The Way Back, a movie about an alcoholic named Jack (Ben Affleck) who is recruited to lead a flailing high school basketball team, might sound like a familiar story. So familiar, in fact, that it might lead you to assume parts of The Way Back are based on Affleck’s real life struggles with addiction.
In the film, construction worker Jack Cunningham is portrayed as a man who lost it all — a full basketball scholarship to college, a wife, and a chance at a normal, successful life. The former basketball star who is now a middle-aged man facing his demons on a daily basis, deals with his setbacks and tragedies by drinking them away. He gets so drunk at the bar after work, that he’s literally carried back to his apartment every night. But when he’s asked to fill in as a high school basketball coach (at the same high school he attended and played basketball for), he sees this as a chance to turn his life around — or at least stay busy enough to stop drinking.
While Cunningham and Affleck have major similarities, the fictional character isn’t directly based on the actor and his recent struggles, nor is he based on any one person. However, Affleck’s choice to take on this role was deliberate. The film actually began shooting shortly after the actor completed his rehab program in 2018, according to IndieWire. Affleck has dealt with addiction issues since the ‘80s and has recently become incredibly candid about his recovery and his family’s history.
“There’s a lot of alcoholism and mental illness in my family. The legacy of that is quite powerful and sometimes hard to shake,” Affleck told the New York Times in a recent profile. Affleck’s father and brother, Casey Affleck, have both struggled with alcoholism, and other members of the family have either suffered from addiction.
So, coming into The Way Back, Affleck knew that he’d be forced to really look in the mirror and grapple with the outcome of his addiction, relapses, and recovery. The actor told the NYT in the same interview that he found starring in The Way Back “very therapeutic,” and director Gavin O’Connor said, “I think that Ben, in an artistic way, in a deeply human way, wanted to confront his own issues through this character and heal.”
That didn't make it any easier to film The Way Back, a movie in which his character Jack starts his day off by chugging beer after beer in the shower and ending it by polishing off at least 24 more. Affleck is still in recovery.
But according to PEOPLE, Affleck had a sober liaison who would escort him to and from set. “Everyone was very transparent from the beginning that he was in rehab at the beginning of the film,” co-star Will Ropp told the magazine. At the end of the day, Affleck felt that his portrayal of a man who lost everything to his addictions and demons would speak to people — and that was important to him. “The potential for a movie like this is to really inspire somebody, to move somebody...My goal with this was to make something that would feel enduring and lasting,” he told PEOPLE.
The marital issues we see in the film also mirror Affleck’s own that were highly publicized back in 2015 when headlines highlighted rumors of Affleck cheating on then-wife Jennifer Garner with their nanny. Although Affleck’s rep denied that the actor had an affair, Affleck and Garner announced their separation a few weeks later. Affleck admits to the NYT that his divorce from Garner is “the biggest regret" of his life.
There’s a scene in The Way Back that appears to capture Affleck’s anguish with the mistakes he made in his marriage: Jack is talking to his ex wife (played by Janina Gavankar) while he’s in rehab and he apologizes to her, saying, “I failed you. I failed our marriage.”
Addressing that scene, Affleck told the newspaper, “It was really important, without being mawkish or false, that he make amends to her — that he take accountability for the pain that he and only he caused.” The scene sent Affleck into a “total breakdown” per O'Conner. “I think that was a very personal moment in the movie. I think that was him."
Just last month, at the start of his The Way Back press tour, Affleck gave interviewer Diane Sawyer an apology to read on his behalf for Garner on Good Morning America. “What I want to say publicly and privately is, ‘Thank you. Thank you for being thoughtful, considerate, responsible, and a great mom and person,’" it read.