Tuesday December 19th, 2006 · by Annie

Matt Damon Talks About “The Good Shepherd”

Matt Damon stars as one of the agents who got in on the ground floor of the CIA in the dramatic movie The Good Shepherd directed by Robert De Niro and co-starring Angelina Jolie. De Niro’s second directorial effort focuses on the early days of the CIA and how involvement in the ultra-secretive organization plays havoc with one man’s life.

How difficult was it to give life to a very unemotional character, to make him human enough that the audience will want to watch this guy for three hours?
“I was nervous about that and I think with another director I would have given into my fear and indicated more and pushed it more, and been a little more over the top. The reality was that he just insisted on absolute emotional honesty and subtlety all the time. I think something that I certainly have fallen victim to in the past is, because I’m also a writer, you look at every scene and you deconstruct the script. You go, ‘Okay, this scene is in the movie for this reason. The audience needs to come away with this.’ Which as a writer, you can do that, but as an actor that’s deadly. You can’t think in those terms or else you’re going to end up just pulling faces and indicating, and ultimately losing the movie because people don’t believe what you’re doing.

Bob [De Niro] was just insistent on absolute naturalism and realism. He’s a student of human behavior. I’ve never seen an actor as famous as him walk into a room and do what he does, which is he just disappears. He absolutely disappears. He sits there and he watches everything. He sees absolutely every interaction. The reason his work remains so good, and he remains so relevant as an artist, is because he sits there and he is constantly just downloading human behavior. Oftentimes actors become famous and they end up doing imitations of their own performances, or imitations of what they think people might do in certain situations. Very few of them sit there and do the kind of rigorous observation that it takes to embody people in a subtle, nuanced and real way.

We’d have these conversations where I’d say, ‘Well, I’m listening to him here,’ and he’d say, ‘You’re listening to me now. You’re not doing anything. You hear what I’m saying?’ You know what I mean? And to get permission from somebody to do that… Normally a director is telling you exactly the opposite because normally a director is panicking that the audience isn’t going to understand, that the audience is going to be confused. And Bob would not worry about that. He would just say, ‘You play the scene for its absolute honesty and moment to moment, and don’t worry about anything else.’”

Was De Niro the model for your character, a man who can basically disappear in a room full of men?
“Yeah. I mean, in a lot of ways, yeah. He also just gave me permission to do that, which I was fighting against the whole time because I’m not used to being able to do that, to be that subtle. But of course the guy should be subtle. He’s the head of counter-intelligence. Like what’s he going to do, tell you how he’s feeling? I mean, it makes total sense when you think about it. He should be reserved. He should be emotionally distant because it’s very dangerous for him to be any other way.”

Your character is part of the Skulls and Bones society at Harvard. Were you in the clubs at Harvard? Did you see the good old boy network from the inside?
“I did. I was in the Delta Club at Harvard and I did some of that, although it had changed. Now, like the Skull and Bones, for instance, this new generation of kids have gone through and they have totally debunked all of the [myths]. I mean, now there’s a lot of writing about the Skull and Bones. ‘Okay, there’s this rite of passage and there’s that and you have to do that.’ Starting with around my generation people stopped taking, I think, all that stuff quite so seriously. Whereas in 1939 it was of the utmost importance. But nowadays all of those secrets are kind of out in the open. So I think they’re a little different now. Skull and Bones is co-ed now.”

Do you see any parallels between your life and this role, in terms of trying to keep your private life private?
“Actually I don’t have a very hard time keeping my private life private. There’s not that much interest. To me, what felt surreal, I think, was mostly at the beginning, going to work and working with De Niro and being directed by him. That was intimidating at first and ultimately surreal after, and then basically leveled out into, ‘Okay, I can deal with this,’ somewhere around probably the second month.”

