Ben Affleck's no stranger to the world of politics having been actively involved in a few campaigns over the years. But with State of Play, a thriller from Universal Pictures based on the British mini-series and directed by Kevin Macdonald, Affleck got a taste of what it's like to actually be a politician. Affleck plays Stephen Collins, an up-and-coming U.S. Congressman who becomes involved in a murder investigation when his research assistant [and mistress] is killed.
Affleck spent time on Capitol Hill in order to get into character, and he admits he was surprised by how accommodating the politicians were he approached while doing his research.
"I thought that the people in Congress would be a little bit reluctant," said Affleck at State of Play's LA press day. "Not even reluctant but too busy to have the time to have me show up and sniff around, stand in their office, or do anything. They were quite busy, but luckily they felt like people don’t understand Congress very well, in terms of their opinion of them. They felt they hadn’t been portrayed fairly in the past. A number of Congressmen said to me, 'Yes, you can come in here. I will talk to you. Get it right. It’s this, this, that. We don’t do this. We do that.' They had pretty strong opinions."
Affleck added, "Granted, my character has some unflattering behavior. I said, ‘Listen, I want to tell you right up front. I don’t want to say I’m basing my character on you because that won’t be good for your political career.’ The overall sense that people wanted to get across was that there are folks working hard, people who are intelligent. There is a bias people have about Congress.
There is this huge lumbering body, that gives away money, like the big sloppy Muppets from Dark Crystal that march next to each other incredibly slowly. That wasn’t what I saw. It was something much faster - much faster Muppets."
Getting an up close and personal look at politicians didn't sway Affleck from his chosen career path. "I really like my job that I have now. Plus, unlike in Hollywood where you need one director to hire you, in politics you have to have a lot of people to vote for you. I think it’s harder work. I really am happy with what I’m doing now. In fact, I’ve never been at a place where I’ve felt better about going to work everyday. I’m more engaged and very, very happy."
Affleck's not sure what exactly brought about this big change. "I don’t know. Life is weird. Whether its family, or place, or you learn. I learn as I’ve gone along. It’s gotten to a point where I’ve really gotten comfortable with the things that are important to me. I don’t worry as much about making choices that I hope will appeal to certain externalities. Like, ‘Well, this movie has to work in this way. I make X amount of money in order to keep me at X place in my career.' All this other stuff gets in the way. Rather it's this is an interesting role. It’s got a character in it that seems complicated and real. I get to work with talented people. That’s my criteria and it’s easy."
In State of Play, Affleck's character is close friends with a veteran newspaper reporter and it's that friendship that gets him into deep trouble. Russell Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, the reporter whose old school methods are at odds with today's blogging culture. The film highlights the changes in journalism with the popularity and accessibility of the internet, and Affleck believes this film may be one of the last we see that is set in a newspaper environment. "I don’t know how this movie will be perceived but I do believe that people will look back and say, 'Oh, yeah. That was the movie that comes out right around the time that the internet destroyed newspapers.' That is happening. The New York Times laid off 200 people yesterday. They are cutting salaries. The blogging, the news sites, they are all now superseding the traditional news gathering, ink on dead trees organizations. I don’t think that the verdict is in on what that means, what’s going to happen, or what the integrity is of one institution versus the other. It’s really interesting," said Affleck.
"Part of what this movie looks at is the tension between Rachel [McAdams] and Russell [Crowe's] characters, which side of us is going to win out. What does the world look like with just bloggers gathering news? I think there are two mobs, right? One is this incredible, global journalism. It’s a full democratization of journalism. You have actual correspondents in every home. For example, there were people blogging from Mumbai right when those incidents started happening. You get to the truth and you don’t have to worry about bias because you have so many bloggers. Ultimately, it’s impossible to lie because there is too much evidence that can come out from other people to refute people who report with bias. You have this ‘everyone is a reporter’ model. The other model is that everyone is biased, no one sources anything, it’s just ugly noise, and we’ve destroyed our journalistic standards."
Asked if he subscribes to any daily newspapers, Affleck answered, "We are moving, and I just had this conversation, I feel like I’m in the mean of society. We are moving and I get the L.A. Times and the New York Times, but we only read them online. As we were moving I said, ‘Why are we going to pay for the newspaper again?’ So I didn’t. I felt like, ‘Look! I’m either part of the problem or part of the solution.’ I don’t know which one."
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