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Tony Mendez and Ben Affleck: Spies Like Us

In the new thriller ''Argo,'' about a high-stakes rescue mission during the Iran hostage crisis, director-star Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, the real undercover CIA agent who pulled it off. The two recently sat down for a declassified conversation.

Ben Affleck has managed to pull off one hell of a second act. In 2007, with the gritty neo-noir Gone Baby Gone, he went from hit-and-miss leading man to promising director. His follow-up, 2010's brilliant blue-collar heist flick The Town, made good on that promise — he was a real filmmaker, not some one-and-done dilettante. Now Affleck is about to release his most ambitious project yet, Argo. The tense thriller (rated R, out Oct. 12) tells the true story of how CIA agent Tony Mendez carried out a top secret operation that rescued six diplomats stranded in Tehran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.

In the film Affleck plays Mendez, who enlists the help of a Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin) and a makeup artist (John Goodman) to whisk the Americans out of Iran by having them pose as a film crew for a cheesy sci-fi epic called Argo that doesn't actually exist. (The mission was finally declassified by President Clinton in 1997.) Although the story is set more than 30 years in the past, it feels timelier than ever with recent attacks on American embassies in the Middle East. Says Affleck, ''Even for a guy who spent more than a year telling a story about American diplomats in danger overseas, I was stunned when it happened again.'' We sat down with Affleck and Mendez after Argo's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival — where it was anointed a serious Oscar contender — to discuss the journey from Langley to the Middle East to Tinseltown.

Tony, you spent your career in the shadows, and now, with Argo, you're stepping into the light. How strange does it feel?

Tony Mendez I've spent my whole life trying to act boring. As an operative, you don't want to be caught on camera. And here I am watching Ben on a big movie screen saying, ''My name is Tony Mendez.'' That really was weird.... It's a bag of different feelings. Some of it's good, some of it is tough. The movie is so well-done that I felt exactly like I was back there. I was sweating. I lost my legs. It was hard to take.

Ben Affleck I told Tony he has to get used to the press asking about his love life. It's going to be very invasive being on the cover of all of the tabloids.

Ben, after making The Town, were you looking to direct again right away?

Affleck I definitely wanted to direct. Warner Brothers said, ''Here, we want to send you this, we think this is the best script that we have.'' I couldn't believe how good it was, and I couldn't believe they sent it to me. You could tell the writer, Chris Terrio, really spent time talking to Tony. And it's a true story! It would have been a horrible movie if it wasn't true, because nobody would believe any of it. Two months later, I flew out to D.C. and I met Tony at this famous spy bar.

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