How was working with Angelina Jolie?
“Working with Angie, I was just talking to somebody about this upstairs, I also experienced working with Brad too… There’s like just this unbelievable extra thing that they bring with them, which I wouldn’t wish upon anybody – which is camped outside the hotel right now are 25 to 50 photographers just waiting because she’s in this building. And that would happen when we were shooting at the armory over in Brooklyn. I’d know when she was working because I’d come to work and there would be all these people there. But once we were inside, she and Brad both have this unbelievable ability… I’ve talked to Clooney about it and Clooney’s like, ‘I could never do this. It would just eat away at me.’ But they just leave it. They just leave it behind them.

We’d get into rehearsals and she was so good in this movie, and so different from anything that she’d done. I just remember thinking, ‘God, that’s why this is all happening in the first place.’ You get so caught up in all this celebrity stuff. They’re everywhere and you forget that there’s this reason underneath all of it is she’s an incredible actress. And I don’t know how she handles that stuff. I definitely just couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t be able to do it. But as George always says, in terms of Brad, he says, ‘That’s why he’s Brad Pitt.’ I couldn’t do it.”

Were you aware of how Robert De Niro was shooting you in The Good Shepherd?
“Yeah, and it’s also that Bob Richardson is one of the best DPs. He’s really incredible. They had conversations about the look of the film and what they wanted to get, and I’m sure shot me differently depending on the year because we didn’t do a lot with makeup. We did a very little bit but little things, shaved my hairline back a little bit and then added to it for the 1939 stuff, but really subtle. You’d have to kind of look for it. [There was] a little bit of aging around the eyes where you can see, mostly in the one shot where I have the magnifying glass, there are some wrinkles that are makeup and that look really good. But he doesn’t want to do anything more than that because he didn’t want anything to distract.

He felt like it was an internal thing.

And also because the character is only 41 or 42 years old, I’m 36 so I have much further to go to get to Yale than the other way. But then there were the things with the glasses, those glasses had a real prescription, so I’d wear a negative prescription contact lens and then put the glasses over because Bob, again, it’s all details with Bob. If it was an over-the-shoulder shot and you were catching just a piece of the glasses to see that there was [a prescription]. That stuff, it’s like the incremental effect, it’s like the aggregate effect of all those things added up makes you go, ‘Okay, I believe what I’m watching.’
I’ve heard these stories of him from prop people. On The Departed actually, the prop guys said that the last time they worked with De Niro, he came in to look at…it was like a little prop. I forget what it was. It was just a little trinket, like a cigarette case or something like that. He had come in on his day off, ‘Do you have that cigarette case?’ He just wanted to hold it and touch it and see if he liked it. Then he’d go, ‘Yeah, okay, that’s good.’ And everything was like that.

Every detail was a performance. The hat, if I wore a hat, he would come and he would touch the hat. He had a very particular thing about hats and how to wear a hat. If he would see an extra, he would just go, ‘That’s wrong,’ and he’d go and he’d fix their hat. It’s just every little thing like that was of absolute importance to him. Nothing got spared, which may be to his detriment at times.”

Damon continued, “Soderbergh said to me that a big part of directing – this is what I am, a collection of things people have said to me – but what he said was, ‘A great thing to know about directing is every scene does not have the same importance. And when you shoot it, you can’t place the same weight on it or else you’ll end up doing 110 18 hour days,’ which is what we ended up doing on Good Shepherd. But Soderbergh just says, ‘No, you’ve got to know this scene is just getting you into that scene.’ He cuts in camera. It’s a very different thing. Whereas working with Bob it’s just every single detail was poured over.

The amount of work that went into this movie is just really incredible. And every department, too. It was one of those movies that they were saying to me halfway through, ‘This is already a legendary movie in the New York circle.’ These prop guys who were the sons of the sons of the sons of people who have been in the prop business are talking, ‘Oh, you were on the Shepherd.’ This is a movie that we would start at five in the morning Monday and we would finish at five in the morning Saturday. That was our five day week. Just keep getting pushed and pushed and pushed. It was really grueling, but all of those things, the angles that he shot me was, I’m sure, the subject of great discussion between he and Richardson. There was no stone left unturned.

