Ben Affleck in Mexico
I. Quintana RooI had never been out of the country until we - my mom, Casey and I - went to Mexico in 1985. In retrospect, I think we all went together because my mom wanted to travel, to show us something she thought we were missing. We learned Spanish in the months leading up to June. The Spanish teacher at school tutored Casey and me on weekends, at my mom’s request. We would sit around our kitchen table and conjugate verbs. God knows it went in one ear and out the other, with me, at least. I’ve never really had that knack for languages. I think it takes a certain type of mind, maybe a more mathematical, linear understanding. Casey had that - he still does - and he learned quickly. He was a funny kid. Once we came back from Mexico I think he was different, more confident, quieter. And fluent in Spanish.
It’s a long time, when you’re that age, a year. I forgot what it felt like to go to school, to live in Cambridge. I would have been in seventh grade the year we left. I’d just transferred to public school, a really oppressive environment to me, but I think everything feels oppressive at that age. I was always in my own world and my own head. It was good that I got this acting job in Mexico, it probably saved me from going crazy. In that way, at least, maybe being a child actor was healthy. And it was through acting that I met Matt, in theater class. We - Matt and I - came from the same type of background. Our dads weren’t really around, pretty much raised by our moms, so we kind of stuck together. My parents were recently divorced, then, and I think that was why my mom was so eager for me to take the job. It was an excuse for us all to go together, a vacation.
We all get dealt different cards, and sometimes I think I was very lucky growing up in the environment that I did. My mom was never that enthusiastic about Casey and I acting, but she got a lot of enjoyment out of us. We always wanted to entertain her. She had a friend who worked in casting in New York who would call my mom whenever she knew Casey and I had school off, when we might have time to go on auditions. We didn’t really get it back then, didn’t have an ego about it. Once I reached middle school I think I did start to have kind of an ego about it, because you do when you’re that age. Like, maybe you start to have this sense that what you do with your spare time isn’t exactly what other kids are doing on the weekends. But my mom really drilled it into me - into us - that it wasn’t something you talked about. She overhead me bragging one time, to a neighbor kid I was hanging out with, and she took me aside and told me that it wasn’t graceful. That word really stuck with me, graceful.
We stayed near Tulum, a little farther away from the resorts. Most of the day’s shooting was around the Mayan ruins. Apparently the word ‘Maya’, is actually the Mayan’s native language, roughly, for ‘I don’t understand’. When the Spanish came to Mexico and asked the Mayans what they called themselves, that’s how they responded, not speaking a word of Spanish: “I don’t understand”.
It was for Voyage of the Mimi, my first real gig. Very low stakes, cool crew, good space for me at that age. They asked me to come down to Tulum to shoot for a special episode, and when filming was done we just stayed. I loved it there. I managed to go back a couple times, with the kids and Jen. I came back to Cambridge very tan after that year, which was, it was very cool - I made a good impression coming into eighth grade, with the girls, I think. My mysterious disappearance.
Before Tulum we were in Mexico City for a couple of days. Mexico was a totally different landscape to Massachusetts. Vibrant colors, everything was old and it was very exotic to me. Filming was scheduled to start the day after I arrived, but there was a strike at the airport in Mexico City that grounded all these flights for almost a week. The three of us had maybe five, six days of just exploring right at the top of the trip. It felt like we walked the entire city center, and saw every possible historical site, some pieces of history I wouldn’t learn the significance of until way later. A lot of stone obelisks and empty parks. We left a week before the earthquake, which was a bizarre feeling. I remember reading in the news that the hotel we’d been staying at had leveled. I try not to indulge too much in magical thinking, but sometimes I feel like a lot of my life has been a series of near-misses. But thinking like that can make you paranoid. There is such a thing as luck.
You’re very vulnerable when you’re that age, but it’s not something you realize at the time. Maybe it’s not so much vulnerability, but being susceptible. When I got older and started acting for real, traveling for my job stopped being such a novelty. Those first few times, though - that’s an experience that you just feel so fortunate to have had. I didn’t think about it in those terms when I was thirteen. It was an escape, then. Things weren’t so great at home, my parents were divorced, and my dad was a very lost person, it was hard to be around.
I ended up working out a lot of that stuff, that pent up energy and frustration through acting. Matt and I were in drama class together, and we got such a kick out of it. Matt is such a funny guy, really charismatic. He has this, this very serious, analytical mind, though – isn’t that always how it works? It’s always a cover for something, right? Charisma, I mean. Charismatic people are just better at hiding the shit that’s going on with them. Maybe that’s dark, but I think it’s true. You have to compensate. Smart people always have demons – they have more voices going on in their head at any given time. When you act you get to channel those, give them a voice through another person.
