After landing minor supporting roles in School Ties and Geronimo: An American Legend, Boston native Matt Damon dropped out of Harvard and moved to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. He gained attention for his appearance as a Gulf War veteran turned heroin addict in 1996's Courage Under Fire, reportedly dropping nearly 40 pounds for the part. The following year, Damon won the lead in Francis Ford Coppola's The Rainmaker and the title role in Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting, for which he and longtime friend Ben Affleck won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. In the years since, he's worked steadily as a leading man, appearing in Saving Private Ryan, Rounders, Dogma, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Legend Of Bagger Vance, All The Pretty Horses, and Ocean's Eleven. Damon has also done voice work for a pair of animated films, Titan A.E. and the new Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron. Recently, he, Affleck, and producer Chris Moore collaborated on Project Greenlight, a contest that offered one neophyte screenwriter the chance to direct a $1 million movie for Miramax. The entire process was filmed for a popular HBO documentary series. In his latest film, an adaptation of Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity, Damon stars as a CIA assassin who washes up in the Mediterranean with bullet wounds and amnesia. Damon recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the challenges of acting for stage and screen, his hits and disappointments, and the lengths he'll go to in preparing for a role.
The Onion: When did you begin acting? Where did that impulse come from?
Matt Damon: I started really young, like 12 or 13, and then I started doing school plays. We had a really good drama department, so the kind of drama-geek stigma wasn't really there in my high school. I was encouraged socially by watching the older kids, doing these plays, and I just always wanted to do it. In fact, I probably started earlier. My mom is a professor of early-childhood development, and she said she knew that I was going to do this when I was 2, because I was constantly role-playing as a little kid. I don't know what that was about, but she claims she knew it from the time I was really young. When I got older, I'm sure the adolescent impulse to get attention had a lot to do with it, too.
O: What do you like about acting? What do you get out of it?
MD: Probably my favorite part is the time before we start shooting. I love shooting, when the character is interesting and the script is interesting, but the research beforehand is really fun. The whole process makes me anxious and restless, and I have trouble sleeping, just trying to figure out the character. Like with Ripley, I was playing piano and doing all these things he would do. It's really kind of private time, when you're thinking about how you're going to do it and thinking about who the guy is. And when it works, it's really absorbing. Sometimes I go off and do whatever the character does for a few months, and it doesn't really work that well. That's the only way I know how to do it, and there's still no guarantee that I'll pull it off.
O: From Courage Under Fire to this new film, you've put yourself through a lot to prepare for certain roles. Why do you think that's necessary, and how do you think that's involved in the actual performance?
MD: Well, it might be just lack of skill that I do it that way. I mean, I doubt someone like Anthony Hopkins has to do that. He's just a better actor, I guess. For me, it informs the character in ways that are subconscious a lot of the time. Like, for The Rainmaker I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, even though we were never even going to shoot in Knoxville. I just went there alone for a month and bartended, because that's what the guy did in the book. I wanted to get the accent down, I wanted to know what neighborhood I was from, I wanted to get it very specific. And it really helped. Once I went to Memphis and started shooting, I had a sense of where I was from, who my friends were, and what kind of guy I was. It was a pretty straightforward movie, but I want the characterization to be as specific as possible, so that's why I do all that preparation. And for Bourne Identity, it was all this martial arts and stuff. I figured because the guy has amnesia for most of the movie and doesn't know who he is, the only thing I had to fall back on was instinct. I figured his physical bearing would be the same as it was before he lost his memory. So I did all the things that he would have done for four or five months. I took all these boxing classes on top of the martial arts, because [director Doug Liman] said he wanted the guy to walk like a boxer and stand like a boxer and look at people like a boxer, in a kind of direct and efficient way. So there are little things like that. Like, with Ripley, playing the piano for three months was really frustrating and lonely, but that is exactly what helped me with the character. It helped my posture, and the way I carried myself, and I was a little lighter on my feet, and all that stuff. It didn't make me a better piano player, necessarily. I learned the pieces as a parlor trick. I can't play "Chopsticks," but I can play Bach. [Laughs.] But it helped the way I walked and the way I interacted with people. I got a sense of what it meant to be really starved for companionship, quite apart from his sexuality. He just wanted to talk to people, and I did, too, after sitting alone and playing piano by myself for that amount of time.
O: You recently starred in Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth after not doing stage work for quite a while. Actors talk about the stage experience as being purer than the film experience. Did you enjoy it more?
