Extreme Measures: Matt Damon in Courage Under Fire
1997 was the year Good Will Hunting made Matt Damon into a household name. Before that happened, Damon was just another young actor looking to make his mark. The previous summer, Damon dropped a lot of weight and gave a memorable supporting performance in the drama, Courage Under Fire. Movieline magazine did a brief profile on Damon for their Young Hollywood Issue when no one realized that his upcoming movie (referred to in the article as “a film he wrote”) was going to be his breakout role.
Denzel Washington and Lou Diamond Phillips both gave terrific performances in last summer’s Courage Under Fire, and Meg Ryan drew praise playing against type as the soldier whose valor is investigated after her death. That may help to explain why little-known Matt Damon’s shattering performance in the film was overlooked by many critics. This is not to scant the fine work of the bigger stars, but Damon provided much of the soul of Courage Under Fire. As a medic involved in a cover-up after a harrowing helicopter mission in which the crew’s commander was killed, Damon made the anguish of his character palpable and caught the physical and emotional decimation wrought by war.
Before Courage Under Fire, Damon hadn’t really shown the depth of his talent. In School Ties he was convincing enough as an anti-Semitic thug in preppie clothing, but the role was one-dimensional. His role as the innocent young soldier in Geronimo: An American Legend was even more forgettable. He knew that he had to take some risks in Courage to prove that he wasn’t just a vacuous hunklet. “There’s a very short list of young actors in Los Angeles.” he says. “‘I thought this movie could help me to climb little higher in the pecking order.”
The actor went to more than merely emotional extremes to get to the truth of his character. He pulled a reverse De Niro to psych himself into the part. Through a strict regimen of a high-protein, no-fat diet and an intensive bout of exercise, he lost 41 pounds and kept it off for weeks while on location in Texas. “I felt he should be a shell of a man at the end of the story,” Damon says. “Not just because of the drugs he’s been taking, but because the guilt he feels has been eating away at him. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I ran six miles in the morning and six miles at night, and I’d drink four to six pots of coffee to be able to run that distance. When I went into a restaurant, the first thing I would tell the waiters was, ‘I’m your worst nightmare.” I wouldn’t waver from my diet. It got so bad that when my girlfriend kissed me, I’d have to wash my mouth out because I could taste the oils on her lips from the food she’d eaten.”
Director Edward Zwick had initially seconded Damon’s idea of losing weight for the part, but when the actor showed up on location in his emaciated state, Zwick was shocked. “He was scared, and he told me to start eating,” Damon says. “But by that point I was so far gone that I wasn’t going to compromise. I’m not sorry I did it. I knew it was a great role with a real chance to do something I hadn’t done before. I just didn’t know the effects would be so long-lasting. I went to a doctor in Boston after I got back from shooting and he said, “The good news is that your heart didn’t shrink.” But my blood sugar was all messed up, and I’m still on medication to correct that.”
Damon’s work in Courage Under Fire has given his career a jolt. After seeing it, Francis Ford Coppola tagged him for the lead in the latest John Grisham movie, The Rainmaker, in which he’s on camera in virtually every scene. After The Rainmaker, Damon will star in a film he wrote himself. And then, perhaps, he’ll finally graduate from college.
“I’m on the nine-year plan at Harvard,” he jokes. “I was supposed to graduate in ’92 and I did walk with my class at the commencement. My mother said, ‘It’s so consistent. There you were, pretending to graduate. It’s what you’ve been doing your whole life.'”