The hair. Everybody asks Ben Affleck about the shaggy hair and close-cropped
beard he sports in "Argo," which makes him look like a pastiche of
under-the-gun figures from smart 1970s movies: Warren Beatty in "The Parallax
View" plus Michael Douglas in "The China Syndrome" times Al Pacino in
"I know my hair didn't impress anybody," he says with a laugh of the style that he has said his family hated. "You know, you can't cheat. You've got to do it right. While nobody says they thought it looked great, nobody says they didn't think it was realistic, either."
Don't let the casual tone fool you. The actor, whose career soared with 1997's "Good Will Hunting" and who went on to appear in critical punching bags like "Gigli" and oversized action films like "Pearl Harbor" (and occasional small gems like "Hollywoodland"), has spent the past five years or so redefining himself as the director of the taut dramatic thrillers "Gone, Baby, Gone" and "The Town," on which he did double-duty as lead actor.
His latest project as a director and star is "Argo," a crisp, funny and nail-bitingly tense drama based on the real story of a daring rescue that was conducted during the Iran hostage crisis that began in 1979. Given the critical response it's been getting, Affleck could find himself back at the Oscars next year competing for a directing statuette to match the screenwriting one he shared with Matt Damon 15 years ago for "Hunting."
But for now, he'd rather talk about the hair than the awards buzz. "I'm really excited whenever anybody says they like the movie," Affleck says, deflecting talk of the shiny gold O-word. "I don't ask any questions after that."
The 40-year-old husband (he's married to actress Jennifer Garner) and father of three sounds as if he has absorbed some of the reticence of the character he plays in "Argo," CIA agent Tony Mendez, whose heroic work was kept top secret until President Bill Clinton lifted the mission's classified status in 1997.
And what an assignment it was. The film begins with the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran that would lead to 52 Americans spending 444 days in captivity. But during the chaos, six men and women are able to flee before becoming hostages.
Enter Mendez, who comes up with a totally unexpected idea for safely getting the six, who are hiding at the Canadian ambassador's residence, out of Iran. In a brilliantly unlikely twist, he suggests a covert operation that would have them pose as a six-person Canadian film crew that's scouting locations in the Middle East for a "Star Wars"-style adventure named "Argo."
Mendez enlists the help of two veteran Hollywood figures and, with much support from the Canadian government, attempts to do what seems impossible. As Mendez's CIA boss, played by Bryan Cranston, tells his superiors, "This is the best bad idea we have, sir. By far."
The "Argo" project came to Affleck by way of George Clooney and Grant Heslov, the filmmaking partners who spent part of 2011 in southeast Michigan shooting "The Ides of March." (One of the local "Ides" actors, University of Michigan alum Yuriy Sardarov, has a small part in "Argo.")
"I got it as a 'Hey, do you want to do this?' kind of thing," recalls Affleck, who also is a producer of the film. "I was just elated when I read the screenplay, which was incredible."
Although he had deftly helmed two gritty crime dramas set in his Boston hometown, "Argo" brought a different set of challenges, particularly its unusual combination of serious spy thriller and humor-laced observations of the ego-driven pretensions of Tinseltown.
"I was really worried about it," Affleck admits during a phone interview. "If the comedy got too goofy, it would undermine the audience's belief in the parts of the movie where I was asking them to be afraid for these characters' lives. I had all these ideas about what to do, but eventually just got bailed out by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, who played everything straight and somehow managed to make it very funny while being real, so it didn't do any damage to the credibility of the movie."
Goodman, as real-life makeup artist John Chambers ("Planet of the Apes"), and Alan Arkin, as a producer, are part of an accomplished cast that includes Victor Garber as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, Kyle Chandler as Carter White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan and Tate Donovan as one of the six stranded Americans, who are referred to as "houseguests."
Affleck had Donovan and the other five actors spend a week at the Los Angeles house that subbed as the Canadian ambassador's house, to immerse them in the film's era and the anxious situation.
"We dressed it with all period elements, period magazines, period movies, period records. I put in a period record player, the whole thing, and then put our six houseguests in there and took away all their smartphones, everything, and gave them their wardrobe and nothing else. I think it was really helpful. I can't put my finger on exactly how, but they definitely felt more like a group and a group under siege after that. They complied pretty well. I had one guy who wanted to bring a yoga mat with him, but after some discussion that issue was resolved."
Scenes were filmed in Istanbul, Turkey, at the Warner Bros. lot and inside the Los Angeles Times offices, where staff cutbacks have resulted in empty spaces. (Ever the careful director, Affleck gives an estimate of the reductions and advises, "You should fact-check that.") The cast and crew were also allowed to film at CIA headquarters near Washington, D.C., a rare privilege granted by the super-secret agency, according to Affleck, because Mendez is such a well-respected guy.
"It was definitely the kind of thing where everybody was on their best behavior," says Affleck, noting that Osama bin Laden was killed two weeks after they finished filming. "It was kind of amazing to think that was what was going on, the planning of that, while we were in there shooting."
Affleck was 7, the age of Mendez's son in the film, when the Iran hostage crisis began, so he had to rely on video clips, magazines and newspapers to oversee the re-creation of the era. Although the story is compressed and some dramatic license is taken to capture the essence of the events, the believability is enhanced by the impeccable staging of the 1979-80 world.
"It's nothing that I remember," he says. "I remember yellow ribbons, but it's very vague. For me, directing this movie in terms of personal memories was the same as directing a movie about the Revolutionary War." The only personal recollections he put into the film were the toys in the son's room. "I knew all the action figures I wanted to use. It was very much a snapshot from my childhood."
He says he enjoyed the virtual visit to 30 years ago. "Oh my goodness. It was so nice to be working on this and feel how different things were then, simpler, more naive. I don't know, there was a sweetness, despite the fact that it's polyester and long hair and 'Saturday Night Fever' and all that stuff. There was something less complicated about that time and it made me at moments think to myself, 'You know, it wouldn't be that bad to go back to this era.' "
Affleck says he was horrified and saddened by the recent deaths of U.S. ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, a haunting echo of the events portrayed in "Argo."
"This movie is really a tribute to diplomats overseas, the dangers they face, the sacrifice they make, as well as a tribute to our clandestine service. I'm proud this movie is out there and is a reminder to folks of what kind of life those people were leading for our sake, who were serving overseas and made the ultimate sacrifice."
Next up for Affleck is directing and starring with old pal Damon in a movie about Boston mobster Whitey Bulger.
For someone who's matured beyond mere celebrity into a creative force, these are good times. But Affleck isn't gloating, not even when he talks about the whole director/actor thing.
"I definitely had days where I wished I weren't (starring) in it so that I could focus more on directing" he says of "Argo." "But ultimately, I loved the movie so much that I just wanted to be as much a part of it as I could."
More Details: 'Argo'
Rated R for language and some violent images
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