Ben Affleck on the pain and catharsis of The Way Back

the way back Ben affleck

Gavin O'Connor directorial The Way Back has obvious similarities to Ben Affleck’s life. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Of the many stories that have stuck with Ben Affleck from his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, one has especially resonated for the actor. Recovery is often described as a process of removing a damaging habit from your life. One man articulated it in a more positive way. He said he quit drinking so he could be a free man.

“That’s one of the most moving things that’s stayed with me,” says Affleck. “The desire for that freedom, and so I can be accountable to my kids.”

After a turbulent few years, Affleck, 47, is trying to reclaim his life and reorder his career. In Affleck’s new film, The Way Back, both missions converge powerfully. He plays a former high-school basketball star brought back to coach his alma mater’s team in Gavin O’Connor’s movie, which opens March 6. The film has obvious similarities to Affleck’s life. It’s about a man struggling with alcoholism, divorce and midlife disappointment. It’s about the hard road to recovery, a path that Affleck has been walking, with a few stumbles along the way, the last three years.

“I don’t know all the answers. I’m only an expert in my own failings,” Affleck says. “But the more expert you become in your own failings, interestingly, the less likely you are to repeat them, I’ve found. That is how my life has been getting better. I have a better relationship with my kids today than I did three years ago. I have a better relationship with my ex-wife, I think, than I did three years ago. I think I’m a better actor. I think I’m a more interesting person because most of the growth that I’ve had has come from pain.”

Affleck smiles. “You notice how you never succeed and all your wildest dreams come true and you go: ‘I got to change something!’ It’s when you hit a stumbling block that you say: ‘OK, let’s be really honest.’”

And honesty is what Affleck is now practicing, to a degree rarely seen in Hollywood, let alone for someone whose personal ups and downs have been such regular fodder for tabloids. In an interview early last week, Affleck was candid and clear-eyed about his battle for sobriety and the roots of his drinking. He met with The Associated Press at a New York high school after taping a special with Diane Sawyer and shortly before The New York Times published an intimate profile on him. Occasionally his voice quavered but mostly Affleck spoke earnestly and straightforwardly. He seemed freshly unburdened. Making The Way Back, he said, helped him.

“Sometimes just feeling those feelings again purges them a little bit and frees you a little bit,” says Affleck. “This movie was hard to make. Sometimes it was painful. And sometimes I was embarrassed. And sometimes I couldn’t believe my life had any similarity to this.”

When Brad Ingelsby’s script came to Ben Affleck, it was titled The Has-Been. Affleck was being pitched to direct. Coming off the best picture-winning Argo, he last helmed the Prohibition-era crime thriller Live by Night, an ambitious gangster film that made a modest impression at the box office. Affleck immediately connected with the character: Jack Cunningham, a former star athlete whose alcoholism, isolation and grief is lifted by a reluctant return to basketball.

If he made it, Affleck knew he’d get questions about parallels between the film and his life. “But, frankly, I get asked about that stuff, anyway,” he shrugs.

“Unfortunately, I had actually lived that life and done the research. I brought a certain perverse expertise because I knew what it was like to feel in thrall to a compulsion that wasn’t good for me,” Affleck says. “I knew how hopeless that can feel. And I knew how enormously frustrating it is. But I also knew something really important which is: People get better. You can get better.”

the way back ben affleck

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Charles Lott Jr., left, Ben Affleck and Al Madrigal in a scene from The Way Back. (Richard Foreman/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Affleck appealed to O’Connor to direct. The two previously collaborated on the 2016 thriller The Accountant, and O’Connor (Warrior, Miracle) has proven adept at channeling larger themes through sports dramas. But until they began working on The Way Back, O’Connor didn’t know the extent of Affleck’s problem.

“Once we started to prep the movie, he went into rehab. He sort of fell off the wagon. So now we were prepping the movie while he was in rehab and we thought it was going to fall apart,” said O’Connor. “But he still wanted to do it. When he got out, he was incredibly raw and vulnerable and I think a little lost just in regard to having to confront the demons.”

Affleck says his drinking worsened around the time his marriage to Jennifer Garner was falling apart. Garner and Affleck, who have three children together, separated in 2015 and divorced in 2018. In those years, Affleck has made several trips to rehab. Last October, he was captured drunk on camera, which he then granted was “a slip.”

