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Matt Damon

Nice guys can finish first

Matt Damon
09 October 2011

He may have been linked to a presidential campaign, but all Matt Damon wants is another crack at a certain amnesiac assassin. ShortList’s Jimi Famurewa meets everyone’s favourite action hero

When Matt Damon bounds into the baking hot LA hotel room and offers his hand to ShortList, we can’t help but shake it reluctantly. It’s not that we’re not excited about meeting the man who won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting at the age of just 28, then turned the humble Biro into a serviceable murder weapon as Jason Bourne.

It’s just that last night we watched the actor’s latest film, Contagion, a skin-crawlingly plausible, all-star thriller about a lethal pandemic that spreads around the world with frightening urgency. A film that director Steven Soderbergh boldly claims “might do for the elevator button what Jaws did for the beach”. We’ve been wary of door handles and human contact ever since.

“Steve actually sent the script over with a note that said, ‘Read this and then wash your hands,’” laughs the 41-year-old as we relay our fears. But it’s not just superbugs he’s battling on the big screen. With a sci-fi blockbuster and musical biopic on the way, he’s busier than ever. And that’s before you factor in all the Team America dolls he has to sign…

So has filming Contagion turned you into a germophobe?

No, I’m pretty fast and loose with that stuff. I live in New York with my kids, so we wash our hands when we come back from the park. But you want them exposed to germs — you want them to build up the immunity to things.

The film has done really well in the US. Did you at any point consider investing in antibacterial gel?

We were saying that when we were making the movie. Like, “We should get some stocks in Purell [American hand sanitiser].” [Laughs] We did have that conversation.

This is the sixth time you’ve worked with Steven Soderbergh. Are you beating George Clooney as his chosen leading man now?

We’re tied at six. But I’m going to win — that’s all I’m saying. We each have another one lined up with Steve and then I’m hoping that I can sneak in as an extra into the one he directs after that [laughs]. I told Steven that it really matters to me. I want the title. I really want it.

Clooney is famed for his onset pranks. Have you ever got him back?

I’ve never gotten George, no. The thing is, George is a pro. He’s very tough to get.

What sort of things does he do?

He’s got them all down. He’s very, very funny. The best one I saw on George was on Ocean’s 12 when Brad [Pitt] had a fake memo translated and given to the Italian crew. It was this whole thing saying, “Please do not look Mr Clooney in the eye, only refer to him as ‘Mr Ocean’ or ‘Danny’.” It was so the opposite of George that he was mortified and when he found out, he was not happy about it. So that was the one time I saw someone get him.

It’s been 14 years since Good Will Hunting. Do you have any plans to write another script with Ben Affleck?

Yeah, we really want to work together again. We have a couple of things we’re developing and we have a deal together over at Warner Bros, but he’s making a great movie right now called Argo. It’s really, really good. George is producing it, it’s an incredible story, and there’s a great script by this guy Chris Terrio.

Can’t you get him to put you in it?

I can’t because Ben took the best role. He took the lead. I called him and I was like, “Dude, why don’t you fire yourself and put me in it, man? I’d be great in this.” [Laughs] But he’s doing great and we have a couple of projects at Warners that we’re developing, so we’re hoping we can work together.

Is it good to see him doing so well after the, um, ‘Gigli years’?

That was really hard for me to watch as his friend, because I didn’t think it was fair to him. It’s more of a relief to me, to be honest. As his writing partner, I know how great he is. I always knew that better than anybody, so now I just feel vindicated. So I’m not at all surprised, but I’m glad to see him doing so well and it’s turned back the way it should be. Everything is right with the Force again.

Have you reached the stage yet when you can laugh at those years? Are Daredevil jibes allowed, for example?

Oh, man, we’ve always been at that stage. We never left that stage.

So is Ben honest if one of your films doesn’t do well?

Yeah, but it’s tough. Even the movies that don’t work you still work really hard on, so it’s disappointing at first. But once you get past the disappointment of all that hard work not really going to a productive place, then you can mercilessly make fun of each other [laughs].

The next Bourne film is going ahead with Jeremy Renner instead of you in the central role. It’s not a case of being traded in for a younger model, is it?

No, not at all. I was always fine with them doing another Bourne movie as long as it didn’t preclude me and Paul [Greengrass] from doing another Bourne. From what I understand, it doesn’t at all, so that’s fine. I really want to do another one with Paul and I’m sure it’ll happen someday, but for now they’re doing this. And I’m a huge Jeremy Renner fan. I’m sure he’ll be great.

