Ben Affleck on his new film Triple Frontier, masculinity and Netflix making movies
Ben Affleck stars in Triple Frontier, about a group of soldiers who commit a heist in South American when they feel they haven't been given their due for their years in service. He talks to Laura Harding about the military, masculinity and releasing the film on Netflix
BEN Affleck is fiddling with the straw in his cup, in between sucking on the dregs of his iced coffee. It's been five months since he left rehab, where he was treated for alcohol addiction and it's striking how healthy he looks.
He's dressed in a long-sleeved black polo shirt and has a light California tan, a notable difference from his appearance in his latest film Triple Frontier.
When we first meet his character Tom in the Netflix movie, he's a failing estate agent dressed in scruffy dad jeans, a far cry from his previous life as the best of the best in the US military.
"One of the things this movie is about is how difficult that transition is, particularly when you talk about the very narrow band of people who are doing the lion's share of fighting and the sacrifice and the deploying and seeing most of the combat. You are asking them to bear a very heavy burden and then I think it's a significant challenge to segue from that abruptly into civilian life.
"That's a transition we have heard about going back to World War One or World War Two or the Vietnam era, but here you have this group of soldiers who have become a professional soldiering class.
"They are not seeing a little bit of combat and getting long breaks, they are in combat over and over again."
The film, directed by Margin Call's JC Chandor, introduces us to five of these soldiers, who plan a heist at the home of a powerful drug lord close to the Triple Frontier – the border zone between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil.
When an informant reveals the location to one of them (played by Oscar Isaac) he lures his old colleagues, including Affleck's Tom, out of retirement where they are trying to lead something resembling normal lives, to help him try to kill the drug baron and steal his millions.
"It is a parable about temptation and very literally a movie about greed," Affleck says.
"But it's also a story about how these things that challenge our value systems can corrupt us and the creeping nature of that corruption and how one rationalisation can lead to the next rationalisation.
"You make allowances here, there – until you find that kind of rationalisation, that kind of moral equivocation that leads you, oftentimes, to a very unpleasant place."
It seems 46-year-old Affleck has some sympathy for the characters' bad decisions.
"Imagine going from a world where you're the best of the best, where you've continued to excel. Then at 40, you're told to start over, find something new to do, develop new skills or try to jerry-rig the skills that you do have and see how they are applicable to civilian life.
"One can imagine that might be quite difficult and that being excellent in this particular field might not necessarily translate to another. What does that do to a person who is used to being elite in matters of life and death?
"He has to go, 'Well now I'm trying to sell condos and I'm maybe not the best condo salesman', and I would imagine that would be a significant challenge to confront."
At a time when we are examining what it means to be a man in the modern world, what does he think this film says about masculinity?
Affleck pauses and fiddles with his packet of cinnamon-flavoured nicotine gum.
"It asks questions about the way these soldiers feel that their skills are somewhat obviated and they feel less relevant. There are probably men who look at a changing society and feel challenged in similar if not exactly the same ways and go, 'Is the world passing me by? Is what I have to offer no longer meaningful? Is my sense of community dissolving?' and I think those are all questions that challenge one's sense of self. And there are no easy answers for that."
Another issue where there are no easy answers is the battle raging in Hollywood right now over Netflix, which launched Triple Frontier to viewers around the world earlier this week.
The release comes hot on the heels of Netflix's most aggressive bid yet for Oscars, which saw Alfonso Cuaron's film Roma win gongs for best foreign language film, directing and cinematography but fail to score the biggest prize of best picture.
Now Steven Spielberg seems intent on keeping the streaming service out of future Oscar races and will reportedly tell the board of governors at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that films debuting on streaming platforms should be considered in the TV movie categories at the Emmy Awards, rather than the film categories at the Oscars.
But Affleck, who has already won a screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting and a best picture Oscar for Argo, which he directed, remains circumspect.
"This has mostly to do with movie awards and who gets what awards and that's not something that I'm focused on when I go do a movie.
"The idea of going to do a movie is the opportunity to do the work, the other actors I get to work with, the director, the script that I'm working on.
"I also appreciate Netflix's adventurous spirit in terms of trying to produce a really diverse palette of movies and trying to get a movie made is 90 per cent of the work, in terms of getting people excited and finding partners.
"So I think they are providing some exciting opportunities. Exciting film-makers are working with them – you see [Martin] Scorsese is making The Irishman – and there are still wonderful movies that are being made directly for theatrical distribution.
"It's all great as far as I'm concerned."
:: Triple Frontier is available on Netflix now.