Matt Damon

The Good Shepherd star on playing hard to get and still getting his due.

In the realm of moments that movie stars should be embarrassed about, uttering one corny line in The Legend of Bagger Vance should not be something you wear like a hair shirt for the rest of your days. Drunkenly accusing the Jews of starting all wars? Yeah, that’s something you should probably regret. Getting arrested for pegging a bellhop in the head with a phone? Certainly shameworthy. But when Matt Damon describes the horror that overtakes him every time he thinks of the moment in Robert Redford’s Depression-era golf melodrama when, backlit and in a tuxedo, he has to look into Charlize Theron’s eyes and earnestly deliver the line “I like the way we danced,” the 36-year-old actor blanches.

“I felt so silly,” he says with a sigh. Damon, then 29, tried his damnedest to avoid reciting those words, telling Redford he didn’t feel he had the mojo to nail the line. “I said, ‘Look, you’ve made a career of saying that line, but I can’t say it. It’s not me.’” Redford made him do it anyway. “If he does something he doesn’t like, it will stay with him,” says Ben Affleck, who seems far less haunted than his best friend by the ghosts of cheesy lines past. “And if you bring up something he did 10 years ago, he’ll be like, ‘Uggh. I f**ing hate that.’ Matt takes it harder than most.”

He talks about the inevitable implosion of his career like a guy whose last two films were The Adventures of Pluto Nash and Waterworld, not one who stars in a brainy action-film franchise that has grossed $502 million worldwide and whose name makes it onto the same producer wish lists as Brad Pitt’s and Johnny Depp’s. The fact that those statements can even be made about Damon — who’s objectively not as handsome as most male reality-show contestants and hasn’t exactly been called the next Brando by critics — is empirical evidence that he’s a nervous wreck, a workaholic, and a control freak.

Back in 1993, when Matt Damon was 23 and had a total of four credits to his name — one of them for saying the line “Mom, do you want my green stuff?” in Mystic Pizza — a team of UTA agents sat him down and tried to persuade him to take a role as “The Kid” in the Sam Raimi Western The Quick and the Dead. Tri-Star was offering him $250,000 — two and a half times what he’d ever been paid for a role. He thought about playing opposite Sharon Stone, then famous mostly for Basic Instinct, in a cowboy movie, and he told the group, “I want the kind of career Robert Duvall has. I don’t feel [that] chasing movies like this is going to lead to a 40-year career. I’d rather be broke.” He did, in fact, go broke for a while (Leonardo DiCaprio took the part). But at least, by his standards, he didn’t embarrass himself.

“One of the things Matt has going for him is he knows how to read a script,” says Billy Bob Thornton, who directed Damon in All the Pretty Horses. “Like, there’s some writing that sounds poetic and looks great on the page, and you think, ‘Oh, man, I’ll be like Richard Burton,’ but then you get out there and make it into a movie, and it’s corny.” Maybe that’s why Bagger Vance is still hacking away from inside Damon’s skull with a five iron. He prides himself on being wise and cautious. He should have known better than to think that just because you want to work with Robert Redford, you should turn a blind eye to a sh*y script. And he should have known that if Miramax is behind a $50 million movie — like Horses — Harvey Weinstein’s going to do whatever the hell he wants with it (e.g., chop it from three and a half hours to two, in the process saddling Damon with the kind of emotional baggage most guys get from being bullied throughout elementary school).

Damon now approaches every job intent on never f**ing up the same way twice. After seeing a cut of The Bourne Supremacy, he wasn’t satisfied with the ending, in which Jason Bourne wakes up in a Berlin hospital after having been plugged full of bullet holes. It felt flat to him, and frankly, it felt flat to director Paul Greengrass and producer Frank Marshall, but the film was done and cut. “None of us were happy with it, but there’s a point where you go ‘Okay, it’s fine’ and you go forward,” Marshall says. But Damon called Greengrass and Marshall from the Ocean’s Twelve set on Lake Como where he’d been stewing. He announced that he and Ocean’s screenwriter, George Nolfi, had come up with a zippier finale. In a cute echo of an earlier scene, Damon, while watching Joan Allen from a nearby building through a telescope, shocks her by calling and telling her she looks tired. Marshall said it sounded great, but the film was three weeks away from release, so what the hell could they do? Damon called Stacy Snider, then the chairman of Universal, and persuaded her to spring for a reshoot. He flew to New York, and the scene was filmed three days later in a Universal production office, since there wasn’t time to secure a location. “A lot of actors let the director or the script dictate everything,” Marshall says. “Matt takes it to another level.”

This sounds like the kind of bullheadedness that would have studio executives or directors who get the “Damon on the line” call rolling their eyes. But in fact, it seems that not only is he tolerated, he’s adored. A flotilla of heavy hitters promptly returned calls for this story and offered personal hosannas to Damon. Steven Soderbergh (on a voice mail): “Matty’s great, and I’d just like to say so publicly.” Even Robert De Niro, his director on the drama The Good Shepherd (out this month) and a man who would likely choose a day of water-board torture over shooting the sh* with a journalist, calls and manages, through some excruciatingly long pauses, to say, “Matt was just terrific. He would always be there. He’d do whatever I asked. He’d be willing to try anything.” Angelina Jolie, who plays Damon’s boozy wife in Shepherd, phones to say, “Matt’s just a really solid, genuine guy. He’s very humble and straightforward. It’s what I expected, because you honestly never hear a negative word about him in this town.”