Yeah, so, I didn’t travel again for acting until I was much older, and the experience was different. Because you have this critical faculty, for better or worse, as an adult, an ability to separate yourself from the project, to consider how bizarre the whole thing can be. And it is, it’s very bizarre. Being in a foreign country only exacerbates the strangeness, of the job, of everything. I must have been twenty-two or twenty-three, and I got very in to taking walks. There’s so much downtime on a set that you have to fill. I found it very romantic, walking alone. You get lost easily, but never so lost, because the cities are small and streets interweave on to each other, intersecting at multiple points. You know these old, European cities – it’s all stone, and built on top of each other, and ruins from thousands of years ago, so it’s all a maze. I was there for five, six months. I remember feeling very divided in myself, between working and walking, divided between this contemplative space and this performative character I existed as, as well. Travel exposes a lot of things. The days begin to oscillate between the unfamiliar, and what quickly gets to be very mundane. Habit just becomes integrative of all the new things you encounter, and that creates a pretty sublime experience, of understanding a city by its good and bad days. Everything feels crystallized. You have nothing but your own tools to navigate, and I’m talking about work and I’m also talking about the relationships you form with people when you’re in another country together. When you’re home you get to take everything for granted, but when you’re alone that’s not a luxury you can afford. It meant that everything I did, and the way I experienced things felt essentially personal, correlative directly to previously lived experiences, emotions, my hang-ups. There’s a sense of responsibility that you can either choose to accept, or to ignore, but it brings your life into intense focus. I think I chose to ignore – my actions, my history – for a long time, and that really catches up to you. It has caught up to me now. I wonder, sometimes, if you are born with one instinct versus the other. I still couldn’t tell you.
II. Minnie Driver
We had a house that we were renting in Southie for the shoot, where Matt and I were living with Casey and Cole. I think it was a romantic idea that we had in the beginning that Matt and I would get this house and pace the empty living room working on our characters and writing more stuff, but mostly we drank. Minnie invited herself over after the second day of shooting. She knew she was in a boy’s club, and that she needed to get herself involved. It was April, really rainy and cold that month. Minnie had rented a car and was still terrible at driving in the states. She used to hit things all the time, like backing up into mailboxes and the crew’s truck on location. She even got a ticket because she parked with her wheels half up on the curb. When she came to the house she brought all this whisky. Could barely make her way around Boston but did manage to find the liquor store. We did a shot from each one, she got us wasted and made us listen to David Bowie.
Minnie: My father’s Irish. Me father’s Irish. I have something in cahmman with you Boston boys.
Minnie sways against the fireplace – an unused fireplace in a house rented by three twenty-somethings. There is something studied about the disarray, the emptiness of the room. They are smart, and very eager. Minnie wears a red t-shirt and holds a glass of whisky; they have abandoned the shots and are drinking the liquor from water glasses.
A little late.
Minnie: You know what Peter O’Toole said about marriage?
(Minnie sits upright in her armchair. In a deep timbre, a posh accent) ‘Find a woman you loathe, and give her your house.’
All three men laugh.
Matt says something along the lines of an offer: Does she want this one?
Matt was smitten. He had dated a lot of girls, but they were all kind of like Skylar, that part - very quick witted, outspoken, brunette. But you idealize people when you write about them, I think. We had done that with Skylar’s part, an amalgam of different women into an ideal. There’s an artistic tendency to fantasize and to sort of place yourself into this role, or place your own outlook onto this person. All the girls Matt dated were Skylar prototypes, and then in walks Minnie Driver and it’s like, oh, what? She’s real! Skylar’s real, she’s a real person! Sometimes I wonder who he thought he was really dating.
Minnie begins to sing: it’s Elton John’s ‘Candle In The Wind’.
It is three months before Princess Diana of Wales will be killed in a car crash, before the song will become her pop elegy. Her death will affect Minnie greatly, but abstractly – she wavers between sadness for the woman and sadness for the country, neither feeling manages to settle, as she knows neither very well. “I’m the last of the British diaspora,” she will say in an interview, conducted after she lands the Oscar nod for Good Will. It will go un-printed, but Minnie will nevertheless think about it a lot. The phrase will ring around her head at the health food store, in traffic on the 10 from Santa Monica, when she’s having sex. The Last of the British Diaspora. Just like when she makes jokes about Maggie Thatcher to her American friends, the words seem hollow and bizarre; she knows better what the words can conjure than what they actually mean.
