Hollywoodland - Ben Affleck interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
BEN Affleck talks about his award-winning role as tragic Superman star George Reeves in Hollywoodland, as well as approaching the role of a superhero from a different perspective.
Q. At what point did you realise that you’d taken on a role that would bring you the best reviews of your life?
Ben Affleck: I think it always seemed pretty clear to me. I chased this part because I thought it would be a good coup for me to get it. The part was pretty rich because there was a lot to play. He [George Reeves] was a very gregarious, generous, outgoing guy who became this icon of masculinity in ’50s post-war America. But underneath that was this really tragic, sad soul and that offered a really interesting contrast.
Also, getting the chance to play a supporting part meant that I didn’t have to do as much as the protagonist, such as running around telling the story. [As the protagonist] you push the story whereas, paradoxically, as a character part, you have a chance to explore some of the nuance and some of the more complicated aspects of a character. So, it was pretty clear to me that whoever played this part, it would be good for them. And I was pleased that it ended up being me.
Q. One of the things you can’t help but notice is the strong physical resemblance between yourself and George Reeves as Clark Kent. Has anyone commented on that before?
Ben Affleck: It’s certainly nice that you have and I hope it spreads. But I can’t take a lot of credit for it. It was something we really worked hard on with the wardrobe, the production designer and Allen Coulter [the director].
Clearly, there’s a real onus on you to do something correctly when everybody, at least in the United States, had a really clear, specific idea of what this guy looked like – and even more so, what he looked like as Clark Kent and as Superman. You have this whole vast audience of people who would be acutely aware of any deviation whatsoever and probably holding you to a slightly higher standard as a result.
So we used the same materials, the same clothes, the same exact model of hat and glasses. That particular aspect of it then involved more mimicry than acting. It was just a really studied emulation of him as that guy and the way he played it. And that was a lot of fun for me because I’d worked so hard on the small things, such as the little tilt of the hat and the wink at the audience. It was great. It was what he was so good at doing because children had a sense that they were in on the secret with him. Everybody else would be running around going: “My gosh, Mr Kent, you just missed Superman!” And he would kinda wink at the audience and say: “Yeah, I guess I did Jimmy.”
Q. Following on from that, had you been approached at any stage to play Superman in the new version of the film [which eventually starred Brandon Routh]?
Ben Affleck: I’d certainly not been formally approached. I had definitely heard about it. One of the nice things about playing a superhero is that you are not later on asked to play any more superheroes. I had kinda inoculated myself at that time.
Q. You have played a superhero before – in Daredevil – and donned a costume, so what was it like to approach it in such a different way this time around?
Ben Affleck: The approach to it in this movie was just about how humiliating it was. He loathed the suit, it was a constant reminder of his thwarted ambitions and his own self-loathing. He hadn’t achieved being a serious actor, in fact quite the opposite, he’d become a silly actor. And the suit was very uncomfortable, they hadn’t designed the fake muscles to look good yet, it was just a wool sweater basically and the lights were 10 times hotter because of technical reasons back then. So it was a sort of continuing humiliation for him. In fact, as the series went on and he got more control, the amount of Superman in each episode would diminish.
One of the things it channelled in me was that experience that I’d had of wearing a big red leather thing on my upper torso with a mask I couldn’t see through and an outfit that completely inhibited movement, feeling humiliated and like a fool. I just recalled that.
Q. Is it true that you gained weight for this role? I presume that’s a bit of reverse preparation for normally playing a superhero?
Ben Affleck: Yeah. One of the differences between now and then is that the idea of body image is a much bigger issue now. Back then, just being kind of heavy and barrel-chested passed for heroic. Now, you wouldn’t dare to play a hero without a lot of dieting and various specialised abdomen machines. But that was one of the things which was interesting about it and I did want to portray because there’s good and bad.
Also, Reeves started to come apart at the seams physically. He started having to wear a girdle, he started drinking in the mornings and it started to come apart for the guy. The thing about gaining weight for a part is that it misses me and it keeps trying to come back. It’s like feeding these stray kittens. The hard part is letting go.
Q. Do you find that the ruthlessness of studios still exists but in a different form nowadays?
Ben Affleck: There’s definitely an aspect… they used to have an investment in you, an actual, literal investment in an actor. You paid them some money, you had a contract with them and you were almost like a commodity. There’s now, for me, a little bit of a “walk the plank phenomenon”. You do a movie, it doesn’t work and the idea is like: “You know what? You took the money, so now walk the plank. Go out there and talk to the people.” So, you sit there across from the writers and they begin their questions with: “I saw your film…” [imitates a sneering English accent].
Q. We’re told that journalists wouldn’t print a word of the affair between George Reeves and Eddie Mannix’s wife for fear of reprisal. Did it make you hanker for a time when your personal life was your own?
Ben Affleck: Obviously, don’t take this personally, but I wish that in this day and age you all had the threat of getting your knees broken. I hope that doesn’t offend. No, I’m kidding… [laughs]
It’s a different kind of thing and it goes back to the idea of the investment the studios had in you. They would put some money in you and you were kind of part of that machine and you were expected to act in six or seven movies a year.
But the truth is, there was something about the larger culture that changed. If you look backwards, it wasn’t just actors, it was President Kennedy, it was a lot of different things. There was a certain level where people wouldn’t print something they didn’t think was decent or tasteful. That has changed for the better in some ways, where journalism has become more investigative and more critical – but it also can be intrusive, obnoxious and tawdry. I guess you couldn’t have one without the other.
Q. Can we ascertain from that, then, that you’ll be one of the few mainstream actors not to want to play a journalist?
Ben Affleck: [Laughs] The knee breaking thing was a joke… I would love to play a journalist. I think it’s a noble profession – and some of the best performances have been playing villains.
Q. George Reeves felt a need to be validated for his work. Is the same true of actors nowadays?
Ben Affleck: It’s much nicer to be praised than to be damned. But you have to have a certain sense of your own priorities and ideas about what works and what doesn’t because otherwise, if you’re just looking for eternal validation all the time, you can be motivated by the wrong things and I don’t think it’s as personally satisfying in your own work.
But on balance, a performer wants to feel that there’s something there which stands out because you put a lot of effort into it, a lot of energy and a lot of yourself into something. I feel pretty successful about some movies I’ve been in that have not been greeted with a lot of enthusiasm and I do trust my own criteria. But conversely, there are movies that I’ve been in, which have been very successful, that I’ve hated. So who’s to say? On the whole, it’s nice. But you can’t make that the whole thing otherwise you’ll live and die for it and be a slave to it.