How does Matt Damon sustain his string of successes? With a lot of help from friends like new costar Emily Blunt. (And just maybe a little talent of his own.)
On a Wednesday morning, Matt Damon and his wife, Luciana, delivered their fourth child, a baby girl. The following Monday, he’s talking to me.
But not about birthday methods. He doesn’t consider his family to be interview fodder—would yours be? So we talk about something any farther can identify with: the urgent desire to perform well on the job.
And as we talk, he shows an unusual trait for a walking franchise: reflexive, impenetrable humility.
“It’s always hard to talk about yourself, but…” He stops. Redirects. “There are actors who are just movie stars, you know? They just are. You can’t take your eyes off them when they’re on the screen. I know what that thing is, and I see it in some of my friends, but that’s just not who I am. My movies being really good or watchable always depends on everybody being really good, not just me. I’m particularly sensitive about making sure we secure the best possible people in each role because I am not somebody who can overcome if we don’t.”
At this point I’m wondering—I’ll be honest—whether I’m witnessing delusion, or false modesty, or vulnerability so profound that no Oscar can calm it. But the man is talking about himself, and that’s not something he often does. So I keep quiet and he continues, delivering choice words about philosophies antithetical to his. You’ve seen the yield: star vehicles containing a star, yes, but little else of value.
“That’s like watching someone jerk off, really,” Damon says. “It’s just absolutely not at all interesting, and not something I want to spend any time doing.”
Ask Damon about his success and he’ll reply by describing how someone helped him. This is how he thinks. In Damon’s world, everyone is the sum of what they’ve learned, so credit is due to the teachers, not the students.
He carries this deference through even the most mundane of topics. Ask him about his fitness routine and he’ll tell you the great things he learned from trainers. Left on his own, he says, he’s just a guy who runs for an hour. “It’s a dreadful hour,” he says.
Quiz his colleagues and you hear a different story.
“Matt consistently outran his stunt double,” says George Nolfi, the writer and director of Damon’s latest, The Adjustment Bureau. And strength and conditioning trainer Matt Baiamonte admits this with no shame: “He killed me on the long-distance runs.”
I repeat, reflexive humility. So I try a direct approach: Surely, Matt, there’s been a time when you took the lead, led the way, innovated, made a job better?
This prompts Damon to recall a comment that his best friend, Ben Affleck, made when they were struggling actors writing Good Will Hunting. Affleck had turned to Damon and said, “Judge me for how good my good ideas are, not for how bad my bad ideas are.”
“And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah! I guess that’s how it is,’ ” Damon says. “When one of us comes up with an absolutely fucking horrible idea, which happens all the time, the other person, without batting an eyelash, says, ‘That’s a terrible idea,’ and neither of us has our feelings hurt, and we just kind of move on.”
Of course Damon dodged the question. Affleck is the teacher in his story. But that moment, you could argue, was the seed that grew into a working doctrine that has served Damon and the world’s moviegoers brilliantly.
Good Will Hunting made him famous, and fame was like a trauma, he says. (He credits the comparison to Francis Ford Coppola.) “The world goes on exactly as it always has, but everybody changes in relation to you,” Damon says. Ditto after any major promotion, really: Everyone’s watching, waiting, judging.
The new expectations made him a more cautious actor. That could have been death. But as he continued to work, often with very experienced directors, he made an important discovery: All the great ones shared Affleck’s off-the-cuff wisdom. They used ideas from everyone on their staffs, and penalized no one for stray thoughts.
“Why would you not listen to every possible idea?” Damon asks. “The allegiance is to the good idea. It’s not to anything else—it’s not to a person, it’s not to anything else but a good idea.”
As his career caught on, Damon began to feel emboldened. The more ideas he pumped out—and listened to—the more success he created. It’s a fail-safe business strategy: You can be the smart guy who comes up with an idea, or the smart guy who recognizes a good idea when he hears it. It leads to the same result, and the result is all that matters.
It’s 1997. On the set of The Rainmaker, Coppola starts each day with silly theater games. He passes “sound balls” among the cast members, and makes noises not becoming of a living legend. Damon learns: “You can’t feel like you’re being judged by the people you’re working with, or you’ll seize up.”
It’s 1998. On the set of All the Pretty Horses, Billy Bob Thornton and his crew’s downtime revolves around bowling. It builds unity. Damon learns: “Bowling is a great equalizer. Nobody’s very good, but everybody can do it.”
It’s 2009. On the set of Invictus, Clint Eastwood finishes the first shot of the film before the full crew even shows up on set, which is the way he starts every movie. Damon learns: “That sends a very strong message that you’re there to do the job, and that you know what you’re doing. Indecision is a killer.”
Of course, not everyone he’s worked with has inspired.
“There’s always a certain leap of faith you make when you start working with somebody,” Damon says. But he tries to minimize the distance of that leap. Before signing on to a role, he sits down to talk about the director’s vision of a film. By this point he’s read the script; he has ideas on the matter. But Damon doesn’t share them at first. He just wants to hear something thoughtful and new. He’s exploring how the director thinks.
If he signs on, he then involves himself in the casting. Like, say, of Emily Blunt, who was fresh off her Golden Globe–nominated appearance in The Young Victoria. He wanted to work with her in The Adjustment Bureau. But that was an easy one: So did the studio and director. Done deal. (And then, a payoff from Coppola’s lesson on being carefree: “I met Matt and he was lovely and very funny,” Blunt says, “and instantly, I thought, ‘Oh, we could be like teenage boys together. Just be weird and stupid and silly.’ ” And like that, chemistry is made.)
But Damon has fought hard for lesser-known actors to take roles over big stars. He doesn’t care about status; he just wants the person he thinks will be great to work with. It’s such a simple connection: If they’re better, you’re better. For any business, with any boss, with any team of any kind: If they’re better, you’re better.
“And then, for me, once I make that commitment, I never will sell the director out on that project,” he says. “You cannot change horses midrace. Even if your horse is losing, you ride the horse as hard and as fast as you can. If there was a mistake made, it was made in your initial decision to work with that person.”
Damon has seen what happens when a cast turns on its director. He won’t name names, but he’ll tell you the outcome: a lesser movie, a failure for everyone. And that’s another reason he has that early chat before signing on to a film: “You can always circle back and say, ‘Listen, when we talked about this, this is not what we talked about.’ And then you’re really on more righteous footing.”
there is an important scene near the start of The Adjustment Bureau, when Damon’s character, a hot political upstart, loses a campaign. He responds with a transformative concession speech—none of this “it’s time to come together” crap that everyone applauds and nobody believes, but a speech that demonstrates humanity beyond the capacity of most politicians. It sets up a great comeback.
But that speech wasn’t in the original script.
“That was an explicit choice I made—it’s a divided country, and it’s hard to write a concession speech that doesn’t sound like political platitudes,” Nolfi says. He’d planned to show the seeds of a great speech, then cut away.
But Damon wasn’t having that. People had to see the moment. He let Nolfi know, but Nolfi had a movie to direct. Damon kept bringing up the missing scene. “Then 2 or 3 days before we filmed the speech, Matt said, ‘I know how tired you are, but go and draft the speech. Do the best you can do,’ ” Nolfi says. “I stayed up all night.”
The next morning, Nolfi and Damon sat in a trailer and revised it line by line. That’s what you see in the movie.
Damon didn’t volunteer this story. You have to hear it from Nolfi. Typical.