Esquire, July 2016
Coffee with Jason Bourne.
Also at Esquire
Photographs by Simon Emmett
He walks in off the street alone, no driver, no handler. Just a guy in Levi’s and boots and a practical black sports coat. Juice and Java is a trendy coffee shop in the Beaches district of Toronto, and there’s a smattering of late afternooners around, a few students, some mums and toddlers. He walks past them all and sits at a regular table like it’s nothing. As though beneath that grey beanie with the Guinness logo, he’s not, unmistakeably, the movie star, Matt Damon.
“Isn’t this place great?” he says. “I’m staying round the corner, about a block from the lake. It’s like a proper beach community, except no one has their designated section, everyone’s on top of each other, which is great. We go down there with the kids.”
You go to a crowded public beach with your family?
“Sure. Why not?”
Maybe it’s a Canada thing. People are famously nice here, down-to-earth and polite — unarmed Americans with healthcare and manners, not slaves to the celebrity-industrial complex in quite the same way. During our 90-minute interview we’re only interrupted a couple of times, and never for selfies or autographs. Just a pat on the shoulder and a “Welcome to Toronto!”
But Damon insists it’s like this everywhere. He never gets bothered, not even in New York. “Well, if you’re in Soho by The Mercer Hotel where all the faces hang out, then you’re asking for attention,” he says. “But when I lived on the Upper West Side, I never saw anybody. I guess they just don’t come north of 72nd Street.” Even back home in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, he manages to move through life like a civilian, to the envy of his friends.
“I talk to George [Clooney] about New York and he’s like ‘I can’t go there.’ It’s not the people who follow him, it’s the paparazzi,” he says. As for “Brad” [Pitt], he has long lived in a form of hiding. And “Ben” [Affleck], Damon’s best friend and brother in arms for some 35 years now, could scarcely have had a more different experience, with his J-Lo years and other tabloid shenanigans.
My theory is it’s less to do with Canada’s niceness as Damon’s, because that’s what people say about him — and it’s what Damon says people say, too. Here’s an anecdote, he’s been saying for nearly a decade now, one of his favourites: “I remember doing an interview with De Niro and Angelina [Jolie] for The Good Shepherd and Larry King had looked up online some words that were closely associated with us. Bob’s was like ‘intense’, and Angie’s was like ‘ravishing’. I was ‘nice’. And I can live with that!”
When I fished about for Damon stories among his friends and colleagues, what came back were ultimately just confirmations of what a nice guy he is. Words like “lovely, intelligent, hard-working, humble” (Julia Stiles), or “genuine, talented and fucking funny, even though he doesn’t know it” (Kristen Wiig). Clooney said “he’s a terrific actor and a great guy, but you already knew that.” Yes we did. But thanks anyway.
This is my theory: his niceness is a forcefield that keeps fans at bay. His sheer decency repels harassment because it’s just not cool to bug Matt Damon. Tom Cruise, sure, but Damon’s one of us, our Everyman, the one we root for. Leave him be.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he says, far too nice to agree. “I think being in a relationship with a woman who’s not in the business helps.”
In 2005 he married Luciana Barroso, a former bartender from Argentina, whom he met in Miami. J-Lo she ain’t.
“Maybe, it’s because I’m actually really boring. Did you ever consider that?”
Objection: irrelevant. (Sustained.)
“I guess I’m just really lucky, then. Because I’m pretty much left alone, but I get to make the work that I get to make. I’ve been given the best parts of the experience.”
It’s possible Damon is the most famous person to be the least troubled by his fame. The normal rules don’t seem to apply here. There’s nothing hunted or haunted about him — rather, he seems to be actually enjoying himself. He’s not even bothered by that perpetual look of recognition he gets from perfect strangers wherever he goes.
“That took a few years,” he says. “Because when someone looks at you, your instinct is to look back and think you should know who they are. After a few hundred times, you realise — I don’t know these people — and then, of course, you turn away from someone you actually do know and they’re like, ‘dude, it looks like the fame really went to your head.’ And I’m like…” he cracks up laughing, “sorry Mom!'”
