No matter how big a star he’s become (and thanks to the Bourne franchise, he’s become very big indeed) Matt Damon has always seemed refreshingly removed from the silliness of showbiz. Following the birth of his fourth daughter, the Harvard drop-out, activist and aspiring director is even more determined to play the Hollywood game on his own terms.
In a midtown hotel suite, Matt Damon looks intently at the view over Manhattan. He points out the Brooklyn Bridge, where a key scene in his latest film, The Adjustment Bureau, was filmed. In dark jeans, a white T-shirt and brown lace-up boots, with a turned-up nose and pale blue eyes, he looks, well, just like you’d expect Matt Damon to look, though at 178cm, perhaps slightly shorter.
Directed by George Nolfi (a screenwriter on The Bourne Ultimatum) and based on a Philip K Dick short story, The Adjustment Bureau is a sort of Sliding Doors love story, with Damon’s politician running around Manhattan’s streets in pursuit of a ballerina called Elise (Emily Blunt). But the forces of fate, led by Mad Men’s John Slattery, seem to keep them apart. At least, that seems to be the plot from a collection of film clips journalists were shown. The final cut wasn’t yet available.
No matter, Oscar-winner Damon has plenty more movies on his dance card. There’s the Coen brothers’ True Grit, which came out in January, plus Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, both slated for release this year.
And why wouldn’t the 40-year-old Bostonian, humanitarian and father of four have a full slate? Good Will Hunting, co-written with his childhood best friend Ben Affleck, may have launched his career but the Jason Bourne trilogy made him a Gen X box-office star.
The week before our interview, Damon, who is famous for not being on the cover of gossip mags, had a tabloid-worthy event. His fourth daughter, Stella, arrived. She joins stepdaughter Alexia, 12, Isabella, 4, and Gia, 2, at home in New York with his Argentinian wife Luciana Barroso, whom he calls Lucy.
GQ Congratulations on the birth of your daughter.
MD Yeah, it’s pretty great. You forget how small they are when they first arrive. We’re happy and tired.
GQ What’s it like being the only man in a house with five females?
MD A whole new world. It’s amazing, actually. I feel so lucky I had girls. I would have missed out on this whole reality…
GQ What do you mean by ‘reality’?
MD They’re a different species. I have friends with boys the same age and they pick up the toys my kids are surrounded with every day and do things [with them] my girls would never think to do. Often they’ll try to destroy them. Boys are different animals. I go to my brother’s house and one of his sons will try and punch me in the nuts. It’s just his way of saying hello. My daughters would never do that.
GQ So do you know your Disney Princesses?
MD Yeah. We don’t push that shit and yet we know all the Disney Princesses — it’s like crack. When a marketing machine that powerful is able to fixate on three-year-olds, they know how to make the crack.
GQ Are there going to be more kids?
MD No. I think four is the limit for Lucy. Look, if we had another baby, we’d both be thrilled, but for now, this definitely feels like it’s enough. We’re hustling all day long, from the minute the alarm goes off. By the time you get finished and everyone goes down, you’re gearing up for 7am.
GQ You’ve said your priorities have changed.
MD I love my job and I want to do it forever. [But] there are movies that I won’t take now just because I’m not going to leave my kids. With Invictus it was an eight or nine-week [shoot] and my eldest was in school. I ended up flying her class over for spring break to South Africa. They did a whole [study] thing about Mandela and went to Robben Island. That allowed my family to go for the whole time.
GQ You flew the class?
MD It’s either that or don’t do the movie. It was probably half the class. What I really try to do is find jobs in New York.
GQ Do you worry about not getting work because you have these rules about putting your family first?
MD It’s not like [producers are] sitting out there going, “He’ll no longer go to Uzbekistan, take him off that list!” It’s a case-by-case thing. Then there are projects that are great and I’ll go see it when [the movie] comes out.
GQ How many scripts do you have piled around your house?
MD Not many. I rule a lot out based on directors. I get scripts that directors are attached to already. And then I have a lot of friends who I’ve already worked with and they call me again. It’s a pretty easy vetting process.
GQ Tell me about We Bought a Zoo.
MD I’ve been a fan of Cameron Crowe (director of Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky and Jerry Maguire) for a long time. He gave me this script and all this music and he was like, ‘This is what the movie is going to feel like.’ He also gave me the film Local Hero — it’s a wonderful movie (about an American businessman who tries to buy a Scottish village). But before that, True Grit comes out.
