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Matt Damon: the movie star next door

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He’s one of Hollywood’s biggest box office pulls, but he still takes his daughters to school every day. Matt Damon really is having it all. Emily Phillips finds out how

Matt Damon cuts a disarmingly average figure against the sumptuousness of a hotel suite worthy of Liberace. He’s dressed head to toe in black: jeans, open-neck jumper and sensible heavy-duty boots. His just-thumbed paperback and reading glasses are in front of him on the coffee table. It feels like interrupting a harried dad who’s escaped the family hubbub for a few snatched moments of quiet time. He’s measured, mannerly and, more than anything, a nice, normal guy.

However, when he smiles, the Hollywood appeal is clear. Damon’s the ultimate all-American everyman, the perfect mix of megawatt charm and adaptable plainness. In one neat package, he’s a renegade Jason Bourne, the conniving Tom Ripley, and, recently, the thong-wearing teenage love interest of Michael Douglas. Away from the camera, the 42-year-old is a middle-class American dream: a Harvard-educated family man, not showy with his wealth or intelligence, just working hard and getting on with the day-to-day.

So how does Mr Nice Guy make his name as one of the most bankable stars in the business, while simultaneously keeping his face out of the tabloids? Having watched in horror as best friend and writing partner Ben Affleck got caught “in the crosshairs of these publications”, Damon – about to go intergalactic with politically-charged dystopian thriller Elysium – has been conscientiously avoiding the spotlight for more than a decade. He’s safe, for now, but in Tinseltown, anything can happen...

Do you think LA’s future will resemble Elysium’s dystopian shanty towns?

I think LA already is like that [laughs]. The difference between somebody living in the bottom building on planet Earth right now and somebody living in a specific house is the difference between living on Earth and living on a space station. The movie is more about today than the future.

Is it important for big films to carry political messages?

No. The director Neill Blomkamp said he didn’t want to make a message movie. As he told me, he grew up in South Africa and emigrated to Canada when he was 18, and that was shocking for him. Everything he’s done creatively since then has been an expression of that continued shock. Those themes are in the movie, but he’s not trying to tell you what you need to do about it.

You play a former criminal with an exoskeleton grafted to his body. What was that like?

It was great, and because Neill had this sort of graphic novel he had made on his computer, he had all these images that made it into the movie. It was so cool and unique. That whole exoskeleton look and the way the Taurus [space station] looks hovering above Earth, all that stuff is something Neill created in his own time and put down in this graphic novel.

You’ve also got a hulking look in the film. How do you get that kind of physique?

It was a lot of work. Neill showed me that graphic novel and there was a picture of Max [Damon’s character] and what he looked like, so I realised I had to go and do it. I exercised twice a day really seriously with a trainer. A lot of protein, and a lot of weightlifting. The working out I enjoy, it’s the dieting I don’t like. I like to eat and drink, and I don’t like to be told that I can’t. I associate food and a glass of wine with a job well done, and with victory. I’d be at my house with my kids and feel like, “I’m a good guy, why can’t I have a cheeseburger?”

You’re considered one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, but are you that nice? When was the last time you did something nasty?

I don’t know. I don’t really have any reason to be nasty to people, unless somebody’s totally unreasonable. My work is about resolving conflict, so maybe there is something to be said for that. I get purged of any desire to have a conflict.

Do you think being married to ‘a civilian’ [Damon met his wife, Luciana, when she was working as a barmaid in Miami] has kept your marriage solid?

Well, that’s the reason it is out of the tabloids. I’m sure that’s done nothing but help. That extra pressure doesn’t help anything. It’s a pain, so I’m happy I don’t have to deal with that.

You live in New York. Was it a conscious decision to avoid the glare of Hollywood?

Yes, but we’re actually moving to California this year. We’ll see how it goes. I don’t feel like I’m leaving New York forever. I’m really happy there, so if it doesn’t work in LA, we’ll turn around and come back.

At the moment, do you feel you get to be a hands-on dad by taking your kids to school and doing things that everybody else does?

Yes, it’s been that way for four years and I don’t know why it would change. Although I look at someone like Johnny Depp, who I think was afforded a certain amount of freedom for a long time, then he suddenly wasn’t. For a long time he was doing great and interesting movies and was able to have it both ways. Then he was in a movie that was too damn successful. But those Pirates movies are so much more successful than anything I’ve ever been a part of that I just assume that’s another level. When you’re at the theme-park ride level…

So a Bourne rollercoaster would make things happen?

