You don’t have Ben Affleck to kick around anymore. The one-time tabloid punch-line has left the Bennifer days behind him, remaking his career behind the camera as a solid craftsman of sophisticated studio entertainments. He pulls double-duty in Argo, playing real-life CIA legend Tony Mendez on a stranger-than-fiction, recently declassified 1979 mission to rescue American diplomats hiding out in the Canadian embassy during the Iranian hostage crisis, in part by staging a phony sci-fi movie shoot.
Affleck sat down with PW to talk about Argo, as well as his impressively emotive beard.
So a couple days after we screened this movie, Canada shuts down their embassy in Iran?
Isn’t that amazing? The Canadians pulled their diplomats out of Tehran the day we premiered at Toronto. I swear to God, if this was a Miramax movie, I would have thought Harvey Weinstein engineered the whole thing. Usually when you do a period movie, it just kind of fades away, and people forget about the story because it happened a long time ago. But this movie keeps getting more relevant. The Arab Spring, the Green Revolution in Iran …
Shitty science-fiction movies …
Shitty science-fiction movies are back! I don’t know if they ever left, but that was the apex of greatness for shitty science-fiction movies. I also think it was the golden era for American film—my favorite era for film. So I wanted this to look like All the President's Men. You know—dirty, papers everywhere, smoking cigarettes, everything’s a fuckin’ mess.
The haircuts and moustaches are exceptional.
I knew we were gonna have to do it, so I grew mine out ahead of time. I didn’t want any bullshit from the other actors. Because actors try to talk you out of some shit: “I don’t think my character would ...” No, look! This is a picture of your character! There’s no question that he has that moustache. And the glasses. And the weird hair parted in the middle. That’s just you!
How much of your performance came from the beard?
I could just hide behind the beard. “I don’t know what I’m doing in this scene, but the beard and the hair will handle it!” The truth is that the real guy is so quiet and taciturn and opaque and reserved. Tony [Mendez, who Affleck plays in Argo] was around and made himself available and has all these amazing stories. He’s got the Intelligence Star. He’s one of the 50 most important CIA guys of all time. You realize that you’re sitting with the real deal, and there’s nothing that makes you feel inadequate like sitting with the real deal.
Was it more challenging telling a true story, especially with some of the real-life participants on set?
This would be the worst movie ever made if it wasn’t true. It would seem completely absurd. But since it’s something that affected people’s lives, if you change any tiny little thing, it’s like: “Shit, I’m lying.” So I kept Tony really close, everything adhered to reality really closely, and when it didn’t, it was in the spirit of the story. There were no cars that chased them down the runway. That’s the big one. But they sat there; the plane was delayed for a mechanical error. They were having panic attacks. So my rationale for it was as a way of externalizing their internal pressure.
You must have been around eight years old when the film takes place. Do you have any memories of tying yellow ribbons?
You know, I really don’t. But I was exactly same age as the kid who plays my son in the movie. Which was a little weird, because when they were buying his toys and decorating his room, I was running around like, “I had this! Look, it’s Boba Fett! And the weird dudes with the penis-heads who were on the Death Star!” But my earliest memories of world affairs … you know what I do remember? I remember Kennedy’s primary challenge of Carter. That’s growing up in Boston for you. I didn’t know anything about the hostages, but I knew about Ted Kennedy!