Ben Affleck isn't actually a politician, but he's spent so much time discussing the subject on TV -- he's one of Bill Maher's most reliable guests -- that his role in the new film "State of Play" seems like a natural fit.
In the Beltway thriller, based on an acclaimed BBC mini, Affleck plays Stephen Collins, an upwardly mobile Congressman who becomes embroiled in a scandal when his aide -- and mistress -- is killed.
Affleck, a late addition to the "State of Play" cast after the departure of Edward Norton, still had the chance to chat up a few genuine legislators in preparation for the role.
"I thought that people in Congress would be reluctant, or not even reluctant, but just too busy to have the time to have me show up and kinda sniff around or stand in the office or do anything. And they were quite busy, but luckily they felt like people don't understand Congress very well, at least in terms of their opinion of them or that they hadn't been portrayed fairly in the past," he says.
Affleck continues, "The overall sense that people wanted to get across, I think, is that there are people who are working hard, there are people who are intelligent. There's this bias I think people have about Congress that it's this huge lumbering body that just gives away money and it's like those big sloppy Muppets from 'The Dark Crystal' that just march next to each other, incredible slowly."
Minus the murder, of course, the film presents a familiar scenario: the defrocked politician laid low by his own libido. Affleck says he didn't base Collins on John Edwards or Gary Condit or any of the myriad similar situations.
"We internalize, almost, these scandals," he notes. "We know them. They're almost rote. They become like cliches. The story breaks, they stand next to the spouse, they say God has forgiven them or they're asking God to forgive them or they want their constituents to forgive them. And then they go out and spear trash in the park or something and try to reconstitute their political career and eventually people do forget. It's just this cycle now that's almost lost its meaning."
The other part core part of this cycle is the role of the media, embodied in "State of Play" by Russell Crowe's Cal McAffrey, Collins' college chum. In the film, Cal works at a struggling newspaper, a dying paper dinosaur facing demands from its new corporate owner.
"I think this is the last movie that will be set in a newspaper. I don't know how this movie will be perceived, but I do believe that people will look back and say, 'Oh yeah, that was the movie that came out right around the time the Internet destroyed newspapers,'" Affleck appropriately tells a room of online journalists at the "State of Play" junket. "I don't think the verdict is in on what that means or what's going to happen or what the integrity is of one institution versus the other."
Affleck, who's spent his share of time reading about his life in the tabloid and gossip press, isn't shy with his opinions on the progression of journalism in the Internet age.
"I think there's two mouths, right? One is this incredible... full democratization of journalism where you have actual correspondents in every home. ... where you get to the truth and you don't have to worry about bias because you have so many bloggers that ultimately it's impossible to lie because there's too much evidence that can come out from other people to refute people who report with bias," he says. "So you have this incredible Everyone's a Reporter model, right? The other model is everyone's biased, no one sources anything, it's just ugly noise and we've destroyed our journalistic standards."
When Affleck gets going, it's easy to hear the passion that has led pundits to speculate on his possible actual political future for years. It's still a notion that the Oscar-winning screenwriter scoffs at.
"I really like my job that I have now..." he says. "Plus, unlike in Hollywood, you only have to get one director to hire you, in politics you have to get a lot of people to vote for you. I think it's harder work. But I'm happy with what I'm doing now. In fact, I've never been at a place where I felt better about going to work every day and more engaged."
"State of Play" opens on Friday, April 17.