Shortly after sitting down for lunch, Matt Damon delivers a line that makes you think you should have chosen an easier career than interviewing celebrities — like teaching cats to play chess: “The only thing a celebrity can do in one of these articles is hurt their own career. If I give you a really good interview, am I going to get a movie out of it? F** no! So what’s the argument for saying anything, unless you have this rampaging need to please? I’ve worked very hard in interviews to portray a very polite and boring person,” he says. “I’m trying to actively get away from the overexposure that happened eight years ago.”

It’s yet another chapter from Damon’s Big Book of Scary Hollywood Stories With a Moral, this one gleaned from what took place after Miramax realized just what kind of marketing gold it had struck with Good Will Hunting — the true story of how an (almost) Harvard grad and his childhood buddy Ben were two out-of-work actors who decided that rather than wait around for Spielberg to call, they’d write their own star vehicle. Harvey Weinstein trotted the boys out to every publication that requested them. That made Damon itchy. He says he believes that excessive exposure will turn an actor into a “personality” and distract audiences from buying him in a variety of roles — but the discomfort clearly runs deeper.

“Matt is rare in that he’s an actor who doesn’t like attention,” Affleck tells me. “He’s not really comfortable with it, or all that comfortable with himself for that matter. Any attention just makes him feel self-conscious.” Which is why when Hunting was set for wide release and Rolling Stone called, Damon said no. “Harvey came to the set of Rounders and was yelling at me, going, ‘What the f** is wrong with you? Did you ever think you’d be on the cover of Rolling Stone?’ And I said, ‘Sure, I dreamed about it when I was a kid, but I’m already on the cover of nine other f**ing magazines. My own grandmother told me she’s sick of seeing me. I can’t do this anymore.’”

If Damon has made it his mission to telegraph a boring vibe to the public, he’s succeeded. The last time he had a real tabloid moment was almost a decade ago, when Minnie Driver suggested she’d learned of being dumped by him when he declared he was single on Oprah, and even that tale proved to be a dud when Driver eventually copped to having been broken up with fair and square. There’s not even any indication that he has a desire to be a celebrity at all. “I’d heard people say, ‘You’ll enjoy being famous for a week, and you’ll never enjoy it again,’” he says. “I don’t even feel like I had that week. I was so busy working that I didn’t even get to notice that moment.”

There are enough heartwarming tales of Damon lugging his own bags into hotels, insisting on sitting in front with the guy chauffeuring him around, and feeding mangy dogs on the beach that they can’t possibly be chalked up to image management. When Damon learned that one of the horse trainers on The Brothers Grimm intended to take a 13-hour bus trip to get from Prague to Paris, he bought her a first-class plane ticket. George Clooney recalls the time Damon phoned his Italian bodyguard from Ocean’s Twelve — two years after wrapping — to see if there was anything he could do when he heard the man had been in a serious car wreck. “He’s just that guy,” Clooney says. Plus, he has no problem sharing entrées with a stranger. He’ll gamely do his scarily dead-on impression of Matthew McConaughey for you. He’ll even tell you to call him up if you’re ever in Miami. He just won’t show you even a flicker of vulnerability.

On a Sunday night a couple weeks after our lunch, Damon calls from a hotel in New York. He got into town a few hours earlier to start two days of reshoots on Shepherd, in which he plays an introverted Ivy League guy who is thrust into a career that causes him to suffer through decades of fear and paranoia. There is a long, uncomfortable pause on the line when I tell him that Ben Affleck says that based on the rough footage he’s seen of the film, it’s his friend’s best performance to date. “I think this movie has a chance to be really fantastic,” Damon says at last, quietly. He quickly qualifies that statement with a rushed, “There’s no final cut to judge, and since it’s not overtly commercial, it will likely die at the box office without support from critics” kind of speech. “Movies like this are always aiming at a smaller bull’s-eye, so when they miss, they miss,” he says. “There’s no real safety net. If you’re in a blockbuster action movie, the reviews might suck, and the movie will still make a fortune and you kind of remain solidly on the A-list.”

The next movie he’s doing is The Bourne Ultimatum so even if the only people who pay to see Shepherd are his mom and Ben Affleck, it’s safe to say he won’t be in any danger of losing his perch at the top. Three days from now he’ll report to the set in Tangiers, then head on to London, Madrid, Paris, and Riga, and back to London. And even though he’s played the same fixed-jawed-sprint-around-the-globe role twice before to acclaim and success, he’s managed to figure out a way to be stressed about it. “It doesn’t feel more comfortable,” he says. “In fact, it feels more daunting. We have a lot to live up to, and I’m nervous about it.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Details Dec.2006.

December 1, 2006 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links