Life for Damon is sweet these days. He’s a man at an apex. He’s 45 and doesn’t look it — still with the boyish good looks and the wry smile, only with a few more creases. He has a big family — a wife and four daughters, three of them his — who live in a sprawling, seven-bedroom home by the sea. He can call pretty much anyone, he never struggles for access — friends include George, Brad, Ben, Don Cheadle, Steven Soderbergh, Paul Greengrass and Bono; he has talked policy with Obama and hung out with Nelson Mandela. And he’s been so successful that he can now enjoy giving back — his organisation Water.org is bringing clean water to millions across the world.
Perhaps most of all, though, he’s at the top of his game as an actor. In 2001, at the time of Ocean’s Eleven, he and George Clooney figured that a 10-year career would be beating the odds — “we looked at the big movies of 10 years before and a lot of those actors weren’t really around anymore.” So, to be cruising at altitude in 2016, “is beyond anything I could reasonably have hoped for.” And these last couple of years have been the perfect illustration. He’s working with about as full a palette as anyone in the industry. Four top-flight directors on vastly different movies, in at least six countries, and barely a moment to catch his breath in between.
“Yeah, we’re all whipped at this point,” he says. By “all” he means his family, too, whom he drags around the world with him, given his rule that they should never be apart for more than a fortnight at a time. (He once flew his daughter’s entire class and teachers out to South Africa while he was filming Invictus (2009). “I got greedy. I hadn’t worked for a year-and-a-half, and then I had the opportunity to work with Ridley Scott, Zhang Yimou, Paul Greengrass and Alexander Payne. And I just couldn’t say no.”
The fun started in November 2014 in Jordan, shooting The Martian (2015) with Scott, which brought Damon his fourth Oscar nomination. Then they flew to China for five months for The Great Wall (2016) with Yimou — “a giant monster movie basically, set in 1100AD”. They then moved to Tenerife for this summer’s Jason Bourne — which also took them to Greece, Berlin, London and Las Vegas. And then, after six measly days rest, they shipped off to Toronto for Downsizing, by Alexander Payne (Sideways) and due out next year, which is why we’re here.
“It’s a really big arthouse movie,” says Damon. “Like a Charlie Kaufman movie. It might be the best movie I end up being in in my career.”
Set in the near future in Nebraska, Damon is an occupational therapist whose marriage to Kristen Wiig has seen better days: they can’t afford the house they want, it’s hard to make ends meet. However, Norwegian scientists have discovered how to shrink people down to 5ins in height as a way to offset climate change (tiny people consume less). So they “downsize”, because big houses are even bigger when you’re that small. But Wiig’s character bails out at the last minute, leaving Damon at 5ins tall — and now she wants a divorce. “In one scene I have to sign the divorce papers, and I’m literally standing on the contract,” he laughs. “It’s such a great metaphor for divorce!”
An added treat for Damon is they’re shooting in the same studio where he made Good Will Hunting (1997). Because Good Will Hunting was where it all started, the fairytale story of Matt and Ben, two fresh-faced actors from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who grew up blocks apart, followed their dreams to Hollywood, and wrote their way into the Oscars, becoming the youngest ever winners for best screenplay.
It sounds seamless with hindsight, but at the time, things were fraught — there was so much riding on the film, and its prospects were so tenuous. Certainly, Damon wasn’t nearly as mellow as the guy across the table from me today. As a younger man, he was ambitious, convinced of his talent, and keenly competitive. He was also prone to fits of temper. “Yeah, it was problematic when I was young,” he says, nodding. “But it was socialised out of me. I realised pretty quickly, it wasn’t cool to throw tantrums.”
