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INT: Matt Damon


I could never tire of interviewing an intelligent, witty, grounded and engaging person like Matt Damon. His last interview for the recent box office hit THE DEPARTED, left me completely enamored and impressed with the brilliant actor. Having graduated from one ingenious director to the next, Damon has again demonstrated the ability to actualize and execute another challenging role in the upcoming film, THE GOOD SHEPHERD, thus illustrating his talent and gift for deception, and inviting Oscar to buzz around again.

Damon’s portrayal of a privileged young man, recruited to join a tight brotherhood of tomorrow’s world leaders and assist in the birthing process of an elite secret society otherwise known as the CIA, is frighteningly cold, convincing and powerful. His unassuming steel faced mask remains intact while giving the audience a fascinating history lesson. The film accomplishes its duty in exposing the real life of the CIA. There is no doubt that following this performance, famous directors will continue knocking louder and harder on this highly-sought-after actor’s door.

See what Damon had to say about collaborating with the great De Niro and adapting to his captivating role as a CIA agent in De Niro’s epic drama, THE GOOD SHEPHERD.



Matt Damon

What are the parallels between your life and this role, in terms of trying to keep private life private?

Actually, I don’t have a very hard time keeping my private life private. There’s not that much interest. To me, what felt surreal I think, was mostly at the beginning, going to work and working with De Niro and being directed by him. That was intimidating at first and ultimately surreal after and then basically leveled into, ‘OK, I can deal with this,’ somewhere around probably the second month.

How difficult was it to give life to a very unemotional character, to make him human enough that the audience will want to watch this guy for three hours?

Good question. I was nervous about that and I think with another director I would have given into my fear and indicated more and pushed it more and been a little more over the top. The reality was that he just insisted on absolute emotional honesty and subtlety all the time, and he just refuses to… I think something that I certainly have fallen victim to in the past is -- because I’m also a writer – you look at every scene and you deconstruct the script and you go, ‘OK, this scene is in the movie for this reason.

The audience needs to come away with THIS.’ As a writer, you can do that, but as an actor that’s deadly. You can’t think in those terms or else you’re going to end up just pulling faces and indicating, and ultimately losing the movie because people don’t believe what you’re doing. Bob was just insistent on absolute naturalism and realism. He’s a student of human behavior. I’ve never seen an actor as famous as him walk into a room and do what he does, which is he just disappears. He absolutely disappears and he sits there and he watches everything.

He sees absolutely ever interaction, and the reason his work remains so good and he remains so relevant as an artist is because he sits there and he is constantly just downloading human behavior. Oftentimes actors become famous and they end up doing imitations of their own performances or imitations of what they think people might do in certain situations. Very few of them sit there and do the kind of rigorous observation that it takes to embody people in a subtle, nuanced and real way. We’d have these conversations where I’d say, ‘Well, I’m listening to him here,’ and he’d say, ‘You’re listening to me now. You’re not doing anything.

You hear what I’m saying.’ You know what I mean? And to get permission from somebody to do that… normally, a director is telling you exactly the opposite because normally a director is panicking that the audience isn’t going to understand, that the audience is going to be confused. And Bob would not worry about that. He would just say, ‘You play the scene for its absolute honesty and moment to moment, and don’t worry about anything else.”

So, he was your model for your character who can disappear?

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, in a lot of ways, yeah. And he also just gave me permission to do that, which I was fighting against the whole time because I’m not used to being able to do that, to be that subtle. But of course the guy should be subtle. He’s the head of counter-intelligence. Like what’s he going to do, tell you how he’s feeling? I mean, it makes total sense when you think about it. He should be reserved and he should be emotionally distant because it’s very dangerous for him to be any other way.

Were you in any private clubs at Harvard? Did you see the good old boy network from the inside?

I did. I was in the Delta club at Harvard and I did some of that, although it has changed. Now, like the Skull and Bones, for instances, this new generation of kids have gone through and they have debunked all of the… I mean, now there’s a lot of writing about the Skull and Bones. ‘OK, there’s this rite of passage and there’s that and you have to do that.’ Starting with around my generation people stopped taking, I think, all that stuff quite so seriously, whereas in 1939 it was of the utmost importance. But nowadays all of those secrets are kind of out in the open. So I think they’re a little different now. Skull and Bones is co-ed now.

You’re having a hell of a year. The Departed is a huge hit and there’s Oscar talk for that and for this. You’re a new dad and a husband…

Just another year really.

How is being a new dad?