I think the other thing was to leave after a 12 hour day to him would have felt like he wasn’t taking advantage. If he had money to shoot, it was for a certain amount of time, and he was going to use every second. They were going to have to come and take the camera away. There were times when I had to write a check back so that while we were in the Dominican Republic, because they were trying to take the cameras, and we had more shooting to do. It was just one of those movies. He gave all of his money away. He’s in the movie and doesn’t take a paycheck so that it goes back into the [budget]. So that way he saves the money from casting the role. Also he plays the role and they get the [star power] so it drives up the cache of the movie, and then the money goes back into the budget. Everything was going back. It was all about the final movie getting done the way he wanted it to get done.”

Is there one piece of advice De Niro gave you as an actor?
“Good question. I don’t know that there was one. Kind of what I was talking about at the beginning about that kind of permission not to indicate was a very big deal, just because it’s so much easier to indicate and we’re so used to it. I mean, like the performances you see normally I think as film audiences, we’re used to seeing people overact. It’s like [sniffling loudly, choking back tears]. Who does that? You go back to the ’70s and you look at some of those movies, and maybe it’s just the directors had so much power then. A movie like Dog Day Afternoon, I always use that as an example. Today, imagine a studio film getting made where they said, ‘Okay, you rob a bank because your boyfriend needs money for a sex change operation.’ They wouldn’t make that movie, really, but it’s one of the great films ever made. There’s things that the actors do in those movies, they’re just so subtle and their performances are so incredible.

I think I took that away, definitely. You have to really be feeling things and thinking things, but I’m going to try to resist my urge to indicate in the future.”

And also because the character is only 41 or 42 years old, I’m 36 so I have much further to go to get to Yale than the other way. But then there were the things with the glasses, those glasses had a real prescription, so I’d wear a negative prescription contact lens and then put the glasses over because Bob, again, it’s all details with Bob. If it was an over-the-shoulder shot and you were catching just a piece of the glasses to see that there was [a prescription]. That stuff, it’s like the incremental effect, it’s like the aggregate effect of all those things added up makes you go, ‘Okay, I believe what I’m watching.’
I’ve heard these stories of him from prop people. On The Departed actually, the prop guys said that the last time they worked with De Niro, he came in to look at…it was like a little prop. I forget what it was. It was just a little trinket, like a cigarette case or something like that. He had come in on his day off, ‘Do you have that cigarette case?’ He just wanted to hold it and touch it and see if he liked it. Then he’d go, ‘Yeah, okay, that’s good.’ And everything was like that.

Every detail was a performance. The hat, if I wore a hat, he would come and he would touch the hat. He had a very particular thing about hats and how to wear a hat. If he would see an extra, he would just go, ‘That’s wrong,’ and he’d go and he’d fix their hat. It’s just every little thing like that was of absolute importance to him. Nothing got spared, which may be to his detriment at times.”

Damon continued, “Soderbergh said to me that a big part of directing – this is what I am, a collection of things people have said to me – but what he said was, ‘A great thing to know about directing is every scene does not have the same importance. And when you shoot it, you can’t place the same weight on it or else you’ll end up doing 110 18 hour days,’ which is what we ended up doing on Good Shepherd. But Soderbergh just says, ‘No, you’ve got to know this scene is just getting you into that scene.’ He cuts in camera. It’s a very different thing. Whereas working with Bob it’s just every single detail was poured over.

The amount of work that went into this movie is just really incredible. And every department, too. It was one of those movies that they were saying to me halfway through, ‘This is already a legendary movie in the New York circle.’ These prop guys who were the sons of the sons of the sons of people who have been in the prop business are talking, ‘Oh, you were on the Shepherd.’ This is a movie that we would start at five in the morning Monday and we would finish at five in the morning Saturday. That was our five day week. Just keep getting pushed and pushed and pushed. It was really grueling, but all of those things, the angles that he shot me was, I’m sure, the subject of great discussion between he and Richardson. There was no stone left unturned.

