Matt Damon smokes. A lot. And he drinks proper coffee. He’s a movie star but caffeine and Marlboro lights are not very LA. But then Damon isn’t. He is an East Coast boy, born in Cambridge Massachusetts, he studied English at Harvard (although he dropped out to become an actor) and now lives in New York. And it shows. It shows in the kind of people he hangs out with in the movie world – more with Soderberg than Spielberg. It shows in the kind of movies he chooses to do – recently The Bourne Identity directed by the indy award winner Doug Liman rather than Planet of the Apes. In fact it shows in all his movies from Good Will Hunting through Rounders to the Talented Mr Ripley, Damon always plays smart.
So when you meet him you assume his intelligence. Although he also bounces like Tigger in the Pooh stories, restlessly adjusting his jeans. It’s probably just his youthfulness and not to be taken too seriously because you also come away after a couple of hours disarmed by a sense of his directness. Straight talking, strong hand shake and good manners. Matt Damon seems to be a very well brought up boy.
Yet he doesn’t naturally fit the Hollywood leading-man role. Since his career went into orbit with GWH (as they call it), he’s made a speciality of a kind of James Cagney wise guy with the brain to take on the world but, at the end of the movie, still searching for a place for his heart, his future open and uncertain. It’s a telling combination. The clever guy who is nonetheless not a shoe-in success. Gus van Sant, to some extent his mentor and the man who launched him into the sights of a thousand flash bulbs by directing his and Ben Affleck’s Oscar winning 1998 screenplay, says “In our movie he played a smart-ass who was brilliant but emotionally unable to take on the world because he was afraid of it. Which Matt isn’t. He’s good at that.”
“To be purely heroic, you know saintly, is boring.” says Damon “You want the characters you play to be human”. But why? With your career and position, why go for complicated? Why not just make hit movies and be very, very rich? “Because they’re boring and I’d be bored. I want to look back on my life and feel that I tried and fell on my face a lot. You know, playing the unrealistic hero” he says unpretentiously, “has nothing to do with exploring the human condition. You know?” And, ‘you know’, you believe that he means it. Not for nothing was he born to a woman who once told the press “my son is being used to sell products. He’s just a cog in the capitalist system”.
Van Sant laughs, when I wonder if Damon really is as straightforward as he seems or whether he’s just good at making you think it, “That’s a very good question,” he says hinting at some ambiguity. But then he confirms the impression with a fluent list of compliments. “He really is open, funny, observant, smart, well-read. That’s the guy I talk to. He’s kind of leftist in his politics but a huge sports fan. An alternative lifestyle and mainstream hobbies.” Like most decent actors he’s a contradiction. You can write different stories on Damon’s face. He’s the poster boy with the million-kilowatt smile and also the almost simian looking fellow, when his face is in repose, who seems to be taking it all pretty studiously. Un joile laid they’d call him in France.
The immediate reason for meeting him, despite the recent high profile release of The Bourne Identity, is in fact “Gerry”, a movie that he and his best mate Casey Affleck, brother of Ben, went off and improvised in the desert with van Sent directing. The opportunity is provided by the fact that he’s been in London appearing in Kenneth Lonergan’s play This Is our Youth, with two starlets from the celebrity sibling aisle of Central Casting, again the young Affleck and his girlfriend Summer, sister of River, Phoenix. When Gerry premiered at Sundance this year, to put it as gently as possible, it divided people. To be blunter, one critic described it as “a stinking diaper to the distributors”. “Another critic said”, Damon adds, “ ‘you will only ever see this movie if you are being tortured’. It’s a pretty memorable line.” Did it annoy you? “Actually no. I’d genuinely rather make something that got that kind of reaction than just ‘uh’“. Gerry is not a Hollywood film. According to Gus van Sant “Expectations at Sundance were running pretty high. The last thing Matt and I had done together was Good Will Hunting. But there’s no way the Star Wars brigade would ever like Gerry. It’s not Spielberg, Oliver Stone or James Cameron. It’s just not playing that game.”
It certainly isn’t, although it could be. It’s the story of two young friends who get lost in the desert and one of them ends up mercy killing the other. Great raw material for a strong Hollywood drama. But it is shot very, very slowly. At moments you feel that you are actually experiencing what they’re going through. And in real time too. The difference from what Hollywood would have done with the story is put perceptively by van Sant “the story of them being lost is witnessed, rather than them being lost setting off another story. It’s like you are lost with them.”
