Mr. Serious

A decade ago, Ben Affleck was a tabloid fixture. Five years ago, a fledgling filmmaker. Today, he's the force behind one of the year's best movies

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Spencer Murphy for TIME

Update Appended: Oct. 10, 2012

Making serious movies for serious adults isn't a great business strategy. That's because there aren't that many serious adults left. Ben Affleck is one of the few directors who treat their audience like adults, figuring they're smart enough to follow along. Argo (in theaters Oct. 12) is very adult. The real-life story it tells is complicated: after the Iran hostage crisis erupted in 1979, the CIA financed a cheesy sci-fi movie as a cover to disguise six escaped U.S. diplomats as Canadian filmmakers and ferret them home. For this plot-heavy film, Affleck somehow uses far less exposition than I just did. He also doesn't underline the political message of the film — that supporting brutal dictators (like the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran, overthrown in early 1979) has consequences. He thinks about his viewers as if they were back in college with him at Occidental, where he majored in Middle Eastern studies.

Chris Terrio's original script for Argo spent a lot of time mocking Hollywood; Affleck cut back on the humor to make a more earnest film about the power of storytelling. It's a CIA movie in which the operative doesn't have a gun. "The heroism is more compelling for being real," says Affleck, 40, who's had experience in ridiculous action movies like Armageddon (1998) and Daredevil (2003). "Not that there's anything wrong with jet rays. Whatever it is. Jet packs? Ray guns? We had no jet rays in the superhero movie I did. It probably would have helped."

Affleck made Argo — in which he also stars as CIA officer Tony Mendez, the mastermind behind what became known as the Canadian Caper — because he made a conscious decision years ago to become the kind of serious guy who makes movies like Argo. Sipping an iced tea in a hotel lounge overlooking the beach near his house in Santa Monica, Calif., Affleck says he wouldn't have started directing if being a celebrity hadn't become so problematic for him. His 2002 — 03 relationship with Jennifer Lopez (their portmanteau, Bennifer, sparked the trend that's given us such gems as TomKat and Brangelina) made him tabloid fodder in an era when new celebrity magazines were minted weekly and gossip sites were just gaining traction.

"There was a huge demand for tabloid material, and there wasn't a good, deep bench of all these people, like reality stars," he says. "Then people decided that we were foisting this on them. 'How tacky.' I was reading things about myself that didn't correspond at all to my reality — who I felt I was, how I behaved, the kinds of things I wanted to do. Because that was so discordant, it made me think, Let me make who I am line up with the work I do."

The low point might have been Gigli, the 2003 movie he made with Lopez that people were excited to hate, or the terrible 2004 comedy Surviving Christmas or the 2004 video of him hitting on a TV reporter. Or maybe the nadir was in 2002, when Affleck appeared in Lopez's "Jenny from the Block" video, cavorting on a yacht and kissing her bikinied ass. "The thing that's frustrating is that the whole video is a send-up of paparazzi and tabloid stuff. That got totally lost," he says. "I'm on a yacht!"

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