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12:18 pm
Fri February 22, 2013

Affleck On 'Argo' And The 1979 Hostage Crisis

This interview was originally broadcast on Jan. 15, 2013.

At the Golden Globes, Ben Affleck looked genuinely surprised and delighted twice toward the end of the evening: first when he won best director for Argo, and then again when the film won for best motion picture/drama.

The film, which Affleck produced and in which he also stars, is the mostly true story of the CIA operative who helmed the rescue of six U.S. diplomats who managed to escape at the outset of the 1979 Iran crisis that held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days after militants took over the American Embassy in Tehran.

Affleck, a Middle Eastern studies major in college, was a child when the crisis happened and does not remember the news coverage.

"The earliest memory I have of ... world events is President Reagan's assassination attempt, which was 1982," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "So this was sort of history in the same way [that] doing a movie about the Revolutionary War would have been history for me. I had to start from scratch."

Affleck admits that he took some liberties with the story. While some views might object to that, Affleck says it's part of his job as a director to tell a story in a way that will make it exciting and tense — and sometimes slight tweaks to the plot are the result. It's a larger truth, Affleck says, that matters.

"It's that struggle," he says, "between ... the bookkeeper's reality and ... the poet's reality, and you make judgments as a director. And my judgment falls really cleanly on the line of, 'It's OK to embellish, it's OK to compress, as long as you don't fundamentally change the nature of the story and what happened.'"


Interview Highlights

On directing his first movie, Gone Baby Gone

"I was very, very scared. I just didn't know if I could do it. The only thing I can think of is ... running a marathon where you just don't know, 'Am I even going to finish? You know, maybe I'll fall over at mile 15 or something.' It seems so daunting and so far, and, yeah, I had been prepared in the sense that I had directed shorts, I had always wanted to be a director. ... But that just felt like very little compared to the task of directing a movie, when I went into it. And every day I was scared, and I probably stayed that scared throughout ... and not sure of myself at all."

On working with child actors, having been one himself

"I hate directing young actors. I hate auditioning them, rather. I don't even like having them in the movie. I like to get them in and out. ... I would never in a million years allow my children to be actors ... as children. I would never allow them as adults, but I think I'll have very little control over that. And I think ... I find it difficult because I had some complicated experiences as a young person. When I look back on that, some of it, [it] was really valuable, and some of it I think was not. And I just see kids, you know, oftentimes getting pushed out there and forced to do stuff, and maybe I'm over-reading stuff into it ... [but] it's a tricky thing. I think it says something that I wouldn't let my kids be actors, put it that way."

On his fondness for doing impressions

"I like to do impressions. ... I feel a little bashful of it because I know it's not really acting. Like, once you get into mimicry and impressions, it is a gift and a gift that I love to watch. The guy on SNL who can do Denzel, to me, it's just amazing, but I try not to rely too much on it because I know that it's sort of like, I used to play chess a lot with my brother and Matt [Damon] when we all lived together, and then we got into speed chess, and all the teachers will say, 'You can't play speed chess. It will ruin your game.' And I think there's something about impressions a little bit that will ruin your game, because it's just like the fast, Chinese-food-accessible version of a character."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Sunday is Oscar night, and the film "Argo" is one of the leading contenders in a tight race for the Best Picture Award. It's nominated for a total of seven Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay. In the award season leading up to the Oscars, it swept up a bunch of other big awards, including Golden Globes for Best Picture, Drama, and Best Director. "Argo" came out on DVD this week.

We're going to hear the interview I recorded with Ben Affleck last month. Affleck directed and stars in "Argo." It's based on a true story. The film begins in 1979, at the start of the Iranian revolution, when an angry mob storms the American embassy in Tehran, taking the diplomats hostage.

Six Americans escape and eventually find refuge hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Affleck plays CIA agent Tony Mendez, who comes up with a scheme to get these six Americans home by having them pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran for a science fiction film called "Argo."

Mendez flies to Tehran with fake Canadian passports for the six and cover stories that will enable them to pass themselves off as members of a Canadian film crew. In this scene, he's in Tehran at the Canadian ambassador's home quizzing the six on their cover stories to make sure they've committed the stories to memory and can convincingly repeat them under pressure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ARGO")

BEN AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Where was your passport issued?

TATE DONOVAN: (as Robert Anders) Vancouver.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Where were you born?

