Matt Damon: Up in Space & Down to Earth (INTERVIEW)

As we count down the days to the Academy Awards, we spoke with Matt Damon about his Oscar-nominated performance in The Martian and his out-of-this-world movie career.
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Matt Damon Photo

Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, who is accidentally abandoned on the Red Planet, in The Martian. (Photo: Courtesy Fox)

For cinematic golden boy Matt Damon, Hollywood has been something like a field of dreams, which is only appropriate; he and childhood buddy, Ben Affleck, made their motion picture debuts as extras in that 1989 Kevin Costner movie. Though it would take Damon another eight years to put himself on that field’s map, Good Will Hunting is the kind of film – and performance – that profoundly moved audiences nearly two decades ago to the tune of $225-million at the global box office and two Academy Awards, including one for the original screenplay Damon wrote with Affleck. While Damon’s Good Will protagonist may have, by film’s conclusion, vanished down a highway of infinite possibilities “to see about a girl,” Damon himself, now 45, has never ditched his fans in skyscraping fields of corn, nor – defying all laws of probability – has he made a terrible film. 

Robin Williams Matt Damon Photo

Robin Williams and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting (1997). (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Indeed, Damon could cannily boast of having the Midas touch, all that he touches turning to gold, working regularly with pedigreed auteurs like Steven Soderbergh and Terry Gilliam, wisely investing in high-end franchises like the Ocean’s 11 trilogy and the Jason Bourne thrillers (with a new installment due next summer). 

Occasionally, Damon’s apparently preternatural gift for choosing excellent material, then fully committing to it, invites him to brushes with gold, literally speaking. His performances have earned him three Oscar nominations, among them his rambunctious, yearning, inspirational one-man show in Ridley Scott’s critically acclaimed blockbuster, The Martian. As astronaut Mark Watney, accidentally abandoned on the Red Planet during a critical mission, then left to survive or perish 250-million miles from home with nothing but his will, wits, and spirit. Damon simultaneously ignites the screen with a kinetic determinism and effortless likeability as only the most radiant movie stars can, while deploying his earnest, corn-fed Everyman aspect to stunning effect, elevating, clarifying, and universalizing the material. If The Martian is, glibly speaking, Cast Away without the volleyball or Gravity without Sandra Bullock’s undies – that is, inspiring tales of survival against impossible odds – then Matt Damon on Mars is, essentially, Jimmy Stewart as superhero. 

In person, as on screen, the rare occurrence of fact and rumor marrying happily, Damon is not merely affable, but warm, intelligent, curious, authentic. In conversation, he asks nearly as many questions as he answers, not as the defensive mechanism or rhetorical tool often coached by superstar’s handlers, but because it seems that the art Matt Damon creates is utterly reliant on connecting with others. Perhaps that’s why audiences rarely ignore his work. In a world where little is guaranteed, Matt Damon does not disappoint. 

For a long while, you played bookish characters that did all the hard work in their own heads. Then with the Jason Bourne films, your performances became much more physical.  

Who doesn’t wanna be the guy who can beat everybody else up? (Laughs)

When you were a kid on the playground, were you a “man of action”?

No! Absolutely not. (Laughs) I was the guy thinking up stories. 

Matt Damon Bourne Identity Photo Universal Pictures

Damon as Jason Bourne in Bourne Identity (2002). (Photo: Universal Pictures) 

The Martian combines the two aspects – it’s a very rich, intellectual piece, watching Mark Watney, think his way through dire circumstances, but also one that requires a certain physicality of you. 

I think the character represents the very cutting edge of humanity, the edge of the envelope of what is possible. This character knows what all of us know we need, which is to someday move some of our species off of this planet to ensure the species' survival. The people who are doing that work right now, that work is in its infancy, but these people are incredibly brave and heroic people. I think in our story, the characters surrounding Mark Watney have this understanding of what this person has sacrificed, and the beauty in that choice, and so they want to do everything they can to bring him back to Earth. He kind of represents the best of all of us.

Which must be terrible to play.

(Laughs) Yeah! It’s awful having people think I’m a really, really good person – kind of like having them think I can beat up the bad guys with a rolled-up magazine! (Laughs)

If you’re not careful, people are going to think you’re smart too!

(Laughs) I don’t think that’s going to happen! 

One of the thrills of watching The Martian is how Watney’s road to survival plays out almost like a detective story. It’s extraordinary, watching him rely on his own ingenuity and intelligence to, step-by-step, work toward staying alive.

You mean toward being a potato farmer. (Laughs) Who wouldn’t be thrilled by that movie? (Laughs) Mark Watney is like an “up at dawn” kind of a guy. There’s a sort of kindhearted siege-like mentality to him, and it really is life or death in this story, so I think I know what you mean. If he doesn’t figure all this stuff out, there will be a crime scene – or a dead body, at least! He has to make sure that his habitat is maintained so that he can breathe. He's got to make sure that the water reclaimer is working so that he won't die of thirst. He's got to grow food for himself, or he'll starve. And he's got to keep himself from going totally crazy on a planet entirely by himself, which is not an easy task. So every day is a pretty busy day for Mark Watney, and he's pretty entertaining I think as he goes about doing what he does. Well, he was pretty entertaining for me to play anyway. (Laughs) 

The road to the film’s production and release was bumpy from time to time, moving through various stages of development with different filmmakers, but you remained attached to the project throughout. Why?