He didn’t come from an artistic background. His mum was a childhood education professor and his dad a stockbroker. (They divorced when he was two but there was no estrangement and he’s close to them both to this day.) It was, he says, “a solid, middle-class upbringing” and it gave him his staunch liberal principles — he describes his mother as a fierce progressive who lived in a co-operative housing project, with a boyfriend who drove a school bus for minority children. She still baulks, apparently, when seeing her Matt in glossy magazines like Esquire — “he’s just a cog in a capitalist system!”
His childhood was happy, but Matt was anxious to start his career even as a teenager. A smart kid, he’d won a place at Harvard to study English, but his heart was in Hollywood and progress was fitful. He had some breaks — School Ties (1992), with Brendan Fraser, Courage Under Fire (1996) with Denzel Washington and even The Rainmaker (1997) directed by Francis Ford Coppola. But still, he was frustrated. “When you’re a young, out of work actor, you’re angry. Or at least I was. You have a chip on your shoulder. I always felt I had something to give and the business is set up for you not to be able to give it. Auditions felt like a battle.”
There are hints of that attitude today. Even as he listens so patiently and smiles so easily and never, ever interrupts, there’s also a submerged intensity to Damon, to match his compact, grappler’s physique. When he denies that his attitude to money has changed over the years, I push him a bit, and he pushes right back: “Why, would your expectation be that money turns you into a raving conservative? Really?” He’s “nice” but not uncomplicated. One suspects he doesn’t suffer fools. He told The Hollywood Reporter recently he used to smoke two packs a day and had to undergo hypnosis to kick the habit. “It wasn’t nerves,” he said, “I think I’m just an addictive kind of person.”
It was Good Will Hunting that cooled his boots somewhat. Being on the other side of the audition process, he realised “you were always rooting for the actor, it wasn’t a battle at all.” Good Will Hunting keeps coming up in conversation. He calls it “the most critical movie in relation to our careers.” When I ask about a decision that changed his life, he says, “the time we had a chance to make Good Will Hunting at Castle Rock [production company] with a director we had not approved. And we didn’t take it.” (The movie then went to Harvey Weinstein, who found Gus Van Sant.)
Of that anxiety actors have, that the phone may stop ringing, he says, “Good Will Hunting helped because it proved we could write our way out of a rut. And I saw Ben do that in his career, too, return to writing, when things didn’t go right.” It was thanks to Good Will Hunting that Damon became Private James Ryan: “I met Steven [Spielberg] on the set, through Robin [Williams]. I had sent him a reel but I don’t know if he ever saw it. So it was just luck, really.”
And Good Will Hunting even helped with his fear of flying (though it had no effect on Damon’s fear of snakes or heights.) “When I was 19, I was in a movie, Rising Son (1990), as Brian Dennehy’s son, and I was on this Delta flight to Atlanta from Boston. I remember feeling so scared as the plane was banking, because if it crashed, I would never be in movies. I felt I had this thing I was good at and if the plane crashed nobody would ever know. But now…” He laughs. “I’m so sick of watching myself in movies, there’s no fear: ‘That’ll do, Pig, that’ll do.’ Have you seen Babe? I don’t want to tempt fate, but there’s a greater sense of peace.”
At least you know the obituary will start with those words…
“He asked for it.”
Well, I was going to say, “Academy Award-winning…”
And he lights up. “Oh, there’s that great quote from George. Years ago when George, Chris O’Donnell and Uma Thurman were on a Warner Bros plane to do an event for Batman & Robin, the plane had some horrific problem and had to make this radical descent. When they landed, Chris was like, ‘Oh my God, I could just see the headline tomorrow: Chris O’Donnell, George Clooney and Uma Thurman die in a plane crash.’ And there’s a pause and then George goes: ‘Do you really think that’s the order?'”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing since Good Will Hunting. There were peaks and shallows. After a purple patch in the late Nineties with The Talented Mr Ripley and Dogma, Damon floundered in the early Noughties with three flops — All the Pretty Horses, The Legend of Bagger Vance and Gerry. He worried his run was up. “I noticed how differently I was treated in the business,” he says. “But it helped me come to peace with the fact it’s not personal, it’s about numbers. Friendships don’t lead to jobs. In fact, friends could lament the fact they can’t hire me because I’m not on the list.”
