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Ben Affleck Calls the Shots

''The Town'' director opens up about reinventing himself

Ben Affleck has been at this crossroads before — and knows it. Back in the mid-'90s, he and Matt Damon found their acting careers going nowhere, so they decided to create their own luck. They wrote the screenplay for Good Will Hunting out of equal parts ignorance, hubris, and sheer frustration. Their gamble became one of the most unlikely — and PR-ready — Horatio Alger stories Hollywood's ever seen. In a town where the main business is scripting fairy-tale endings, even this seemed far-fetched: They sold their screenplay for $600,000, landed the lead roles in the film, and ended up leaping on stage at the Shrine Auditorium, accepting the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. They looked like a couple of kids who'd hit the Powerball jackpot.

''We looked like a couple of idiots is what we looked like,'' says Affleck, laughing.

Affleck turned 38 last month, and despite some gray in his hair, he looks like he's in the best shape of his life. It's 10 a.m., and he's sitting in a beachfront Santa Monica restaurant wolfing down an egg-white omelet. When he cracks up remembering himself on stage with Damon — two Boston boys who'd somehow managed to crash the A-list party — tiny bits of omelet shrapnel fly out of his mouth and land on the table between us.

In theory, I'm here to talk to Affleck about his latest film, The Town — a gritty Boston heist thriller that he not only stars in but directed and co-wrote. (The movie, rated R, opens on Sept. 17.) After a few minutes, though, I realize that what Affleck really wants to discuss is the launch of Ben 2.0 — his transformation from box office whipping boy into genuine filmmaker. ''That moment — before Good Will Hunting — and this moment now are really similar periods in my life,'' he says. ''Good Will Hunting was a sort of Hail Mary idea, where we were young enough not to realize how foolish it was. And now, with this second period of my life, I wanted to start over. I wanted to reboot my career.''

It's an interesting choice of words: ''reboot.'' It's one of those slick, slangy Hollywood terms, like saying ''boffo'' to describe pix that click in the stix. What Affleck means, of course, is that he wouldn't mind erasing some of the uglier patches from his résumé. In the first act of his career, he was the guy who seemed to have it all but then somehow blew it. He began acting in the early '90s with small turns in School Ties and Dazed and Confused. He soon graduated to bigger parts in indie hits like Chasing Amy and Good Will Hunting, and then the movies got bigger — probably too big. Pearl Harbor. Daredevil. Gigli. The aptly titled Paycheck. On screen, Affleck became a punchline. Off screen, he'd turned into something worse: a tabloid casualty, thanks to a stint in rehab in 2001 and his high-profile relationship with Gigli costar Jennifer Lopez. People saw him as half of ''Bennifer'' — gossip fodder first, and a serious actor second...if at all. ''I was definitely frustrated and wanted to withdraw from a part of my life that I was starting to hate,'' he says. ''I was caught in that intersection of celebrity and tabloid culture, and it was beginning to upstage the movies I was trying to do.''

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