Matt Damon: 'I always looked forward to being an experienced actor'

After a break from films that was more emotional than he bargained for, Matt Damon is searching for meaning in his work. He tells Adrian Lobb why new film Stillwater runs deep.

Matt Damon is 50. Logically it makes sense. Next year marks 25 years since he introduced himself to the world as a triple threat screenwriter-producer-lead actor on Good Will Hunting. He won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar together with his long-term collaborator Ben Affleck for it, while his performance as a genius working-class janitor (which also got a Best Actor nomination), particularly in scenes with Robin Williams, was both complex and supremely natural.   

Damon has been a major movie star ever since. But still, we have to double and triple check when we realise he is into his sixth decade and more than a quarter of a century into a career that has seen his films take in almost $7bn at the box office. 

“Believe me, I did too, man. It’s a weird feeling,” he says. “I do reflect on it a lot. I feel incredibly blessed to have the life I’ve had and the career that I’ve had. On the other hand, I can’t believe it’s been that long.”

Good Will Hunting / Matt Damon / Robin Williams,
Matt Damon with Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting Image: United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

A quick skim through his CV confirms his longevity and adaptability – and that he’s worked with many of the greatest directors on the planet. 

In 1998, he was the titular star of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, while the following year he was the eponymous ruthless sociopath opposite Jude Law, Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley. Three years later, he confirmed himself as a major action hero as The Bourne Identity kicked off a franchise that modernised the genre. He’d later stand shoulder to shoulder with Morgan Freeman’s Nelson Mandela when he played South Africa’s wholesome rugby union captain Francois Pienaar in the Clint Eastwood-directed Invictus (scooping another Oscar nomination), play Liberace’s lover in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra, star as a mob mole in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed before delivering a Golden Globe-winning performance full of heart in Ridley Scott’s acclaimed The Martian.

But Damon’s boyish charm remains. The goofy, friendly, openness he has brought to the big screen so often is beaming in from Cannes. He asks how many interviews we are doing today. “Just you, Matt.” He’s quick to deadpan, “Yeah, you’re my only one too. I flew all the way to Cannes just to talk with The Big Issue,” before he asks about the magazine. 

“That’s fantastic, man,” he says. “We have a newspaper, in the town I grew up in – Cambridge, Massachusetts – called Spare Change. And it’s the same concept. That’s great.”

The previous night Damon shed tears as the standing ovation for his new film Stillwater lasted more than five minutes.

Ben Affleck (L) and Matt Damon hold up their Oscar
Oscar triumph in 1998 with pal Affleck. Image: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

“The moment kind of snuck up on me,” he says. “There was a lot going through my mind. I was happy the film had played so well, obviously, because I’m really proud of it and we worked really hard on it – and we’ve been holding on to it.

“It was supposed to come out last year but the pandemic changed those plans. So after that long wait, to have that kind of reception was really moving.”

But it was about more than that. What moved Damon to tears was returning to the essence of what makes the cinema so special – the collective experience. “There was the added Covid factor, which was that I hadn’t been in a movie theatre with 1,000 strangers in SO long,” he says. “And that reminder of why we need that, why it’s so important. I have been to Cannes four or five times but it has a deeper meaning for me having had that experience.

“You get accustomed to watching things at home on your TV and without any experiences in a cinema, that starts to become the new normal. Then to suddenly have this experience in a cinema, you’re like, that’s why we do this! So the moment snuck up on me and I got a little emotional because I just felt this overwhelming relief and joy and gratitude.”

Damon took some time away from movie making after filming The Martian, Jason Bourne, The Great Wall, Suburbicon and Downsizing back to back. Initially, the plan was to spend time with his wife, Luciana, and their four children. But fate intervened, and it meant he was able to be with his father, who has since died, during a long illness. This time out, he says, has made him reassess the stories he wants to tell.

Matt Damon with Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. Image: AA Film Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Stillwater feels like a change in direction born out of that period of reflection. It is all too fitting, then, that Damon’s press run for the film has attracted some criticism and reflection in itself.

He was widely condemned after the Sunday Times published an interview in which he talks about how his daughter had reacted angrily to a “joke” Damon told at home which used a homosexual slur. He followed up with a statement to clarify his position and assuage the anger.

“During a recent interview, I recalled a discussion I had with my daughter where I attempted to contextualise for her the progress that has been made – though by no means completed – since I was growing up in Boston and, as a child, heard the word ‘f*g’ used on the street before I knew what it even referred to,” he said.

He continued: “I have learned that eradicating prejudice requires active movement toward justice rather than finding passive comfort in imagining myself ‘one of the good guys.’

“And given that open hostility against the LGBTQ+ community is still not uncommon, I understand why my statement led many to assume the worst.

“To be as clear as I can be, I stand with the LGBTQ+ community.”

This interview took place before the furore over his comments, but his character in Stillwater could almost be a study of somebody a typical social media mob may not agree with. It is a fine film and a special performance, with themes of connection and growth and second chances that extend far beyond the plot. 

Damon plays Bill Baker – a classic American everyman, a rough-and-ready oil rig worker from Oklahoma who goes to Europe to get his daughter out of jail for a crime she says she didn’t commit. He works hard and says little apart from the prayers he offers before chomping into his Subway sandwiches (even in cosmopolitan France).

The character could so easily be an underwritten, two-dimensional cliché. But not in Damon’s hands, and not in this film. Instead, he is taken seriously, allowed complexity, and feels completely real. 

“That’s exactly right – most movies would look down their nose at Bill, and this movie is the opposite,” says Damon. “We have tremendous empathy for him. It’s a very specific person. It’s not just the guy from Stillwater. It’s a roughneck from Stillwater. That’s a very specific thing and we were so lucky because these roughnecks gave us incredible access. 