Great. Great. That’s been just amazing. It defies description, actually. I don’t really know how to talk about it because… I feel I got made a member of a club I didn’t know existed. It’s just wonderful. Other people’s babies; they were always showing me baby pictures or trying to hand me the baby, and I was like get that f*cking thing away from me. ‘I don’t want to touch your kid. Give me a break.’ But I’m totally into it now. I was scared at first because I was kind of excited for my daughter to be two. I was excited for her to start talking and walking and toddling around and hanging around, but I didn’t realize how much personality little people have right off the bat. It’s just been fun.

What’s your favorite thing to do with her?

Well, she laughs. She has this laugh. You do this thing… you can either give her one of (he makes a zurburt sound) those on the stomach or you can munch under her arm – you go, ‘Whomwhomwhom’ – and she goes ‘Aaaacchhhh, aaaaaccchhhhh.’ It’s just the funniest. She sounds like a little machine gun. She, in particular, is really in a hurry to kind of grow up because she’s got a big sister and she’s got cousins, and when they’re all in a room she just sits there and watches them. She wants to play. You know how babies, they can’t (he goes through this whole set of visual reactions).

Ben told us he wasn’t trusted making food at the beginning with his kid. Did you have any similar problems?

Well, she’s just on solids now. So, I mean, it’s just mushing a banana. It’s nothing too hard.

Ben said he couldn’t even do that…

Oh really? Like he’s just going to give her a full forkful of spaghetti or something? We’re just starting on solids now, so that question hasn’t come up yet.

You’re working on the third Bourne film now. Does doing something like The Good Shepherd change the way you look at Bourne and that film series? And also, can you talk about playing a killer. Apparently one actor passed on your role because of the extreme actions of your character…

Yeah, Eric told me that, Eric Roth, the writer. I didn’t know that, but in an early draft of the script, he threw his own son out of the plane. And Eric went, ‘Maybe that’s too much.’

But were you worried the character was too unsympathetic? He lets and or watches a lot of people die. He’s pretty ruthless…

Well, nobody sees themselves as ruthless. If you look at it from his point of view, if you look at the stakes of the game he’s playing, you’re talking about the middle of the Cold War, and in his mind he’s doing things to stop huge conflagrations. It’s like, ‘World War III is going to happen if I don’t do what I have to do.’ These tough choices have to be and he’s the good shepherd and he’s taking care of his flock. And he’s sacrificing, essentially, his own soul to make those decisions. That is another way to look at it. It doesn’t affect the way I think of the Bourne character because they’re very character.

To me, the Bourne character allows me to do… In between these two Bourne movies I did Syriana, Departed and Good Shepherd. Departed, at the time I signed up for it, it was thinking that it was not going to be a hit because Marty, classically, his movies don’t make a lot of money. So I felt like, book ended by the Bourne movies, I had a chance to make the movies I really wanted to make, that maybe were a little more challenging. Syriana certainly was kind of a more challenging story and I was really happy to be able to be a part of it. I’m really proud of that movie.

Departed, obviously, just surprised all of us, how well it’s done. And then this, which is kind of epic, but it’s a tougher sell when you’re talking about getting a mass audience to the movie. It’s longer. Departed is over two and a half hours, also. But, as you say, the lead character, the protagonist, I’m not out there trying to get sympathy, elicit sympathy from the audience. It’s a tougher character, which I really like. I really like that kind of challenge. I have a real limited chance to choose certain movies and I’m happy with the choices so far, because I think they’re a little more challenging. And it doesn’t last forever. You guys see everybody come and go. I know the deal. I’ve been around. It’s like you breathe this rarefied air for a real short time and then there’s an ebb and flow to everything. Particularly with the choices I make and the material I tend to be drawn to, I can’t be up here for long.

Update on The Bourne Ultimatum? Can Jason ever be happy?

Yeah, that's a good question. Well, we're almost halfway through. I don't know if that guy can ever be happy.

Does he know who he is?

Well, he will by the end of this one. I don't know how long we can ride that pony. I'd like to think- - maybe he'll get a bump on the head at the end or something.

So how's it going?

Really well. Paul's directing it again which is a huge. I mean, that's the reason to do it because he's really just a great filmmaker. We have a story and we have a story to tell. But looking at it, to be fair, we go, Okay, I think this should be the last one because I'm half joking, but how long can you- - his search for identity is definitely going to come to an end.

Maybe in 20 years do a Stallone return?

I would love that. If I'm like 100 pounds heavier, 'They pulled me back in! They won't let me go!' They're like, 'No, we don't give a shit about you. What are you talking about?' Yeah, I think that's actually probably the only way to do another Bourne movie would be to do it 20 years down the road.

Who's the girl this time?

There's no- - well, I mean, Julia Stiles is in it and Joan Allen's back also. Our Bourne Girls.

