ashtray or something. ... Every room is full of smoke. I don’t think you’d sell too much tea that tastes like an ashtray, but you never know.
What went through his head when he heard former Boston Red Sox manager Theo Epstein was coming to the Cubs: “I thought the Cubs were going to win the World Series. [Laughs.]” (Immediately?) “Well, immediately seems like a bit of a stretch. But I tell you what I thought: If this guy makes it, if the Cubs win the World Series, Theo’s going to look like one of the greatest baseball geniuses ever. The Cubs are the most closely related baseball franchises to the Red Sox, I think. I thought it was cool that he was coming here; I would prefer he stayed in Boston, but I wish him the best.”
How patient we should be before saying we’re overdue for a championship: “[Laughs.] I would say you’re overdue for a championship. Not since Theo got here, since the dawn of time. What is it, 1908? I think he’s a smart guy; I think he’s going to do a good job for you. You never know!”
On supposedly being a good impressionist but not being able to do any cast members in “Argo”: “I used to have better impressions. I think I’m losing it a little bit. I don’t have John Goodman really. Bryan’s pretty straight. Alan Arkin’s definitely got personality but I can’t really do it. (He later notes that Kevin Pollak does a great Arkin impersonation.) I’ll work on it. Next time I’m in town I’ll come with (my impressions).”
When he says goodbye, he advises: “Don’t bathe in anything I wouldn’t bathe in.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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