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Matt Damon: You Could Call Him Down to Earth
« on: December 31, 2015, 01:12:30 am »
Matt Damon: You Could Call Him Down to Earth
By ROBERT ITODEC. 29, 2015

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — In the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon faces an existential crisis: Stay in Southie and work construction with his pals — “what’s wrong with layin’ brick?” he asks — or use his prodigious mathematical powers for, well, who knows what. His best friend, Ben Affleck, promises to kill him if he squanders his “winnin’ lottery ticket” and picks the bricks.

Flash forward to 2015, to director Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” and Mr. Damon, as NASA astronaut Mark Watney, is stranded in another hostile area, his nearest chance for help millions of miles away. In “The Martian,” Watney doesn’t have the luxury of wasting his mental gifts. He sets about creating water from spare rocket fuel and heat from a degrading plutonium core. The stakes couldn’t be higher. If he messes up, it won’t be Mr. Affleck who kills him, but Mars.

“I think it’s fun to watch people smarter than us solving problems,” he said.

Directors insist it’s no act. “The man is smart as a whip,” Mr. Scott said. Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) described Mr. Damon, a Harvard-educated actor, as “ferociously intelligent.”

Not that he takes his image too seriously. “I’m not that smart in ‘Team America,’” he admitted.

All that brainpower, however, didn’t keep Mr. Damon from becoming embroiled in two much-publicized controversies in 2015. During a recent interview here at the Four Seasons, he discussed the ups and downs of the last year as well as the night in 1998 when he won his best screenplay Oscar for “Good Will Hunting.”

In person, Mr. Damon is all wide smiles and hearty handshakes. “Hi, I’m Matt,” he’ll say, even though clearly one knows. Dressed in black jeans, boots and a white thermal shirt buttoned all the way up, he looks fit (he’s been spending the past few months filming the next Bourne thriller in London, Berlin and Tenerife, one of Spain’s Canary Islands) and happy (he’s finally back home in Los Angeles, with his wife and four kids).

“It was such a confusing time,” he said of that first Oscar go-round. “Ben and I became famous, so there’s this feeling of befuddlement and confusion that accompanies all the memories that I have. The second something would happen, somebody would put a microphone in my face and say, ‘How do ya feel?’ Well, I didn’t have any idea.”

Mr. Damon found himself sitting alone at 3 in the morning, staring at the award and unable to sleep. “I remember getting this overwhelming feeling of, thank God I didn’t” — here he used an expletive, the equivalent of mess up — “anybody over for this,” he said, laughing.

With “The Martian,” Mr. Damon is once again in the Oscar conversation. The film received three Golden Globe nominations (best picture, director and actor) and has drawn glowing reviews. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times called it “a blissed-out cosmic high” that is ”at once epic and intimate,” while Anthony Lane of The New Yorker wrote that “Damon has never seemed more at home than he does here, millions of miles adrift.”

“He was always terrifically good,” Mr. Greengrass said by phone from London, “but he’s the father of children now, he’s lived life more, and you can see it in him and in his acting. There’s a broader humanity to what he does now.”

Mr. Damon is quick to dismiss any Oscar talk about himself — “I just don’t think there’s any way to handicap it,” he said — but said he would love to see Mr. Scott take home a statue in February. It wasn’t until recently that he discovered, to his great surprise, that the 78-year-old director of “Blade Runner,” “Gladiator” and “Thelma & Louise” had never received an Academy Award. (He’s been nominated three times.)

“It’s kind of how I felt when I worked with Marty, and everybody was saying, look, this has gotta be the time for him,” Mr. Damon said, referring to “The Departed” and its director, Martin Scorsese. “Hopefully there’ll be a similar groundswell of support for Ridley.”

If Mr. Damon is reticent about his own Oscar chances, he was less so about the controversy over HBO’s filmmaking competition “Project Greenlight,” for which he and Mr. Affleck serve as executive producers. After being off the air for 10 years, the show returned in September with a Season 4 premiere episode in which Mr. Damon lectured Effie Brown, an African-American producer (“Dear White People”), about diversity, behind and in front of the camera.

As they were trying to decide which director to hire — Ms. Brown’s choice was a white woman and a Vietnamese-American man who had teamed up — Mr. Damon told her, “When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.”

