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The Town clip
The Town clip: Clip from The Town, starring Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner.
With Rebecca Hall in The Town, out Sept. 17. Affleck is the movie's director, co-writer and star. / Claire Folger

Making a difference is a family affair for the Afflecks

Good Will Hunting's screenplay, "I got to see the world from a really unusual place, and I learned a lot," Ben Affleck says.

But it was almost a decade later, in 2007, when his wife, Jennifer Garner, actress and ambassador for Save the Children, inspired Affleck to do something about some of the things he has seen in his travels.

At first, Affleck considered working on behalf of refugees in Darfur. Eager to research the problem "I wasn't just Johnny from L.A. with a checkbook," the actor soon learned that the horrors of war, rape and child soldiers were even worse in nearby Congo, where a 1998-2003 civil war had claimed more than 3 million lives.

This year, after multiple trips to the region, he launched the Eastern Congo Initiative (easterncongo.org), aimed at steering private and public money toward rehabilitating a shattered populace. "There's such an amazing network of locals working hard for their people, and we're just there to lend them a hand. This is where having my name helps, because I am in a position to call a politician and perhaps get them to listen. That's rewarding."

Does anyone ever recognize his face in Central Africa? "Not in Congo," he says, laughing. "The most I'll get is chants of 'mzungu,' which just means 'whitey.' But when I crossed into Rwanda, wow! They get all our movies over there, so they're up on the gossip and the whole thing. It was like being back home.” M.D.C.

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Ben Affleck is standing in the grassy median of San Vicente Boulevard, a busy thoroughfare on the star-studded west side of Los Angeles. Not so long ago, this sort of public appearance would have stopped traffic and unleashed a tsunami of paparazzi. Today, he waits patiently for a gap in the steady flow of cars and jogs his lanky 6-foot-3 frame across the street and into Early World restaurant.

Far from feeling crushed by the lack of attention, this Oscar-winning, one-time People magazine “Sexiest Man Alive” couldn't be more pleased.

“Now I'm happy to do my thing without the spotlight,” he says, ordering a spinach scramble with turkey bacon and a Diet Coke. “My life is boring, which is good.”

Not so fast. At 38, Affleck may have turned his back on his days of wine, women and way too much time in the tabloids, but he's far from being a hermit.

His career, once bloated with effects-heavy epics, is revving up again, thanks to lean dramas such as his latest, The Town, a theft caper due Sept. 17, which Affleck directed, co-wrote and stars in. And his personal life, at one time a source of tabloid scrutiny, is now a portrait of domesticity, co-starring his wife, actress Jennifer Garner, and the couple's two daughters, Violet, 5, and Seraphina, 1.

“Having kids was a big part of my evolution,” he says. “That's when I stopped thinking of the world in terms of myself.”

New story lines in his personal drama

Consider this Ben 2.0.

“Back in 2002, I hardly left the house,” the star says, settling into his favorite haunt, an old-school eatery with vinyl seats and paper place mats. “I was feeling under siege and a bit panicked. I felt misunderstood. The story everyone wanted was that personal soap opera.”

Affleck knows soap operas, having starred in his own long-running drama. After winning an Oscar for best screenplay at 25 for writing Good Will Hunting with childhood pal Matt Damon, Affleck stepped out with Gwyneth Paltrow before connecting with Jennifer Lopez. Long before Brangelina there was Bennifer, a saga of late nights, opulent gifts, an engagement, one dud of a movie and, ultimately, a split. Meanwhile, his movie choices seemed more calculated to deliver paychecks (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) than critical praise.

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“I was ashamed of myself,” says Affleck, who had a penchant for designer clothes and fancy cars. “I enjoyed a lot of the upside of that fame stuff, but I realized it was really trivial in the end.”

Looking at old photos of himself hitting the town make him wince. “I find it, well, tough to like that guy. But the truth is, while I may have looked smug in the photos, inside I was insecure and self-conscious. Have I changed a bit? Yes. I was naive and stubborn back then.”

Home is where his heart is

All that might as well have happened during the Ice Age as far as Affleck is concerned. Today, he is most content at home with the kids and behind the lens.

The big thaw came courtesy of his marriage to Garner in 2005, when she was pregnant with their first child. Since then, he has nabbed great acting reviews (as George Reeves in Hollywoodland) and kudos as a director (Gone Baby Gone). Now, instead of turning up in tabloids necking in a trendy club, he's more likely to get snapped pushing a stroller in a park.

“Being a parent is important, profound and wonderful,” he says. “I never had any relationships before that were about family. This is a much heavier thing.”

Affleck's parents divorced when he was 12. His social worker mother, Chris, raised Ben and his younger brother, actor Casey. Asked to define the meaning of family, Affleck fixes his questioner with a heavy gaze. It's the serious look of a man who has figured out what really matters to him.

“Being part of a family is the reason we're here; it's the highest calling,” he says. “It's hard. It means the balance of work and life changes.” Luring him home is a woman he clearly admires. “Jennifer is a spectacular mother and person. I really lucked out.”

He allows himself a small smile when considering the stark contrast between his twentysomething celeb self and the thirtysomething adult he's busy sculpting. He pauses.

“I feel like I'm coming into the best part of myself,” he says, running a hand across his stubbled cleft chin. Affleck may look scruffy and have a chipped front tooth, but those leading-man looks lurk nearby.

If Affleck looks tired as he polishes off his eggs, blame it on his 90-hour workweeks in the confines of an editing room. Fun comes on the fringes. Even his once-famous poker exploits — he was California state champion in 2004 — are now limited to occasional gatherings with his friends and an annual trip to Las Vegas to raise money for charity.

“My interests? My interests?” he says, with eyes popping open in mock shock. “Sleep!”

The waitress brings the check. Affleck rises, then offers a thought.

“I feel free. It took a long time for my life to change in a way that I could feel good about it.”

Moments later, Affleck is out on the sidewalk waiting for a break in the boulevard's unyielding traffic. And he's smiling.

Cover and cover story photographs by Larsen & Talbert for USA WEEKEND. Grooming: Jamie Taylor, The Wall Group; styling: Wendi & Nicole, The Wall Group. Wardrobe on cover: Suit and shirt by Tom Ford, available at Neiman Marcus; tie: Giorgio Armani. Wardrobe this page: Shirt by Mason's, available at Neiman Marcus; jeans by J Brand.

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