Why do you think there's a limit to your career? Seems like you'll continue to be successful.

I really hope you're right. I've just always been very, very cautious because it doesn't last. I think- - I've just never wanted to get swept up in it because then you get lazy or you start making safer bets or you start to try to protect your beachhead and that's kind of a recipe for disaster. And I think it's healthy to look at it as something that is kind of always in transition, because that is the way that the industry is looking at its actors. We are like commodities kind of. It's not something you should take for granted because it's not by any kind of right that it's going to be there. You really have to keep proving to the financiers that people want to see you in movies or they just won't bankroll the movies.

Working with DeNiro, were you aware of how he was shooting you?

Yeah, and it's also Bob Richardson is one of the best DPs. He's really incredible and they had conversations about the look of the film and what they wanted to get and I'm sure shot me differently depending on the year. Because we didn't do a lot with makeup. We did a very little bit but little things, shaved my hairline back a little bit and then added to it for the 1939 stuff, but really subtle. You'd have to kind of look for it and a little bit of aging stifle around the eyes where you can see mostly in the one shot where I have the magnifying glass, there are some wrinkles that are makeup and that look really good.

But he doesn't want to do anything more than that because he didn't want anything to distract. He felt like it was an internal thing. And also because the character is only 41 or 42 years old. I'm 36 so I have much further to go to get to Yale than the other way. But then there were the things with the glasses, those glasses had a real prescription, so I'd wear a negative prescription contact lens and then put the glasses over because Bob, again, it's all details with Bob. He wanted, if it was an over the shoulder shot and you were catching just a piece of the glasses to see that there was- - and that stuff, it's like the incremental effect, it's like the aggregate effect of all those things added up makes you go, 'Okay, I believe what I'm watching.' I've heard these stories of him from prop people.

On The Departed actually, the prop guys said that the last time they worked with DeNiro, he came in to look at, it was like a little prop. I forget what it was. It was just a little trinket, like a cigarette case or something like that. He had come in on his day off, 'Do you have that cigarette case?' because he just wanted to hold it and touch it and see if he liked it. Then he'd go, 'Yeah, okay, that's good.' And everything was like that. Every detail was a performance. The hat, if I wore a hat, he would come and he would touch the hat. He had a very particular thing about hats and how to wear a hat. If he would see an extra, he would just go, 'That's wrong.' And he'd go and he'd fix their hat. It's just every little thing like that was of absolute importance to him.

Nothing got spared, which maybe to his detriment at times. I mean, Soderbergh said to me that a big part of directing- - this is what I am, a collection of things people have said to me, but what he said was 'A great thing to know about directing is every scene does not have the same importance. And when you shoot it, you can't place the same weight on it or else you'll end up doing 110 18-hour days, which is what we ended up doing on Good Shepherd. But Soderbergh just says, 'No, you gotta know this scene is just getting you into that scene.' He cuts in camera. It's a very different thing, whereas working with Bob it's just every single detail was poured over and just- - I mean, the amount of work that went into this movie is just really incredible.

And every department too. It was one of those movies that they were saying to me halfway through, 'This is already a legendary movie in the New York circle.' These prop guys who were the sons of the sons of the sons of people who have been in the prop business are talking, 'Oh, you were on the Shepherd.' This is a movie that just, we would start at five in the morning Monday and we would finish at five in the morning Saturday, and that was our five day week. Just keep getting pushed and pushed and pushed. It was really grueling, but all of those things, the angles that he shot me at was I'm sure the subject of great discussion between he and Richardson.

Because nothing was left- - there was no stone left unturned. I think the other thing was that he didn't- - to leave after a 12-hour day to him would have felt like he wasn't taking advantage. If he had money to shoot and it was for a certain amount of time, and he was going to use every second. And they were going to have to come and take the camera away. There were times when I had to write a check back so that while we were in the Dominican Republic, because they were trying to take the cameras, and we had more shooting to do. It was just one of those movies.

He gave all of his money away. He's in the movie and doesn't take a paycheck so that it goes back into the [budget]. So that way he saves the money from casting the role, also he plays the role and they get the [star power] so it drives up the cache of the movie and then the money goes back into the budget. Everything was going back. It was all about the final movie getting done the way he wanted it to get done.

You've looked at life through the prism of secrecy in the past five films, so what are you insights into secrecy?

Yeah, certainly in these times, it's an interesting discussion to be had. I wouldn't want to point it too much or- - Bob does point out and Gus Van Sant has said this to me many times, that you have to let a movie find its own metaphors and you have to let an audience- - I remember after he showed me Elephant, he screened it for me in LA and I was just sitting there alone and I was just blown away by it. I went to Gus and I said, and I knew he would never say anything about it because he wanted me to draw my own conclusions about the film and it was really hard to draw out, and he's a good friend of mine.

