“Tender Bar” Star Ben Affleck Covers WSJ. Magazine’s December/January Issue!

Posted on December 02, 2021

In his first in-depth interview in years, Oscar-winning director and actor Ben Affleck, who stars in George Clooney’s upcoming ‘Tender Bar,” reflects with remarkable candor on fatherhood, gratitude & and the power of second chances – in his career and in love.



On what attracted him to the role of Uncle Charlie in The Tender Bar:

Ben Affleck: Just on the merits of the writing and the quality of the role, anyone’s going to want to play this part. Also, George was directing, so it was a no- brainer. I thought, I’m lucky to get a crack at this, and it’s incumbent not to screw this up. But also, even though the story is set in Long Island, it was oddly close to home.

On his The Tender Bar character’s similarities with his own father: 

BA: He was very much like Uncle Charlie. My father was a bartender. And growing up, I would meet him at the bar. My dad didn’t go to college, but he was well-read, and his ambition was to be a writer, although he never found professional success. He was hindered by his alcoholism. In some ways we can be our own worst enemies. He was a reverse class snob. He held a disdain for wealthy people, which stemmed from his own insecurity about not being wealthy and not being educated formally and a desire to prove himself. Which I found that later in life I subconsciously shared.

On fatherhood, in reference to a line in The Tender Bar book “To be a man, a boy must see a man.”

BA: It’s important to have two parents for the rearing and upbringing of a child. The most important thing to me is to be a good father. Boys need to be taught. How to behave, how to conduct yourself. What your values should be. The ways my father did that for me are really meaningful—as are the ways in which he was absent.

On what wisdom he carries from his father:

BA: My father was an avowed Communist. He taught me not to value things other than a person’s character. And I find myself using language the way he did. His writing is better than mine. He has an elegance in being succinct that I’ve never achieved. But my dad also left me a negative example.

As I was moving into adulthood as an adolescent, I remember casting around for an example, and the helplessness and the fear that come with not having something to hold on to, by way of example. So you trial-and-error your way towards manhood.

On what, at almost age 50, he would tell his 25-year-old self, who just won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting:

BA: There’s a lot that I would want my younger self to understand. Things I wish I had done differently, and they’re rooted in that instinct to look at my past and think, I wish I could have avoided this painful event. I wish I could have not caused someone else pain. I wish I had understood better the nature of what was difficult about life for me. I wish I did not have to learn some lessons the hard way.

But I’ve come to believe you can’t get there the easy way. I had to learn those things in an authentic, meaningful way to really learn the lessons that I’ve really internalized, that have created the values that I have now even though most of them were born of failure. Addiction is a good example. Oftentimes they want to sell you: Do your 30 days, and it’ll be fixed. The only real cure for alcoholism is suffering. You just hope that your threshold for suffering is met somewhere before it destroys your life.

On feeling grateful for his struggles:

I used to be irritated by people who would say, Oh, I have these problems and I’m grateful for them. I used to think, This is bullshit. You’re not grateful for disasters, creating pain and wreckage in your life. Say you feel shitty about it and you wish you were better! Only within the last five years, I really felt increasingly grateful for the difficulties that I’ve had. It’s not insignificant, because a lot of that pain is rooted in pain caused to other people. And that turns out to be the most painful thing in life.

On whether he ever thought, during his past struggles, ‘This is the day I’m going to lose it all’:

BA: Definitely. Many times. Part of me blanches at that question, and part of me really wants to answer it. The part of me that blanches says, Well, I know that’s sort of become optically like: Ben Affleck, alcoholic. Because I’ve spoken about it. Other actors have refused to, or were lucky enough to maintain their anonymity. Because I can think of scores of addicts working in this business whose issues aren’t public, who never have to answer questions like this and who have had just as many, if not much worse, troubles than I have. But it is also true that I am an alcoholic. That period of time was awful and all the things that you would imagine.

And yes, there were moments where I really faced the thing that was most important to me and the prospect of losing that. And that is what ultimately changed things for me. I didn’t get any stronger or develop any willpower. I simply met that threshold. You know, somewhere in the amygdala it said, This is too painful. I’m not going to do this anymore. I don’t want to do it. It was a moment after which it became clear that this was not the life I wanted.

On fear of failure:

BA: Fear drove me to the work ethic. Only in the last four years have I been able to not be so terrified, because I recognize I won’t die without work. The most important thing is being a good father. The second most important thing is to be a good man. And a good person. And, ostensibly, you know, a good husband. Hopefully.

On whether he’ll speak about his current relationship with Jennifer Lopez:

BA: You can write conjecture about it, but one of the harder lessons that I have learned is that it’s not wise to share everything with the world.

I know that I feel more comfortable having those healthy boundaries in my life around which, in a friendly and straightforward way, I tell you, I just don’t want to be talking about my personal relationship in the newspaper. I’m going to exercise a little restraint.

On the story of how their romance restarted:

BA: I can say that it’s definitely beautiful to me. And, you know, one of the things I really value across all facets of my life now is that it was handled in a way that reflected that. My life now reflects not just the person that I want to be, but the person that I really feel like I am—which is not perfect, but somebody who tries very hard and cares very much about being honest and authentic and accountable. It’s hard to say who benefits more, without going into gossipy detail.

I could just say that I feel great about being very healthy. And it is a good story. It’s a great story. And, you know, maybe one day I’ll tell it. I’ll write it all out. [Pauses] And then I’ll light it on fire. [Laughs]

On the gift of second chances in career and in love:

BA: I am very lucky in my life in that I have benefited from second chances, and I am aware that other people don’t even get first chances. I’ve had second chances in my career. I’ve had second chances as a human being. Life is difficult, and we are always failing and hopefully learning from those failures. The one thing you really need to avail yourself of the opportunities provided from that growth is the second chance. I’ve definitely tried to take advantage of that. I haven’t always been successful, but in cases in which I have, they’ve turned out to be the defining aspects of my life. But tell your wife to imagine the best story, and I’m sure that’s the true version.

On his reported good reputation in Hollywood, and the one thing about which he thinks Matt Damon was always smarter than him:

BA: You know, that’s a very nice thing to hear. And it only resonates with me now because I’m really starting to feel very comfortable as an actor. I’m starting to feel as though I really have something to offer. I’ve had a chance to work with better and better and better directors. It’s the thing that Matt [Damon] always understood that I didn’t. You know, I like to think of myself as being smarter than him in every way, but I have to acknowledge there are a few ways in which he was ahead of the game. And one of them is that he would always say, It’s the director. He understood that was the most vital element to a movie screenplay. I would always look at a project and think, Well, you know, this can be good if, if, if. That’s served Matt well.

On what he sees for his next 25 years:

BA: The next nine years, the priority is being a great father for my kids until they’re all off at college. In terms of my work, it would be about directing complex dramas that don’t necessarily have happy endings and resolve neatly, but explore the adult world without judgment.



[Photo Credit: Micaiah Carter for WSJ. Magazine]

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