Matt Damon: The Man of Good Will
1997 was a very good year for Matt Damon. After a few years of supporting roles in movies like School Ties and Courage Under Fire, Damon landed leading roles in The Rainmaker and Good Will Hunting. The latter earned Damon an actor for Best Original Screenplay for the script he wrote with buddy Ben Affleck. Damon’s “little guy makes good” story won him plenty of fans. As this interview from the December 1997 issue of Movieline magazine makes clear, Damon’s “aww shucks” reaction to his new-found fame was genuine.
You might remember Matt Damon as the edgy medic/junkie from Courage Under Fire, although that wouldn’t help you recognize him now–he lost 40 pounds for the role. It’s unlikely you’d remember him as the innocent lieutenant opposite Jason Patric in Geronimo: An American Legend, since just about no one saw that one when it came out in 1993. But perhaps you remember him as the anti-Semitic prep school kid in School Ties, although he made that movie when he was 21 and he has since grown up nicely. Even if you don’t remember Matt Damon, take my word for it–you’re about to see a lot of him. He plays the lead in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker. He plays the lead in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, a film he himself cowrote. And he plays Private Ryan in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming World War II epic Saving Private Ryan. The way things are going, you might have a hard time getting Matt Damon’s face out of yours.
I meet Damon in his room on the 43rd floor of New York’s Four Seasons Hotel, probably the most luxurious hotel in the whole city. Damon is on the phone when I get there, so I do a two-minute snoop around his posh suite. Here’s what I discover. The bathroom has more marble than Venice. Damon is a restless sleeper (his sheets are all balled up at the foot of his bed). The rumor that Damon is seeing his Good Will Hunting costar Minnie Driver is obviously true, since there’s a photo of the two of them on the windowsill.
“Fame looks good on you,” I say to Damon, gesturing towards the surroundings as he hangs up the phone.
“Fame?” he asks incredulously. “My assistant and I got in here last night and we felt just like the Jeffersons. We were saying, ‘How did we end up in this place?’ Then we hit the minibar and ate everything in it. I kept saying, ‘We’re not paying for any of this shit, right?'”
Damon looks out the window at the vista of Central Park far below. “Fame, huh? Are you kidding? I’m knocking on wood so hard my knuckles are bleeding. I cannot believe any of this. You probably feel more comfortable here than I do.”
Trust me, this wide-eyed stuff is not an act. I probably am more comfortable here than he is.
Damon and I could have met at the Manhattan apartment he shares with Ben Affleck, his buddy and coscripter on Good Will Hunting (you might remember Affleck from his starring role in Chasing Amy), but he hasn’t really spent any time there since he rented it, and now all his friends from high school have taken it over. He signed the lease on the place the day before he got the call from his agent to go to Knoxville, Tennessee, to screen test for The Rainmaker.
“I never even unpacked,” Damon says, lighting the first of many cigarettes. “I absolutely thought I wasn’t going to get this job. I mean, what were the chances? Slim to none, right? But it was New Year’s Eve, Knoxville sounded warm, and I was getting the chance to audition for Coppola. Am I a moron? No. I threw everything I could think of into my Jeep and took off.”
“Slim to none” turned out to be a misjudgment–Damon was hired immediately.
Since Coppola is a director whose reputation precedes him, I ask Damon, “Was he a madman on the set of The Rainmaker?”
“Nah, not at all,” the actor replies. “The guy’s a fucking genius, pure and simple. Working with him was wonderful. Everyone had a ball.”
“Are you one of those guys who can quote The Godfather line and verse?”
“Of course. I know every line. Me and my friends used to sit around, drink beers and watch that movie dozens of times.”
Damon jumps to the edge of his seat. “I’ll tell you the most embarrassing story about The Godfather. I went to San Francisco to do some post-production stuff on The Rainmaker, and one night there was a premiere for the rerelease of The Godfather. I went with Danny DeVito, and sat with him and [Paramount exec] Sherry Lansing. I had never seen it on the big screen, because I was only two when the movie came out. Before the film started I said to Sherry, ‘This is so cool. I’ve never seen it on the big screen.’ She looks at the guy next to her and says, ‘See Al, Matt’s never seen it either.’ Then Al Pacino peeks around Sherry and says, ‘You’ve never seen it on the big screen? Me either. I saw it on TV, but never on the big screen.’ I was so stunned to be looking Al Pacino in the face, I just said, ‘Well, it’s good, and you did a good job.’ Then I kinda leaned back in my chair and felt like such a putz.”
