That's when Affleck started thinking seriously about stepping behind the camera. ''It was the only option I felt I had to do good work, because the quality of scripts I was seeing was just getting worse and worse. I felt like I was either going to believe in myself and try directing, or just give in. And I decided, 'I am going to walk the plank, and maybe there will be sharks and maybe there won't.'''
Affleck made his directorial debut with 2007's Gone Baby Gone. The tense and twisty adaptation of Dennis Lehane's South Boston-set novel got great reviews, gave his little brother Casey his first major leading role, and drew an Oscar nomination for Amy Ryan. Overnight, critics and moviegoers were forced to rethink the guy they thought they had all figured out. (His terrific and unexpected performance in 2006's Hollywoodland didn't hurt either.) Ryan says that when Affleck was directing Gone Baby Gone, what most impressed her was how he treated the nonprofessional actors on the set. ''Ben has great compassion, and he's so positive,'' she says. ''Some of the locals who were cast in the film, they'd never acted before, and so they might be way off the mark. And Ben would kill them with kindness. 'That was great! Now can you try it like this?' He always built everybody up. And that's how you get great performances.''
Now comes act 2 of his reinvention. The Town is an ambitious and action-packed film that will likely cement him as a legitimate and talented filmmaker. And this time around, Affleck isn't doing surprising work just behind the camera but in front of it, too. He plays a conflicted bank robber from the blue-collar Charlestown section of Boston who's torn between his loyalty to his brutal, hair-trigger crew and his desire to go straight. Thanks to bareknuckle performances from Affleck, The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner, and Mad Men's Jon Hamm, The Town is already sparking buzz that it could be an Oscar contender in the mold of Mystic River and The Departed something that surprises no one more than Affleck. ''My thinking was, I don't want to do anything for money, because I've certainly worked for money at times. And if that means I don't work, then I don't work. Luckily, on both of the films I've directed, some really great actors have wanted to work with me. I don't know why. I'm not sure I would have worked with me!''
Affleck uncorks another of his likable guy's-guy laughs...until something across the restaurant catches his eye. ''Is that Lindsay Lohan?'' he asks. Yes, it most certainly is. Affleck doesn't seem particularly excited by the celebrity sighting. In fact, he seems to slump down ever so slightly in his chair, perhaps trying to disappear so she won't come over to say hello.