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Matt Damon

Sunday Herald (January 2003)

The last time Matt Damon was in a full-on fist fight, he was still at school. He can’t remember exactly how old he was or who he was having the bust up with or even what it was about. All he can picture now are the punches. Fast, brutal, and relentless.

“I hit this kid really hard and then I kept hitting him and it freaked me out,” Damon says with a shudder. “I snapped. I was a little kid, at school, and I lost it. So I never fought again after that.”

Sitting in the elegant Covent Garden Hotel in central London in an off-duty actor’s uniform of chinos, t-shirt and slip cap, a blur of whites, greens and beige, Damon looks more like a vacationing software executive than a lean, mean fighting machine. Squint slightly and this could be Ron Howard, the former teenage actor turned amiable Hollywood director. Were he to start talking about golf or baseball averages, you wouldn’t be surprised for a second.

Instead, though, the conversation centres around violence. Guns, martial arts, fist fights, with a side order of gambling and musical obsession thrown in for good measure. The star of “Saving Private Ryan” and “Ocean’s Eleven” is promoting his latest movie, “The Bourne Identity”, in which he plays an amnesiac who struggles to find out who he really is only to discover that he’s a trained killer with a terrifying array of battle skills. Don’t worry: the crux of the picture isn’t Jason Bourne’s actual identity, but the way his New Self fights to stop turning back into his Old Self.

“I did a lot of training,” Damon relates. “I’d wake up and do an hour and a half of boxing and then an hour and a half of martial arts and then go out to the desert with this former SWAT guy and we’d clean, assemble and disassemble guns and then shoot them for hours and hours. It was like a boy’s dream. Machine guns, M16s, MP5s, Binelli shotguns, it was really fun. I actually took Ed Norton out there one day. I bumped into him in LA and said ‘I’m going to the desert to shoot all these weapons’ and he said ‘oh man, I’m coming’. We had a really good time.”

Which is Damon’s favourite gun?

“The one that I end up with is that handgun, which is a Sig handgun. The Beretta is actually probably the one I’m most accurate with. But I’m not a gun person myself. I actually hate guns. They freak me out.”

But he said it was a “boy’s dream”.

“Well yeah . . . my mom was a professor of early childhood education and she specialised in non violent conflict resolution so guns were verboten in my house. So I probably have some left over residual thing from that where any time I can get my hands on a play gun, I do it.”

Does he have a gun?

“No, no.”

Ever been in a situation where he wished he had a gun?

“If you were ever in a situation in which you wished you had a gun that means you’re in a situation where you wanted to kill somebody and I’ve never been in that situation. The first rule of the weapons training is you never point the gun at anything you’re not willing to destroy. And I don’t really feel way about a lot of things.”

Jason Bourne’s struggle to keep from switching back to his former brutal personality is strangely mirrored by Damon’s own attitude to violence. Something deep down inside him is attracted to it in every form, has an aptitude even, as you can tell from the way he talks confidently about his firearms bonanza in the desert. But he’s also terrified by it all, scared that if he gets into a fight for real he’ll suddenly become that schoolboy who saw red and didn’t stop punching.

“Everyone’s got it in them,” he nods. “Everyone has it in them. Everyone has a temper. Everyone can be pushed to the point of breaking. There’s something worth fighting for for everybody, even if it’s their own personal safety.”

How good is he at martial arts?

“Well, you can’t get very good. Martial arts takes years and years so in five months of training in martial arts you learn enough to get your ass kicked if you ever try to use it. It’s really actually the danger zone of knowledge. You know way less than you think.”

What makes “The Bourne Identity” interesting is that it focuses on the crisis of self rather than spectacular special affects and a punishing momentum. Reminiscent of classic thrillers like “The Ipcress File” and “The Day Of The Jackal”, the movie’s real core is the dangerous allure of wiping the slate clean and starting your life all over again.

“That’s interesting,” muses Damon. “‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ is about that in a lot of ways. He makes a decision to wipe the slate clean. One of my theories about life and the reader can slam shut the magazine now or look at the photos, but one of the things you should struggle to avoid is regret. In ‘Good Will Hunting’ there’s a sequence where they talk about that. So I have not yet wanted to wipe the slate clean. I do have regrets, but I know why I made each decision.”

What inspired his idea of not wanting to be burdened by regret?

“My father maybe. He took a job he didn’t want to do to financially support his kids. When he talked about what to strive for in life, he always told us to do what it is that makes you happy, unless you have kids that you have to provide for and then all bets are off and you fall on your sword. My mother is a professor, so she never had a lot of money but she was always doing what she loved to do, so she gave us the same lesson from a different angle.”

What’s Damon’s biggest regret?

“People die and they can die untimely deaths and you can wish you were there or you wish. . . those are things that are beyond your control but they’re huge, gaping holes that are regrets. Why couldn’t I have just been there?”