So it’s more of a spin-off with Renner playing a different character. Does that mean there’s still hope?

I’m keeping hope, man.

You’re also in upcoming film We Bought A Zoo alongside live animals. How was that?

Well, I actually worked with lions, tigers and bears. Cameron [Crowe, the director] and I would joke because I’ve got these two adorable children in the movie so it’s like I broke every rule at once [laughs]. Every animal and two really adorable kids — let’s just get this out of the way now.

What was your favourite animal encounter?

The lion. I’d never seen a lion up close. I was as close as you and I are now, and when you look at their eyes they look like they’re 1,000 years old. They look like you can see into their souls. It was really amazing, and here’s the freaky thing: they couldn’t really get the lion to stand where he was supposed to stand. When it came to shooting him, they needed him to look towards me, right? Now, keeping in mind that a lion can only work with a human being if he’s a third-generation domestic. So his grandfather was born in captivity…

Like a showbiz lion…

Literally, a showbiz lion. But what they did to get him to look my way was they walked a zebra about a 100 yards behind me, and this lion just looks up, boom, like that. So just three generations away from hunting on the plains, he still was like, “I am going to eat that thing right now.” When you see that you just step back. It is so impressive. Especially to be between the lion and the zebra, it was like, holy sh*t. It was really, really amazing. I’ve never seen anything like that. So that was cool.

What can you tell us about Elysium, the sci-fi epic from District 9’s Neill Blomkamp, due out in 2013?

I don’t know what I’m allowed to say. I play a guy who’s been in and out of prison and he’s very different from any role I’ve ever played. I have very, very high hopes for the movie. I think it’s going to be really good.

Is that why you’re sporting a shaven head at the moment?

Yep, I have to shave it every morning. This is actually grown out.

Away from films, there were strong rumours that you were going to run for president. What did you make of them?

I chuckled. [Documentary filmmaker] Michael Moore had made a comment about actors and the fact that Republicans had very successfully run people with [recognisable] names. So he was like, “Why don’t we do that?” But no, I have zero political ambition.

Because you’re worried about skeletons in the closet?

No, it’s not even that — I just genuinely love my job. I love making movies and I wouldn’t want to do anything other than that. I don’t think the political world is for everyone, and it definitely isn’t for me.

You have openly criticised Barack Obama. You weren’t worried about being bundled into a car by Secret Service agents, were you?

[Laughs] No, we still have freedom of speech in this country. It’s your job as a citizen to speak out and to agitate. Any great movement or change has always come from the bottom up — it never comes from people at the top.

Contagion’s scenes of looting and unrest seem eerie in light of the recent London riots…

Definitely. I see another spasm coming in our future. People aren’t going to stand for what’s happening in some areas [of the world], and it’s always a bucking, violent thing. It’s an insecure time, so I definitely worry about that and the growing divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

You also seem game for lampooning yourself in sketches with comedians. Do you think that, as an A-list film star, it’s important not to take yourself too seriously?

Totally. I made a decision early on that I wouldn’t try to micromanage anything and that those days are over, so you might as well get on and have fun with it. You can’t control what people are going to think about you, so you might as well just be yourself. I have a lot of fun, too. If somebody comes and pitches me an idea and I think it’s funny, I’ll do it.

Even if it’s something such as your infamous Team America character?

Well, I wish I could take credit for that, but that’s all Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Those guys are legitimate geniuses. They really are — they’re comic geniuses. [Their musical] The Book Of Mormon is f*cking brilliant. When you’re in New York you have to go to see it. You’ll sh*t yourself you’ll be laughing so hard. I swear to God, I’ve never laughed that hard in my life. I was crying, I was laughing so hard.

You’ve forgiven them, then?

Oh, I was never upset at them. I just didn’t get the joke — I never understood it. But then my wife heard them interviewed and they said that the puppet showed up the day before they were supposed to shoot it and it looked retarded, but they didn’t have time to swap it out so they just made me retarded [instead].

So it’s down to the puppet designer?

Yeah, but whenever autograph hounds come up to me, more often than not they want me to sign the puppet. And they’re like, “Can you write ‘Maaaaatt Daaaamoooon?’”

Contagion is at cinemas nationwide from 21 October

(Images: All Star)