Then Bourne came to the rescue. Damon was “Bourne again”. A treatment appeared on his desk covered in Brad Pitt’s fingerprints (Pitt had opted to make 2001’s CIA thriller Spy Game instead). So director Doug Liman (Swingers) turned to Damon. Liman had secured the book rights from Robert Ludlum for Bourne and wanted to change the story to incorporate details of the Iran-Contra investigation led by Liman’s father — Chief Counsel to the US Senate. And he wanted to work with people outside of the traditional action-movie world. “Back then an action movie was like porn,” Liman says. “The thinnest possible dialogue to get you from one action scene to the next. But I wanted to make a movie where if you took the action out and just ran the dialogue, it would still be a good movie.”
Damon fitted the bill, a character actor who was so likeable on screen he could take a darker turn than most and audiences would still root for him. And more than that, Damon was available. “He said, ‘Doug, my whole career is riding on your movie,'” Liman adds. “‘I’m basically not hireable right now.'”
They resolved to make an action movie that subverted the clichés and even considered killing Bourne at the end (needless to say Damon hadn’t signed up for a sequel at this point). “In film school they teach you all action movies have to have a hostage in the third act,” Liman says. “They have a name for it, WIJ (Woman In Jeopardy). In our first meeting I said, I don’t know how I’m going to end the movie but I promise you — no WIJ.”
It was a struggle. The producers didn’t agree with Liman’s direction. “One of them had worked on Under Siege 2: Dark Territory with Steven Seagal, and any time I made a decision that deviated from what they would have done, he would scream at me,” Liman says. “Universal hated it. And the screenwriter actually petitioned the Writers’ Guild to not get sole credit because it was such an embarrassment [to him].”
Eventually, the pressure told. They were in Paris shooting the movie but stuck for an ending. Liman had no fight left. “I was at Matt’s flat in Place Vendôme, right across from the Ritz hotel. I said, ‘Matt, we might need a WIJ after all.’ I was beaten down. Matt didn’t just say ‘you promised me’, he inspired me to get back in the ring, which as a director, you can’t ask for more. It’s like a relay race, just when I was flagging, he stepped in: ‘you can do it Doug, don’t settle.’ He became my partner in the process. Matt was my godsend. He got me through the movie.”
On the night of the premiere, the director and his star had it all on the line. “Everything was riding on this movie that nobody believed in. I’d fought the head of the studio so hard she told me she was going to make sure I would never work again — so there was no plan B,” Liman says. “That premiere was the lowest point in my career.”
But The Bourne Identity (2002) became a critical and commerical success, and Damon reprised the role for a sequel — Supremacy (2004) — and then again in 2007 for Ultimatum. These three Bourne movies have made just under $1bn at the box office, while the character has emerged as the American alternative to James Bond — and that, Damon admits, was how he was conceived. “He [Bourne] is much more relatable,” Damon says. “Think about it. Bond is from the Sixties so has the values of that time. He’s a misogynist, he swills martinis and kills people and cracks jokes about it. It’s so anachronistic that a whole comedy franchise, Austin Powers, grew up around the concept, that if we wake up a guy with those values, how ridiculous he looks in our world. But Jason Bourne is modern. He’s an anti-establishment figure, he doesn’t trust institutions, he’s going up against the system. He has one woman that he loved and when she’s gone he doesn’t pursue anything else.”
Damon did not feature in the fourth Bourne movie, Legacy (2012). Instead, Jeremy Renner was cast in the lead role, though not as Jason Bourne (a confusing situation borne of a contract with Robert Ludlum’s estate to make a certain number of Bourne movies within a certain time span.) But this summer’s Jason Bourne truly resurrects our hero, directed again by Greengrass (Supremacy and Ultimatum). It was Damon’s idea to put the band back together, says the director: “He said we’re lucky enough to have an audience that wants to see what we do next. How about we serve them?”
