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Ben Affleck’s dark nights return.

Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne in Gone Girl.

Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne in Gone Girl.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 19, 2014.

The back of an envelope Ben Affleck goes like this. In Act One, a former child star writes a screenplay with his best friend, Matt Damon. They win an Oscar for Good Will Hunting, get rich and star in blockbusters. In Act Two, our hero flies too close to Jennifer Lopez, crashes to earth, and gets a pop cultural kicking. This sets up Act Three, in which he learns to direct, settles down with a beautiful actress, has three adorable children and wins Best Picture for Argo. It’s a neat, appealing, half-true story.

So what next? Act Four is being written. Soon he will be the Caped Crusader, in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. If rumours are to be believed, he has signed a deal to direct a series of Justice League movies. This being the overheated world of comic books, 100,000 fans have signed a petition stating that Affleck is “not intimidating enough for the role of Batman” and should be replaced. People are ready to hate him again.

Affleck is sprawled in front of me, deep in a sofa, his leg on the coffee table, a backward baseball cap on his head. He has the air of a man who has patiently explained that yes, he bought a train ticket and no, he doesn’t know where it got lost, several times, and can he please just pay a fine and go home. We’re in a fancy hotel in suburban Detroit, at the press day for David Fincher’s new movie, Gone Girl. It’s been a long morning of interviews.

The petition-signers have presumably not checked out Affleck’s upper arms, which are as thick as Parma hams. He’s carrying a few more pounds around his middle than the Dark Knight, but seems ready to continue the trajectory from Michael Keaton to Christian Bale, via Val Kilmer and George Clooney, in which Batman spend his down time between incarnations in the gym, drinking protein shakes. Affleck is massive. Last November, Gone Girl’s costume designer had to tell him to lay off the weights, because he was outgrowing his character’s clothes.

Nick Dunne, the anti-hero of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel, is a vain, self-pitying, deceitful lush and/or a charming, self-aware, downtrodden husband. The reader is never quite sure how much to sympathise with or believe him. Did he murder his wife or not? “He’s a modern everyman, an alienated middle-class American, a little bit at a loss,” says Affleck. “He’s not got a tremendous amount of inner character.” As an actor, you couldn’t hope for a juicier role.

There’s no guarantee that a good book will become a good movie, of course, particularly when it features two unreliable narrators and a structure that needs to be smashed and re-assembled, but there is reason to be excited about Gone Girl, which opens next week. The novel is pitch dark, funny, and gripping. Flynn wrote the screenplay herself. Plus, it’s Fincher’s film. In Zodiac, Fight Club, Seven and the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo he’s shown himself to be a master of the gradual realisations and sudden shocks that make a thriller thrilling.

Fincher cast Affleck because he felt there was an aspect of the character he could relate to. The day after Amy Dunne disappears, Nick becomes a wanted man, harassed by the media, and as he attempts to shape people’s perceptions of him, in the glare of flashbulbs, whatever he says only makes it worse. “Ben knows inherently what that experience is like,” Fincher told Entertainment Weekly. “He knows what it’s like to be hunted.”

“I could access the feeling of being under siege and not recognising the media version of yourself,” Affleck says. “You get cast in a soap opera that you didn’t audition for. Although with this character, it’s more complicated than my own life, because there’s this ambiguity about what really is the truth. What’s difficult is having people identify with someone who they then have to question: did he really do something bad?”

Unless you count Gigli or Surviving Christmas or the notorious video for Jenny From The Block in which he rubs suntan cream into J-Lo’s bottom, it’s hard to argue that Affleck did anything bad enough to warrant the abuse that he got during the ‘Bennifer’ years, from 2002-4. “It is fashionable at the moment to loathe Ben Affleck,” observed the Boston Globe. “To be honest, the guy makes it easy.” In the pages of respectable newspapers, he was dismissed as smug, full of himself and over-rated.

Affleck has made his peace with the paparazzi, as long as they don’t stalk his kids, but he’s learned to keep his personal life private. In the gushing ‘At home with Ben and Jen’ Dateline NBC special to promote Gigli, which set them up as the new Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the couple were asked: “When did you fall in love? America needs to know this. Does Ben ever do the dishes?” Pass the sick bag.

Bennifer over-sharing.

Bennifer over-sharing.

The mature, once bitten Affleck is an expert at deflecting questions about his relationship with Jennifer Garner, his wife of nine years. In his Oscar acceptance speech he referred to the marriage as “work… the best kind of work,” but he rarely discusses his family in interviews. Which is a shame, because Gone Girl is about the lies that couples tell each other and a marriage not so much falling apart as being blown into razor sharp shards.

“Between Gillian and David you have quite a cynical view of marriage,” he offers. It’s not a view you share? “The two them are pretty subversive. I share some of their conclusions, but I don’t share others.”