And at times it’s agonising. My notes say things like “not so much acting as orienteering”, “Samuel Beckett used to make people do nothing but at least it meant something”, “long, long, long, long, long shots of the desert to piano music”. All of which doesn’t really phase Damon at all as he explains what inspired a film that will, despite finally getting a distribution deal from Thinkfilm for over £1m, “never get anywhere near the multiplexes”.
It started with a news story. In August 1999 two young men, Raffi Kodikan and David Coughlin, in the break between school and college, went hiking in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the New Mexico desert. They got lost and after four days, panicked and dehydrated, Kodikan claimed later that his friend begged him to kill him. Which he did. Damon had followed the tale in the papers. The reports coincided with a conversation one night in LA when Affleck, he and van Sant were having dinner and talking about one of Damon’s early films, All The Pretty Horses, directed by Billy Bob Thornton.
“We were talking about a shot that Billy had done that didn’t make it into the final cut. I saw it in a rough cut. An actor called Robert Patrick who played my father just walked away from the camera. And the shot was about two minutes long. The camera didn’t move. It just watched this guy and you kind of went from that point of ‘OK I understand what this shot is trying to tell me’ to ‘cut away, cut away, cut away, it’s too long. What the fuck am I doing looking at this shot?’ To then getting past that to this deeply resonant image. I had tears running down my face as he was walking and walking away. So Gus and I were talking about that phenomenon in filmmaking and whether you can get past people’s discomfort, and they can get past it, and there’s something on the other side of that, that, if done right, can be really beautiful and profound.”
Well it can be. Or it can be just bloody boring. Gerry is neither and both. At times it’s staggering. Shot entirely in natural light, the scenery often out-performs both of the perfectly fine, but nothing to write home about, performances. But at other times you just think about your shopping, the fly buzzing round the screen or the sandwich the publicist brought you to eat. Or you wonder why Damon did it? Is he trying deliberately to expand his range for the public?
“Sure. But I don’t know if it will because so few people will see it or the play I’ve been doing. It’s for me really. I think it’s a selfish thing. I want to have an expanded range. I want to be pushed. I want to try and do things that are interesting and challenging. You see these roles come along and you think ‘Yeah I could do that and yes that would probably be a big hit’ but I don’t want to do them. Like Planet of the Apes for instance. I love Tim Burton, who directed it, but I did Bourne Identity instead because I thought the role was more interesting. And I wouldn’t have done that unless Doug Liman, who did Swingers and Go, was directing it. Although I knew that the Planet of the Apes would make squillions.” And by the end of the summer it had taken $180 million. Although The Bourne Identity made a pretty respectable $89m.
To a certain extent it also lives up to his expectations. It’s about a CIA operative who is struck by amnesia while on a job. Damon makes a very credible agent, his Tai Kwando is well up to scratch and as ever, despite the boys heroics, his portrayal is subtle and gives Bourne’s quest for his identity a quizzical and sympathetic take so that you actually care. It’s also been a good money-spinner for him. When asked what he was paid he says directly “I got ten million.” So he’s in no danger of veering off into the rough towards a career in art house movies. But whatever the potential of the Bourne series, and although he only signed for one there is sequel potential, he clearly wants more than cheesecake parts.
“I don’t want to encourage a downturn in my career, but I do want to do things that keep me interested. If someone become a huge movie star they can fall into the trap where an audience won’t let them do certain things.” He’s not complaining. “There are good and bad to what I do. There’s good and bad in every career. But the good far overrides the bad. The chance to do what I want to do – Gerry and being over here and doing this play – just shows that the good so far outweighs the bad that it’s not worth whingeing about. Also I have been able to do some different stuff, so far. And it’s still early. I’m just 31. It can all still come crashing down.”
He always talks about “movie stars” in the third person. “Yes.. er … um.. It’s still hard to wrap my brain around the idea… that I’m a movie star, if you see what I mean. I don’t know. It’s just easier to think of other people in those terms. For me anyway. And it’s something that’s always changing and shifting. Tom Cruise is the only one that proves the rule that it’s not cyclical. He’s the only one for whom it hasn’t dipped. I mean it took Tom Hanks a long while to become a star.”
Damon’s parents may well be his compass through all this reflectiveness. They seem a tight family. He has a brother three years older, who is an artist and married with kids. His parents divorced after being married for only six years. But they all live reasonably within reach of each other on the East coast. “I really admire both of my parents”, he says, “I love them but they are so incredibly different from each other that my brother and I can’t imagine that they were ever married. Although I am very like both of them. I don’t think there’s a dominant one.”
