Before Armageddon, you were constantly being touted as the hottest ‘new’ actor since Matthew McConaughey. Were you worried about getting all this attention before you’d even starred in a big studio movie?
Yeah. Chasing Amy performed beyond expectation, and in a way, that was what happened with Matthew. He’d been around, but the publicity was there even before A Time To Kill came out. If it doesn’t work out, they can go, “Oh, here’s the next big thing.” And if it does, everyone says, “Well, we knew it.” There is pressure. But there’s always pressure. I try not to think about it too much.
You made your name with low-budget independent movies. Were you worried about what people might think when you agreed to work with Jerry Bruckheimer?
Well, what do they want us to do? Be poor forever? You’ve got to keep the lights on. But my sensibilities are mainstream. I was raised on Lethal Weapon and Back To The Future. I didn’t see Fellini until I was 22 years old – you know, Scorsese saw The Bicycle Thieves and Citizen Kane when he was a kid. And I saw Raging Bull and Mean Streets, but I also saw Battlestar Galactica. I have no snobbishness. There are just as many bad independent movies as bad studio movies. Armageddon was seven months of epic movie-making at its Hollywood peak. It was just the epitome of the grand spectacle event movie. It was a lot of fun.
When you wrote Good Will Hunting, were you tempted to write something a bit more formulaic, like a heist movie?
Eighty per cent of people in movies are either cops, lawyers or architects. It’s strange because that doesn’t makeup 80% of the people I know. I don’t even know any lawyers. And I’ve never heard anybody call anyone else ‘councillor’, which you hear non-stop in American television and movies. Yeah, everyone writes films about cops or robbers—people who had never picked up a gun before or experienced any violence in their real lives. You know, I don’t know anything about being a safecracker! The world I know is the world I wrote about.
At what point did it stop being just two friends messing around?
The day they bought it from us. They paid us a lot of money, so writing a good movie became a professional responsibility. We always thought it didn’t really matter. Then our agent did almost too good a job – got us overpaid for the thing – so the onus was on us actually to write something of some substance.
Not many stars would admit to being overpaid.
Yeah, well, most actors who are stars are overpaid. And most actors you’ve never heard of are wildly underpaid—sort of like the rest of the world. Being a megastar was never something I wanted. I just wanted to do interesting stuff and stop spending movies slamming high-school kids up against lockers.
What was it like suddenly taking meetings with the likes of Mel Gibson and Rob Reiner?
It’s precisely how you think it would be. You feel like a total imposter. You feel entirely starstruck. You know, we were more interested in asking them questions about their movies than we were in pitching our script. We wanted to hear about Lethal Weapon or The Sure Thing.
What’s the dumbest thing you said?
We would literally say things like, “What was it like making Lethal Weapon? You know, “Remember that line, Mel? That was funny! Or, “Rob – remember in Spinal Tap… ‘this one goes to 11!'”
People must have been repeating that line to Rob Reiner for the last 15 years…
They were totally sick of it. You could tell. If we were just fans they met in the street, they would have said “Thank you very much.” and hurried off. But because this was a business meeting, they had to suffer our inanities!
Tarantino used Gerry Rafferty’s song ‘Stuck in The Middle With You’ for Reservoir Dogs, and ‘Baker Street’ played during the final scene of Good Will Hunting. Are you trying to besmirch his good name?
It was Gus Van Sant’s choice. I have nothing against him personally, although I think it’s very funny. Now I’ve noticed that I’ll make sure I continue doing it – just to torment the poor guy.
Was that fight scene based on your own experiences growing up in Boston?
Yeah. It was based on a fight in a park not far from where we shot it. I was walking to get some pizza with some friends. A bunch of guys were hanging out, and a carload of other guys just drove up, leapt out and attacked them. It turned into this enormous brawl. It was more violent and messy than the one we shot. We were only peripherally involved in the brawl, but it had a very visceral effect on me, so I put it in. Because, without being condescending, we certainly wanted to demonstrate that there is a violent element to the kind of working-class life we were trying to represent.
Do you and Matt Damon see yourself more as Kirk Douglas/Burt Lancaster or Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon?
Hey, If I had to choose, I’d go with Kirk Douglas/Burt Lancaster just because we’re not as kooky as that Matthau and Lemmon team.
Your next film is 200 Cigarettes, with Courtney Love. What kind of part do you play?
A producer friend of mine asked me to do a cameo in it. My brother Casey’s actually got quite a significant role in it. So they asked me to come in and do one day. I have, like, two lines as a bartender. It’s a jokey thing. Now I pick up Variety, and it’s like: “BEN AFFLECK: 200 CIGARETTES!” They’re talking about this movie with me as, like, ‘The Guy’, which is totally inaccurate. It’s Courtney Love’s movie and my brother’s movie, and I have two lines in it. I guess this is what happens when you become a name. It’s all new to me.
What’s the most Hollywood thing you’ve ever done?
I like to play cards in Las Vegas. That’s my only source of relaxation these days. I’m totally willing to use whatever star status I have there because, for one thing, the casinos are so out to beat you, and I’m so used to getting the bum’s rush there. You know, if they feel like you’re winning too much, they’ll throw you out. Now I get my own table, all kind of comps – free this, free that. I totally exploit it because I feel like they’re bloodsuckers anyway.
Have you ever ordered off- menu?
No, I don’t think so.
Is it true you were once in a Burger King commercial?
I was about 15,16. There was this whole storyline about me taking my dad’s car without permission. It was a short-lived campaign called ‘Sometimes You’ve Got To Break The Rules’. I remember it was my first exposure in print because US NEWS AND WORLD magazine reported an article about ad campaigns that were colossal failures, and it included this one. And they decided to use a picture of me grinning, with the caption: “Sometimes You’ve Got To Break The Rules.” Someone said, “you’re in US NEWS AND WORLD!” I was like, “Oh really?” And it was like, “Big Failure! I thought this doesn’t bode well…
You worked with Peter O’Toole on the recent film adaptation of Dean R Koontz’s book Phantoms. Did you hang out much?
He was the reason why I did it. Lawrence of Arabia was my all-time favourite movie. He was an absolute joy—an incredibly bright, well-spoken, literate guy. I played a sheriff. He called me Sheriff Prufrock because he was so amazed that an American would know [TS Eliot’s poem] ‘The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock’, which I’d memorised for an acting class once. He seemed more interested in literature than he did in the movie.
Presumably, once you’ve worked with David Lean, it’s hard to get worked up about a film written by Dean R Koontz.