It’s been a while since Hollywood threw its arms around Ben Affleck, but his move behind the camera has proven to be a smart one, reckons Paul Byrne.

I think the fall part of Ben Affleck’s spectacular rise and fall has probably gone on long enough. Right?

Ten years ago, it was all so different. There he was, the working class kid with the Oscar under his arm (for co-writing 1997’s Good Will Hunting with Boston buddy Matt Damon), a bona-fide box-office A-lister (thanks to the likes of Armageddon, Pearl Harbour and The Sum Of All Fears), and, after a well-publicised relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow, Affleck went tabloid supernova when he hooked up with Jennifer Lopez.

Who knows why it all went so horribly wrong? Perhaps it was the crap movies (which included Daredevil, Gigli, Surviving Christmas and the aforementioned Pearl Harbour)? Or the fact that Bennifer became incredibly Fannoying? Then again, maybe Affleck just fell victim to everyone’s need for a fall after every spectacular rise.

Whatever the reason, it’s been a while since Ben Affleck has had his face first and centre on a movie poster. He made a comeback of sorts with 2006’s critically acclaimed Hollywoodland, playing actor George Reeves, TV’s original Superman and the tragic victim of a being a one-hit. At the time, many felt Affleck was perfect casting, given that, as one reviewer said, his ‘battering at the hands of fame has prepped him beautifully’.

“Yeah, well I certainly didn’t need to dig deep,” says Affleck. “Hollywood is littered with people like George Reeves, and I certainly related to the beauty and the cruelty of fame. All of these things make you wiser, and I certainly can’t complain. I’ve been very lucky, and every experience has made me stronger as a person, and also stronger when it comes to making films. A fall like that can really focus the mind [laughs].”

That certainly seemed to be the case when Affleck made his directorial debut in 2007, with Gone Baby Gone, a solid thriller centred on a little girl’s kidnapping that found itself in release limbo on this side of the water in the wake of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance a few days before her fourth birthday whilst on holiday with her family in Praia da Luz. Affleck is back behind the camera now for The Town, an adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel, Prince Of Thieves. Another Boston-set thriller, down amongst the Irish-American ‘Townies’ of Charlestown, a community who look after one another. Especially when the cops come around. For Affleck, the attraction was instant, given that he grew up just a few miles away, in Cambridge. And he also happens to have an Irish mum, Chris.

“I just clicked with this story immediately,” he smiles. “There’s something about exploring a world that you know, that you feel a connection to. Your instincts just take over, and you don’t really need to have too many experts coming in to tell you if you’re getting the details right.

“I was actually hesitant purely because of that. I had done my love letter to Boston with Gone Baby Gone, and I didn’t want to repeat myself. But the story got to me. I just loved the characters here, the journey they go on. You just feel it in your bones, and it makes the whole process so much easier. And satisfying. I had a lot of fun making this movie.”

Having let his brother Casey take the lead in Gone Baby Gone, Ben decided to put his own acting chops to the test in The Town, with such notables as Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm and Chris Cooper coming along for the ride. Having taken a break for three years from acting as he worked on his directorial debut, Affleck got himself back in the saddle for The Town with roles in such movies as He’s Just Not That Into You, State Of Play and Extract, all out last year.

“I still love acting,” he nods, “and I’m always happy to step in front of the camera. There was a stretch of time there where I didn’t feel comfortable stepping in front of the camera, because I had too much baggage, basically. I felt audiences wouldn’t see beyond the tabloid headline, and I’d be Ben Affleck stepping onto the screen, not the character I was supposed to be playing. I’m hoping that’s kind of over now. I’ve done my time…”

Indeed. In truth, Ben Affleck is one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet when it comes to jet-setting Hollywood hunks, laughing in the face of bad movies, fading box-office and endless questions about your love life. Despite having acted since he was a small boy – making his debut on a Burger King commercial aged 5, and getting his first professional gig aged 8 on the TV show The Voyage Of The Mimi – Affleck was, he says, never entirely comfortable with being the Hollywood star. He’s always been very much aware how the industry works though, having written and directed a short in 1993 with the rather fetching title I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her On A Meat Hook, And Now I Have A 3-Picture Deal At Disney.
“I want to try and get back to that kind of attitude,” Affleck nods when I mention the above. “I feel that kind of anarchy, that kind of spontaneity, slipped away from me. It’s incredible, having the kind of success I’ve had, but, to be honest, I’m not really crazy about many of those movies. I’m in a much better place now.”

And whenever the going gets tough, Affleck always has the loving arms of Jennifer Garner and their two kids to run to. Nice.

Time’s almost up. Before we go, let’s get to the diddley-aye potatoes.

“Hey, you’re Irish,” he smiles, standing up to shake my hand. “My mum’s Irish, although I’m not exactly sure where her family’s from. My dad’s Scottish, and I know there’s an Affleck Castle up there somewhere, but I’m more interested in checking out my mum’s roots… I’d be happy to be regarded as Irish though. That’s if the Irish people are willing to have me, naturally.”

Words – Paul Byrne

THE TOWN is now showing in Irish cinemas