GQ True Grit looks absolutely awesome.
MD It was a great script. The storyboards looked really good. When I was there I was watching the actors and was really blown away. Roger Deakins (No Country For Old Men, The Shawshank Redemption) shot it and we were sitting by the camera one day while the lights were being set and I said, “This feels like it’s going to be really special, am I wrong?” He said, “Oh no, this is a special one.” I have really high hopes.
GQ Had you worked with the Coen brothers before?
MD No. They were at the top of the list. I knew Joel from working with his wife [Frances McDormand]. I did a cable TV movie in 1994 called The Good Old Boys, with Tommy Lee Jones, Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard, Fran — I played her son. I’m not that much younger than Fran; life is hard out on the range, I guess. I met Joel then and hung out with them in west Texas. It was 16 years before he felt there was something that I’d be right for in one of his movies. I felt lucky.
GQ Do you believe in fate?
MD I don’t know what I believe. Sometimes it feels like something is on my side. I believe that your choices matter.
GQ Have you had moments like those of your character in The Adjustment Bureau, when you’ve met someone who’s changed your life instantly and forever?
MD My wife is pretty much the only one I’ve thought that way about.
GQ What about Ben Affleck?
MD I don’t think I looked at him and was like, ‘This eight-year-old is going to change my life.’
GQ Were you ambitious when you were young?
MD I was very ambitious and very focused. I was coming here [to New York City] and auditioning when I was 16 and Ben was 14. No-one in my family was in the business. We would take the train down or the bus or we’d get a flight. We had a bank account with money that we’d made from doing local commercials in Boston. My parents didn’t want me to do it professionally. They were fine with theatre but they didn’t want me coming here. And in retrospect I see why. I wouldn’t want my 16-year-old kid in the movie business. Maybe after college, sure. But I had this insatiable drive.
GQ Why do you think you had that?
MD Ben and I have talked about it subsequently as adults. Part of it is that we fed off each other as teenagers and were obsessed, as teenagers can be. We’d go to the movies together and see what Mickey Rourke was doing. We used to have business lunches in high school every day. We would sit there, eat our cheeseburgers and go, “What’s new in the business?” (laughs). That was 25 years ago. We were in the union then. I expected fame to be more… I remember someone saying to me, “When you get famous you’ll enjoy it for a week.” I didn’t even get the week.
GQ Was it about being popular or was it about being an actor?
MD I’m sure there was vanity involved but it became about being actors. It didn’t hurt that we had an incredible acting teacher in high school. I went to public school and we had a 750-seat theatre. When I did a play in the West End, I remember thinking it was about the size of the theatre I was playing to when I was 14.
We had a great teacher, Gerry Specca. He improved the lives of every kid in that class, even the kids who didn’t become actors. Ben and Casey [Affleck] and I did. And another guy named Max Casella (Boardwalk Empire, Revolutionary Road, The Sopranos), who has a successful career. There were a lot of people who didn’t go on to become actors but had wonderful lives because of the things they learnt in that class.
GQ Why did you say no to another Jason Bourne movie?
MD I never said no, I just said I wouldn’t do it without [director] Paul Greengrass. And Paul wasn’t ready to do one. If you’re a studio executive, you’re the custodian of a property that is really valuable to a company and you need to grow that property. A property always has to be active.
Their approach is different to mine. I’m proud of those movies. It’s been a big part of my life. I’m not going to make another one unless it’s good and I’m not going to make another one without Paul — he is the key ingredient that makes those movies great. If [we’d] shot those scripts that we started with, we’d all be out of careers right now — if you don’t believe me, I could post those online. Paul is a remarkable director.
Those movies: what they end up being is a great alchemy between Paul, producer Frank Marshall, the studio, the original material and this whole crew that we have. That group is a really great team. When we get thrown together we end up with a good Bourne movie. Any ingredient of that stew, when you take it out, it ruins it.
I don’t think the studio sees it that way. And I understand their point of view. They’re in a different business to me.
GQ Are you satisfied with just being an actor?