Damon shakes his head at the memory.
“Do you want to talk about that photo on the windowsill of you with Minnie Driver, or should we talk about your other films?”
Damon jumps right in about his other films. “When Ben and I sold Good Will Hunting, we almost died. Then when Gus Van Sant agreed to direct it, we died again. I mean, this guy is a fucking genius. Then it was unbelievable when Robin Williams agreed to be in it.”
“Wait, hadn’t you worked with Robin Williams before?”
Now Damon rolls his eyes. “No, Martha, he was in Dead Poets Society, not School Ties. You’re not the first to confuse those two films. Anyway, you know those magic moments that happen in your life that you just don’t see coming? Well, the first day we shot, me and Ben weren’t working, we were just on the set as writers. We wanted to see the first day of principal photography. It was a scene with Robin, and when they rolled the cameras and said, Scene 41, Take 1, Action, literally tears were coming down my face. I just couldn’t believe it. For four years, Ben and I had worked on this script. We loved it and believed in it. But to see Robin totally believing what he was saying–words Ben and I had written–was really too much. I looked over at Ben and tears were running down his face, too. I just put my head down and wept. Robin witnessed the whole thing and he came over to me and Ben. He was so tender, like a father. He put his hands on our heads and said, ‘It’s not a fluke, you really did it.'”
“When you work with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan, are you going to carry on about what a genius he is, too?”
“I tried to act unimpressed around Denzel Washington on Courage Under Fire, but one day I just couldn’t help it. I started to quote Malcolm X, the part where he talks about the chickens coming home to roost. He was so amazed–I think I knew more of it than he did. So yeah, I may have an E.T. moment with Spielberg.”
“What about your costar, Tom Hanks?”
“I gotta tell you, how am I gonna be able to do a movie with Tom Hanks and not quote Forrest Gump? That must get so old for him. Maybe what I should do is rent Turner & Hooch. Even if I have to play the dog, even if I have to drool, at least I’ll get to run through a scene with Tom Hanks.”
“Matt, you’re going to be in a real scene with him,” I point out.
Damon smacks his head. “Can you believe it? This is a chance of a lifetime. I get to put on a soldier’s uniform, hold a pretend gun, shoot fake Nazis–and with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg! I don’t know how to react to the great and wild year I’ve had.”
You have to love this guy. Damon is, of course, right about the year he’s had. And it’s not just him. He seems to hang with a magic circle of friends who are all having great years. These “friends” he refers to line up like a Who’s Who of Young Hollywood. Ben Affleck, who starred with Damon in School Ties, did Dazed and Confused with then unknown Matthew McConaughey and Rory Cochrane (the crazy guy with a tattoo on his shaved head in Love and a .45), and those two are part of the posse. Affleck’s younger brother Casey made To Die For with Joaquin Phoenix, and those two are in this tight group as well.
“We used to tool around in L.A. together,” says Damon. “We always used to say, ‘Hey, I read this script, maybe we can all do it.’ We were all struggling. I remember when we heard Matthew got offered a million bucks for A Time to Kill. We were all just jumping around, screaming. I mean, the fact that one of us was ‘the guy’ was just too much to be believed.”
Unlike much of the rest of young Hollywood, which would rather step on your head than ask you to move aside, Damon actually roots for the other guy. He must have just been brought up right. He was born in Boston, the son of a professor mother and realtor father who divorced when Damon was two. “My mom and my brother and I moved into a community house,” he says, smiling at the memory. “Six families got together, bought a house and rebuilt it. Everyone had their own apartment, but the kids felt free to wander from apartment to apartment.”
I moan. “Communal living is such a nightmare.”