I think the other thing was to leave after a 12 hour day to him would have felt like he wasn’t taking advantage. If he had money to shoot, it was for a certain amount of time, and he was going to use every second. They were going to have to come and take the camera away. There were times when I had to write a check back so that while we were in the Dominican Republic, because they were trying to take the cameras, and we had more shooting to do. It was just one of those movies. He gave all of his money away. He’s in the movie and doesn’t take a paycheck so that it goes back into the [budget]. So that way he saves the money from casting the role. Also he plays the role and they get the [star power] so it drives up the cache of the movie, and then the money goes back into the budget. Everything was going back. It was all about the final movie getting done the way he wanted it to get done.”

Is there one piece of advice De Niro gave you as an actor?
“Good question. I don’t know that there was one. Kind of what I was talking about at the beginning about that kind of permission not to indicate was a very big deal, just because it’s so much easier to indicate and we’re so used to it. I mean, like the performances you see normally I think as film audiences, we’re used to seeing people overact. It’s like [sniffling loudly, choking back tears]. Who does that? You go back to the ’70s and you look at some of those movies, and maybe it’s just the directors had so much power then. A movie like Dog Day Afternoon, I always use that as an example. Today, imagine a studio film getting made where they said, ‘Okay, you rob a bank because your boyfriend needs money for a sex change operation.’ They wouldn’t make that movie, really, but it’s one of the great films ever made. There’s things that the actors do in those movies, they’re just so subtle and their performances are so incredible.

I think I took that away, definitely. You have to really be feeling things and thinking things, but I’m going to try to resist my urge to indicate in the future.”

Does working on this character in The Good Shepherd change the way you look at Jason Bourne in that film series?
“It doesn’t affect the way I think of the Bourne character because they’re very different.

To me, the Bourne character allows me to do… In between these two Bourne movies I did Syriana, Departed and Good Shepherd. Departed, at the time I signed up for it, it was thinking that it was not going to be a hit because Marty, classically, his movies don’t make a lot of money. So I felt like, bookended by the Bourne movies, I felt like I had a chance to make the movies I really wanted to make, that maybe were a little more challenging.
Syriana certainly was kind of a more challenging story. I was really happy to be able to be a part of it. I’m really proud of that movie. Departed, obviously, just surprised all of us, how well it’s done. And then this, which is very kind of epic, but it’s a tougher sell when you’re talking about getting a mass audience to the movie. It’s longer. Departed is over two and a half hours, also. But, as you say, the lead character, the protagonist, I’m not out there trying to get sympathy, elicit sympathy from the audience. It’s a tougher character, which I really like. I really like that kind of challenge.

I have a real limited chance to choose certain movies and I’m happy with the choices so far, because I think they’re a little more challenging. It doesn’t last forever. You guys see everybody come and go. I know the deal. I’ve been around. It’s like you breathe this rarefied air for a real short time and then there’s an ebb and flow to everything. Particularly with the choices I make, and the material I tend to be drawn to, I can’t be up here for long.”

Speaking of future projects, there’s a rumor you’ll play Captain Kirk in the next Star Trek movie.
“No, that was a total rumor.”

Do you want to play Kirk?
“If the script was good I’d do it. But, yeah, I heard that. I think J.J. Abrams or somebody said that at a press junket or something.”

What’s happening with The Bourne Ultimatum? Can Jason ever be happy?
“Yeah, that’s a good question. Well, we’re almost halfway through. I don’t know if that guy can ever be happy.”

Does he know who he is?
“Well, he will by the end of this one. I don’t know how long we can ride that pony. I’d like to think – maybe he’ll get a bump on the head at the end or something.”

How’s it going?
“Really well. Paul [Greengrass] is directing it again, which is huge. I mean, that’s the reason to do it because he’s really just a great filmmaker. We have a story, and we have a story to tell. But looking at it, to be fair, we go, ‘Okay, I think this should be the last one.’ I’m half joking, but how long can you [last]? His search for identity is definitely going to come to an end.”

Maybe in 20 years you can do what Sylvester Stallone has done with the Rocky movie franchise.
“I would love that. If I’m like 100 pounds heavier, ‘They pulled me back in! They won’t let me go!’ They’re like, ‘No, we don’t give a s**t about you. What are you talking about?’ Yeah, I think that’s actually probably the only way to do another Bourne movie would be to do it 20 years down the road.”

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