People In Film | Matt Damon

Matt Damon | An Exceptional Everyman

In PROMISED LAND, a film that Matt Damon stars in as well as co-wrote with John Krasinski, he plays Steve Butler. For Damon, the character is a “contemporary Everyman…. He left the farming community where he grew up because that town was dying. He migrated to the big city, as so many people do, in search of more opportunities.” For the two actors, the script was a labor of love that enabled them to grapple with quintessential themes of community and opportunity. It was this clarity of vision that drew Gus Van Sant to the project. As Van Sant exclaimed, “America is a big place and we are all part of it, so it’s hard to really get a grasp on our identity sometimes. What I loved about John and Matt’s screenplay is that they tackled big issues but with a lot of humor and humility. It’s a story about real people, with all their foibles as well as their greatness.” In many ways, that concept of identity as being complex and contradictory seems to fit Matt Damon as well. A local kid who has risen to become a global star, an everyman who is also exceptional, a person we all relate to even as we aspire to emulate him.

Matt Damon | Following A Passion

Born in 1970, Matthew Paige Damon grew up in Cambridge, MA, raised by his mother, a professor of childhood education, and surrounded by friends and family who would continue to inspire and influence him. As Damon told The Guardian, “I didn't grow up with great privilege, nor did I grow up wanting for anything. I was a middle-class kid and, relative to the rest of the world, that's great wealth.” But what he did have is passion and smarts, and eventually a great best friend. A straight-A student with a love for the Boston Red Sox, Damon at the age of 10 met Ben Affleck, then age eight, in 1980. The two shared a love of baseball, Dungeons and Dragons, and, as they grew older, a dream of becoming actors. At the Rindge and Latin Prep School, the two found a mentor in acting teacher Gerry Specca, who taught both Damon and Affleck about acting and writing. Damon later reflected that, “He was a teacher who affected my life in… incalculable ways.” Indeed at 16, Damon started auditioning, traveling down to New York City, picking up some commercials, and then his first real part in Donald Petrie’s Mystic Pizza. While he won a few other roles, his career never really took off. Damon, whose stellar academic record got him admitted to Harvard University, started college, eventually majoring in English. While at Harvard, he continued to audition and get cast in parts (for films like Rising Son and School Ties), but never the role that would take him to the next step. Then, with only 12 credits to go to get his degree, Damon thought he’d landed his career-defining part when he was cast in Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend, as Lt. Britton Davis, the film’s narrator. He left school and never looked back.

Matt Damon | Film Career Hunting

While Geronimo: An American Legend got Damon noticed, it didn’t quite become a springboard for his career. As Damon later told The Independent, “Everyone told me Geronimo was going to be a huge, huge hit and the best thing I could do for my career would be to stay in Los Angeles and keep pounding the pavement, because when it opened everything was going to explode. It was a huge bomb and I found myself stuck in LA with no money." Eventually Damon found that he would have to create his own opportunity. After several more years of small parts, Damon revived a script that he had started to pen while at Harvard, a thriller about a math prodigy who worked as a Harvard janitor (an job once held by Ben Affleck’s dad). Affleck and Damon crafted the story, turning it into a drama and started shopping the script about as a vehicle for their acting talent. The catch-22 was that while the studios liked the script, Affleck and Damon weren’t big enough names to cast. Luckily as they were trying to get the movie made, they both landed parts with enough shine to convince Miramax head Harvey Weinstein to greenlight the project with them in it. Damon had been cast as the wounded, drug-addicted vet in Courage Under Fire, a part for which he lost 40 pounds. The Washington Post singled out his performance as “impressive.” Even better was being cast in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker as a wide-eyed Memphis lawyer, a part for which the New York Times described him as “fresh and pensive here in ways that reinvent the character.” As such, Damon’s new star power pushed Good Will Hunting into production with Gus Van Sant at the helm and himself as the lead, Will Hunting. Released on Christmas 1997, the film was a massive hit both at the box office and with critics. Come Oscar time, Damon received nominations for both Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay, famously winning the latter with his best friend.

Matt Damon | Not Your Everyday Everyman

Immediately after Good Will Hunting, Damon starred in Steven Spielberg’s epic World War II drama Saving Private Ryan, and quickly became one of the most watched and talked about actors in Hollywood. But, after perfecting the persona of the underdog who defies expectations, the man (as Spielberg’s title suggested) who everyone wants to save, Damon went about coyly dismantling that persona. While his upcoming big-budget movies – Robert Redford’s sports fable The Legend of Bagger Vance, Billy Bob Thornton’s neo-Western All The Pretty Horses, and John Dahl’s poker thriller Rounders – had varying degrees of success, each in their own way demonstrated Damon’s talent for tweaking the wholesome persona the public wished to impose upon him. Indeed many critics were in awe of how cleverly he refashioned his boyish charm to play the sociopath title character of Anthony Minghella’s psychological thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley. As Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum noted, “the facade works surprisingly well when Damon holds that gleaming smile just a few seconds too long, his Eagle Scout eyes fixed just a blink more than the calm gaze of any non-murdering young man. And in that opacity we see horror.” But his shifting star wattage proved a complex bargain. As Damon told The Guardian, “Yeah, I certainly knew having a hit would be... useful, and that another huge failure could have drastic repercussions. I mean, after Good Will Hunting, I settled on the number of scripts I was getting sent as a gauge of how highly I was regarded commercially, and though most of those scripts were terrible, I still noticed that they'd started dwindling."