Matt invites her to sit next to him on the couch. They play a game where one person names a film, and the next names an actor in that film, and the next in line names another film with that actor. Whoever makes a mistake, or is too slow on the uptake, takes a drink. The boys play with loud, enthusiastic interruptions. Then, it is one in the morning, and Minnie elects to take a cab back to her hotel. Matt walks her to the pay phone on the corner. When the cab pulls up Matt hands her twenty dollars and tells her it’s from petty cash.
There’s this moment, I’m not sure you would have caught it, when we got up at the Golden Globes that I’m still embarrassed about. Once you get up there, your brain evacuates everything that isn’t readily available, or right in front of you. When they called our names, you know, to be honest we were prepared for the possibility that we would win. It was talked about. We went through some pretty rigorous training just for awards season, how to conduct ourselves at the shows, whether or not we lost. The guy we worked with was very insistent that if we were to win, and that didn’t seem unlikely in the weeks leading up, when the buzz starts to get around to you, finally, that we had to really play up how new we were to this. Play the newcomer, play the rookie, he said. The shock of it that you can see on our faces is totally genuine. We weren’t prepared for it, even though we thought we were. I remember walking through that room, between all those tables. Surreal.
I guess it became very well known after the fact that Matt and Minnie were together during the shoot, and afterwards, for a time. By that point I think they’d been broken up for a while and it wasn’t very amicable. He’d announced the breakup on Oprah. Everyone acted like it was some stunt, but it wasn’t. It was over before. I think Minnie was angry that he said anything at all, understandably. She was a little more media-literate at that point in her career than he was. Than either of us, we had no idea. Anyway, we get up there and I’m excited, and pretty fucking drunk, and we have to thank everyone. I forget Minnie; I was just rushing through this list we wrote on a napkin half an hour before, the producers and writers and directors and execs that we had to mention, and Matt leans over quietly, and mutters “and Minnie”under his breath. And yet, I did thank Boston twice at the Oscars, so, there you go.
It starts like flu. Go to bed, get some rest for a few days; this might be a bad one. After the fifth day it still hasn’t gone away, but as a reasonable woman she doesn’t complain, lets a week go by. At the end of the week the chest pains are becoming unbearable and the coughing starts. The view from the window of the rented house looks out over a gradation of Mediterranean tile that slips downward into the white-sand ocean, the house and view she has always dreamed of. The heat borders on oppressive, and it seems to boil the casing of phlegm burgeoning in her lungs and tracheal passage, as though her chest is insulated. The fever worsens during the day, and the cough scrapes and aches in her throat. Casey takes it the worst. He has nothing to do with his brother gone all day, every day, and she is bedridden. She calls a doctor on day eight, luckily her Spanish is better now, but Casey’s is the best. He’s so young, picked it up in a flash, but his use is irresponsible. Mostly it’s good for overhearing conversations and throwing insults at cyclists in the street. He’s so eager to impress his brother, and she never was the disciplinarian.
When the doctor arrives he rolls her on her side and gives her a steroid shot in her behind. She has been wearing the same nightgown for three days, and her hair has gone unwashed for five. Ben comes back to the house and reads to her in the evenings, but she finds that she suppresses the cough for his sake, which concentrates the pain in her lungs so ferociously that the cough returns with even greater intensity. So now she pretends to be asleep when he returns from set. On the sixth day, she calls the production and tells a coordinator that she is ill and they send over the nice production assistant from the airport. The young girl is flustered and sweaty when she arrives, but she takes the boys out for ice cream. When Chris can no longer get out of bed to change, let alone make dinner, the same woman from the studio hires a maid. The maid cannot speak English and smacks Casey for running in the house, so she is fired.
They send another, an American girl looking to make money on her gap year. She is black, and wears her hair in countless thin braids. Chris gives her the guest room on the ground floor. The doctor comes every day and gives her a shot in the ass. On the night of the ninth day, Chris awakes in the middle of the night on a crest of nausea that her body has never before experienced. Her chest feels as though it is the vice-grip of a giant, and her breath slips in and out in thin streams, allotted as though by luck. Chris forces herself out of bed, and in sitting upright nearly passes out. She puts her head between her legs and waits for the grey haze in front of her eyes to subside, which it does in slowly pulsating ripples until it is clear. She lifts her head again, and stares out of the open window. The linen curtain moves in a warm breeze, the sky is clear and light stars are visible above the ocean. Palm trees rasp around the perimeter of the house, sounding like a second ocean.