“The times that I’ve relapsed, personally, have not been because I’ve had some bad things happen. It’s been when I thought I had it licked,” Affleck says. “I’m fixed! I’ve been fine! It’s been a year and a half, who cares! I can have a glass of wine! And the next thing, you’re on TMZ and it’s a disaster. That teaches me that it’s just not something I can do.”

Coming to terms with that has been a humbling journey for Affleck. His track record, he grants, hasn’t been perfect. “But for the last three years, 99% of my life I’ve spent sober,” he says.

“It takes time to learn all the things you need to learn. And it also takes time to suffer enough until at some point there’s something inside you that says, ‘No mas. I give,’” says Affleck. “What it really is, personally in me and what I’ve seen in others that I want for myself, is a profound sense of humility. You are not stronger than the thing you’re addicted to. It is stronger than you. It will always be stronger than you.”

All of that pain, and then some, went into The Way Back. For a scene in which Jack makes amends to his wife, O’Connor told Affleck he was just going let the camera roll.

“It was probably the second take, Ben just had a breakdown. I’m getting chills thinking about it. It was like the dam broke and everything came out,” says O’Connor. “I just remember the crew, everyone was frozen, watching him bear his soul. It was obviously real. A lot of things that he probably had to say in his own life, or maybe he had said, I don’t know.”

The scene remains in the movie but O’Connor didn’t keep it all. It was too raw. “It would be too hard for an audience to watch, too personal,” says O’Connor.

the way back

Ben Affleck in a scene from The Way Back. (Richard Foreman/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

For Affleck, making The Way Back wasn’t just about dealing with his own alcoholism, but also his father’s. He got sober when Affleck was 19, but that childhood experience had ever since colored Affleck’s impression of his dad. Affleck realized that he had been carrying a big chip on his shoulder from that time. “And it wasn’t doing me any good,” he says. “It was doing me harm.”

“He was what you call a very low-bottom drunk. He needed to get really, really far down before he could get sober,” says Affleck. “Unfortunately, those were really formative years for me. So I know how important these years are right now for my kids. These are the absolute most critical, vital years. I want to be there for absolutely as much of it as I possibly can.”

Affleck has come to realize his father was just doing his best. His grandmother, too, he says, killed herself with barbiturates and alcohol in a hotel on Sunset Boulevard. His uncle, his father’s brother, was an addict who shot himself in the chest. “Less and less do I see any real distinction between what the substance is that you’re using to medicate but just the fact that you’re medicating,” says Affleck.

O’Connor credits Warner Bros. Chairman Toby Emmerich with green-lighting The Way Back, a rarely seen thing in today’s Hollywood: an intensely personal, adult-driven studio-made drama. It was made relatively inexpensively, with a budget of $25 million, and it marks a clear pivot for Affleck. About a year ago, Affleck left behind Batman after several Justice League films. The standalone Batman film, once to star and be directed by Affleck, is instead being made by Matt Reeves with Robert Pattinson in the role.

“When I had the opportunity to direct and star in the Batman stand-alone movie, I realized I wasn’t passionate about it. And, A, if you’re not passionate about it, you’re probably not going to make a good movie. And, B, that movie absolutely deserves to be made by someone for whom it’s their lifelong passion and dream,” says Affleck. “My tastes have changed. I’m interested in different kinds of movies.”

His new course, which he jokes is “obviously not the most profitable path you can possibly be on,” is making human stories with pain and redemption. He’s been busy. Affleck’s brief stop in New York followed shooting Deep Water, a Patricia Highsmith adaptation co-starring Ana de Armas, and preceded production on The Last Duel, a medieval revenge drama directed by Ridley Scott. Affleck wrote it with Matt Damon (their first script together since Good Will Hunting) and Nicole Holofcener.

Battles with alcoholism are never over, but they can get gradually easier to win. For now, at least, Affleck feels like he’s grown. He’s humbler. More honest. And closer to feeling free.

“I would not wish it on myself principally because of my children and because it has caused them pain, which I would give anything to change,” says Affleck. “But I can’t change the past. I can go from today. I can make sure today I’m good. That’s what I’ve got. I’m a guy doing good today.”