The tabloids would have it that Damon and his brother grew up in a “hippy commune” in Cambridge. He laughs. “We grew up in a co-op house. Six families who got together. We all had our separate apartments, but we all owned the house so we fixed it up together. They had a community meeting every week and they discussed things to do with the house. More than anything they had similar political philosophies. Very lefty, um… group of people. Yeah they were a bit hippyish, but not really out there. It seemed very normal. Still does looking back on it.” His mother is an academic, a professor of early childhood learning. And his dad a businessman. Much has been written about her, mainly stemming form the anti-capitalist remark, which is pretty eye-catching. But not so much about him.
“My mum always said ‘don’t go for the money, do whatever it is you want to do’. My dad said the exact same thing. But they lived their lives very differently.” He went into business to support his two young sons. At one point he discovered a niche the tax laws, which enabled corporations to get tax relief if they invested in low-income housing. “It was a very rare win win situation and he just went around raising awareness about it and setting up schemes. My mother was doing what she wanted to do, but my Dad was being a businessman, which wasn’t what he wanted. But he was providing for us. He was saying the same things as her but coming from the different end of the spectrum. When he had put away enough to raise us he quit business and became a teacher. He taught fifth grade when we were 5th graders. He was always really good with kids. He went back into business and eventually started his own called Beacon Hill Capital.
This background clearly heavily influences Damon’s career choices, which seem very clear headed when he explains them. “Both my parents gave me a sense of making work something that we love to do. I could have a lot more money, if I had made different choices, those movies, the Ripley’s of the world don’t pay as well as the other things but they are much more rewarding. I couldn’t do films that I don’t feel I have any spiritual investment in.”
‘Ripley’ is generally thought to have been a big risk for Damon. Sydney Pollack who produced it said “It is so risky for a hot young leading man – the newest man in town, in some ways – to play a gay guy.” And a psychopathic one at that. But Damon disagrees. “The only risk was that it wouldn’t perform at the Box Office. But coming off the back of The English Patient everyone was interested in seeing what Anthony (Minghella) would do next. A risk? With a filmmaker of that calibre and a script that good? I’d say it was an honour.”
An honour it may have been, but didn’t he backtrack on Patricia Highsmith’s original intentions when she wrote the books? He once said in an interview that he had “tried to find the humanity in Ripley”. Isn’t that kind of thinking just a typical Hollywood ploy to soften the edges of a dangerous film? Damon politely and painstakingly disagrees. What he says is worth reading in its entirety.
“ I think Ripley has incredible beauty. In the book he’s much more of a Lecter type. And the characters he is killing are rather two-dimensional and you kind of want him to kill them. Patricia Highsmith describes someone in a letter as a ‘real Marge Sherwood type’ (the Gwyneth Paltrow role). She loathed these characters. Whereas Anthony loved them and wanted to make three-dimensional characters of them, which is why Jude and Gwyneth and Jack Davenport and Philip Seymour Hoffman were such fully fleshed out characters in the movie. So when Ripley kills them it is at a price to himself and the movie becomes a descent into purgatory.”
“It’s a much more horrible price that he has to pay that you don’t have the shot of shackles at the end. You can’t put it on some external authority figure to punish him. If he was punished you’d end with some balance, but here there‘s this terrible imbalance. And he ends up in the basement for the rest of his life and more than anything he is alone, which is exactly where he was at the beginning of the movie. This guy who has a tremendous capacity for love. And you see it with Kingsley the Jack Davenport character. He is the love of his life he has found his soul mate and he has to kill him. And he’s going to spend the rest of his life alone with the understanding of what he has done. It’s torture. It’s a terrible ending… I put forth that he’d prefer getting caught and being put in prison and someone to wrap him on the wrist and rescue him from his sexuality.”
Wow. Prosecution rests, intellectually exhausted.
Despite this ability to articulate what he wants to do on screen, Damon is wary of interviews. This I discovered by accident. Gus van Sant has said at one stage that having a particular look – he meant being a pin-up – makes certain roles harder for Damon to play. So I casually wondered whether Damon thought the public thinking he was pretty had limited his scope? “I never though of myself as pretty. I think,” he says slowly, “what limits your roles more than anything is giving interviews.” Oh? Why do them, then? “Otherwise there’s no way to get a movie out there. But Edward Norton (his co-star in Ringers) has this really good theory on it. The less you know about an actor, the less willing you are to go with him somewhere else. If you know where I was raised and what I’m like and then they see me play a role in ‘American History X’ they’re just not going to believe me. The more mystery you can maintain is the key to the different kind of roles you can play.”
