Matt Damon talks to Tim Nasson
Nearly a decade ago, the now thirty-five year old Cambridge, Massachusetts native, Matt Damon – who recently quit smoking – received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and won the Oscar for writing “Good Will Hunting” – a film – shot in and around Boston – in which he plays the title character, a janitor at MIT with a gift for mathematics, and a whole lot of emotional problems.
A month before that film’s release, I sat separately with Damon, his co-stars Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver and Robin Williams, and the film’s director, the openly gay, Gus van Sant.
It was apparent then, as it is now, that Damon was the more professional one, the one who would stand the test of time. He walked into a suite in The Charles Hotel dressed in khakis, a button up shirt, with tie, polished shoes and a spiffy new haircut.
Perhaps that is one reason why he has been chosen one of People Magazine’s Top 50 Sexiest Alive, numerous times.
About an hour later, Ben Affleck walks into the same suite at the same hotel, yet wearing a track suit, sneakers, and a mop of messy hair, laughing and joking as if he were on some sort of school field trip, rather than promoting a movie he allegedly co-wrote, and that would go on to become one of that year’s highest grossing movies and most nominated films at the Academy Awards.
Although Ben Affleck has been in the spotlight a lot more than Damon, it is Damon whose checks have had a lot more zeros at their ends lately. And when was the last time you heard any word on Damon’s ‘private’ life? Not even a photograph has appeared in any of the tabloids with him walking in or out of a restaurant with an alleged significant other, nor a blot of ink.
It is Damon who seems to have not let the superstardom affect his personality, nor interfere with his life – as it surely has with the camera mugging Affleck, who happens to be Damon’s best friend. (Well, the two did grow up practically next door to each other in Cambridge, Massachusetts and co-wrote, if you believe it, “Good Will Hunting.”)
It was nearly ten years before “Good Will Hunting,” though, that Damon made his big screen debut – opposite Julia Roberts, no less, in “Mystic Pizza.”
Damon laughs when recalling the moment where his one line, (where he and his family are sitting at the dinner table, “Can you pass some more of the green stuff?”), is captured on film for the world to see. “A far less memorable line than ‘How do you like them apples?” he chuckles, referring to the infamous line in “Good Will Hunting.”
He would wait nearly four years before his big break, which was a movie full of muscular, athletic boys, as himself – “School Ties.”
I visited the set of “School Ties,” with a friend of mine, who was, at the time, (now retired), a driver for the Teamster’s Union in Massachusetts, and whom I have and continue to visit many local sets with.
The film was being shot in an old warehouse, doubling for a school, if I recall correctly, in the woods of Concord, MA. It was lunchtime when we arrived and everyone was busy making their own sandwiches, taking advantage of the down time. Brendan Frasier, Chris O’Donnell, Cole Hauser, Ben Affleck, Anthony Rapp, and so on and so forth. However, as most of the boys wrestled with each other, told dirty jokes and called each other names, Damon was the only one I recall sitting outside, under a tree, going over his script that was sitting in his lap, with a pen in one hand, sandwich in the other.
While Damon may be an acting veteran, and the most well behaved of his peers, he has not, while getting great parts, been nominated for an Academy Award since “Good Will Hunting.”
Nearly twenty years on the big screen, yet only one Best Actor nomination. Was that a fluke?
“The movies I have been in before and since ‘Good Will,'” says Damon, “are, in my opinion, quality films,” – “The Bourne” saga, “The Ocean’s” films, “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” etc. – “but which don’t seem to have resonated with the Academy voters. Would I give up any of the roles to have made an ‘Oscar’ movie? No way. There have surely been some mistakes in the three dozen or so films I have chosen to make,” – he doesn’t refer to any specifically – “But I don’t regret having passed on any movie just because it may have been an Award winner.
“Actually,” he continues, candidly, “I think my performance in ‘Courage Under Fire’ was worth at least an Oscar nomination but you don’t make movies thinking you’re going to get a nomination or win an award. You make them based on your intuition. Is the movie a quality picture on page? Do you think it’s going to transfer well to the screen?
“Funning thing,” he continues, “speaking of Oscar worthy roles. I auditioned for ‘To Die For,’ and lost out to Joaquin Phoenix. While I wasn’t happy I lost out on that part – if I hadn’t auditioned for it, I doubt I ever would have met Gus van Sant (who went on to direct “Good Will Hunting”) – I think it was a horrible mistake that Joaquin wasn’t nominated for his role in that movie.