[Laughs] Yeah, then I think that might change things for me.

You’ve obviously witnessed that level of coverage with Ben Affleck through the Jennifer Lopez years. Did he find that a struggle? Did he talk to you about it?

Yes, of course. I remember talking to him during that time and he said he was in the worst place possible. He could sell magazines but not movie tickets. It really hurts your career, and only helps the magazines. It’s not like they’re sharing the money with you. He was painfully aware of the damage that was being done. It’s like watching your career get torpedoed in slow motion.

Did the way he was treated make you think more about the roles you took?

We’re all acutely aware that it could happen to any of us. He was treated incredibly unfairly in the press and he made some movies that didn’t work, but I know how talented he is. I wrote a script with him, I grew up with him. I was never worried that he didn’t have the talent to get out of the situation. I remember, actually, after Gigli came out, he did a movie called Surviving Christmas and [our agent] Patrick sat down with him and said, “OK, this is going to come out and it’s going to be really bad. This is it. This is the bottom of the mountain right here, we start walking uphill today.” They had that conversation back in 2005. The morning after this year’s Oscars, they ended up sitting at a table together in a restaurant and Ben had his Best Picture Oscar and turned to Patrick and said, “Do you remember when you said this to me?” We all knew Ben was going to walk back up the mountain. I was alarmed at how other people in the press didn’t seem to know it. I felt like I was defending him for years and people were giving me the whole one-eye at the time. But I won’t ever have to defend him again [laughs]. Thank God.

I saw he was given an honorary degree from Brown, and he was trash-talking you…

Oh that f*cker. It’s because I got rejected from Brown University. I got a picture through of a diploma with some snarky line. And I think, “What is this bullsh*t?” The next day I’m on the computer and it says “Dream comes true for Ben Affleck”. I click on it and I’m like, “He got a doctorate from Brown?!” I write to him: “That was from Brown? You mother*cker! You know they rejected me?” And he said “I know they did.” [Laughs]. We’ve been joking around calling him doctor for the past week.

You didn’t actually finish your degree at Harvard. Any regrets?

No, I got so much out of going to school there, I’m so grateful for my time there, and I really did love it. So I don’t regret anything about it. It was the right time for me to go, my class was gone. We were writing Good Will Hunting and I asked if I could do my credits at somewhere in LA. They said the Harvard rule was you have to do your senior year at Harvard or you don’t get the degree from Harvard. I was thinking, “I’m not going to do all the other time at Harvard and get a degree from somewhere else.”

But they gave you an honorary arts medal instead?

Yes, they gave me an arts medal, not a doctorate though. The other email chain that started was with John Krasinski [star of the US version of The Office], because he went to Brown as an undergrad. So Ben wrote this whole thing about him driving down to Rhode Island, swinging by the campus and picking up the doctorate and he was like, to John, “Did you spend four years there?” [Laughs]

So, you are working with Ben again? Is there some writing going on?

Ben and I have a company together and it’s really about trying to get the work as good as it can be. So whether it’s me watching different cuts of Argo or Ben reading different drafts of the script I’m writing, it’s about trying to consistently turn out the best movies using each other’s help to do it. Hopefully that will materialise on a bigger project at some point. Well, we’ve got a couple of projects going that are drafts, but nothing concrete.

From 30 Rock to Saturday Night Live, you seem to enjoy doing comedy cameos. Do you have any more in the pipeline?

Yes, they are really fun. I love the stuff we’ve done on Jimmy Kimmel Live. What I have realised is that it is a zero sum game, just spending time doing that and not working on my day job and being with the kids. So I have to be careful. I have so much fun, I could easily fritter away half a year and not make any money.

Have you got any directors on the radar that you haven’t worked with?

There’s a bunch. I’d love to work with Christopher Nolan, David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson. I thought The Master was just great.

To finish off, you’ve just finished making The Monuments Men in England with George Clooney. Was he much of prankster on set?

He didn’t have any time to pull pranks on this one because he’s directing it, he produced it, he wrote it and he’s starring in it. He’s the most focused I’ve ever seen him and he has so much responsibility: it’s a big $100m Second World War movie.

But you did make it to a local gym in Cambridge…

We were just playing basketball. I think both of us needed to step up our game because we were horrible.

Elysium is at cinemas nationwide now

(Image: John Russo/SONY)

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