“We went down there, drove in their trucks all over Oklahoma to different oil rigs, they showed us how they do their job, brought us to their houses, we had barbecues with their families.

“And you just soak up so much when you’re walking in someone else’s shoes – or at least walking next to them. 

“The politicians will always stoke the divides because it’s in their self-interest”

“You get all the details of a character like this. The specifics. Because there’s a universality in specificity, right? So the more detail you can put into building this character, you know, that goatee and the wraparound shades, the hat, the jeans with fire retardant on them that feel like cardboard when you’re walking. And the work is so physically demanding.

These guys work harder than anybody I’ve ever seen. They have to be very strong. They eat and drink a certain way so they’re kind of beefy. So I put weight on but lifted heavy weights to just be a bigger, beefy kind of guy. All of that put together, it’s like their uniform. My hope is that when they see the movie, they’ll go ‘Yeah, Bill Baker looks like someone who I work with.’”

This time spent in the most Republican of all the US states, with voters whose political views and ways of life are a world away from his own, helped remind Damon of something vital.

As a lonely spaceman in The Martian. Image: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

“Once you spend time with people…” he begins. “I always walked away from those research trips going, ‘God, the things that connect us are so much greater than the things that divide us.’ 

“The politicians will always stoke the divides because it’s in their self-interest. But when we can just get together? They live differently down there than I grew up, but how would I live if I lived in rural Oklahoma? They’ve chosen to organise their lives in a different way, but it makes total sense if that’s where you are. And then you start to make those connections. As an actor, I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t believe that. 

“We’re all connected and your experience dictates the type of person you are. It’s a great reminder when you really sit with people that the media would tell you you’re so different from and you realise that they have a great value system and they are highly moral people, they love their kids, they love each other. The big things are all the same.”

We follow Bill as he leaves the certainty of the town and football team and people he knows and loves to travel to Marseille on one of his awkward, semi-regular visits to his estranged daughter – who is serving a long prison sentence for the murder of her girlfriend. 

Again, it could be a classic American-fights-for-justice, ‘USA, USA, USA’ film in less skilled hands. But again, it isn’t. Instead, Damon’s character cuts a diminished figure in this world and culture he neither understands nor cares for, struggles to connect in a language he doesn’t know and has never needed, and cannot make himself heard however loudly he speaks.

Damon spoke with director Tom McCarthy before shooting about the wider themes, of the US re-engaging with the world post-Trump. 

“The scenes when put together can make a larger thematic statement but when you’re doing the scenes, you have got to believe what Bill does in each situation and his reaction,” he says. “And a lot of that came from the roughnecks. They’re totally unapologetic about their worldview. And why shouldn’t they be?”

Bill forms an unlikely, mutually beneficial friendship with local theatre maker Virginie (played brilliantly by Call My Agent! star Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya. He is pointedly asked whether he voted for Trump. The relief around the dinner party table when he says no is palpable. But Bill goes on to say that was only because he couldn’t vote because he had been in prison. 

“You know, it’s actually an incredibly naive question from the worldly, French cultural elite, right?” says Damon. “Oklahoma’s the reddest state in America. And these guys work in the oil fields. They’re always gonna vote red. And they’re not apologising for it. I talked to those guys – they see it as a binary choice involving their ability to provide for their kids. And they’re always going to choose their kids, as we all do, right? That’s what we wanted to put into the character.

“So when Virginie says, ‘You sound very American right now’, he doesn’t understand why that would be a pejorative. He’s like: ‘Good. I am!’”

Does Damon, then, see this as a film that could help heal? Whether that is rifts between people or within families due to the increasingly entrenched, factionalised political sphere or between the US and the wider world?

“I find it really healing,” he says. “That would be the only reason to make it. If, you know, regular audiences can walk out feeling more connected to each other.

“This is the kind of movie I grew up loving and watching. The kitchen-sink drama. It’s heartbreaking. This guy is trying to repair this damage that he’s done to his relationship with his daughter and he doesn’t have any of the tools he needs. 

“I found it really beautiful and unpredictable where it goes. By the time you get to the end of the movie, he has been on a big, big journey. He gets what he wanted at the beginning of the movie, but by the end, he’s a different man.”

2021 - Stillwater - Movie Set
Rough around the edges Damon’s character Bill is written with nuance despite his diehard politics. Image: Focus Features/Entertainment P​ictures/

After his emotional return to Cannes, we end by wondering how the role of cinema and the stories told may change or evolve post-Covid.

“That’s a great question. Actually, I was talking with Steven Soderbergh about that exact thing the other day,” says Damon. “And he thinks the one question we can’t answer right now is what is the audience gonna want coming out of this? And that could go any number of directions. I just hope they want to watch Stillwater

“I’m looking to always have this feeling that I had after Stillwater. I feel very relaxed about the work. I hope that’s a product of the many years I’ve been doing this and I hope I’m arriving at a point where I can creatively have some peace, you know what I mean, and not be second guessing myself. That’s the feeling I’m going to chase.”

Damon, whose next film is The Last Duel – another co-write with Affleck, in which they star with Jodie Comer and Adam Driver – seems invigorated, keen to get back to work, and plans to be acting for years to come as cinema responds to the changed world.

“It’s a weird feeling – a lot of my friends report the same thing, that it’s strange so much time has passed,” he says. 

“I just want to keep doing it. This is all I wanted to do, and I’m happy to report that I’m still really having fun. And I’m getting better at it too, and that’s exciting.

“I always looked forward to being an experienced actor on top of everything else. And maybe a wiser one.”

Stillwater is released in UK cinemas from August 6.

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