MD Oh, no! I’m dying to direct. I can’t wait. I’m just looking for the right thing. I’d like to be like Clint Eastwood. Clint tells stories that he really loves. He doesn’t over-think it, he just goes and does it. People always say [to Clint], “This movie is so unlike you.” And he’s like, “It’s just another story that I’m telling.”
GQ Did you meet Mandela when you were doing Invictus?
MD Lucy and I had met him on his final trip to the US in 2005. There was an event Robert De Niro hosted at the Tribeca Grill and there were a few hundred people. De Niro called and said, “Would you like to meet him?” Oh my God, yes! So Lucy and I went and everyone was taking a picture with him. We felt bad. They were like, “No, take a picture.” So we got our picture with him.
When we were in South Africa, [Mandela’s minders] said, “Mandela is here in Cape Town. Would you like to go see him?” Obviously yeah, but I would rather give him five minutes to relax; he doesn’t know who I am. Morgan [Freeman] knows him very well. At the eleventh hour [his minders] were like, “Would you like to bring your kids?” They said he loves children.
We were out in the hallway of this hotel. There was a double door and a security guard was standing there, and I was holding Isabella before we went in. She said, “Daddy, who’s behind that door?” I said, “It’s a man named Nelson Mandela. He’s a very special man.” We went in and he just hung out with our kids. The photographer from the film was allowed to take pictures. We have these incredible shots of Mandela interacting with our daughters — Gia was eight months and Isabella was maybe two and a half. They never took their eyes off him. It was amazing.
GQ You’ve met other world leaders. What’s Bill Clinton like?
MD He’s a combination of unbelievable intelligence, brilliance and charisma. What makes him special is what he’s done after [his presidency] with the Clinton Global Initiative — bringing all these leaders of the business world together with NGOs. The movements that he’s catalysed and the help he’s brought people all over the world is really incredible. It’s something that he was uniquely positioned to do. He’s done great things and he’s going to do many more. That comes from a very deep and abiding compassion for people on this planet.
GQ Tell us about your charity Water.org.
MD I’m a co-founder. Water.org is going strong. We’ve got a small ambition to bring clean water to every single person in the world. We’re going to do it.
GQ In New York, they spray clean drinking water on the footpaths.
MD It’s unbelievable! Every doorman in the city just sprays water. There are a lot of behaviours that are going to start to change. To an American it’s very hard to understand that you can’t just go to the tap and get water. You don’t ever think of not having water to drink.
You go to these places [where Water.org operates, such as India and Ethiopia] and you realise how much people’s lives change when they have access to clean water. It’s a huge women’s issue because women do the collections. I’ve met girls in these countries who are in school because there’s a well near their house. Suddenly they have a chance. It only takes them an hour to get the water and now they’re in school and can do homework. They’re going to break the cycle of poverty because they’re not scavenging for water.
GQ Have you read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers?
MD I haven’t but I would like to.
GQ One of his arguments is that if you do something for 10,000 hours you will excel at it. Have you done your 10,000 hours of moviemaking?
MD I’ve done a lot more than that. My whole thing with filmmaking was just to stand next to the masters and try and apprentice myself — to treat it like a trade, like carpentry. Each movie is a different kind of house you’re building. They’re structured differently.
I know the deal about screenwriting because I’ve got my 10,000 hours reading scripts. I’ve spent 10,000 hours on movie sets. I’ve spent my adult life either on a movie set or troubleshooting screenplays, and that experience is what gives you intuition.
When I read a script now, I can break down why I like it. But it’s more important to me that it moves me in some way (he touches his chest). I’ve read thousands of scripts. I know how the magic trick is done because I’ve written as well. I can take it apart and look at it analytically. It’s like Gladwell’s idea in Blink. You instantly know.
While I was doing The Adjustment Bureau, I came home from work one day and a neighbour had put a beat-up old Lee Strasberg acting book outside my door. I was like, ‘OK, that’s funny.’ The next morning I took it with me to work. I hadn’t read Strasberg in 25 years, since I was a teenager. I turned to a random page. Strasberg was talking to one of his students: “What I’m trying to give you is a system, a method of approaching your work. You can take 20 years and you will figure out what works for you and you will have a personal system, but you’re young and a student and I’m just trying to save you some time.” I thought, ‘I’ve already put in my 20 years.’ I closed the book. I haven’t revisited Strasberg since.
The Adjustment Bureau is in cinemas now.