DONOVAN: (as Robert Anders) Toronto.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Toronto, Canadians don't pronounce the T.

RORY COCHRANE: (as Lee Schatz) Some Komiteh is actually going to know that?

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) If you're detained for questioning, they will bring in someone who knows that, yes. Mary, who were the last three prime ministers of Canada?

CLEA DUVALL: (as Cora Lijek) Trudeau, Pearson and Diefenbaker.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What's your father's name?

DUVALL: (as Cora Lijek) Howard.

AFFLECK: (as Mendez) What's his occupation?

DUVALL: (as Cora Lijek) Fisherman.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Where were you born?

DUVALL: (as Cora Lijek) Halifax, Nova Scotia.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What's your date of birth?

DUVALL: (as Cora Lijek) February 21, 1952.

AFFLECK: (as Mendez) Good. What's your job on the movie?

SCOOT MCNAIRY: (as Joe Stafford) Producer.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Associate producer. What was the last movie you produced?

MCNAIRY: (as Joe Stafford) "High and Dry."

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Who paid for that?

MCNAIRY: (as Joe Stafford) CFDC.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What's your middle name? What's your middle name? What's your middle name?

MCNAIRY: (as Joe Stafford) Leon.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Shoot him, he's an American spy. Look, they're going to try to break you, OK, by trying to get you agitated. You have to know your resume back to front.

MCNAIRY: (as Joe Stafford) You really believe your little story is going to make a difference when there's a gun to our heads?

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) I think my story's the only thing between you and a gun to your head.

GROSS: Ben Affleck, welcome to FRESH AIR. I have to tell you, I always get scared when I hear that scene because, you know, I put myself in the shoes of the houseguests, the hostages staying at the Canadian embassy home, and I have such a bad memory. So I know, like, if you were grilling me, and I was in that situation, I'd go: My birthday, oh my God I forget when my birthday is. Oh, I forgot the Canadian prime ministers name.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And you'd be going: Shoot her.

(LAUGHTER)

AFFLECK: You'd get killed, yeah. The irony of that scene is that that was one where I said to them, I actually had all those houseguests live on that set for a week together before we started shooting to create a bond for them to sort of understand what it was like to be holed up together with somebody. And I said: If any of you feel like you can create a biography and give it to me, we'll use it in some of the scenes at some point.

And the only person to do it, actually, which is surprising, was Clea DuVall. So she's the one who ended up getting the little sort of getting interrogated a moment, and I thought, well, I'm going to hit her with, you know, in the middle of this take with her answers that she wrote down. And she was pretty good. She had them memorized and prepared.

And then we said cut, and all the other actors were like: Oh, I didn't know it was going to be in the movie.

(LAUGHTER)

AFFLECK: I would have prepared something.

GROSS: I didn't know that was going to be on the test.

AFFLECK: Exactly, exactly.

GROSS: So you were, what, about eight when the hostage crisis actually happened?

AFFLECK: Yeah, that's right, I was eight years old.

GROSS: And you have a little history lesson at the beginning, which I was glad you did because a lot of people, like you, were too young to remember what happened or weren't even born yet. And so without some kind of historical context, you don't really know what the real story's about.

AFFLECK: Yeah, as I - I was a Middle Eastern studies major, so I had taken a couple, mostly focused on the Arab world but had taken a couple of classes about Iran and the Islamic revolution there. And all of a sudden it occurred to me that I was going to start a movie off where audiences were just going to think these are bearded sort of meanies who arbitrarily just don't like the United States and are frothing at the mouth to tear down the bricks of our embassy.

And that really, really neglected decades of, and even almost a century of interplay between our nations and between the West and Iran that led to this moment. Even more than that, I thought it robbed the audience of an understanding of the way in which this was really quite relevant.

For example, you know, we deposed this guy Mosaddegh, who was an elected, secular leader. We installed the Shah because he was sort of be our friend, sell us oil and because he had the patina of being Western, you know, and he sort of said the right things. And we turned a blind eye to his corruption and to his cronyism and to his oppression, which I thought was very much like what happened with Mubarak.

And then both situations, you know, ultimately ended up in revolutions, and both those revolutions produced results that weren't predictable and that were tricky for us to try to navigate or even understand. So I wanted that historical context in the beginning.

GROSS: So one of the things you had to do in the movie was recreate the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran and have, like, mobs of angry Iranians chanting what I assume is death to America, in Farsi.