But Matt you’re not a mysterious actor anyway. Some actors are. Woody Harrelson or Kevin Spacey are even though we know lots about them because they give lots of interviews. Isn’t it just to do with who you are on screen? And you’re not mysterious. You’re very open. A long pause and a rather shocked look. “Maybe…. maybe..” Pause. “Maybe…” He’s thinking and then he says rather quietly. “That would be tremendously limiting.” Another pause and then “You’re probably right. You have a better sense of how I am seen than I do. Yeah. Terribly limiting. In the long run.”
But one of the surprises about watching Damon’s movies is that he is not quite what you think in them. Sure he is a movie star. There’s glamour to him. The shaft of light that glances off his early fame illuminates his career and what someone once called “his simultaneous stargasm with his pal, Ben”. But as Affleck heads off to himbo-star territory, Damon turns out to be the subtle and committed actor. Ripley especially is a meticulous construction. The thoughts behind the eyes of this lost and damaging soul are impenetrable, understandable, ambiguous, amoral and vulnerable all at once. And yes, even mysterious. He has considerable craft. Van Sant says he first ever saw him at an audition for To Die For, which starred Nicole Kidman, and in which Joaquim Phoenix was eventually cast rather then Damon. “Matt came in and was looking for work. And I got really excited about him because he was a great actor. He could do anything I asked him, any small idea. He was almost like a machine because he wanted to work so bad, he would do anything without discussion. Laura Ziskin, who has just produced Spiderman, just said ‘that’s a movie star’”.
He certainly brings what people call “star quality” and it has helped him earn more money that he “ever dreamt I would in my whole life”. But all the way through he has wanted to do things that tickle his talent and his intellect. Some would say, though he won’t be drawn at all on the subject, unlike Ben Affleck. Together though they still have the company they started with two friends, Live Planet Productions. Last year they had a series on HBO called Project Greenlight. This, to quote Damon, was the “largest screenplay competition ever.” It was an interactive contest where in order to log your screenplay you had to agree to read and rate three others. They had 2,500 submissions, which were whittled down to 250. They were made into short videos, containing one scene from each. That took it the list down to thirty, which Damon, Affleck and their business partners and co-writers Chris Moore and Sean Bailey read. The winner Stolen Summer, by Peter Jones, became notorious because aside from the $1million prize money from Miramax, the making of it was filmed and this first time director somewhat humiliated on prime time TV. Although Damon defends exposing the guy on TV.
“We wanted it to be more of an educational tool for anyone who wanted to make a movie on shoestring budget” says Damon, “We wanted people to se the passion behind the movie. “ He is being tactful. It was embarrassing. And you get the sense that Miramax was not that happy. The runner up, possibly a better script, Speakeasy, by “a kid from Georgia called Brendan Murphy” catches Damon’s enthusiasm rather more. In fact he and Affleck are putting up half the money themselves to film it. It was shot in the summer. “We didn’t get into this thing to be moguls,” says Damon, “We got into it to work on things that we think are interesting, that we think will make good film and TV.
Their company is also developing a TV series for the ABC network called Push Nevada about, would you believe a town in Nevada called Push. They shot a pilot in the late spring and have been commissioned for a series. But that apart, Damon will maybe start working on a screenplay with both Affleck’s “if we can come up with an idea that we all like.” And he hasn’t seen a script that interested him for a long while. “I guess I won’t do a film for the rest of the year.” The next time he will be in front of the camera will be a Stephen Soderburg film in September 2003. It’s called The Informant, based on a book of the same name by a New York Times writer called Kurt Eichenwald.
Meanwhile he’ll maybe try and seek out a new play. He gets very voluble talking about Stephen Adly Guirgis, the writer of Jesus Hopped The A Train, which was just in London, directed by his friend from Ripley, Philip Seymour Hoffman. The writer’s previous work, ‘In Arabia We’ll All Be Kings’ was says Damon having seen it in New York “a beautiful play. Really well written. Really well written. Really well acted. Really moved by the play. So impressed by the actors.” You can’t stop him.
His enthusiasm is part admiration and part aspiration. He’s not on a mission so much as a on a rather quiet trail of quality. Whether Gerry will do it, I doubt. It’s a curiosity, rather than a great film. But by doing it Damon will remind anyone of the seriousness of his intent. It reminded him what he’s in it all for. “It’s so easy to forget on a movie set,” he muses about Gerry, “what the point of everything is, because there are so many people doing so many different things. You don’t need the guy to bring you cappuccino.” Even if people still insist that you’re a movie star, you just need the chance to act.