I said, 'All right, why is it called Elephant?' And he said, which I knew exactly what he was going to say, 'Why do you think it's called Elephant?" and I said, 'Well, I think it's called Elephant because this kind of violence and this increasing desensitization to violence is like an elephant in the room in our society where we're refusing to address it.' And he looked at me and went, 'Oh, that's good, I never thought of that.' So I will answer the question, I'll try and elide a little bit because I don't think there's only one answer. But I think in the day and age we're living in, where we see the foundations of our democracy being eaten away at, gnawed away at by secrets and by things happening in secret, by a lack of transparency I should say, I think it's good that there's a movie out there where that can be a topic of discussion for people.

And certainly these are all- - it's a really well- - this time period, I mean, I've read a lot- - Bob has been researching it for so long that I said, 'All right, do you have anything I can look at?' and I got a pile of books from him which were really interesting but it's a really well documented time because these guys, Angleton, all these guys who came out of Skull and Bones and into OSS and then the formation of the CIA and then got in the Iran in '53 and Guatemala in '54, these guys must have felt like it was manifest destiny by the end of the 1950s.

They'd never suffered a loss. They were on top of, they were making the world. And that kind of power is really dangerous and turned into what happened in Vietnam and then into the '70s. We end at the Bay of Pigs. Bob's great hope is to do a second movie from the Bay of Pigs until now because he's always thought of them as all of a piece and this is only kind of the first part of the story, when these bluebloods came and rose up from their pissing contest to these positions of unbelievable, unchecked power.

When will you write again?

I don't know. The acting roles have just been so good and all these people I've been able to work with. But Ben and I have been talking about it. There's one project in particular we're really interested in and maybe directing together, so that's one thing we're looking at. And he just directed Gone, Baby, Gone and I've seen pieces of it. It's just fantastic. Casey's really great in it and Casey's great in Jesse James actually too. It's going to be a good year for Casey I think.

Working with Angelina?

Working with Angie, I was just talking to somebody about this upstairs, I also experienced working with Brad too, like just this unbelievable extra thing that they bring with them which I wouldn't wish upon anybody which is camped outside the hotel right now, are 25 to 50 photographers just waiting because she's in this building. And that would happen, we were shooting at the armory over in Brooklyn. I'd know when she was working because I'd come to work and there would be all these people there.

But once we were inside, she and Brad both have this unbelievable ability, and I've talked to Clooney about it and Clooney's like, 'I could never do this. It would just eat away at me.' But they just leave it. They just leave it behind them. We'd get into rehearsals and she was so good in this movie and so different from anything that she'd done, I just remember thinking, 'God, that's why this is all happening in the first place.' You get so caught up in all this celebrity stuff, they're everywhere and you forget that there's this reason underneath all of it is she's an incredible actress. And I don't know how she handles that stuff. I definitely just couldn't do it. I wouldn't be able to do it. But as George always says, in terms of Brad, he says, 'That's why he's Brad Pitt.' I couldn't do it.

He said you're mad over Sexiest Man Alive.

Yeah, I mean, this year I'm going to get a whole war chest. I'm going to really save my money. His quote that I really liked was he said I was close, I just ran out of money at the end.

Is there one piece of advice De Niro gave you as an actor?

Good question. I don't know that there was one. Kind of what I was talking about at the beginning about that kind of permission not to indicate was a very big deal, just because it's so much easier to indicate and we're so used to, I mean, like the performances you see normally I think as film audiences, we're used to seeing people overact. It's like [sniffling loudly, choking back tears] like who does that?

You go back to the '70s and you look at some of those movies, and maybe it's just the directors had so much power then, a movie like Dog Day Afternoon, I always use that as an example. Today, imagine a studio film getting made where they said, 'Okay, you rob a bank because your boyfriend needs money for a sex change operation.' They wouldn't make that movie really but it's one of the great films ever made and there's things that the actors do in those movies. They're just so subtle and their performances are so incredible but today, I just don't think this generation of actors has a tendency to just push it a little more. So I think I took that away definitely. You have to really be feeling things and thinking things but I'm going to try to resist my urge to indicate in the future.





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3:47PM on 12/18/2006
Good interview. Probably the most insightful and thorough Matt Damon interview I've read. I can't wait to see the Good Shepherd. It's the only movie left that I am waiting to see.
Good interview. Probably the most insightful and thorough Matt Damon interview I've read. I can't wait to see the Good Shepherd. It's the only movie left that I am waiting to see.
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