AFFLECK: Yeah, there were two or three chants. The main chant was (speaking foreign language), which is death to America, yeah.

GROSS: So you shot on location in Turkey. How do you cast all the extras to be chanting death to America?

AFFLECK: Well, that was quite a difficult thing, as it turned out. I was really convinced that we didn't want to use digital extras, that that would take away the potency...

GROSS: Boy, that hadn't even occurred to me.

AFFLECK: Yeah, that's what people do now. You go see movies about, you know, baseball stadiums, and they're all digital people created by visual effects artists. And that's great, and those artists are really talented, but something about dragons and fire and that stuff lends itself to visual effects in a way that people don't.

You know, digital effects extras tend to do - you know, they put their arm up, their arm down, their head to the left and then to the right, and then they repeat those motions. And to me what that does is it takes away the potency of the power of a crowd and how that can be really scary.

And so I wanted to use real people. We wanted over 2,000 people for the takeover, which was hardly - you know, it would have been a light day for David Lean, but for me, it was....

(LAUGHTER)

AFFLECK: It was a big deal. And the problem was - it was really a student's revolution, but all the students were in school. And I thought we could put a little money out there and get a lot of Turks. It turns out their growth rate is like 6 to 8 percent. I mean, they're just - things are booming in Turkey.

So we couldn't get any students. The professional folks are naturally working and making more money than we were offering them. So the only people that were available to us were folks over 65. So we turned it into a bit of a seniors' revolution.

GROSS: That's so funny. It hadn't occurred to me watching it that, oh yeah, it should be students.

(LAUGHTER)

AFFLECK: Yeah, I know, well, I'm glad.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Affleck. We're talking about his new movie "Argo." I want to play another scene from the movie, and this is a scene in which you, playing the CIA agent who comes up with the cover story to smuggle out, or exfiltrate as the word is, the Americans who are in hiding at Canadian embassy houses.

AFFLECK: So you're talking with the makeup artist. You're telling him you need his help for the cover story. And you're talking about how to disguise the Americans as a film crew. So he's looking through the dossiers of the Americans, trying to figure out what role they should play in this fake story that you're cooking up.

Exactly, what covers they should have, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ARGO")

JOHN GOODMAN: (As John Chambers) Well, this one's got an MA in English. She should be your screenwriter. Sometimes they go along on scouts because they want the free meals. Here's your director.

AFFLECK: (As Tony Mendez) Can you can teach somebody to be a director in a day?

GOODMAN: (As John Chambers) You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day. Look, if you're going to do this, you've got to do it. The Khomaniacs are Fruit Loops, but they've got cousins who sell prayer rugs and eight-tracks on La Brea. You can't build cover stories around a movie that doesn't exist. You need a script, you need a producer.

AFFLECK: (As Tony Mendez) Make me a producer.

GOODMAN: (As John Chambers) No, you're an associate producer at best. You're going to do a $20 million "Star Wars" rip-off. You need somebody who's a somebody to put their name on it, somebody respectable, with credits, who you can trust with classified information, who'll produce a fake movie for free.

GROSS: That's a funny scene. So the little joke John Goodman makes in there about how you can teach a rhesus monkey to direct in a day...

AFFLECK: In a day, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Having directed your third film now, what do you think of that joke?

AFFLECK: One aspect is yes, there I am, I'm the director. He's saying it to me. It has that kind of cuteness to it. But, really, it speaks to something that people don't often think about Hollywood, which is the kind of class hierarchy, that this above-the-line, this narrow strip of people - director, star, sort of prima donna, that kind of thing, they're sort of the icing, right - and then the huge bulk of the cake, who are all the workaday people, the lunch-pail folks who do that job.

And I wanted to liken them to the folks at the CIA who sort of do a similar job and that he's expressing a cynicism about the kind of vain, you know, sort of maybe fools that he has to work with periodically; the guy who's, you know, basically kvetching about his boss.

GROSS: Did you approach Alan Arkin for his role?

AFFLECK: Alan Arkin was the first guy we went to. He seemed - the only worries I had about Alan Arkin was he was almost too obvious a choice, you know. I talked to him, he was like: What made you think of me, the old cranky guy with a heart of gold? I wonder how you found me.

