Matt Damon has been a staple of Hollywood for as long as I can remember. Literally.
Having been born in the year 1993, my actual life has grown in conjunction with Damon’s professional life, with the Academy Award-winning writer first breaking into Hollywood in the early 90s in films such as School Ties and Glory Daze. By the time I became a pop-culturally conscious person in the early 2000s, he was already one of Hollywood’s foremost leading men, having scored an Oscar for Good Will Hunting while also starring in massively successful blockbusters such as Ocean’s Eleven and The Bourne Identity. For as long as I’ve been on this Earth, so has Damon’s ever-evolving career.
Now 50-years-old, Damon is still as big of a star as he ever was, as evidenced by his recent filmography. Coming off the Best Picture nomination-earning Ford v Ferrari in 2019, Damon has two more prestige dramas on the way this year: the sword-and-sandals epic The Last Duel from the iconic Ridley Scott (alongside Ben Affleck, Adam Driver, and Jodie Comer, no less) and the crime drama Stillwater, helmed by Oscar-winning Spotlight filmmaker Tom McCarthy — both of which have the makings of potential award season contenders.
Loosely based on the story of Amanda Knox, Stillwater finds Damon’s Bill Baker in the stunning yet brutal streets of Marseille, France, a world away from his Roughneck life in Oklahoma, both literally and metaphorically. Desperate to prove his daughter’s innocence, a resolute if unequipped Baker — with the help of a lovely French family (a mother and daughter combo played by Camille Cottin and the scene-stealing Lilou Siauvaud) — dives headfirst into Marseille’s underbelly in order to obtain information that will exonerate his daughter.
Given the chance to speak to the Oscar winner ahead of the film’s release, Damon and I discussed creating chemistry with a child actor, the difference between playing larger-than-life characters and real-life people, learning from the characters he’s played, the difference between putting on Jason Bourne weight and Bill Baker weight, and more.
Introduction and building chemistry with an actor 40 years younger
Eric Italiano: Folks, today I am joined by, at least as far as I’m concerned, one of the most important actors of my lifetime. You know him from films such as Good Will Hunting, The Bourne Identity, Oceans 11, and more. Ladies and gentlemen, Matt Damon, how are you doing today sir?
Matt Damon: Hey Eric, how are you doing?
EI: I’m giddy, man, I gotta be honest with you, it’s a real thrill to talk to you, especially about this awesome film. Congrats on Stillwater, which I loved. In fact, my favorite part of it was the wonderful dynamic between Bill and Maya, which I thought was the heart of the film. How did you go about building that obvious chemistry with the actress despite both the language and age barrier, and was the scene-stealing nature of that relationship baked into the script or something that developed as you guys filmed?
MD: Well, thanks, man. Great question. She’s amazing. I’ve been calling her the Meryl Streep of nine-year-olds.
EI: That’s dead on mate, she’s amazing, I couldn’t believe it. As are you, but the connection between the two of you is the heart of the film for me.
MD: Yeah, and after the first day that she shot, Tom McCarthy (the director) and I went, sat down, and just went, “Okay, this kid is pitching a no-hitter.” How do we make sure nobody gets in her way? We gotta get really serious about making sure that this is fun for her, that it continues to be playful and fun. The minute it turns into work — there are a few ways we can screw it up. We can exhaust her and then it becomes work. Or people can get in her ear, which sometimes happens with children. They have the Aunt or Uncle that goes, “You should do this face and you should say that.” You know what I mean? And they start giving acting lessons to the eight-year-old.
EI: Is this something that was in the script? Were you guys aware of the way in which this relationship would bear itself to the front of this film?
MD: Yeah, for the film to work, this relationship has to work. It’s about him having a relationship with this little girl that he couldn’t have with his own daughter. And so that was a real central theme. And we knew, it’s always a crapshoot.
EI: How did you guys go about building the chemistry between you two despite the, I don’t know, 40-year age gap and language barrier and all that? Did you spend time with her off-set? How did that work out? Because clearly, you guys have bonded beyond the point of “Punch in and punch out.”
MD: There was a guy who we hired named Marco, who was like an acting coach and translator for her, and he was very good at keeping theaters games, kinda keeping it really light and fun for her. And she, to be fair, is a natural. She’s a true natural. And sometimes you get that with a kid.
The types of roles Matt Damon wants
EI: Now, Just so I don’t spend my entire chance talking to Matt Damon and use it to talk about a nine-year-old girl, let me ask you about yourself, sir: What’s more challenging and/or rewarding for you as an actor, bringing someone larger than life like Jason Bourne or Tom Ripley, to life, or playing someone almost aggressively real like Bill? And how are those two things different when it comes to your process?
MD: [laughs] Bill, there’s a lot of detail in this performance that I’m really happy with, and that really… That’s the rush for me is playing a real guy… You know, the Bourne movies are really fun, I love them, but it’s a different thing, it’s like…
EI: Well, that’s why I ask. Yeah.
MD: Yeah, it’s a different thing. I love making all these different types of movies — like I’ll kind of do anything. I just love this job. And each time I kind of have a different set of marching orders, but this was very, very specific. It was… I hope they don’t sell it too much like a thriller because it’s really a drama.
EI: Those were my notes, exactly, Matt: I think if you go into it expecting a drama, you’re gonna love it, but if you expected “Punch ’em, kick ’em up, Matt Damon in France trying to save his daughter,” that’s not this film.
