Ben Affleck is ubiquitous again, present on gossip magazine covers and billboards in a way he hasn’t been since Bennifer went global in 2002. On the other side of rehab, three disappointing Batman movies, and a viral shot of his phoenix back tattoo, Affleck is on what could be mistaken for a public apology tour in advance of the release of The Way Back, a second-chance drama about a basketball team, a movie that is way better than it has any right to be. In a sense, he’s playing a part: The washed-up sad sack made good again. But Affleck, now 47, never really washed up. He’s got two Oscars; Argo slapped. Hell, even Triple Frontier was pretty fun. He just went through some stuff, did some damage to those he loved and some to himself. He made it to the threshold of middle age and panicked.
He’s not the first. He won’t be the last.
And maybe that’s why it’s genuinely gratifying to see Affleck happy. The bat-torch passed and the past largely torched, Affleck seems optimistic and centered when he talks about his family and his ex-wife and his substance abuse, which are all undeniable parts of his life he’s making precisely zero effort to deny. It’s not so much that Ben is back, but that Ben seems to be enjoying himself for the first time in a long time, willingly unleashing his world-eating charisma rather than doing the brooding bit (though that still works on-camera).
Celebrities are, by and large, hyper-aware of their audience. They play to the back row. What’s interesting about Affleck is how determined he is to play to an audience of three, his kids: Violet, 14, Seraphina, 11, and Sam, 8.
“They’re the only people in the world who don’t feel it’s incumbent on them to be nice to you,” says Affleck of his kids.
It’s a telling statement. The gregarious actor, director, and producer, always personable and never phony, is reveling in a moment of honesty that seems to have started at home. Affleck is happy in part because he’s done some accounting. The Accountant sucked, but his life does not. Not at all.
Affleck spoke to Fatherly about winning, losing, and why he simply loves playing the game.
The Way Back is about a lot of things, but it’s hard not to see the movie as a tribute to the importance and joy of being on a team. You’re famously a sports guy, was that why the material resonated with you?
These activities are a big part of how you learn about life. It’s a big part of how you learn about dealing with adversity, failure, and defeat. Not winning. Something has to prepare you for that. It doesn’t do kids any favors to pretend there’s no difference between achieving a goal and not achieving a goal. Life can be quite difficult. It doesn’t mean you have to sit around and suffer endlessly about it. You learn to deal with it, process it, and get back on the field to try again.
In the movie, you really seem like a very serious high school basketball coach, which might sound like an insult but isn’t. It’s a strange world and you occupy it with some comfort. Was that based on your own experience?
I’d never coached at that level — I hadn’t been around it. You can smell it when someone is faking it. I watched the most tape. I talked to the most people. I went to high school games. I talked to high school coaches. That’s where I was most vulnerable about having a false moment.
You do coach in real life. I’m wondering how you deal with the “don’t keep score” people. You’re a Boston guy and clearly a competitive guy and I guess I’m curious if you push back on the idea that just having fun is… very much fun at all.
I was my son’s little league coach last year. Boom. I was the assistant coach, technically. They try to say, don’t keep score. The kids keep score anyway. They want to know if they won or lost. They were the ones who were mostly driving that. It suggests there’s something basic and primal about sports and victory and defeat.
I go to all my daughter’s soccer games and my son’s swim meets. My oldest — she was doing cross country and debate –doesn’t let me come to most of the debates. We made a deal about which ones I could go to and which ones I couldn’t. She didn’t want to have the parents there. It’s a long story.
What did you learn about yourself from being in the film and playing such a tormented character?
It’s a weird thing to say, but it felt so good — I felt like there were a lot of difficult emotional scenes to play. I had to create a lot of difficult emotions. A lot of those emotions were painful and difficult, but that felt like winning. It felt triumphant to me.
Who doesn’t like a good comeback story?
Maybe doing that was cathartic for me. I don’t know. All I know is that I felt very much in the zone. I felt comfortable every day. I was able to develop a relationship with the younger actors.
Yeah, I’m told the younger kids adored you.
I knew I needed to gain their respect. That’s part of the job of the coach. You can’t assume you’re the authority because you’re the authority figure. I didn’t just go into this thinking, ‘I’m a more experienced actor so they’ll be impressed.’ I didn’t want to lean on anything in my past at all. It reconnected me with why I loved acting to begin with. It reminded me why I loved doing School Ties, even though I had like six lines and played a bully.
I love being in movies. I love working with these other actors. This movie helped me rekindle a passion for acting that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
A coach is a quasi father figure in a lot of ways. You’re an actual dad in real life. To you, what’s the most rewarding thing about being a father?
Oh my gosh. It’s hard to quantify. I thought I was here and it was about me and my life and the things I was doing. But most of my life was just preparation to be a father and try to help make good humans. That’s the the actual meaning of life and the whole reason why we’re here. The rest is just prelude.
You get such profound joy from their presence. With your own kids, you have much more patience. You have so much more joy. You’re going to do dumb stuff and make mistakes as a parent. When they get old enough, they know how to needle you. Your own children know you better than anyone and they know how to really piss you off. They’ll say whatever.
Got any coaching tips for my soccer dads?
That’s tough. Get a good script.
Really, not even anything from your buddy Tom Brady?
Tom’s not a coach. Tom’s a very chill, easygoing, comfortable guy. He’s kind of amazing. One of the keys to Tom’s success — and this isn’t anything he’s ever said to me, it’s just my observation — you can take his pulse in the middle of the Super Bowl and it would be the same as now. He doesn’t seem to get tight.
Once you get nervous, self-conscious, or tight, you perform worse.