For Damon, it all boils down to control. If you can control regret, then you can control life. If you’re there at the right time, you might even be able to control death as well. The two themes have been a constant in his movies, control going hand-in-hand with regret, from Jason Bourne to Will Hunting and Mike McDermott, the card sharp in “Rounders”. Damon even played in the Poker World Series, to experience what real risk-taking felt like.

“That was a Forrest Gump moment,” he grins. “Playing with the best card players in the world, in a legitimate tournament. It’s ten thousand dollars per person and these people all put up their own ten thousand dollars. The casino hosting it put me and Edward in as a promotional thing for the movie so we got to play with the casino’s money against these legendary guys.”

How well did he do?

“Pretty well. We said ‘we’re going to lose, it’s just a question of how we lose, so let’s just make sure that when we lose, it’s on percentage play and we’re doing the right thing’. So I’m sitting at the same table as Doyle Bronson, who wrote a book called ‘The Supersystem’. I have two kings, Doyle comes over with two thousand and I go ‘fuck it’ and go all in. I’m down to $6500 and this will get me back to ten thousand. Doyle says ‘I hate to do it to you Matty’ and I go ‘you’ve got to be fucking kidding’ and he had the aces. So I got beat by the best card player in the world.”

But at least you tried.

“Yeah, absolutely. And I made the right move. I just lost. Edward and I left that feeling good. The guys who tutored us on card playing were very proud as well. They said ‘you guys did it absolutely right. What else can we ask for?’”

Most actors graduate on to working as directors, but with Damon you get the sense that he’d be better off reverting to his original trade of scriptwriter. He and fellow actor Ben Affleck won an Oscar for writing “Good Will Hunting” and the movie still has an emotional resonance that neither actor has bettered in their careers. Would they ever write together again?

“Yeah. We don’t know when. Once of the things about ‘Good Will Hunting’ was to get work as actors. That’s happened, which is great but it does make it logistically almost impossible to write another screenplay. So we’re going to try and carve out time at some point. I’m probably off the rest of this year. Ben’s got movies booked through this year.”

What kind of ideas are they interested in?

“Something similar to ‘Good Will Hunting’ in the sense that it will be a character driven story based on people we know. I doubt it will be a huge caper movie.”

He mentioned his theories about life earlier. What are the others?

“Oh God, this is going to be fucking worst, man!” howls Damon, doubling up with laughter. “You’re just gonna kill me. You’re just going to fucking kill me. I don’t know what my other fucking theories are, man. The golden rule, that’s the big one. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. So think about that when you’re writing this article. ‘Damon then went on to give me his other theories…’ Yeah, no, I’m still working it all out.”

After half an hour or so in Damon’s intelligently personable company, it becomes clear that the initial impression of a modern day Ron Howard is slightly off target. Even though he talks about his obsessions with the Boston Red Sox baseball team and, of all people, Radiohead (“I listen religiously to their music”) with the enthusiasm of a true fan boy, he has the mark of a slightly bigger man about him, someone more suited to the long shadows of the centre stage. When he moves on to air his admiration for Robert Redford, for example, you start to wonder whether he might have what it takes to step up to the Redford/Newman league.

“I think for him it was probably much bigger and it was also a different time,” replies Damon, when asked if he’s experiencing something similar to Redford in the Sixties. “I don’t think there’ll be another. . . the Redfords and the Newmans, there’s still a mystery about them. The ancillary business of hype and media about movies is killing any mystery anybody could possibly have. Everybody is so available to their audience that there will never be any mystery. There’s not going to be another Marilyn Monroe or James Dean ever again. Because Marilyn Monroe could come along today and in two weeks she’d be on the cover of Maxim. So that’s pretty much over.”

Damon’s had his fair share of deliberately placing himself in the public eye, of course. His decision to announce that he’d broken up with Minnie Driver live on the Oprah Show wasn’t his most discreet moment. And his three year relationship and subsequent engagement with Winona Ryder, which he terminated in May 2000, made him prime paparazzi material. He’s now engaged to Odessa Whitmire, a former assistant to Ben Affleck, and seems to be enjoying the quiet life for once. Did he pick up any tips on how to safeguard his privacy from Robert Redford perhaps?

“Yeah, we spoke about a lot of stuff but I would be wary to air it. I was riding him about stories from ‘Ordinary People’ because I really love that movie, so I learned a lot about directing and acting. But he is a private guy and no one pressed him about his private life unless he felt like talking about it. If he wanted to go out to dinner with his girlfriend and all of us then we’d go out to dinner.”

If there’s never going to be another James Dean or Robert Redford, then, all that’s left is how well you play the game. You know you’re going to lose ultimately, you know you’re going to make decisions that you regret, but it’s how you carry yourself throughout that counts. How you face up to every difficult moment in your life.

“There are things that you can control, decisions that you make with your eyes open,” nods Damon. “You can even go into things and say, ‘oh I’m going to regret this’. But as long as you’re going into it saying that then you’re not really going to regret it.”

And somewhere in the midst of this grand and ever evolving theory, lies the key to life. Now all Matt Damon has to do is work out how to find it.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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