What’s your worst habit as a husband? “My worst habit as a husband probably has to do with the demands that this job places on you in terms of time. So just absence, I guess.”

Does your wife keep secrets from you? “You’d have to ask her. This movie suggests that we learn things about one another and some of them don’t fit the mask we put on initially.” Ben will not come out to play.

Affleck’s comeback began with the role of George Reeves, the original television Superman, an aspiring movie actor who was typecast as a hero in a leotard, and who probably killed himself, unless he was shot by someone else. The film, Hollywoodland, was an art house hit, and Affleck earned positive reviews for his performance as a dignified, frustrated man, trapped in a relationship with a powerful married woman and unable to fulfil his potential.

For a while, after Good Will Hunting, he was in danger of being typecast himself, as Matt Damon’s loyal, thick friend. Knowing the two of them had grown up together in Boston, had taken the train to New York together for auditions, had written the screenplay together, many people assumed that the dynamic in the movie was somehow representative of how their friendship operated in real life.

This was absurd – Affleck’s first proper acting gig was as an inquisitive young explorer in Voyage of the Mimi, and he had already played a sadistic jock in Dazed and Confused and a sleazy store manager in Mallrats, very convincingly – but somehow it proved hard to shake.

“People confuse actors with the characters they play, and then they tend to get cast as that sort of character,” Affleck says. “I recently watched all of Brando’s movies again and every time, I thought ‘that’s the real Brando, that’s the way he really is’ and I certainly don’t liken myself to Brando but it’s the ultimate example of how, if it’s done properly, we go ‘that seems real… he’s probably like that.’”

At some point in the two years that he spent at his retreat on Hampton Island, near Savannah, Georgia, after his engagement to Lopez fell through, Affleck realised that if he wanted to direct films he would have to study them in earnest. So he got a copy of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and started working his way through the list. John Cassavetes: check. Sidney Lumet: check. Alan J. Pakula: check. He admits “ripping off” all of them.

He established that directing was a viable career with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, both of which returned to the Boston streets he knows best. The films are set in Dorchester and the rough south side, whereas Affleck grew up in Cambridge, not far from Harvard University. His parents weren’t rich. His dad acted alongside Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight and James Woods, but never made it and at one point was kicked out of the family home for his alcoholism.

Argo’s Oscar was a sudden, unexpected vindication, although the fact that Affleck wasn’t even nominated for Best Director smarted a little. In his speech he alluded to snubs and insults he had endured: “You can’t hold grudges… And it doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life because that’s going to happen. All that matters is you gotta get up.”

Affleck is eager to learn from experienced directors whenever he can, and chooses his acting parts accordingly. When he appeared alongside Sydney Pollack, in Changing Lanes, he picked up the tab while Pollack shared his Robert Redford stories. He signed on for Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder – “It’s a tone poem. If you don’t want to see that, you should not go,” he told GQ – to pick up tips about using natural light and shooting small.

Fincher has said that Affleck’s work as a director was another reason he hired him for Gone Girl – “No-one will find you out faster than the guy who made Argo” – and the two clearly form a mutual admiration society. Affleck says he considers Seven to be “a perfectly constructed film, in every way,” and admits that he pestered Fincher constantly on set.

“I know everything he’s ever done. I’ve studied it. I didn’t want to hit him with all the questions on the first day, but since we shot for four months there was plenty of time to get into it. One of the real pleasures of this is that we became friends and he was very candid and patient with me asking questions about his past movies and the process and why he was doing things the way he was.”

So you plan to rip him off in the future? “That’s the first thing I’ll do. I’ve worked with a lot of directors and David’s the first choice for ripping off. Then maybe go to Malick…” When he gets around to the Justice League movie, he might want to look at his notes from Armageddon, to see if Michael Bay passed on any tips about how to blow things up.

More than 100,000 people signed this petition.

More than 100,000 people signed this petition.

Affleck is contracted to direct Live By Night, another Dennis Lehane crime novel set in Boston, this time during prohibition. But first he has to don the cape for Batman v Superman. George Clooney used to keep a picture of himself dressed as the Dark Knight on his office wall, as a reminder of the perils of mega-stardom. It’s a risky role for Affleck, the more so because his one previous foray into superhero movies, Daredevil, was such a bad film.

The advance word is that his Batman will be a “tired and weary” vigilante, inspired by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, in keeping with the trend towards ever darker, more troubled superheroes. “Certain heroes have a tradition of more mythic darkness,” Affleck says. “If you read these graphic novels… they’re not really children’s literature. I don’t know if kids even read comics any more.”

He is aware that he’s asking to be shot at, but says he’s more driven than ever. Once, he worked harder than everyone else because he feared being a failure, like his dad. These days, it’s because he’s experienced the best and the worst of fame. “I’m actually very neurotic and terribly afraid every time I start a project,” he says, shooting me a look of absolute sincerity that Nick Dunne would be proud of.