Wait, this is Ben Affleck talking? Well, yes, this is Ben Affleck, the former Middle Eastern studies major at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “It’s a little bit disingenuous to say I was a major, since I didn’t actually graduate,” he confesses with a shamefaced grin. “I did three years. . . . I felt like the more educated actor is a better actor, the more educated actor is a better director, and so on. And this is the first time it’s ever paid off.”
Not unsurprisingly, “Argo” extends sympathy beyond the beleaguered Americans and semi-comic Hollywood crew, casting only the most fanatic of the revolutionaries as villains while taking care to avoid demonizing everyday Iranians. The irony is that the director found the most willing Iranians to cast in California.
“We shot in Turkey, which is next to Iran, and we couldn’t get a single Farsi-speaking Iranian citizen to come be in our movie, because they were terrified of reprisals in their own country. And then we go back to L.A., which turns out to have half a million Persians in it. We’re flooded with Persians, I can’t get rid of Persians, they’ll improv, they’ll play all the parts. A lot of our major Farsi-speaking people were from, like, Glendale.”
Affleck is happy to talk about the nuances of making a film set in 1980 Iran at a time when our relationship with that country is more delicate than ever, but he mostly keeps the conversation focused on filmmaking rather than his own political endeavors. Most recently, he has testified before Congress on the horrors of the Congo conflict, endorsed the campaign against Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, and hosted a Hollywood fund-raiser for Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren.
But he also is proud of this movie and wants you to see it, and his directing docket is too full for any rumors of his running for office to come true soon. Affleck is prepping a film adaptation of Stephen King’s postapocalyptic novel “The Stand” that may run to two parts.
After that is the James “Whitey” Bulger movie, in which Affleck will direct his old pal Matt Damon in the title role — the biggest project the two have worked on together since their “Good Will Hunting” breakthrough in 1997. As he has already proved, Affleck gets Boston on film better than any director working, and he knows there is a lot riding on this one.
“Whitey Bulger from the age of 25 to 80-whatever?” he says. “That’s epic. There’s probably no movie that will have received more critical scrutiny in the history of Boston. We’d be going way back to the period when he got arrested and went to Alcatraz and was experimented on with LSD, all the way to him being in the farmer’s market in Santa Monica.”
Beyond that, Affleck is a new father again; he and Garner had their third child, a boy, this year. And he is constantly educating himself about the cinematic past. “I got one of these books, you know, ‘1000 Movies to See Before You Die,’ ” he says, “and I’d better not die soon, because I’m not there yet. Drives my wife crazy, because we go to bed and then she’s gotta listen to ‘The Battle of Algiers’ for an hour and a half.”
The swagger? It’s long gone. Asked about his long-term goals, Affleck does not pontificate.
“To keep getting hired,” he says, laughing.