“Wow,” Ms. Brown replied.

His comments drew a tsunami of criticism from critics and bloggers, who accused him of talking down to her, simultaneously whitesplaining and mansplaining.

“Um, there are a few parts to it,” Mr. Damon said. “So I’ll unpack it for you.”

What viewers didn’t see, he said, were the weeks — if not years — of frustration that led up to that exchange. “Ben and I had taken a lot of stick for this 10 years ago, that our committee of mostly white men had selected three white men, in succession, as winners,” he said. This time, the producers actively pursued a more diverse cross-section of applicants, partnering with Facebook and actively recruiting at film schools. Even so, when Mr. Damon and the other judges, which included Mr. Affleck and Ms. Brown, were given the final cut of candidates, 17 of the 20 were, yes, white men.

“By the time we arrived to do our judging, we knew we had blown it, so Ben and I were already frustrated and upset about that,” he said. “So when Effie brought it up, it was like, yes, O.K., we got it.”

The other concern, Mr. Damon said, was the reality series itself. “The dark secret of ‘Project Greenlight’ is that the TV show is bigger than the movie,” Mr. Damon said. “It costs more than the movie.”

That simple fact leads to a constant struggle between the needs of the film and the needs of the show — with the show often winning out. Muddying the waters even more is that the “behind the camera” winner chosen to direct the film becomes, of course, the de facto star of the TV series.

“The idea that I would say that there didn’t need to be diversity behind the camera, it’s not only complete anathema to what I believe in my heart and always have,” Mr. Damon said, “but it’s not something that I think anybody would ever say with a camera on.”

He added: “And so when Effie was advocating for the woman and the Vietnamese-American guy, what I actually said was, ‘Are we judging a contest or are we casting a reality show?’” he continued. “And that’s when she said, ‘Wow.’ And I went, no, Effie, I’m completely serious, what is our responsibility at this point? Because we had already blown it on the competition.”

“We were fine that day,” Mr. Damon insisted. “It wasn’t like I left and said, ‘Boy, I got in an argument with Effie Brown,’ and I don’t think she would have left thinking that she had had an argument with me. But the truth is, Effie did an awesome job for us. She’s an awesome producer.”

Ms. Brown declined to comment.

Soon after, Mr. Damon was taking heat once again, this time, for an interview in The Guardian that seemed to suggest that actors should stay in the closet. At one moment, he’s talking about the brilliance of Rupert Everett and the price the actor paid for coming out in Hollywood; the next, he’s discussing why actors should try to keep some “mystery” in their private lives. “I actually just conflated two stories that I’ve told a thousand times at junkets, and did it in a really clumsy way,” he said.

Despite Mr. Damon’s bad luck with poor edits, a spur-of-the-moment good one led to a particularly memorable scene in “The Martian.”

“All the other actors, Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña, had already wrapped and were at home in America,” he said. It was just Mr. Damon and Mr. Scott in Budapest, filming a scene in which the stranded astronaut, after two years alone on Mars, finally learns he might be going home. Without telling Mr. Damon his plans, Mr. Scott combined parts of his fellow actors’ dialogue with old NASA recordings from the glory days of the space program and piped them into Mr. Damon’s helmet. The actor broke down, and Mr. Scott used that very first take. “It was completely unrehearsed, unexpected and unplanned,” Mr. Damon said. “I just went.”

Mr. Affleck explained: “Matt is totally willing to look foolish, scared, weak, or to take on any of the very human qualities that we all have but that our vanity makes us want to hide from others. You can see his willingness to do this in almost all of his performances, and ‘The Martian’ is no exception.”

This month, around the time the Oscar nominations are announced, Mr. Damon will return to Las Vegas to continue shooting the next installment of the Bourne series. After sitting out the most recent Bourne film, he and Mr. Greengrass were discussing whether to take on a new one. “He persuaded me,” Mr. Greengrass said, laughing.

“I was a little bit anxious about how it was going to go, and I remember he said to me, ‘It’s not a bad thing to do it just because people would really love to see us do another one,’” he said. “That really landed with me. ‘It’s a noble thing to serve your audience,’ he told me, ‘if you’re lucky enough to have one.’”