MD: It's different. You have a director, and obviously the director is really important to the process in theatre. But at the end of the day, the actors are up there doing it, so it's your job to tell the story moment to moment. It's your job to tell the story, which is not the case in film, where you can do anything from take to take, and it's the director's job to contextualize your performance and put the story together. I think there's more responsibility on the actor in a play. There's a lot of stuff to explore, but it's got to be within certain boundaries. It's fun, once you get the play up and running, to experiment with certain things, but you're still responsible for giving that audience that night a good sense of what the play is. The whole thrust of theatre is different, just because the writing is so much more respected in a play. Whereas in movies—and having been the writer, I can say from experience—the writer is lower down on the food chain.
O: Good Will Hunting is an unusual example in that respect, because you actually appeared in something you'd written. How did that script change from when you started writing it to when it hit the screen?
MD: First of all, because film is a director's medium, [Ben Affleck and I] had almost a ceremony when Gus Van Sant came into it, where we just handed him the script and said, "Okay, now it's yours. We've talked about it, we know you get what we were trying to do, and now we have to back off and let you do what you have to do." The script was much more of a blueprint. A screenplay in and of itself is not a movie. It's on its way to being a movie. We also didn't write it for specific people. We didn't write Skyler, the girl, to be English, but then Minnie Driver won the part. She was easily the best person we saw for that role, so we said to her, "Listen, whatever changes you want to make… You're really smart, and you obviously understand what the scene's about. If you would say this a different way, then say it that way. As long as you're not changing the intent of the line, you can change the line." All the actors had permission to change what they needed to change, and the movie was a lot better for it. And with Robin Williams, obviously there were some funny lines in the movie that only he could have come up with, and you obviously don't want to put a muzzle on him, because he's such a great writer in his own right.
O: Do you have a philosophy for navigating your career?
MD: Yeah, it's basically just project to project. What I liked about The Bourne Identity is that it seems unique within the genre. I mean, at the end of the day, it's still a genre film. You have the banks of the river that are established, but there's a lot of leeway in the river to do things that are unique. And because Doug was directing it, and he has this reputation for thinking outside the box a little bit, I thought it would be original. It would be like movies that I really like. We talked about La Femme Nikita and these European movies, and then also those kind of paranoid thrillers from the '70s, so that's what we were going for. That was the reason I did it. It wasn't because I thought I should do an action movie. I don't have a strategy like that. I know actors that do that. They go, "Well, I should do a big movie, and then I can do a small movie." But you can't really know what's going to be a big movie, so a lot of times these people end up doing a movie that's big just because it costs $100 million, and they spend six months of their lives doing it, and it's horrible, and it makes no money at the box office. They had a horrible experience making it because they weren't emotionally invested in it at all, their work isn't as good as it could have been, and they're in a worse position than they were before within their career. I think the only thing you can do to live without any regret is to make educated decisions each time, whatever the size of the movie is. Like, Bourne Identity had a $60 million budget, which is a huge budget for me. I'm normally not in movies that have that big a budget, but there were a lot of things that I liked about it, and I knew what I was getting into and went into it with my eyes open, and so I took it. But in terms of what's next, I want to just keep being able to do that, which is an incredible luxury, to read scripts and make calculated decisions.
O: You generally have a pretty good selection, right?
MD: No, not a pretty good selection. I would say a selection. I'm surprised at how few scripts I read that I really respond to. And the ones I've responded to, I've done. Of the movies I've made, some have been successful at the box office and some haven't at all. But they've all been really different so far, and that's what I like. "The Matt Damon role," whatever that might be, is something I definitely want to avoid. I think I'd die of boredom if I was doing the same thing every time.
O: How would you describe a good actor's director?
MD: I think what makes a good actor's director is the same thing that makes a good director. Acting is just one of the trades necessary to make a movie. There are 10 or 15 others, maybe 20 others, and the director's got to be able to know a little bit about each of them and be able to communicate with each craftsman to bring them all together and create a singular vision. That's a really hard thing to do. I want to direct someday, but that's probably the most daunting aspect of it—not only how much work it is, but just the problems of communication. It's not enough to just have a vision. You have to understand how to give people freedom within their department to improve on their vision, but also to rein them in and to put your foot down when they're not coming through for you. When you need them to do something else, you have to be able to communicate what that is. And it's really hard, because everybody's doing something different, so everybody's speaking a slightly different language, and the director has to speak all of them. I think what makes a good actor's director is somebody who understands what I'm doing and is respectful of it, but who also has a vision and is directing me toward their vision in a way that feels productive.
O: What's the best shoot you've ever done?
