Three years ago, Matt Damon stood on stage clutching his Golden Globe award for co
writing the screenplay to Good Will Hunting with best friend Ben Affleck and his childlike
enthusiasm was contagious as he finished his acceptance speech by adding, "and Dad,
we got better seats than Jack Nicholson!"
"No longer the new kid in town"
These days, Damon is no longer the new kid in town, nor the outsider who canít
believe people like Jack Nicholson know who he is. But heís still a long way from
being a cynic. The Massachusetts-born actor and his childhood buddy Ben Affleck began
writing the screenplay for Good Will Hunting seven years ago, while Damon was still
attending Harvard and struggling to become an actor with only small roles in Mystic Pizza
and School Ties to show for it.
When Good Will Hunting earned him both a Best Actor Academy Award nomination and a
shared Golden Globe and Oscar win with Affleck for Best Screenplay, the actor suddenly
found himself in a class alone, no longer having to compete with Chris OíDonnell
Ė who had previously beaten him out of many films, including Scent of a Woman. The
30-year-old actor has since maintained his impressive Hollywood takeover with a diverse
range of films such as The Rainmaker, Saving Private Ryan, The Talented Mr. Ripley and two
up-coming films both with actor/directors not appearing in them; All the Pretty Horses,
directed by Oscar-winning writer (Slingblade) Billy Bob Thornton, and The Legend of Bagger
Vance, directed by Robert Redford.
While heís no longer the kid who crashed the party, that kid-like quality that
makes Damon so endearing is still in healthy abundance as he confesses his own surprise at
making it to the top of the pecking order. "I keep waiting for someone to come tap me
on the shoulder and tell me to leave," he grins, "but thatís probably a
common thing. I think most actors probably feel that way but I like to think I still have
the same enthusiasm I had when I stood on that stage at the Golden Globes two years ago. I
certainly donít think Ben and I have become jaded or anything!"
Part of the secret to his ease and comfort with becoming a household name, Damon
insists, are the friends and family from his hometown of Boston that he has remained close
to throughout his life. Sitting in a swank New York hotel dutifully doing press duties for
The Legend of Bagger Vance, Damon is also excitedly looking forward to his 30th
birthday party at another New York hotel that same week. "Iíve flown my friends
and family in from Boston so it should be a big night," he casually admits.
"These are friends that Iíve had my whole life so they are there for all the
stuff that happens, the good and the bad."
"The perks of stardom"
But even Damon has to acknowledge with a grin a mile wide that the perks of stardom
donít entirely leave his family and friends unaffected. "My father came down to
the set of The Legend of Bagger Vance and we played a lot of baseball and catch, he
recalls. "The prop department had a baseball and some gloves and we went and picked
up the gloves and started having a catch. One day, Redford walked over and grabbed a glove
and started playing catch and about two minutes into it, my dad just turned to me and
said, ĎIím having a catch with Roy Hobbs (Redfordís character in The
Natural)!í So there are always reminders of how kind of cool and exciting my life
In The Legend of Bagger Vance, Damon plays Rannulph Junuh, a professional golfer who
had it all but disappeared after going off to war and becoming disillusioned with the
world. When heís coaxed into playing a once-in-a-lifetime golf match against the
greatest golfers of the day, Junuh meets a mysterious man called Bagger Vance (Will Smith)
who insists on becoming his golf caddie and helping him find his swing, a metaphor for
whatís really at stake for Junuh during the game. Based on the novel by Steven
Pressfield, The Legend of Bagger Vance marks the sixth film to be directed by legendary
actor Robert Redford, who won an Oscar for his directorial debut Ordinary People two
decades ago and has always been attracted to themes of redemption. And much like he did
with Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It, Redford has again handpicked another Hollywood
golden boy to be his muse. "I got very taken with the idea of Matt Damon who, at
least at this point in his life, doesnít have much of a mark on him which is part of
his appeal," he explains. "I thought it would be interesting to put him in the
part of this damaged young man and then watch him come back from that."
