Originally, the plan was for Ben Affleck to adapt the screenplay of Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel Gone Baby Gone. Maybe, possibly, he would also star in the film, as the amateur P.I. investigating the kidnapping of a 4-year-old girl from her bed in South Boston. Instead, six months later, Affleck was in the hospital with a migraine so bad it was making him puke. He had been on the job as first-time director for one week.

If the head-splitter Affleck came down with was a physical manifestation of stress, maybe the chest-rattling cold he’s in the grips of this afternoon is, too. Maybe his immunity’s down because of the crushing pressure of his imminent, back-to-the-wall directorial debut. Or maybe he just caught a stray virus from his almost-2-year-old daughter, Violet, who’s at home right now squirming under the discomfort of a low-grade fever.

“I’m sick, Violet’s sick, Matt’s [Damon] kid is sick,” Affleck wheezes, looking like a more-chiseled FDR in the shade of a hotel cabana in Santa Monica. “You get old, you slow down.” Add to that the fact that his German shepherd, Hutch, got into a container of Metamucil this morning and sprayed diarrhea all over his Brentwood home—“There was no way Jennifer [Garner] was going to clean it up by herself,” he says, excusing his lateness—and you have one run-down 35-year-old man.

But those explanations for Affleck’s premature old-man-itis sound like a cover-up. No doubt a dribbling baby and a sick dog sledgehammer your immune system, but mounting a full-scale attempt to reclaim your career probably takes a little out of you too.

Affleck pounds out a shuddering, full-body-mule-kick cough. “It’s pretty simple,” he says, the red in his face subsiding after a sip of Coke. “If people don’t go see it, I’m fucked.”

Ben Affleck says he wanted to direct Gone Baby Gone because the film was set in a grimy neighborhood in blue-collar South Boston—his vestigial homeland.

“I guess I just thought, I’ve seen it done enough,” he says of directing. “I’ve been on sets enough. I’m a writer. An amateur photographer. An actor.” He pauses, realizing he’s made the province of Coppola and Scorsese sound like finger painting. “I guess I just hoped the sum of those parts would come together enough that I’d be able to do it.”

A cynic might speculate that Ben Affleck wanted to direct Gone Baby Gone because he was trying to save a career that’s been foundering for almost a decade. That cynic would be pretty much right. Nearly ten years ago, Affleck and Matt Damon—his best friend since Little League, the one whose face is right now grimacing from the side of every other bus chugging down Ocean Boulevard, a couple hundred yards from where Affleck sits—stood triumphant and awkward on the stage at the Shrine Auditorium, accepting an Academy Award for writing Good Will Hunting. Two yokels from Boston, flanked by their moms, slingshotting themselves into the insular Death Star of A-list Hollywood. The invincibility imparted by that little gold statue is now gone. The Oscar in Affleck’s possession is a hollow totem that holds about the same promise as the most likely to succeed banner over a high-school-yearbook photo. Affleck has been pilloried on TV shows from Will & Grace to South Park. Even Weird Al felt bold enough to take shots at him. Truth is, a fair encapsulation of Affleck’s current standing in the eyes of many moviegoers lies on the shelf at your local video store: A movie called Man About Town. A movie that went straight to video in February.