(LAUGHTER)

AFFLECK: He was like - and then so when he did this whole thing at the beginning about, you know, I've got a lifetime achievement award. He just, he was getting constantly, you know, feted with lifetime achievement awards and very cynical, and it's very much who Alan - I mean Alan is a gentler soul, and smarter, you know, but he has that quality.

So - and John looks just like Chambers. All the people who know Chambers, his family, have come up and say this is incredible, you just like him, this is amazing. You know, you even had his limp. John's like: That's my own sciatica, I'm not trying to do his limp.

(LAUGHTER)

AFFLECK: But he was one were everything sort of fell into place. And those two guys, John had such a fondness and admiration for Alan that he just had fun sort of being around him, and so that part of really worked out nicely.

GROSS: So we talked a little bit about having to, you know, kind of compress events and leave things out because it's a movie, and you have two hours, and this is a story that took a long time to actually play out. And a question I always wonder about when I see a historical film is, like, what actually happened and what's been fictionalized for the purposes of storytelling in the movie. So watching your movie, of course, I thought about that, too.

AFFLECK: Sure, of course.

GROSS: And there are some things that are, you know, pretty different in the film compared to the reality, and - like one example is, you know, there's a very thriller aspect of it toward the end. Without giving anything away, there's always something happening that's threatening them every step of the way so that they're going to be discovered.

And I think most of those things didn't happen with that kind of timing or maybe didn't happen at all in reality.

AFFLECK: Right.

GROSS: Which isn't to say reality wasn't really terrifying and dramatic, but these, like, split-second escapes and nearly getting discovered and so on didn't happen that way.

AFFLECK: Right, well, you know, I always feel like that's what they pay me for as a director, you know, is to - if you accept the fact - and I do - that the escape for them was extremely harrowing and scary, you know, and it was mostly about getting from where they were to the airport, getting through these checkpoints and getting on this airplane, that that was the story of it.

So what I did with the end, in order to have a third act that I felt sort of worked, that wasn't just a bunch of people, like, walking through checkpoints and looking at their paperwork, was to add elements to that and to cross-cut it in ways that, you know, used what I bring to it, what I had to try to make it more exciting and to make it more tense.

You know, as you point out, it's tricky because you can't flash up subtitles that say OK, hold on, this part right here when the guard looked over at them, that didn't happen, or those cars were not on the runway, but they did in fact take off.

Also there's a sort of uncertainty because we don't really know from the Iranian side where everybody was; when they found out, what they did. We just know that they went through the checkpoints and got on the plane. And at some point between that and the next morning when the Iranian minister went on television saying that Canada would pay, they found out.

And it's that struggle between, as I said, the bookkeeper's reality and the reality - the poet's reality. And you make judgments as a director. And my judgment falls really cleanly on the line of it's OK to embellish, it's OK to compress, as long as you don't fundamentally change the nature of the story and of what happened.

GROSS: So just one more question about this. As a viewer, whenever I see, like a biopic or historical film, I'm always wondering, like, what am I learning - like what's true and what's false, and what can I trust? Like if I'm - because I think movies that are historical have usually a dual goal. One is to, like, enlighten you about this, like, really interesting story that actually happened, and the other is to entertain you because it's a movie.

And as somebody who's interested in historical accuracy and in journalistic accuracy, I know movies aren't journalism, except for documentaries, and your film...

AFFLECK: Unless they say they're journalism, yeah.

GROSS: Right, right. But I mean your movie isn't trying to be journalism. But I walk away, and I wonder, like, how do I know what to believe. Like I walk away thinking, like, now I know really what happened, and a lot of it really is what happened, but some of it isn't what happened. So how do I know which is which?

AFFLECK: Well, here's the one answer that I have is that the reason why this exact thing was so important to me is that I felt like it was such an incredible story, I wanted people to be able to know the details - and I'm not hawking additional product - but you can get the DVD - on the Blu-ray, there's every documentary in - I mean, we spent, you know, Warner Brothers' money interviewing people, people who aren't in it, people from every detail, people who talk about it in a very robust way.

So if you really want to follow up, we present to you in a very thorough way exactly what happens from the people in their own words. And I do think it's a fundamentally really interesting question, and it's one that's been raised about a number of films this year. You know, to what extent is it OK to make these alterations?