I do really like the character. I love his ingenuity and I love the idea that the movie, as Drew (Goddard, the screenwriter who adapted Andy Weir’s novel) said, "It's a love letter to science." I love that it celebrates intelligence and that spirit of courage that these scientists and astronauts really have is given its proper due. So it was the character, really, and – very importantly – it was Drew’s script. When I first read Drew’s script, he was also going to direct the movie. That would have been perfect. I would’ve done that very happily in a heartbeat. But then Drew found himself hired onto another project, so The Martian kind of floundered a little bit, and then one day I got a call that Ridley Scott wanted to direct it. That was the end of that, right? (Laughs) Are you going to say no to Ridley Scott? No. Me either. 

Matt Damon The Martian Photo By Aidan Monaghan Copyright 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Matt Damon and director Ridley Scott on the set of The Martian on location in Jordan (Photo: © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

He’s one of cinema’s great artists, to be sure. What do you take from working with such a maestro?

Ridley, the scale at which he works, he’s just impressive. He can bring in four cameras to shoot lots of coverage simultaneously and each picture he creates, the frames, they’re just absolutely astonishingly beautiful. He’s just got this ability that is above and beyond what most film directors have. I remember with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan it was the same thing. You would look at each frame and go, "My god, that is beautiful." These guys at that level, they can make anything beautiful. It’s amazing. It's so fun – and such a privilege – to work with these master directors who have been doing this a really long time, who completely know what they want, and maybe because of that are very open to an actor’s input. That’s a great kind of collaboration. But when a director like Ridley comes along so sure of what he wants out of the material and out of the actors, no matter how massively scaled some of his films are, they’re almost easy to make. I know that sounds crazy. But everyday is just so much fun. We do our work. We laugh. We do some more work. We laugh a lot more. Everyone’s prepared. Everyone’s on the same page. It’s how movies should be made.

Was becoming an astronaut ever a childhood dream of yours? Is The Martian some kind of delayed wish fulfillment for you? 

Not exactly. I mean I played at being an astronaut a little bit when I was a kid, but I think you need to have a really hardcore pioneering spirit to do that job. I think astronauts are the same people who were explorers 500 years ago and jumping on ships and sailing to far away lands and courting death and pushing the envelope for all of humanity. Thank God there are people like that because that's how mankind grows and expands. That's how eventually we'll get some of the species off of planet Earth and some place else. I don’t know that I could ever have been an astronaut, but I’m really happy I get to play one! (Laughs)

Somehow, it’s been 20 years since Good Will Hunting, and it’s been a pretty amazing run for you, professionally speaking. While many A-list celebrities have their tough times, their run-ins with the media, their moments of aberrant behavior, you’ve stayed on the right side of the street. Is it difficult, balancing a private life with the demands and expectations of being a movie star? 

You know, that’s an interesting question to me, because I’m an actor, and probably to you, because you’re writing about an actor, but at the end of the day, whatever answer I give isn’t going to make the world a better or a worse place, you know. But it is definitely a big part of the world we live in, and man, there are fewer and fewer outs for celebrities these days. It’s totally different than it was in the ‘90s when I was starting out. But I don’t know if balancing it all is difficult, exactly. My friend (actor) Edward Norton does very little press. I’ve talked to him a lot about this topic, and he’s got a really good point about being in the spotlight all the time, which is this: as an actor, he feels he can play a wider range of characters because people don’t have any preconceived notions about him. The less people know about you, the more leeway you have as an actor. It's preserving the mystery maybe or keeping your appearances “special” by limiting your availability or . . .I don’t really know. It works for some actors. It definitely works for him. He is so damned good! So I understand his theory, but – for me anyway – there’s also the realistic side of this business, which is: you’ve got to go tell people about your movie. You have a contract that requires you do that. It’s my job. (Laughs) So I don’t know: maybe it is hard to find the balance. I’m still working on it. But it’s not the worst thing in the world, people wanting to talk to you. It’s not like having teeth pulled. (Laughs) Talking with you, it beats a root canal. 

That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me this year. So another Oscar nomination; not too shabby. 

Look, when it comes down to it, I mean I work hard, I always do my best, I try to be not only nice, but good to the people I encounter or work with, but I think I’ve always just been incredibly blessed. I’ve had incredible experiences making some incredible movies – and I’ve had some incredible experiences making some movies that have maybe not been so incredible. (Laughs) But what makes me happy is the work, when it’s fun and challenging. The trophy is never the result. It’s always the experience. That seems to be working out okay so far.