The ambulance comes fifteen minutes later, by which point Chris has started to crawl towards Ben’s room across the hall. She tries to stand, but the pain is so incomprehensible that her body will not cooperate. It takes her eight minutes to crawl from the bed, to the doorframe across the room, to the hall and to cross at a diagonal to her son’s room. Once in the hallway she hears the sound of the ambulance siren as it winds up the hill in the dark. She picks up a fist and hits at the door. It creaks slowly open in response; illumined by full moonlight, her teenage son sleeps in his boxers on a mattress, sheets twisted at the foot of the bed.
On the way to the hospital, Ben sits next to her in the back of the ambulance, squatting at the side of the gurney with her hand in his hand. Casey wanted to come, badly, but the American girl – her name is Amelia – is prescient enough in her sleepiness that she holds him back and promises him two hours of Mexican cartoons in the morning. Under the harsh lights of the ambulance, Ben regards the face of his mother with a panic that surprises him in its bottomlessness. The skin around her eyes and under her nose is tinged with yellow, and a vein in her neck pulsates at a thin and rapid flutter. She looks irresolute in her investigation toward the malfunction of her body; her eyes drift in an arc in front of her, taking stock blankly.
She says, “I think if I die tonight, that’d be ok.” Ben holds on to her hand against the infernal noise and motion of the ambulance as it clatters over the cobblestone. He’s heard grand statements like this before, is even long past being annoyed by them, but he shakes his head and says nothing. He hopes this won’t ruin the rest of their trip.
Christina Affleck spends thirteen days in the hospital before the doctor determines she is well enough to board the private plane, organized and paid for by the production, to be treated at home in Boston. Ben and Casey come every day with Amelia and play silent board games at the foot of her bed, while she struggles for breath in a fevered sleep. The pattern becomes tacked on to Ben’s day, a bookend to morning hair and makeup. Even the afternoon that he and Casey are cleared out by two swift nurses in green (his mother is to be intubated) does not stand out, because the boys come back the next day and pick up playing the game of spit where they left off. Chris leaves Mexico on the thirtieth of November, driven away in a black car organized for her by production. The boys watch it rumble down the hill to take her to the airport. Casey sobs in moist projections onto the tail of his shirt, but Ben is still and stoic, one hand on the railing of the veranda.
Overlooking hundreds of white and gleaming faces, thirty years later, Ben again finds himself holding back tears. Outside the theater, cars pass slowly up Highland to the freeway, stalled by the clogged artery of Hollywood Boulevard, which has been closed and decorated for the ceremony. The cars sound like a windswept ocean, and so does the slow-growing cacophony of whispers and clatter from the audience in front of him, no longer rapt. No more awards will be handed out tonight.
“I was here ten years ago, stood out in front of you all, and I had no idea what I was doing, I was really just a kid.”
Do yourself a favor, do those who love you proud.
“And I went out, and I never thought that I would be back here. And I am, because of so many of you that are here tonight, because of this Academy,” Well, fuck the Academy, but never mind, “because of so many wonderful people who extended themselves to me and had nothing to benefit from it, in Hollywood...”
You’d think winning would be gratifying, that it would be easier this time, but most of what he feels is hatred. For the young starlets and their crystal clutches, for himself, bumbling about behind the mike, for the roving cameras floating about his face and down the velvet rows. He’s drunk too much, he can feel it swelling around his neck and up to his ears.
“...I want to thank them, and I want to thank them for what they taught me, which is that you have to work harder than you think you possibly can, and you can’t hold grudges – its hard, but you can’t hold grudges – uh,”
He gets a small laugh here. The music is rising, [Shrine Auditorium, 1998: “There’s no way we’re gonna do this in 20 seconds...”]
“And it doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life, ‘cause it’s gonna happen, all that matters is that you gotta get up.”
One more thing: “Violet, Sam and Sarah, this- this is for you.”
A breeze rustles through the back of the stage. It seems to wave the golden cardboard columns, which, after he and everyone else has filed through the back entrance to the after party, will be rolled away into a storage unit on Melrose across the street from the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The pressure mounts in his head as he takes his exit, music swelling to finale. The camera makes a sweeping backward pan into the rafters of the theater.