And I wouldn't want to comment on any other filmmaker's work except to say that I understand that there's definitely a push and pull. And for me as a filmmaker, the line is about what I believe is, you know, in the deeper essential truth rather than - you know, I mean, you can look in historical movies, dialogue gets changed because people don't really speak like that anymore, so it would be inaccessible.

And did the guy really sort of have this type of relationship with this woman? You know, unless the movie's about that, you - to me I go OK, that's part of the storytelling. But I deeply, deeply believe that one has to stay true to the essence of the events that you're telling because you're conferring meaning.

You want people to walk out of there and say I understand this more deeply. And that - if you corrupt that, it's a tremendous betrayal.

GROSS: My guest is Ben Affleck. He directed and stars in "Argo," which is nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Ben Affleck. He directed and stars in "Argo," which is nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture. It just came out on DVD.

This is the third feature film you've directed, before that "The Town," and your first directorial feature "Gone, Baby, Gone." I love that film.

AFFLECK: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, and so what was it like the first time out as a director, directing without any experience, and, you know, it turned out very good.

AFFLECK: Thank you. I was very, very scared. You know, I just didn't know if I could do it. The only thing I can think of a good metaphor is running a marathon, where you just don't know, am I even going to finish? You know, maybe I'll fall over at mile 15 or something. Or, you know, it seems so daunting and so far.

And, yet I had been prepared in the sense that I had directed shorts. I'd always wanted to be a director. I've been on a lot of sets. But that just felt like very little compared to the task of directing a movie when I went into it. And every day, I was scared, and I probably stayed that scared throughout. And when I looked at the first assembly, I thought it was terrible. And so I just started, you know, dove in and started working on it, and worked on it until I didn't so...

GROSS: So you've re-edited the whole thing?

AFFLECK: Yeah. I mean, I actually changed editors in the middle and hired another editor, but he couldn't come on for a couple of months. Incidentally, he's William Goldenberg, who did both our movie and "Zero Dark 30" this year. So he's the CIA real story specialist, that is.

(LAUGHTER)

AFFLECK: But - and so, in that interim, I was by myself cutting the movie. And my wife was in a movie in Arizona, and so I was just in this room in our house in Arizona cutting away. And - but, you know, I guess the short answer is: I was really, really scared and not sure of myself at all.

GROSS: Were there things you felt you have to fake at first until you had done it enough to know for real? Because I think it's that way in most positions, that you have to just kind of fake your way through, initially.

AFFLECK: Yeah. I talked to - the one advantage I had is I could talk to other people who have done it. And I remember talking to Kevin Costner and saying, like, what do I do? I'm going to direct a movie. Kevin said: Make sure that on your first day, you know what your second shot is.

And I was, like, what you mean? He said, everyone goes there and knows what their first shot is, and they do the first shot, and all of a sudden think: What am I going to do now? He's, like, make sure you know the second shot, and that'll get you rolling into, you know, we're going to do this. We finished that. OK, guys, let's go over here. And now the crew trusts you.

GROSS: Was that good advice?

AFFLECK: It was definitely good advice. I had great advice from a lot of those different guys, mostly centered around - I thought this was interesting - not being - not trying to be noble about anything. In other words, if you need more takes on yourself, do more takes, because if you don't, you're going to end up in the editing room without enough material.

GROSS: But, you mean by being noble, like if your performance needed another take, but the actor, the other actor in the scene did good, don't feel guilty about asking for another take?

AFFLECK: Noble in terms of don't - in other words, let's say - so you do takes - I'm going to do a close-up on you and a close-up on me.

GROSS: Yeah.

AFFLECK: So say we do a close-up on you, and we do nine takes. He's saying don't be noble by just turning around on yourself and doing one take and going, oh, I think we're fine. Don't worry. We're not going to wait on me, that sort of thing.

GROSS: Right.

AFFLECK: You know, be willing to allow people to wait on you, as well, as you would if it were just another, you know, actor.

GROSS: How do you direct yourself? What do you tell yourself? Like, when you have a director, they can say well, we need another take, or give me more, give me less. Or...

AFFLECK: There's a couple of things. One, there's a monitor, so you can go over and kind of watch it. And eventually, you just have to get rid of this - you have to slough off this kind of insecurity about looking at yourself. You know how you hate to hear your own voice on an answering machine? You must be over that, because you do it all day, right?

GROSS: Not really.

