It's the tale of a poor college student, played by Justin Timberlake, who cracks an online poker game, goes bust and arranges a face-to-face with the man he thinks cheated him, a sly, offshore entrepreneur.
Ben Affleck is that charismatic but evidently corrupt man. To mark the home release of the film on 3 February, he reflects on the downside of the American dream, whether you can be "too smart" and whether there's a downside to having ambition...
Q: Has the American dream become dangerous?
BA: The pace at which technology has developed is both good and bad because in areas like gambling it became incredibly pervasive without any kind of real examination of what’s going on or the effect that it’s having or ideas about how if it should be restricted, monitored, governed, so on. The interesting thing about internet gambling as a whole and in this movie is that it’s used as emblematic of what’s happening in the larger country. With the financial market sort of turning into something that’s an engine of gambling themselves rather than something of productivity and sort of an ultrafast connectivity with smart phones and investing and this idea that we should be getting instant returns, every two seconds so that we get our text messages.
Q: Tell me about that rush you get from gambling.
BA: When you’re gambling, like a lot of other things is something that is healthy in moderation and quite dangerous in excess. What is revealed in this movie is that even beyond kind of the darkness of what could be dark about gambling underneath that in this case with Block is there’s something even more pernicious happening in the way of a Madoff-type financial scam. It’s underneath this allure that we project to the world of fast money, easy money. Behind that is something inherently fraudulent and crooked and broken and that we recognise as wrong.
If you made a movie just about Madoff and the misery and how depressing it was, I made a movie called Company Man about people being laid off. No one wants to see that. But what’s interesting is if you veil that dynamic of people reaching for the dream, getting their money taken, taken advantage by others who are peddling that idea while gobbling it up, unethically if you wrap that into the story about internet gambling and hustling and this young kid who comes down and gets seduced by this world it becomes exciting to watch and also touches on the same themes.
Q: Is it intimidating?
BA: In this movie gambling really is a metaphor for a lot of things. One of them is what kind of men are telling younger men coming up about what they should be trying to do. About what’s appropriate kind of ambition. What our values are. It used to be in the post-world war world, it was about working hard and putting in a lot of time and eventually owning something of your own and those sorts of what we think of as healthy, American values. Now it really is the get rich quick, get rich fast, get rich by any means necessary. Cut the other guy’s throat. That kind of ethos is present. Not only is it present but it’s considered healthy. We’ll get this guy working on a hedge fund. He’s a killer. He’ll do anything to succeed and that becomes okay. Not only okay but really prized and it’s about transmitting those values. You hire a guy in and you tell them how things work and that’s really what gambling what is a metaphor here, running this website. It’s a metaphor for gambling. It’s a metaphor for the internet. It’s a metaphor for technology and it’s a metaphor for the financial system.
Q: Are these characters too smart?
BA: I think these characters are hungry like generations of Americans have always been hungry but they’re facing different choices of what they can eat. They have just different options in front of them and so they’re trying to choose the best options. They’re trying to fit themselves into society as they see it and it’s confusing. It’s confusing and it’s scary and when there’s not a lot out there and part of Richie’s, Justin’s character, isn’t finding a lot of other options. So somebody who says, yeah, come down and do this it might seem a little bit on the fringes. It might seem, some people would say, unethical but really it’s about going on building something and making it for yourself and grabbing it.
Q: Is there a down side to having great ambition?
BA: I think ambition is great. It is good. Shakespeare used ambition as a way of suggesting that men reach beyond their grasp and it was unflattering. But in truth, I think ambition is what this country is built on. The ambition to build something, the ambition to try to make a movie that people will be interested in seeing, to try to start your own business, to make a computer company, to make a new kind of phone. All that stuff is really great and wouldn’t be possible without ambition. Ambition also can push one into doing things that they otherwise wouldn’t do or probably shouldn’t do and that’s the line. Where do you cross it? In Wall Street it was like embracing greed as a way of anything, kind of saying anything that you do for money is good. The invisible hand of the market place. If I'm acting in my self-interest and my self-interest is greed then that’s good for society. But in truth one’s self interest doesn’t necessarily need to be greed. It doesn’t need to just be endlessly trying to pile money on money. That’s where we got into this real bifurcated society where very few people have all the money and others have virtually nothing.
We’re wrestling back and forth with this idea of should we live according to our values or should we live according to like go and grab what you can grab. So this is an update on that same question that they were asking in 'Wall Street' in some way.
Q: Do you like taking risks?
BA: Yeah, I think risk is a huge part of any endeavor that’s really worthwhile but it’s a gigantic part of acting and making movies. Everything you do there should be risk in it. You should be trying something new. You should be trying something that you’re unsure of. You should be taking a big swing and if you’re not, your work is probably a little bit uninteresting.
The actors, the directors, the writers, producers that I admire are ones who continue to try brave new things. So I’ve tried to copy them in that way, take that kind of risk and definitely sometimes not successful and sometimes successful. When I see that when I look at this sort of back and forth of a career I take some satisfaction knowing okay, I'm probably doing something right because I'm, I'm taking risks and I'm trying different things and I'm not failing by virtue of just being boring when I fail. I'm failing because I'm trying something different. So risk is inherently valuable. Courage, the desire to take risk is really necessary.
Q: Did you think you are like your character?
BA: I definitely try to find the things about myself that are similar to the character and in this case I was definitely able to find a bunch of stuff. At the root of what this guy is, is ambition and wanting to succeed and wanting to make a mark and drive; things that are all kind of healthy traits. They just get turned a little bit because the ethics gets consumed by the ambition. With this guy I have to say I try to spend time on movies sort of trying to live in my character, spending time feeling like the guy. If I walked around feeling like this guy I’d ruin my life but still I definitely found ways to kind of get in his head.
'Runner Runner' is available now on Digital Download and out on Blu-ray and DVD on 3 February from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Watch the trailer below...