“This wasn’t. Everyone had their space, and as a kid, it was heaven. If your mom was out or not in the mood for you, there was always another mother around who was.”
“Were they hippies?” I ask, trying to imagine who the hell would want other people’s kids popping in at all hours.
“Oh, yeah, definitely. They all had the same views on money, politics, raising children. My mom wrote a book about the way kids play with toys. Her theory was that kids’ shows were half-hour commercials for products and that companies were starting to tell kids how they should play with toys. So in our house we only had blocks. My brother and I hated those fucking blocks. What the hell could you do with them? So my brother would make these really amazing costumes, which I’d wear, and we’d act out these stories.”
“Is that when you decided you wanted to be an actor?”
Damon nods. “When Star Wars came out, we went nuts. We went to see it 25 times, couldn’t get enough of it. It was this world of total imagination that was suddenly right there in front of us. I was always acting out these parts, and my brother, who went on to become an artist and a sculptor, was always designing these great costumes. It seems we were on predetermined paths from a very early time.”
“So, you want to be an actor, but you go to Harvard to get a degree in English?”
“I know,” Damon says. “It was just so exciting to get into Harvard. But I didn’t do so well when I got there. I screwed up and got the gentleman’s B minus, which is basically what they give you when you really should be flunking. They don’t like to acknowledge that they admitted the wrong person. I was 17, just going out and having a good time, playing pool. After my first year, I did [the cable TV movie] Rising Son and then when I went back to school, I really dug it. Where else can you relax and study Japanese culture? I left again to do School Ties and Geronimo, and then I went back for a third year. Each year I kept doing better and better, because I realized how great it was to be in school, how it gave me a kind of freedom that I may never have again in my whole life. I have another year to do, but I can’t seem to schedule it in.”
“Are you and Ben going to write another script?”
“Yeah, we’re starting one next month. Ben took a vacation with his girlfriend, though. They went to Saint Martin for a week, which is no small potatoes. All our families were saying, ‘Ben’s going to Saint Martin? Wow–I guess he really made it, huh?’ We are not the kind of kids who imagined ourselves in Saint Martin, believe me.”
“Speaking of girlfriends,” I begin.
“Do we have to?” he implores, rolling his eyes.
“Of course,” I tell him. “What’s up with that picture of you and Minnie? Are you dating her?”
Damon turns red. “I am, but it’s kind of new and I don’t want to screw it up by talking about it.” He stops cold. But then smiles and says, “She’s so British.” As if that explains everything.
“So, is it true that you fell in love with Claire Danes on the set of The Rainmaker?” I ask, referring to his rumored relationship with the young actress.
“Sure, who wouldn’t? She’s fabulous.”
“So, both girlfriends have been actresses,” I say. “I’m leery of actors being together.”
Damon gives me a blank look.
“Claire Danes was your girlfriend, right?” I ask.
Damon leans over and smacks my arm and says, “No, she’s only 18.”
As if that’s ever stopped anyone before.
“Not all of my girlfriends have been actresses,” Damon continues. “In fact, the love of my life was a doctor.”
Love of his life? I’m practically falling off my chair in anticipation. No doubt realizing I’ll hound him if he doesn’t cough up the story, Damon leans back and tells it. “We were college sweethearts. I was in L.A. and she was at Columbia–it was a long distance romance, which was really hard. We did it for years, and then it was like the dynamic was becoming so fucked up because we were trying to avoid the thing of not seeing each other for a long time and then being extra careful not to say something that might upset the other one. We decided to leave it to the gods–if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. And then she married someone else.”
“You’re kidding. Is he a doctor, too?”
“No, he’s a fucking rock star who’s got $80 million and his own jet.”
“That’s worse, that’s much worse.”
“Yeah, it really is. A bad rock star, too.”
By now night is falling on Manhattan. I gather my things and Damon walks me to the door. “Really, I still can’t believe that people are even remotely interested in what I have to say,” he says.
“Honey, people want to know everything about you.”
Damon runs his hands through his thick hair, lets out a little sigh, and then bursts into laughter. He thinks I’m kidding.
Martha Frankel interviewed Juliette Binoche for the August ’97 issue of Movieline.