(LAUGHTER)

AFFLECK: But the other thing is, you know, you get to - I just shoot a lot of film, and as I go through it, I try different choices. And I'll be a little more afraid here, a little more angry, a little faster, a little slower, that sort of thing. And I'll do 10, 11, 12 takes. And I really do the direction of myself in the editing room.

So I can, you know, go throw this out, throw that out, throw this out, and then get down to the few things that I think have merit and calibrate those there. And I don't pretend that I'm going to have the sort of perspective on the day that I'll have later. And so I just try to throw enough stuff in the bag that, you know, I'll have something left when it comes time to look at it all.

GROSS: Ben Affleck will be back in the second half of the show. He directed and stars in "Argo," which is nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and it's just come out on DVD. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ben Affleck. He directed and stars in the film "Argo," which is nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture. The film begins in November 1979, when Iranians stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, taking the diplomats hostage. "Argo" is based on the true story of six Americans who escaped and went into hiding with the help of the Canadian ambassador. Affleck plays the CIA agent who came up with the scheme that got them out of Iran and safely home.

You started acting when you were eight?

AFFLECK: I did, when I was eight years old. Yeah.

GROSS: So was that helpful? Like, is there anything you learned then that you still use now?

AFFLECK: You know, what I learned then that's helpful was to be the - a sense of comfort being in front of a camera, and maybe some sort of early adult-ification(ph) that was helpful. What wasn't helpful was that there was no premium placed on the emotional truth of acting. It was kind of, like, you know, it was like getting through the day. You know what I mean? Say the words. You look to the right way. You sort of move on. And so that early on, I took that on as my idea of what acting was, and then really had to relearn it when it occurred to me that, you know, it should be interesting to watch. You should have emotional honesty.

GROSS: When did that occur to you?

AFFLECK: In high school, I had a great high school teacher named Jerry Speca, who, you know, me and Matt and my brother and all these - and a lot of other really good actors who are working now still went through his classes and, you know, he taught that it had to be - you didn't just say the words. It had to be good. It had to have an emotional reality to it.

GROSS: So when you were a kid, you auditioned for the "Mickey Mouse Club" and for "Batman and Robin," didn't get the part. And Matt Damon was auditioning with you for that.

AFFLECK: Yes, don't leave Matt out. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did that hurt your self-esteem? I mean, I think one of the really hard parts of acting for any actor is you get rejected so much of the time, until you have - until you finally establish yourself, if you ever establish yourself. And a lot of actors don't ever even reach that point. So it's just, you know, a career of rejection.

(LAUGHTER)

AFFLECK: Yeah, no, it's true.

GROSS: Yeah. So what was it like to handle that as a kid? And we're not talking about a school play.

AFFLECK: Right.

GROSS: I mean, we're talking about TV shows.

AFFLECK: Well, I didn't do very many - I mean, I did - you know, I came out of "Voyage of the Mimi," and then I did this afterschool special with Madeline Kahn. And then I did a TV movie with Forest Whitaker and Blair Brown and Beverly D'Angelo and Armand Asante. And then I started sort of auditioning, kind of going to New York and Matt and I would go down and audition.

And, at first, I would say for the first half of the bell curve as an actor, that rejection is good for you. It coarsens you to, you know, getting turned down, because you know you're going to get turned down a lot, and you have to just sort of keep rolling and keep believing that you can do this, despite the fact that the last 30 people you read for didn't want to hire you, and recognize that those are kind of your odds.

Eventually, you need to get some work. Otherwise you come down on the back side of the bell curve and exactly what you describe happens, which is, I mean, people start to get a very defeatist attitude. They get very depressed. They get sad, and then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You just - you know, my goal - from going up and auditioning in high school to moving out to L.A. after high school and auditioning, to when I first really started getting, you know, work when I was 24, 25 - was I just wanted to work enough so I didn't - I could say that I was an actor, not an actor-waiter, you know, that I could just, you know, with pride, look myself in the mirror and say this is actually what I do for a living.

GROSS: How did auditioning as a child affect you as a director auditioning people today?

AFFLECK: Enormously. I hate directing young actors. I hate auditioning them, rather. I don't even like having them in the movie. I like to get them in and out. I don't - I would never in a million years allow my children to be actors.

GROSS: As children.

AFFLECK: As children. Yes. I would never allow them as adults, although I think I'll have very little control over that.