MD: The best was probably Good Will Hunting, just for personal reasons. It was six years in the making, so when we were finally shooting, there was a sense of relief and elation throughout the whole thing. And also All The Pretty Horses. Billy Bob [Thornton] is a great actor's director. We'd do a shot, and it'd be the first take, and Billy Bob would be sitting right next to the camera, watching very, very intensely. And sometimes what happens is, an actor can do something very subtle that's drawing on feelings or impulses that are very real. If the director is in the other room watching on a tiny monitor, and they're just sitting there with their headphones on, they're not going to see it. Coppola always said the director should sit right next to the camera. Or in Doug Liman or Steven Soderbergh's case, they're actually looking through the camera, so they're actually seeing it. But the great Italians told Coppola that you always ask the operator after the shot. If you see what you want with your naked eye, you turn to the operator and make sure that he saw it, too.
O: Didn't Coppola have a period where he wanted to direct from inside his trailer?
MD: The Silverfish, yeah, his special trailer. He did some of that for The Rainmaker, but he was also constantly toying with the script, so he was in there on his Powerbook, working on the script while he was watching them set up the shots. But then he would come onto the set when we did the actual scenes. He was just doing it to look at the light and the framing, so he was multi-tasking. But with Billy Bob… We'd do one take of a scene, and something very small would happen with one of the actors, and Billy Bob would say, "All right, check the gate, we're moving on." And the producer would come running up and say, "Wait a minute, what if the focus was bad?" And Billy would say, "If the focus was bad, then it's out of focus in my movie. Something just happened there." And so, as an actor, you feel like you'd do anything for this guy, because he understands what you're doing, and he's fighting to protect the emotional honesty of each moment in the movie.
O: You were quoted as saying, back when Pretty Horses was being made, that the four-hour cut of the film was the best thing you'd been in. Were you disappointed with what happened with the movie?
MD: Yeah, that's as disappointed as I've ever been with anything professionally. Absolutely.
O: What was lost?
MD: Well, the three-hour-and-15-minute version of that movie, with Daniel Lanois' music in it, is my favorite thing that I've ever done. But it got released at under two hours, and it's just not the movie that we shot. There was a patience to the original cut, and the film was basically turned from an orange into an apple. Forty percent of the movie got hacked away. It just got slapped together and put out there, and it felt abrupt and wrong. All the things I loved about it were scattered in little pieces throughout the movie. The whole movie was lost. It was butchered, basically.
O: Is there a possibility that this longer cut will surface?
MD: They talk about it, but Dan Lanois doesn't want to give up his music, and you can understand his point. He goes, "You took it off the movie. You want me to put it on the DVD? Fuck you! I'll sell it to someone else. It's good!" And he's Dan Lanois, so he's certainly entitled to do that.
O: What are your feelings on Project Greenlight, now that it's done?
MD: Well, we're going to do it again next year, so we're going to make some alterations to the algorithm by which the web site whittles the eventual finalists down. We're only allowed legally to read the last 30 screenplays, but there were 7,500 applicants, and a lot of people were on the board complaining that their script was submarined by somebody. Like they had all good scores, except one person gave them a really bad score that kept them out of the running. So we're going to try to make some adjustments to preclude that from happening again. The television show had… I know Aidan [Quinn] and Kevin [Pollak] and Pete [Jones] and Bonnie [Hunt] all felt that it was not an appropriate representation of the experience of shooting the movie, that it was too negative. They disagree with the director of the documentary [Liz Bronstein], who said, "Hey, I didn't make you say any of the things that you said. I'm just capturing what happened." And those things did happen. The whole point is that it's all-access, and that there are going to be troubles. Pete is going to choose to shoot under an el on his first day of filming, because they didn't bring the sound guy on the scout, and, you know, blah blah blah… Things like that are going to happen. We did want to show people how hard it is to make a movie on a budget like that, but we certainly didn't mean for anybody to feel like they were getting slagged on television. It's not meant to be a popcorn reality show, where you put people on an island and see if they'll fuck each other after a couple of days. We were trying to make it pretty serious.
O: Will the alterations just be made to the entry process, or also to the way the documentary is handled? Or will there be one?
MD: No, there'll be a documentary again. I think it'll be different just by nature of the fact that the people doing the movie this time… Whoever wins the contest will have seen the show before. I don't know if that'll make them more guarded or not. All we really want is an honest look at what it takes to make a movie. And we need the show, because it helps raise awareness of the movie. If that happens, then Miramax gets their money back, which means they'll put their money in again. None of these companies are in the business of altruism. None of them are going to do it if their balance sheet is showing a loss. We're just trying to make it self-sufficient.