LOS ANGELES – Ben Affleck doesn’t want to talk about Jennifer. Ben Affleck can’t quit talking about Jennifer.

“Hey, I try to be accommodating,” says Affleck, kicking back in his hotel room after a morning of playing dodge ball with dozens of journalists less interested in his new thriller “Paycheck” than in the state of his love life. “I’ve got my job to do, which is to try to help the movie, and the writers have their job, which is to get me to spill more beans.

“But being really open about everything didn’t really work out for us, did it? So we have to find another way.”

When the marriage question came up, Affleck joked that because Massachusetts has made gay marriage legal, he and pal Matt Damon will be tying the knot as soon as the furniture is picked out.

Seriously, though, Affleck says he made a major mistake in miscalculating the media’s interest in his relationship with Jennifer Lopez, who he says enjoys a different level of fame than he.

“If “enjoys’ is the word,” he says.

“I had been through it with Gwynnie,” he says of his earlier relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow (and who recently called him a “knucklehead”). “She (Lopez) had been through it with her previous boyfriend. We thought we could handle it. But it just became overwhelming for everyone.”

Despite the scrutiny, it never interfered with his work on “Paycheck,” according to revered action director John Woo, who praised Affleck.

Both men, coming off flops, have a lot riding on this film.

Based on a story by Philip K. Dick, the visionary sci-fi writer whose stories also provided the basis for “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall,” “Paycheck” stars Affleck as Michael Jennings, a consultant for a high-tech development corporation of the future whose designs are so coveted that he has his recent memories erased after every project.

For the company’s biggest breakthrough yet, Affleck agrees to have a year of his life wiped away for $4 billion. But when he completes the mindwash, he discovers that he has already traded his fortune for a bag of seemingly useless items.

They turn out to be clues he has sent himself and could mean the difference between life and death for him and company scientist Uma Thurman, who had been his lover.

“Don’t tell him, but I originally offered the part (of Jennings) to Matt,” said Woo.

But Damon didn’t want another amnesia thriller on the heels of “The Bourne Identity” and told Woo he should consider Affleck.

“He knew I was looking for someone who was like a modern version of Cary Grant, someone whose charm and cleverness we took for granted. I was using Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest’ as a model for the tone I wanted this movie to have. So I met with Ben, and he understood exactly what I was going for.”

Affleck says he can’t take the comparison with Grant seriously, but that he was enthusiastic about making what he described as a thinking person’s action film.

Affleck says “Paycheck” has scored high with test audiences, which hopefully will translate into good news for all involved.

Woo’s last film, “Windtalkers,” was a costly flop, and, of course, Affleck has the albatross called “Gigli” (which he did with Lopez) still rotting around his neck.

“Well, somebody had to make the “Ishtar’ of my generation,” says Affleck. “From the people who brought you “Glitter’! The movie didn’t work. We knew it didn’t, which is why we went back and shot new stuff and tried to save it, but it couldn’t be saved.”

Affleck said he figured people would tire of all the negative press and jokes associated with “Gigli.” “Man, was I wrong,” he says.

So wrong that word soon got out that Miramax, which will release Affleck’s next film, “Jersey Girl,” in March, ordered that the involvement of Lopez in the film (which reunites Affleck with “Chasing Amy” director Kevin Smith) be downplayed.

“She’s only in the movie for a few minutes, so to have sold it as her being one of the stars would have been wrong, anyway,” says Affleck.

Affleck also has “Surviving Christmas,” which will probably be released next November, in the can, and he may play Don Haskins, the white Texas Western coach who led the first all-black college basketball team to the NCAA championship in 1966, in a film called “Glory Road.”

Officially, however, he has no plans, personal or professional.

He says he would like to make another Jack Ryan film, but having reinvented the character for “The Sum of All Fears” as a young analyst, it would be problematic to do the Tom Clancy novel Affleck really wants to film, “Red Rabbit” whose plot hinges on the assassination attempt against the Pope in 1981.

As for that other thing in his life, Affleck will say only, “We’re good.”

Affleck offers a hearty thanks and a handshake and heads back to his own room. But before he can get there, he is intercepted by a surprise visitor.

“Oh, hey, baby, thanks for coming. When did you get here? This is so sweet of you,” he says to Lopez, taking her in his arms.

And after a quick look back, they’re off together, to who knows where – if, of course, they can keep it that way.

(c) 2003, Detroit Free Press.

Visit the Freep, the World Wide Web site of the Detroit Free Press, at http://www.freep.com.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Ben Affleck

AP-NY-12-26-03 1505EST

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