The actor speaks frankly about everything from his addictive behavior and his divorce to why he lied about that back tattoo.
This is Ben Affleck, raw and vulnerable, talking extensively for the first time about getting sober (again) and trying to recalibrate his career (again).
Affleck, Oscar-winning writer, director of the Oscar-winning Argo, alcoholic, divorcé and proud possessor of a mythical back tattoo — has four movies coming out this year. The Way Back where Affleck plays a reluctant high school basketball coach with big problems — he’s a puffy, willful, fall-down drunk who blows up his marriage and lands in rehab.
You read that correctly.
“People with compulsive behavior, and I am one, have this kind of basic discomfort all the time that they’re trying to make go away,” he said a couple of Sundays ago during an interview at a beachside spot in Los Angeles. “You’re trying to make yourself feel better with eating or drinking or gambling or shopping or whatever. But that ends up making your life worse. Then you do more of it to make that discomfort go away. Then the real pain starts. It becomes a vicious cycle you can’t break. That’s at least what happened to me.”
He cleared his throat. “I drank relatively normally for a long time. What happened was that I started drinking more and more when my marriage was falling apart. This was 2015, 2016. My drinking, of course, created more marital problems.”
Affleck’s marriage to Jennifer Garner, with whom he has three children, ended in 2018 after a long separation. He said he still felt guilt but had moved past shame. “The biggest regret of my life is this divorce,” he continued, noticeably using the present tense. “Shame is really toxic. There is no positive byproduct of shame.”
He took a sharp breath and exhaled slowly, as if to slow himself down. “It’s not particularly healthy for me to obsess over the failures — the relapses — and beat myself up,” he said. “I have certainly made mistakes. I have certainly done things that I regret. But you’ve got to pick yourself up, learn from it, learn some more, try to move forward.”
The Way Back was originally called The Has-Been. That was dropped during development as the film became less focused on what a basketball talent the main character had been in high school, Affleck said. Suffice it to say, no star wants to appear on a poster next to the words The Has-Been.
Affleck, 47, has been working like a madman to get his career back on track. To some, Affleck is still the guy who broke Garner’s heart and who was accused of groping a talk-show host in 2003. “I acted inappropriately,” he said of that incident in 2017, “and I sincerely apologize.”
Hollywood has certainly granted Affleck clemency. He just finished acting in Deep Water. He’s on Netflix this month in The Last Thing He Wanted. Affleck has also been working with Damon on the script for The Last Duel, which begins filming in France this month. The Last Duel re-teams Affleck and Damon as screenwriters for the first time since Good Will Hunting in 1997. Ridley Scott is directing the film.
Affleck was supposed to direct The Batman which himself. He stepped aside, allowing Matt Reeves to take over (and Robert Pattinson to don the cowl), after deciding that the troubled shoot for Justice League had sapped his interest. Affleck never seemed to enjoy his time as Batman; his sullen demeanor while promoting Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016 resulted in the hit meme Sad Affleck. “I showed somebody The Batman script,” Affleck recalled. “They said, ‘I think the script is good. I also think you’ll drink yourself to death if you go through what you just went through again.’”
He has not talked much about his alcoholism since completing a third stint in rehab in 2018. (The first two were in 2001 and 2017.) But the arrival of The Way Back has made the subject impossible to avoid.
“Relapse is embarrassing, obviously,” he said. “I wish it didn’t happen. I really wish it wasn’t on the internet for my kids to see. Jen and I did our best to address it and be honest.”
Growing up in Massachusetts, Affleck saw his own father drunk almost every day. “My dad didn’t really get sober until I was 19,” Affleck said, becoming guarded all of a sudden. (It was one of only two times when he chose each word carefully, with the other being his answer to a question about Harvey Weinstein. Early in his career, Affleck starred in multiple movies that were backed by Weinstein’s companies. “I don’t know that I have anything to really add or say that hasn’t been said already and better by people who have been personally victimized or who are survivors of what he did.” Three years ago, Affleck announced that he would donate all future residual payments from Weinstein films to anti-sexual assault charities.
“The older I’ve gotten, the more I recognize that my dad did the best he could,” Affleck said. “There’s a lot of alcoholism and mental illness in my family. The legacy of that is quite powerful and sometimes hard to shake.” Affleck’s younger brother, Casey, 44, has spoken about his own alcoholism and sobriety.
“It took me a long time to fundamentally, deeply, without a hint of doubt, admit to myself that I am an alcoholic,” Ben Affleck said. “The next drink will not be different.”
It seemed like a good moment to point out how many stars had started to speak out about getting sober — Brad Pitt most notably.
Affleck cited the sober A-listers Bradley Cooper and Robert Downey Jr. as “guys who have been very supportive and to whom I feel a great sense of gratitude. One of the things about recovery that I think people sometimes overlook is the fact that it inculcates certain values. Be honest. Be accountable. Help other people. Apologize when you’re wrong.”
Let’s talk about honesty for a minute. Shouldn’t he have been honest from the start about the damn back tattoo rather than telling “Extra” it was “fake” for a movie?
“I resented that somebody got a picture of it by spying on me. It felt invasive. But you’re right. I could have said, ‘That’s none of your business.’ I guess I got a kick out of messing with ‘Extra.’ Is your tattoo real or not real? Of course, it’s real! No, I put a fake tattoo on my back and then hid it.”
Affleck laughed. “I’ve never been very risk-averse — for better or worse, obviously. Regarding The Way Back, the benefits, to me, far outweighed the risks. I found it very therapeutic.”
The Way Back was directed by Gavin O’Connor.
“I think that Ben, in an artistic way, in a deeply human way, wanted to confront his own issues through this character and heal,” O’Connor said by phone.
“The hardest part of the movie for Ben was really the basketball,” O’Connor said. “If you’ve never really played before, being on a court is like, you know, being on ice skates for the first time. Once that part clicked, we were cooking with gasoline. He was already ready to go to really deep, dark places with the drinking.”
In one memorable scene, he sits in her kitchen pretending to be fine — fine. When his sister challenges him, he explodes. “Out of nowhere in one take, Ben backhanded the beer can sitting in front of him,” Watkins said by phone. “It was immediate, and it was scary and it was exactly the right instinct. He was a powder keg, and she had no idea that she had lit it.”
Affleck talked about that moment, too.
“She’s pressing to see if he’s OK, and I know how uncomfortable that can be for an alcoholic — when you have that nagging, irritating, suspicious feeling that the person is right, but you don’t want to admit it. Smacking the can was my version of backed-into-a-corner, primal level of denial, the way our minds hold onto these addictions.”
Toward the end of The Way Back (spoiler alert) Jack has a powerful interaction with his ex-wife. He is in rehab at this point, and, when she comes to see how he is doing, he offers her an unflinching apology.
“I failed you,” he says. “I failed our marriage.”
It’s rough stuff, especially when watched through the prism of everything that has gone on with Affleck offscreen. You can’t help but think about similar conversations that he must have had with Garner.
“It was really important, without being mawkish or false, that he make amends to her — that he take accountability for the pain that he and only he has caused.”