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DAMON, MATT: THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY

To retain contact with ordinary people, Matt Damon has a car with tinted windows so he can watch people without being stared at, he confides to MARY COLBERT while in Berlin to promote his latest film, The Talented Mr Ripley.

Matt Damon, the cherubic epitome of American wholesomeness, playing a pathological liar and killer? Now there’s a stretch.

The clean-cut boy next door who took Mom to the Oscars and brought her to our last interview in Venice, playing a sociopath in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley who does the unthinkable (turns down Cate Blanchett’s rich heiress Marge) and kills not once but three times? Definitely, it appears to be casting against type.

"different from anything I’d done before"

Now seated at one of Berlin’s smartest new establishments, the Four Seasons Hotel, a stone throw from the Brandenburg Gate, in a warmly heated room that defies outside temperatures, dressed in plain black T shirt and and dark grey casual pants, a tanned, relaxed, healthy looking Damon (his normal weight regained since doing this role) barely resembles his on screen bespectacled, dorky Mr Ripley persona.

"This role was so different from anything I’d done before," he says affably in a deep husky voice, virtually antithetical from his boyish looks. "Subversive, original, in a story that to me was also very moving."

As soon as he read the screenplay, Damon says, he was passionate about playing Ripley." I was surprised to see a Hollywood studio put up the money for something so original but I guess they were willing to take the risk with Anthony. I threw my hat into the ring and begged for the job."

Till now Damon has put in some impressive performances as a young soldier (Courage Under Fire, Saving Private Ryan), a mathematical genius reformed (Good Will Hunting), an idealistic young attorney (The Rainmaker) and renegade angel (Dogma) – mostly characters with moral fibre. As a poker whizz in the tawdry world of card sharks in Rounders, he was less convincing. So now a character whose actions can be seen as morally reprehensible?

"affable credibility"

Damon’s affable credibility was actually instrumental in getting him the role. On completing the screenplay adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Minghella (The English Patient) made one stipulation to the studio and producers, elated with his script. He was adamant he wouldn’t make the film - unless he found the perfect Ripley. The character appears in every frame of the film; he had to convincing. Minghella had to be excited by the casting.

"There are no bad people, " says Minghella. "Inside your head it all makes sense. That was the key to finding an actor who could let you understand how he thinks and operates.

So why Matt Damon? "Someone cool would have distanced the audience," explains the director. "But Matt has a credibility, and warmth and generosity - such winning qualities – that make you want to go on that journey with him inch by inch. We’ve all at some stage known what it’s like to feel excluded. We might even have pretended to be someone we’re not in order to be accepted. But not many of us are flawed enough to kill for it. After I saw Good Will Hunting I convinced he had the goods. And being a writer himself would better understand the issues at stake"

"too good a challenge"

The central challenge, according to Damon, was illuminating, at least to some degree, the motives of a character whose actions could be seen as morally alienating : "Saying OK, he kills three people and he’s your protagonist. So can you have the audience sympathetic with you or, at the very least, understand why you’re doing what you’re doing so they stay with you for the entire movie? It was too good a challenge to pass up."

Damon was very impressed with Minghella’s script adaptation. "Whereas the original work is a celebration of immorality, this became a much more compassionate work. And I loved the way Anthony had fleshed out the characters of Dickie (Oscar nominee Jude Law) and Marge (Cate Blanchett)."

"Everyone has a Dickie Greeleaf in his life, someone he admires to the point of idolatry," Damon says. "But Tom takes it even further and makes it obsessive. He finds himself in a brand new world, completely different from his own and it’s all tied up with Dickie. He just wants his approval. But when it seems his dream is over and he’s being ejected from this world, he becomes desperate. He loves Dickie and his life so much that he’s actually compelled to take it."

"The script was constructed in such a way that – though I’m biased, of course – that you can understand what’s happening with him throughout the movie so at the end, hopefully, you’re saying "Why was I rooting for him to get away?" (Though I think the end of the movie actually represents his arrival in Hell.)

"a terrible, long and tragic journey"

"If he was a total sociopath you wouldn’t have any emotion for him at the end of the movie. But Anthony wanted the idea to really land that this has been a terrible, long and tragic journey."

One of the film’s subtleties is the protagonist’s sexuality. "One of the concerns we had was that it wouldn’t become a gay serial killer movie, that it wouldn’t be misconstrued that he’s that he’s killing people because of his sexuality. That was the last thing we would have wanted. It made it interesting but it was imperative that he could still charm women and that what was at the core of him was this intense loneliness, this need to belong to people so his sexuality was situational.

He’s so willing to shed his own skin that he becomes overcome by whoever he’s with."

What made Ripley difficult to play was the character’s self-consciousness. "You work so hard in this craft to get rid of inhibitions yet this guy’s so inhibited all the time, aware of being watched and judged. It’s probably screwed me up for ever as an actor, "he laughs.

But surely his own meteoric rise to fame following Good Will Hunting has made him personally more vigilant of his own privacy, more self-conscious? Surely life has dramatically changed?

"I’m probably more self-conscious when I walk into a room now because I can’t stand in the corner watching people the way I used to, " he admits candidly.

"then I go back to my normal life"

"There are short bursts – press conferences at major film festival like this, the Oscars or Golden Globes – when for 15 minutes I walk in, smile, wave and feel like Miss America," he laughs. "And then I go back to my normal life. Actually, I think the whole (publicity) thing’s pretty funny. It would be different if they were camped outside my home waiting for me. Most of the changes in my life are superficial, " he says. "I don’t feel at all like I’ve changed internally. I’m still really close to my family and my friends from high school. On New Year’s Eve, Ben (Affleck) and I hired out a restaurant in Boston on for a party for 250 people so we could be with them. "

"I really try and safeguard against some deep internal shift because I think professionally, as well as on a personal level, it’s dangerous. It could really subvert your work."

In fact, Damon believes that observation and contact with ordinary people in life is so pivotal to his craft that he’s had to be inventive to get around the problem. "I’ve got a car with tinted windows, " he reveals. "So I’ll park across the street where people don’t see me and watch. "…

Just like Tom Ripley? "Well, he couldn’t even afford a car…" (burst of laughter)

"impressive singing voice"

The Talented Mr Ripley led to a discovery of another undiscovered Damon talent - not really surprising considering his husky voice – a very impressive singing voice. ("When I first heard Matt was going to do the song (My Funny Valentine) himself, I assumed we were going to have to re-voice him, " says music supervisor Graham Walker. "But he was extraordinary. His version of the song has beauty, pathos. You can’t believe he’s not a professional singer".)

Typically modest, Damon light-heartedly dismisses the compliments. "In America there’s this trend of actors crossing over into music," he observes. "Gwyneth really does have a beautiful voice but I’m strictly a shower performer. I just imitated Chet Baker but I’m no cross-over threat."

His sights are firmly set on performing, writing, producing and eventually directing. "I believe acting is a trade like carpentry. And the only way to get good at it is to apprentice yourself to a master carpenter," Damon says.

"Recharge"

Thus far he’s had a terrific innings: Coppola, Spielberg, Minghella, Gus Van Sant, Robert Redford in the upcoming The Legend of Baggar Vance – a non-stop four year learning curve.

Like a kid in a toyshop, his eyes boyishly light up; "I’ve been so excited by the offers that I haven’t been able to say No. For so many years Ben and I - as out of work actors - had all this energy and nowhere to put it that to have so many opportunities now it’s been hard to say No to great projects. But finally, I was so dog-tired that Robert Redford really carried me on his back on this last movie. I’ve got to live a little to recharge. Hey, I might even get time to fix up a house that I bought in New York. . ."

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