(LAUGHTER)

AFFLECK: And I think the - I find it difficult, because I had some, you know, complicated experiences as a young person. When I look back on that, some of it was really valuable, and some of it I think was not. And I just see kids, you know, oftentimes getting pushed out there and forced to do stuff. And maybe I'm over, you know, reading something into it, because I know a lot of - you know, Blake Lively was, I think, a young, you know, kid actress. She turned out great. She's a great actress.

GROSS: You turned out OK.

AFFLECK: I did, but, you know, it's a tricky thing. I think it says something that I wouldn't let my kids be actors. Put it that way.

GROSS: So, before you go, I just have to ask you. You did, on "Saturday Night Live," a really funny impression of Keith Olbermann a few years ago, when Olbermann still had a show on MSNBC. And I played it for Olbermann when he was on. So I have to ask you: Was that an impression you had already worked up and that you told "SNL" about and said, hey, I can do this on the show? Or did...

AFFLECK: They came to me when I got on "SNL" and said, you know, we have this Olbermann thing that we've been wanting to do. We think you could do it. Are you up for it? And so I looked at - they hadn't had the full material, but I said, yeah, like, definitely. Let me work on him. Let me watch a bunch of his stuff and try to go, you know, go after it a little bit.

And then the material started getting better, and I started getting, like - finding more things to do with the impersonation. And it was great, because I - initially, they - you know, the idea was, oh, it's eight minutes, just you in a chair. It's going to get cut. And, you know, they don't want to see it. But by the end, we had it down enough where I kind of said to Lorne, like, I think this works. You've got to let us keep it in the show.

And they did. And it's one that I get comments on. Interestingly enough, I get - all the comments are from liberals. You know what I mean? Like, it's the rare one from a conservative. You would think the conservatives would say ha, ha, you made sport of that liberal guy.

But it's like the liberals that all watch the show. You know what I mean? So they got the - whatever the joke was. But it was fun. It was a really good time. And I actually saw him. He came down. You know, his office was in the building. He came down during one of the rehearsals, and - so I saw him briefly, and I think he got the joke. Having been, you know, the subject of that kind of thing many times myself, I feel like you've got to have a sense of humor about it, you know?

GROSS: Have you always done impressions? I mean, is that part of...

AFFLECK: I like to do impressions. Yeah, I do. I feel a little bashful of it, because I know it's not really acting. Like, once you get into mimicry and impressions, it is a gift, and a gift that I love to watch. You know, the guy on "SNL" who can do Denzel, to me, is just amazing, you know.

But I try not to rely too much on it, because I know that it's sort of like - I used to play chess a lot with my brother and Matt when we all lived together, and then we got into speed chess. And all the teachers would say you can't play speed chess. It'll ruin your game. And I think there's something about impressions a little bit that will ruin your game, because it's just the, like, fast, Chinese-food-accessible version of a character.

GROSS: Nevertheless, who do you do?

(LAUGHTER)

AFFLECK: I used to do Denzel. I do Morgan Freeman. I used to do Al Pacino. You know, a whole bunch of them. Olbermann's, like, a face thing. You know what I mean? And a little bit of a, you know, he kind of likes to have himself be sort of down here. You know, he has that kind of I'm-a-serious-newsman kind of thing.

You know, and Denzel is like: It doesn't matter if someone saw me or not. It doesn't matter if I win this case or not. I'm a find out the truth. I'll guarantee you that.

(LAUGHTER)

AFFLECK: Goddamn it, Denzel! That's Morgan. What'd I tell ya? Mm-hmm. Come down here and talk about folks. Come around here. You know, he's got that kind of, like, whatever he says, he says down here. You don't need to understand it.

(LAUGHTER)

AFFLECK: That's Morgan, and...

GROSS: That was great.

AFFLECK: ...Al is, like, hello! Al Pacino. What do you know? Welcome. This is FRESH AIR. Hello. What we talking about? That's Al. I hear - I want to see his "Glengarry." I hear it's really good. I'm excited.

GROSS: Thank you so much...

AFFLECK: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

GROSS: ...for talking with us. It's really been fun. I really appreciate it.

AFFLECK: Thank you.

Ben Affleck recorded last month. He directed and stars in the film "Argo" and is also one of its producers. "Argo" is nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and it just came out on DVD. Coming up, Bradley Cooper, the star of ""Silver Linings Playbook," which is nominated for eight Oscars, including his nomination for Best Actor. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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