Affleck was a punch line, a tabloid-headline fixture a few years back. He scored a $200 million hit with "Pearl Harbor," yet quipsters made wisecracks about how Affleck apparently won World War II single-handedly in that one.
Even as Affleck delivered hits such as "The Sum of All Fears" and "Paycheck," critics perpetually knocked his performances as stiff and leaden.
Now Affleck returns with "The Town," a genre-bending bank-heist thriller that is loaded with action but also heavy on gritty working-class drama and sweet romance. He directs and stars, delivering what Damon called the "best performance I've seen in a long time."
"This one is really, I think, the one where people are just going to remember who he is and let all of the other stuff go," said Damon, who shared a screenplay Academy Award with Affleck for "Good Will Hunting." ''He's just a monumentally talented guy. In a lot of ways, I always think of Clint, because Clint was doing orangutan movies, and people weren't taking him as seriously. And look at the second half of his career. He's an icon. And I really feel like that's the kind of career Ben's going to have."
Damon has starred in two films directed by Eastwood, last year's "Invictus" and the upcoming "Hereafter." So he's in a good position to compare and contrast his pal Affleck and grand old master Eastwood.
Hearing of Damon's high praise, Affleck smiled.
"Who needs a publicist when you've got a friend like Matt?" Affleck said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "The Town" played before its theatrical release on Friday. "I've got to pay this guy."
In the tabloid years, Affleck could get prickly in interviews if reporters brought up his personal life, and he seemed more sensitive about criticism of his performances. Though he got many fine reviews for his work in such films as "Chasing Amy," ''Dogma" and "Changing Lanes," he said he often felt critics judged him too harshly because of his gossip value.
"Tabloids do a lot to get in the way of trying to do this work, because they cause audiences to think of you in a different context, and it makes it much harder for them to believe you playing your role. And then they blame you for it," Affleck said. "I could try to go back and re-litigate my case in various ways, but, you know, some of them I might win and some of them I might lose. So it really doesn't serve me to worry about a review I got back when Barack Obama was a state senator in Illinois.
"What serves me is paying attention to the kind of work I want to do now, having a very strong, frank, candid metric for evaluating my own work. I am interested in criticism and feedback from thoughtful, fair people who care, and because good criticism can really, really be a great benefit. It can help you learn."
Set around Affleck's home town of Boston, "The Town" is based on a novel by Chuck Hogan. Affleck, who co-wrote the screenplay, plays Doug MacRay, leader of a daring band of bank robbers, who falls for a bank manager (Rebecca Hall) the gang takes hostage on their latest job.
The film co-stars Jeremy Renner, an Oscar nominee for "The Hurt Locker," as Doug's rash accomplice, "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm as an ace FBI agent on their trail, and Oscar winner Chris Cooper as Doug's jailed father.
Affleck decided against acting in his directing debut so he could concentrate on the filmmaking, casting his brother, Casey Affleck, to star in "Gone Baby Gone." With "The Town," Affleck said he felt confident taking on both jobs.
Hall, the daughter of esteemed British theater director Peter Hall, said she wondered how one person could handle the big picture matters for which a director is responsible while dealing with the specifics of developing a character as an actor. Half an hour into her first meeting with Affleck, Hall said, she was convinced he could do it.
"I couldn't get my head around the idea that someone could think about the whole story and that at the same time, because in a way, they're sort of mutually exclusive," Hall said. "But he's so incredibly smart. His sharpness and intelligence just pervade everything he does."
Affleck quickly follows with "The Company Men," in which he stars as a sales executive in a financial tailspin after his company downsizes and he loses his job. Due in theaters Oct. 22, the film also stars Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner and "The Town" co-star Cooper.
Damon and Affleck hope to collaborate again, and Affleck said he and his brother might be working together on a screenplay.
Affleck aims to continue acting while developing more directing jobs and avoiding the gossip pit he fell into earlier in his career. Yet he realizes he still will take his hits in an online world where everyone can be a critic and sound off on whatever they like.
"There's just a sort of Internet vitriol. I was online the other day; I saw these two guys just tearing into each other over if the Droid was better than the iPhone. That aspect of our culture has kind of flourished for better or for worse, so you're part of that," Affleck said.
"And I recognize part of the process is, some days, chicken, some days, feathers. But I'm really happy. I feel good, and I don't spend a lot of time carrying any grudges."