“And again, since we’re on the subject, I lost out playing the role that Ed Norton got in ‘Primal Fear,’ which, of course, he did get a Best Actor nomination for. It’s all a role of the dice.”
Has Damon turned any roles down? “Of course,” he laughs. “I decided against ‘The Quick and the Dead,’ and Leo[nardo DiCaprio] got it instead. It didn’t look good on paper, but the movie, at least with Leo in it, was great. And I also turned down ‘The Majestic,’ which Jim Carrey picked up. That is a movie I am glad I turned down.”
Damon is not averse by any means to going all out to get a character just right. For his role in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Rainmaker,” Damon jumped behind a bar to sling drinks before they began pre-production in Tennessee, so that he could perfect a southern accent.
For his role opposite Denzel Washington in “Courage Under Fire,” based on a true incident from Desert Storm, Damon lost more than forty pounds, playing a vet-turned-heroine addict. “That was hard,” reflects Damon. “I don’t know how girls or anyone can starve themselves to the point of emaciation.”
And the list of quality movies, each worthy at the very least of an Academy Award nomination for Damon’s performances: “Saving Private Ryan,” in which he plays the title character for multi-Academy Award winning director, Steven Spielberg. “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” again, playing the title character for Academy Award winning director Anthony Mighella. And even for his role as Linus in “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s 12.”
The next few months will showcase Damon in a number of films – first as one of “The Brothers Grimm,” opposite another Hollywood heartthrob, Heath Ledger.
The two play folklore collectors and con artists. Will (Damon) and Jake (Ledger) Grimm, travel from village to village pretending to protect townsfolk from enchanted creatures and performing exorcisms. They are put to the test, however, when they encounter a real magical curse in a haunted forest with real magical beings, requiring genuine courage.
“The Brothers Grimm,” directed by master of big screen oddities, Terry Gilliam (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Twelve Monkeys,” “Adventures of Baron Munchausen”), is no exception to the bizarre. “It gave me a break from all of the ‘Hollywood’ films I have been making,” says Damon. “And it was a lot, a lot of fun, dressing up in all those crazy costumes, and being able to run around playing a goof, opposite Heath.”
I most recently spoke to Damon on the set of his upcoming film, “The Departed,” in which he costars with fellow Boston homeboy, Mark Walhberg, and fellow Best Actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio – and the godfather of all actors, Jack Nicholson. They all convened in Boston for a month earlier this summer for a chance to work with Martin Scorsese, who is hoping for his first Best Director Oscar.
“The Departed,” is a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong hit film of the same name and in this update revolves around a rivalry between the Massachusetts police force and an Irish gang. A gangster is chosen to infiltrate the police force while a young police officer is chosen to infiltrate the gang. When their paths cross, “all hell breaks loose,” says Damon.
While “The Brothers Grimm” may not be the “Good Will Hunting” of the year, Damon isn’t worrying.
“You have to have fun while working, sometimes, and I can’t think of a movie I have had more fun on than [‘The Brothers Grimm’], Damon states emphatically.
Before 2005 ends, Damon will be on screen again in Academy Award winner (“Traffic”) Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana.” In “Syriana,” Damon co-stars with good pal George Clooney, who plays Robert Baer, a 21-year veteran of the CIA, who has spent his entire career investigating terrorists around the globe. “As the dangers of terrorism increased, Baer watched as the CIA’s funding was cut, politics overtook judgment, and warning signs were ignored,” says Damon about the film. “I play an oil executive who butts heads with Clooney.”
Damon shows no sign of slowing down. With “The Departed” almost wrapped and opening in theaters either on Christmas Day, (if it’s done being edited in time), he will soon be off to shoot Robert DeNiro’s (yes, DeNiro is back behind the camera) “The Good Shepherd,” – “another CIA movie,” chimes Damon. And then a smaller, meatier film for “You Can Count on Me,” writer and director Kenny Lonergan, entiled “Margaret,” opposite Anna Paquin and Matthew Broderick. And last but not least, Damon will be starring in the third Jason Bourne film, “The Bourne Ultimatum.”
While earning next to nothing for “Good Will Hunting,” and only $600,000 for his role in “Rounders,” Damon has graduated to the $10 million plus per picture category. In fact, for his latest “Bourne” film, Damon will reportedly receive nearly $20 million.
“It’s a busy schedule,” Damon laments, in a facetious tone, “But someone’s gotta make the movies that audiences want to go to the movies to see.”