MD: It’s not. And we would fail on those grounds if that’s how you’re gonna judge it. It has a couple of those thriller elements that drive the plot. But it’s really a drama. And that required a certain level of specificity about this Roughneck that I was playing. And going down to Oklahoma, and meeting those guys, and that entire look. It was like building the physical side of it and then the internal side of it, making that feel very real. I loved it.
Learning from the characters he’s played
EI: You lead me right into my next point. Did you personally learn anything from either the perspective of Bill or the perspective of the French characters that you’ll carry with you in your real life? And how common of an occurrence is in acting where you learn from your character and it affects the way that you are as a person?
MD: I think you have to understand why your character does what they do. You have to have empathy for your character. And Bill is probably somebody that I wouldn’t agree with politically about things, you know what I mean? Going down there talking to those guys… The guys I talk to view their politics is kind of a binary proposition. It’s like, if you’re from Oklahoma, and you work in the old fields, you’re gonna get read down the ticket. “I am gonna put food on my table for my family.” Once you’ve seen through that lens, I totally understand why Bill Baker does what he does. I think you have to come from a place of empathy. And every time I go and I’ll do research trips like that, I always come back feeling like the stuff that binds us is so much more.
EI: Do you seek out roles like that now?
MD: I just seek out things that I think are gonna be good, but I love playing a three-dimensional guy who’s a Roughneck from Oklahoma because this is the guy that the liberal elite, the coastal elite, would stare down their nose at. And ideally, by the end of the movie, they’ll feel a great deal of empathy for him.
Crafting Bill Baker
EI: So again, you sort of led me into my point: this is a role that gives you a lot of emotional beats to hit. What aspect of the Bill character was the toughest for you to crack? And what does that process for you look like? Is it a one-size-fits-all or does it vary with each new character you play?
MD: It really depends on the kind of filter you’re pushing the emotions and all that through, and Bill is a very particular filter, right? That look is very important. All of that came from the Roughnecks: from the jeans I was wearing with the fire retardant on them, to the goatee and the glasses and the hat and all of that stuff, it’s almost like a uniform. And I put weight on, but only… I didn’t weigh myself, but I was looking in the mirror, because those guys, all the guys I met, particularly the one’s my age, were very kind of beefy — they’re strong as hell. That job requires a lot of physical strength. And Tom wanted the sense that there was violence right underneath the surface and extend it, and it’s always there, it’s there in the way he walks. In one scene, I grab a pen from somebody, and it’s just a little flash and you’re like, “Oh shit, okay, I see what they’re talking about when they say this guy could be violent.” You know what I mean?
EI: For sure, for sure. And you bring up a point about your weight, that’s kind of a fun thing that I wanna ask him, so I’m going to save that for the end. I wanna really just focus on Bill because I thought you were just incredible in this role, Matt, totally lost you in it. This is a film about both doing things for the first time — Bill is thrown into a world he doesn’t know — and second chances. Was the melding of those two things intentional? And why do you think it’s important for humanity to be open to both?
MD: Oh wow… I’ve never thought about it in that context. Yeah, it’s about a guy, he is doing things for the first time, but it’s flipping that idea on its head about… It’s a guy who has this impulse to help — because of the pain and the grief that he’s carrying, and the damage that he’s done to the relationship he has with his daughter, how responsible he feels for her life — and he has this impulse to try to repair that relationship and help her, and yet he has none of the skills.
EI: Well, at least in terms of his blood daughter, I think he does show those skills in what I would say is his second chance with Maya.
MD: That’s right. So, in a funny way, he gets what he wants at the beginning of the film, right? At the beginning of this film, he goes on a mission, and he’s had this dream of exonerating his daughter, but he’s a very different guy by the end of the movie.
Your own perspective determining the end of a film
EI: Exactly. And then that is gonna actually cause me to skip to one that I have about the ending because you bring it up so eloquently. Without getting too much into detail, I think that the ending of the film leaves you in a state where your own perspective determines if it’s happy or sad.
MD: I agree.
EI: I felt a bit of both. How do you read the ending, Matt?
MD: I read it the way you did. And I love that because I think it is both. Looking at what he loses is so devastating, right? But you also know that this guy… the world does look different to him now.
EI: Beautiful ending, man, I gotta say, amazing.
MD: He can re-engage with a different world now. You know what I mean? He knows he can’t go back.
EI: So you think it’s sort of am open-ended, depending on your own point of view type thing?
MD: Yeah, I would say I would agree with your assessment of it.
EI: Thank you, Matt. I’ve gotta wrap up here. Thank you for some of the most thrilling 10 minutes of my career. I just wanna ask you real quick: talk to me about the difference between putting on Bourne weight and putting on Bill weight, ’cause I know it was different.
MD: [laughs] Oh yeah, the Bill weight’s a lot more fun!
EI: That’s what I figured you’d say! A lot more cheeseburgers, huh?
MD: A lot more cheeseburgers. Yeah, definitely… a lot more pizza.
EI: Matt, thank you so much, sir. This was an honor. I appreciate you and all the work that you’ve done my whole life, I wish you nothing but the best going forward, and I hope that we cross paths again one day soon.
MD: So do I. Thank you, Eric, I appreciate it, man.
EI: Cheers, man, thank you again.
MD: Yeah, you bet.
Thanks to Matt Damon for taking the time to speak with us, and make to check out his new film ‘Stillwater’ from Academy Award-winning director Tom McCarthy when it hits theaters on Friday, July 30.