Matt Damon | Sequels and Guys

If anyone doubted Damon’s star power, two film franchises in the ‘00s showcased his value both as an actor and a star. In 2001, he became part of Hollywood’s new gang when he joined George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Andy Garcia, Julia Roberts, and more, for Steven Soderbergh’s Rat Pack redux Ocean’s Eleven. Damon appeared as Linus Caldwell, an enterprising pickpocket, and remained central to the caper for the next two Ocean's films – 2004’s Ocean's Twelve and 2007’s Ocean’s Thirteen. And while the Ocean's franchise demonstrated how Damon plays well with others, the Bourne trilogy made him an international action star all on his own. Doug Liman, the director of 2002’s The Bourne Identity, told the BBC that after considering a number of actors, like Russell Crowe, for his new take on Robert Ludlum's espionage classic, he found Damon a kindred spirit, someone “coming from the same place I was coming from and I felt we could become partners on this.”  While Damon wasn’t necessarily considered at the time an action star, he brought something new and specific to the character of Jason Bourne. As Slate’s David Edelstein pointed out, Damon was perhaps perfect for playing a professional killer with amnesia, because his talent – both as an actor and agent – are at once unexpected and lethal: “The recessiveness of Damon's personality makes it easy to imagine the character blanking on his own identity: He is wittily contained. So is the movie. Its best moment makes a joke of the poker-faced tone.” When Paul Greengrass took over the franchise for 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, Damon didn’t simply reprise the Bourne character but recreated it in startling ways. Among other things, Damon found an acting style that fit perfectly with Greengrass’ hyperkinetic cinematic style. As Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman explains, “The whirring Damon mind, tucked beneath the actor's aging-choirboy look, is a magnetic and fascinating machine. He has a singular ability to act fervently preoccupied yet casually focused on whatever's in front of him, and that serves him brilliantly in a thriller like this one, which sees threats in every car and pedestrian and hotel room.” In 2007, he concluded this compelling adventure with The Bourne Ultimatum. But Damon continued to expand on his action-star style with a variety of other filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, in his epic cops and crooks thriller The Departed, and with Robert De Niro in his CIA drama The Good Shepherd.

Matt Damon | Independent Filmmaker

When Matt Damon arrived as a global star, he did not leave behind his roots in American independent cinema. Along with Ben Affleck, he showed up in smaller roles in several Kevin Smith comedies, from his 1997 Chasing Amy to playing a fallen angel in the 1999 Dogma to appearing in 2004’s Jersey Girl.  Damon also continued to work with one of America’s original independent filmmakers, Steven Soderbergh, showing up not only for the Ocean's series, but also starring in his 2009 whistleblower comedy The Informant!, and appearing in his 2008 political biopic Che and 2011 epidemic thriller Contagion. (Damon also aligned himself with a very different filmmaker, Clint Eastwood, starring in his 2010 spiritual drama Hereafter and his 2009 sports anthem Invictus.) But perhaps his most compelling ongoing cinematic relationship is with Gus Van Sant. Following on from their initial teaming on Good Will Hunting, Damon starred in (also co-writing with Van Sant and co-star Casey Affleck) the 2002 experimental drama Gerry. The sparse story of two men lost in the desert prompted the Los Angeles Times’ Manohla Dargis to enthusiastically describe the film as “a tough, vigorous exercise in cinematic form and pure aesthetics.” And in 2000 he, along with Ben Affleck and others, helped create the HBO/Miramax small-screen venture Project Greenlight, a reality TV show aimed at promoting independent filmmakers. The 12-part documentary series chronicled the journey of a filmmaker from winning a screenwriting contest to trying to get his movie made. Affleck and Damon not only served as executive producers of the project but also appeared in the show, providing ongoing advice and support to the first-time director. Most recently the New York-based Independent Filmmaking Project awarded Damon its 2012 Career Tribute. Joana Vicente, Executive Director of the IFP, credited him and his fellow awardees with providing “a unique voice and clearly defined vision of cinema for the current generation, bringing perspective and relevance to the film world today.”

Matt Damon | Unexpectedly Funny

In addition to doing serious drama and breakneck action, Matt Damon has emerged as an unexpected funny man. While he starred in a few big screen comedies, like the Farrelly brothers’ conjoined-twin romp (with Greg Kinnear) Stuck on You, he honed his comic chops playing walk-on characters on TV sitcoms and films. In Will and Grace, Damon appeared in the episode “A Chorus Lie” as a straight actor pretending to be gay in order to join the Gay Men’s Chorus. In 2004, he showed up in the low-budget comedy EuroTrip (as a favor to the filmmakers, with whom he is friends) and made a huge splash as the punk rocker who seduces the hero’s girlfriend, singing “Scotty Doesn't Know." And in 2010 and 2011, he jumped into 30 Rock, playing Carol Burnett, the airline pilot boyfriend of Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), and ended up being Emmy nominated for “Outstanding Guest Actor In A Comedy Series” for his part. In even smaller roles, Damon shines. He proved an internet sensation when he appeared alongside comedienne Sarah Silverman in a short video “I’m F***ing Matt Damon,” a comedy spoof that provoked a similar response from Silverman’s then-boyfriend, Jimmy Kimmel, “I’m F***ing Ben Affleck.”


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