By Gayle Fee | September 1, 2010 | People
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Ben Affleck has a lot to be thankful for. The prolific actor is now equally sought after as a director; he’s married to gorgeous actress Jennifer Garner, with whom he has adorable daughters Violet, 4, and Seraphina, 1; and he learned one of life’s most valuable lessons early. “Don’t be a fuckin’ consumer!” Affleck’s grandfather, Sam Shaw—ex-Marine, World War II combat veteran, lawyer and sometime boxer—would yell at Ben and his brother, Casey, when the future Hollywood heavyweights were kids in Cambridge.
"He used to break our balls," Affleck recalls, “He was the one to take us out, make men of us, make us work. We’d just be sitting around playing video games, and he’d be like, ‘Don’t be a consumer!’ I never really understood what he meant until I got older and realized I wasn’t doing a damn thing to make the world better. I was being a consumer, you know? I was living a life that was oriented toward myself, and it didn’t feel good all of a sudden.”
Sam Shaw is in his 90s now, and the once-strapping Marine still lives in Boston. His grandson has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood: This fall Affleck hits the silver screen in two new releases, both shot in the Boston area—September’s The Town, a crime drama he also directed, and The Company Men, starring fellow New Englander Chris Cooper (who lives in Massachusetts) and Tommy Lee Jones (a Harvard graduate). But Affleck has not forgotten his grandfather’s lesson from long ago. “He’s a man of tremendous character and a guy I really admire,” he says. And so the actor, director, husband and dad took his words to heart and decided to try, in his own way, to make the world a better place.
GETTING TO WORK
Affleck has focused his energies on several areas: He founded the Eastern Congo Initiative to help the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where war, poverty and disease have killed more than five million men, women and children since 1998. He is a member of Feeding America’s Entertainment Council and has raised funds and awareness for the Jimmy Fund, the Paralyzed Veterans of America and Operation Gratitude. He has also raised funds for the A-T Children’s Project, which is searching for a cure for ataxia-telangiectasia, since he and his wife became friendly with Joe Kindregan, a young man suffering from the degenerative neurological disease.
“Nick Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, has a great line,” Affleck shares. “He said, ‘While charity has a mixed record helping others, it has an almost perfect record of helping ourselves.’ That’s been my experience. I don’t know that I’ve done anything of substance. I’ve tried, and there are a lot of people doing more than me, but what I have done has really made me feel better. In a way it’s kind of even more selfish, but it’s a good selfish.”
Affleck is passionate about his causes, but he’s well aware that the public looks at celebrity do-gooders with a certain degree of skepticism.
“Obviously people hear about a celebrity in Africa, and they kind of roll their eyes,” he says. “They’ve been conditioned to think it’s insincere, and there are definitely reasons to be critical or suspicious. But there are also people over there doing really good things, and I wanted to be part of that.”
To that end, Affleck has made a number of trips to Africa—Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, the Republic of Congo, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania. He shot a mini-documentary on the Eastern Congo for the United Nations Human Rights Council and saw people living in “the worst conditions imaginable.”
“Stuff we would never even contemplate happening to us in the United States… living in camps or having to endure a world without security, where there’s always the threat of being [attacked or] raped,” he recalls. “I also saw people doing amazing things there. Local African organizations that were getting child soldiers out of militias, helping women who have been the victims of gender-based violence, founding schools, starting radio stations and giving tape recorders to women in the bush so they can tell their stories, or bringing together groups of women to try to galvanize the legal system to protect them.”
Struck by these successes, Affleck started the Eastern Congo Initiative to support the local organizations fighting the good fight on the ground. “These are the people who deserve the most support,” he says, “these local organizations that are doing incredible work, kind of in secret.”
With the help of pals “who have enough money to write me a big check,” Affleck raised several million dollars; the Eastern Congo Initiative made its first grants this summer.
LEFT: Affleck at Heal Africa’s hospital in Goma, which provides care to survivors of gender-based violence. RIGHT: Affleck at Goma prison in the Democratic Republic of Congo, meeting with a convicted perpetrator of sexual violence in March 2010
CLOSE TO HOME
But Affleck also wanted to do something for the needy here at home, who face the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. For several years he’s been actively involved in Feeding America, the nation’s leading hunger-relief organization.
“When I did Gone Baby Gone in Boston, I was going house-to-house scouting locations in Dorchester, Southie, Lynn, Revere and Everett, and I met people who were having trouble making rent, buying food or keeping the electricity on, and that just blew me away,” he says. “I didn’t realize that in this town where I grew up, there were so many people struggling at that level. Feeding America is a great organization, and I’ve tried to support them as much as possible because there are people who are less fortunate right here, our neighbors and our friends.”
There’s a scene in The Town when Affleck’s character walks through a food bank in the Charlestown projects. “I just thought it was important to keep that image,” he says, “[to show] that this is a place where people are struggling. You know, people in Boston are proud. They wouldn’t go getting something for free if they didn’t need it.”
The Oscar winner also became vested in supporting the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan via Paralyzed Veterans of America and Operation Gratitude after a USO trip to the Persian Gulf several years ago. He even donated tickets to his premiere of The Town at Fenway Park in September to Paralyzed Veterans of America, Feeding America and The Jimmy Fund.
Affleck, now 38, is no longer the fresh-faced kid from Cambridge who celebrated on national TV with his best bud, Matt Damon, when they became the Cinder-fellas of the 1997 Academy Awards. But the evolving philanthropist has figured out what’s truly important to him.
“My family comes first, making sure that’s right, and work.… I work harder than I ever have, and that feels really good,” he says. “I’m not sure how I got where I am now; it’s been a long and windy road. I’ve experienced a lot of really interesting things and seen the world from a pretty unique vantage point. I’ve gotten to hang out with and be inspired by a lot of really extraordinary people.
“You also learn from your mistakes,” he continues, “and I’ve certainly made mistakes. I have a few things that I’m proud of, and you know, you get to a point where you learn to live with a balance of both.”
And, in the words of a gruff ex-Marine: You stop being a consumer.
photograph by matthias vriens-mcgrath/trunkarchive.com; styling by arianne tunney for tracey mattingly; barbara kinney for eastern congo initiative (affleck in africa)
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