Wednesday began with a very good wake-up call for Ben Affleck.
The actor-director received a 6 a.m. phone call from his wife, Jennifer Garner, informing him that his Iran Hostage Crisis drama, Argo, had earned two Screen Actors Guild nominations, for best ensemble cast and best supporting actor (for Alan Arkin). The film, which Affleck also stars in as CIA agent Tony Mendez, tells the true story of the unlikely rescue of six Americans stuck in hiding after the Iranian student mob overtook the U.S. Embassy in 1979. Already having grossed more than $100 million at the domestic box office, the movie is considered a leading contender this awards season, with SAG a significant stop on the road to gold.
THR spoke with Affleck on Wednesday morning (after his call from Garner, of course).
The Hollywood Reporter: Congratulations on the nomination.
Ben Affleck: Thanks very much. As a SAG member, it’s really special for me to have the whole cast honored. We have more than 100 speaking parts in several languages, and everybody brought something really special. It felt like this true story had a lot of resonance, so it was just wonderful to see. We had a couple thousand extras, and I felt like they were part of the ensemble, and they really added to it with their performance at the protest scenes and others. It’s really exciting. I love actors.
THR: Where were you when you found out? Did it wake you up?
Affleck: I don’t like to get into a thing of like, call me or don’t call me, and then you wake up and you’re depressed because you didn’t get any awards. So I kind of figured I’d get up when I got up and check my e-mail and find out. And then my wife, who’s in New Orleans doing a movie, called me at like six in the morning, and was like "Congratulations!" Which is actually a nice way to hear about it, from my wife.
THR: Like you said, you’ve got such a big ensemble. What’s the secret to casting such a big group?
Affleck: Part of it is getting lucky, because with the bigger roles, I got all of the people that were my first choice, they said yes. I credit the material with drawing people in. And I don’t claim to know the secret. I had a great casting director, Lora Kennedy, and I guess the only thing I could think of is that as an actor, I’ve always paid a lot of attention to acting, and I’ve always been really interested in actors and acting and respecting them, and thought a lot about what kind of environment I’d like to have if I was on the set, if I were a director. And out of respect for actors, I try to provide them a really comfortable, relaxed environment where they can take risks. And then this ensemble I do think is wonderful, and I think it’s to their credit, not mine.
THR: Was there anyone you just had to have to make the movie happen?
Affleck: Well, Alan Arkin, who I congratulate on his nomination, it’s well deserved and he’s one of our great actors -- he was so right for that part that I felt like it would be really depressing if I didn’t get him. And we did, so that was really exciting. And John Goodman looks just like John Chambers, has the same attitude and sense of humor and physical appearance, so it couldn’t have been more perfect. And sometimes in movies you just get lucky and things fall into place. A lot of the cast, the fact that they were available and they were interested, things just sort of fell into place in that way. I was doing a story about a group where there was a huge representation of them in Los Angeles, the Iranian-American community, so I was able to really draw from a rich sample. I got fortunate in how a lot of actors were kind of inspired by this true story and the resonance of it and the irony of the fact that it’s current today in a way, because it deals with Iran and so on.
THR: Speaking of Middle East movies, have you seen Zero Dark Thirty?
Affleck: I have not seen Zero Dark Thirty.
THR: Well, it seems that movies about the Middle East are starting to sell better and getting people excited. Do you think there’s any reason that’s shifting?
Affleck: I don’t know; I’m hopeful that it’s successful, among other reasons, I really like Kathryn Bigelow and William Goldenberg, who edited both our movies. And I think any time you have a movie that is in this vein and it’s successful, it makes it easier to argue to people when you want to make another one. I think it’s unusual that there are two true-life CIA stories out in one year, but I think it’s great, too. I think that sounds like a great story and I’m really proud of representing the people that this movie represents and the issues that it deals with in terms of our relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran and the way the movie honors our clandestine service, and it’s about Tony Mendez, who won the Intelligence Star. All those things make me feel an added sense of responsibility.
THR: Have you heard from people who are in the CIA or used to serve?
Affleck: Yeah, we had a screening in Washington for the CIA folks. The director and others. The guy who is now the director and many others who worked with us and accommodated us. That was a really, really satisfying time for me, to see actual CIA members, employees, enjoying themselves at the movie, because a big part of it was a tribute to them, so that was a lot of fun.
THR: There are so many parts to this movie; you’re on location in different places, it’s hectic. How do you concentrate on working with the actors when you’ve got all that going on around you?
Affleck: You know, John Ford said 90 percent of directing is casting, and I have a great casting director in Lora Kennedy, who I owe a great deal to. She also cast The Town, which was an ensemble that I was also really honored to work with. And what happens is when you cast really good actors, they just kind of make your movie better, and I think you’re smart to let them do that, rather than talking to them between every take. Usually the only people I found myself talking to were people I was having issues with or wanted to change little things about. For the most part, I gave the actors a lot of freedom and a lot of encouragement and I just let them do their job and found that it was really good.
THR: Speaking of Alan Arkin, you said he fit that character so well. And it wasn’t necessarily based on someone directly, so how much did you let him shape it?
Affleck: His character was based on this guy who helped Chambers do his job, so the only difference was that he wasn’t quite as successful as he was portrayed by Alan. He hadn’t been as successful. He worked, but he wasn’t sort of at that kind of semi-legendary old producer level. He was kind of a day-to-day guy. And Alan just knew the era and had met a million producers from that era and kind of had very strong instincts for how to play it, and he just did an amazing job.
THR: The movie tweaked Hollywood a bit, which was one of the things I think the audience really appreciated. Do you think the Hollywood audience of voters appreciated that or were you afraid people would take offense?
Affleck: You know, I didn’t think too much of "Wow, what will people think of this? And which groups will like it and which won’t?” Because first of all, I think you make yourself go crazy doing that; second of all, I don’t think there’s any way to tell; and third of all, it’s not a good way to make a movie because the good way, in my opinion, is just to think about what works for the story. So that’s what I tried to do, and to maintain the integrity of the characters. And I hoped that if that was done well, people would like it.
THR: As the lead, you’re such a big part of this ensemble, and you had your hands full directing. So did you find that busy-ness helped or hurt your performance?
Affleck: It’s a zero sum game in terms of the time and concentration that it takes, that you have in a day as a director. So acting in the movie kind of cuts a piece of that pie away, because you need to dedicate some time to concentrating on your performance. So in that sense, it was more difficult. In another sense, the preparation that you do as a director is really beneficial to what you do as an actor, so that’s a real advantage. So it’s a bit of a push, I guess.
THR: You had high hopes for the film, and it’s been massively successful at the box office. Has that surprised you at all?
Affleck: Yeah, I was very surprised. People told me over and over again that movies that take place in the Middle East don't work, movies that are period movies don't work, movies that are dramas for adults don't work. There were a million reasons to think that this movie would have a very limited commercial appeal, at least according to the people that I talked to about it. So when it had more success than I was told it would have, I was thrilled. In a way, it was great, because people had set a really low bar for me in terms of expectations, so they were exceeded pretty quickly, and it was a really nice feeling.
THR: So now that this movie has done well financially and critically, it proves some naysayers wrong. Do you take that into your next negotiation, your next film? How do you move forward from such a successful film?
Affleck: I don’t know; I’ll just keep on looking for really good material, and I got lucky getting hold of this material from Chris Terrio, who is so talented. Maybe I’ll get Chris to write me something else.