So convinced was Redford that Damon was the perfect actor for the role, he changed his
mind about only hiring actors who were good golfers, taking a gamble that PGA master
professional Tim Moss could turn him into one in less than a month. Moss, who was also the
filmís technical advisor, worked with Damon for eight hours a day, seven days a week
during that month and became not just an acting fan of the star, but a fan of his athletic
prowess. "I have never seen anyone take to the game as quickly as he did," Moss
says. "In order to present Matt as a legitimate player, I decided the best thing to
do would be to teach him exactly as I would anyone else, to turn him into a fundamentally
sound player. He worked very hard and pulled it off with phenomenal results."
Maybe a little too hard for poor Damon, it seems. The actor developed blisters from his
hundreds of hours on the driving range and also separated his ribs during one practice
session but still talks about his indoctrination into the sport with unbridled enthusiasm.
"Iíd tried to swing a club before and been really bad so when I met Redford I
asked him if he thought there was enough time and he said, ĎI think you can do
ití. It was probably him saying, ĎI think you can do ití that was the
challenge for me, rather than him saying, ĎI know you can do it!í," he
chuckles. "So I went down to Georgia and worked with Tim and now Iím completely
addicted to the game!"
Like Redford, Damon embraced the metaphor of finding his swing as a parallel for
discovering his true self. "I didnít have the respect for the game that I do
now," he acknowledges. "I played a lot of baseball growing up so I figured this
game would be easy but itís hard and itís also a real exploration of yourself
and who you are and how you handle things. As Tim told me, ĎI can take anybody out on
a golf course and by the end of the day know everything about them. If they try and cheat
you, if they push their ball, if they change the way the ball is sitting to give
themselves a better shot, theyíll cheat you in real life.í He said that the
entire range of human emotions are all identifiable in somebodyís golf game and I
find that even now, when Iím playing alone, often the way Iím playing is a
reflection of how at peace I am with myself. If Iím calm and things are good in life,
itís very easy and effortless. If things arenít going well, even if I can hide
those things from people around me, theyíll come out immediately in the way that I
hit the golf ball."
"To work with Robert Redford"
Damon readily admits his main reason for making the film was to work with Robert
Redford. "Iím really careful about the things I do and usually I look at the
director and the script at the same time but in this case, if you notice in Good Will
Hunting thereís huge similarities between that and Ordinary People not only because
Ben and I loved that movie but because Ordinary People is one of (Good Will Hunting
director) Gus Van Santís favorite movies. The dynamics between the therapist and the
young person trying to overcome something are very similar, so a chance to not only work
with an actor that I really admired but somebody whose directing I admired, was something
I could not say no to," he says.
While accolades have come quickly for Damon, he seems strangely unaffected by them or
the Oscar hype already being thrown around for his performances in The Legend of Bagger
Vance and All the Pretty Horses, based on Cormac McCarthyís best-selling novel about
a Texan cowboy who falls in love with a Mexican in the 1940s. "I know a lot of actors
who strategize about doing a big movie, then a small one, then a big one and then you
really have nothing to show for the experience of being in the movie if it doesnít
work out," he says. "With All the Pretty Horses, it was the first time that I
really donít care what happens in terms of box-office because I did it for all the
right reasons and Iím really proud of it. I just hope I get to a place where it
doesnít matter with all of them."
"An optimistic cynic"
While Damon jokingly describes himself as "an optimistic cynic", it seems his
optimism is contagious. He recently teamed up with Affleck again, only this time the pair
are doing it for free, launching a competition to help other budding screenwriters get
their first movie made by Miramax Films, who will offer the winner a chance to direct
their own movie with a US$1 million budget, and HBO cable giant will make a
documentary-style series about the making of the movie, executive produced by Damon and
Affleck. Details of Project Greenlight, (winner announced in March 2001), are available on
www.projectgreenlight.com and Damon seems
genuinely proud of this achievement. "Weíre not just lending our names but
weíre actively involved in the hope of helping bring an influx of new writers from
places like Maine or Seattle, where they are outsiders like we felt - and just want a
chance to get their foot in the door," he says.
These days Damonís foot is not only through the door, but kicking it down!
Published February 8, 2001