Bourne returns after 12 years leading an itinerant life and haunted by his kills. He reconnects with Nicky (Julia Stiles) who’s similarly lost, only she happens to have uncovered more shady CIA business through a hacker camp. They team up, the chase begins and in classic Bond/Bourne style, it zips across the globe from Greece to Las Vegas, where our man ends up in a car chase through the Strip, down into the storm drains beneath the city.
Damon grins. “It feels right, thematically. Where better to put this American character than in the sewers of Las Vegas?”
Doug Liman, now executive producer, regards Jason Bourne as the kind of action movie he and Matt set out to subvert in 2002. “We’re part of the system now,” he says. “Matt is an established star and there’s not much story to tell anymore, so it’s all action. But Matt has very gracefully made that transition. He’s done it in life, too. He’s evolving.”
It’s true, life has changed dramatically personally and professionally for Damon since the first Bourne movie. He has become a leading man and it suits him. It’s fun watching him face certain annihilation and somehow prevailing. In The Martian, he’s in space growing potatoes in his own faeces. In Elysium (2013), he’s outsmarting the robot overlords to rescue the planet’s underclass. “The trick is to have your lead do things you would do if you only had a little more time to think about it,” says Damon. He scratches his belly, nodding at an imaginary child to his right. “See that, kiddo? That Clint Eastwood sure knows what he’s doing! That’s just what your old man would have done.”
Like all the best heroes, Damon wears his cape lightly. There’s no swagger, no chest-beating, he’s always just a regular Joe under extreme circumstances. And critically, he’s always Matt Damon, which is how you tell a movie star from a regular actor. As Liman says, “with movie stars, a little bit of them always comes through in every character. They don’t fully immerse.” So we get a glimpse of that intensity behind Damon’s affable front, and the way that his winning smile can set to a determined grimace. We see his Harvard brain race to solve problems, whether his character went to Harvard or not. It’s Damon. He can handle it.
But at the same time, Damon can leave his hero hat at home any time he wants. Throughout the Bourne era, he subverted our expectations time and again. In The Departed (2006), he uses his niceness for nefarious ends. In The Informant! (2009) his charm suckers not just the audience, but the FBI into a mire of lies and delusion. And in Behind the Candelabra (2013), we see him prance around and make out with Liberace.
Which, incidentally, renders rather silly the whole brouhaha in which Damon was accused of making it harder for gay actors to come out (he’d said actors can be more effective if their private lives remain a mystery). To say nothing of the other faux scandal that misrepresented Damon, in the documentary series Project Greenlight, as a whitesplaining racist. I bring these things up and to his credit, Damon doesn’t sigh or groan. He takes it all very seriously, perhaps overly. But he’s his mother’s son, a lifelong liberal and staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton, so he says simply, “I get it. We live in a certain kind of media environment. It hurts my feelings when it happens but I just have to be more careful in how I choose my words.”
Middle age brings with it competing narratives, a sense of waning youth and the fruits of experience at once. If the latter outweighs the former, all the better for Matt Damon. Certainly, he has no nostalgia for the anxious early days. He’s grown better at watching himself on film, for instance, without getting caught up in “all my vanities and bullshit”. It wasn’t always the way. As a young actor, he’d heard Al Pacino never watched himself, so he’d do the same.
“I went to a 25-year screening of The Godfather in San Francisco with Francis [Ford Coppola], I know, fucking amazing, right? And Sherry Lansing, who ran Paramount at the time, she turns to me and says, ‘Have you ever seen it on the big screen?’ I said, no, only on video. She goes, ‘Well isn’t that great! Neither has Al.’ And one seat away from me is Al Pacino, who looks at me and says, ‘I’ve never seen it!’ I completely froze for a second. And I blurted out: ‘It’s really good!'” He cracks up. “Yeah. That happened.”
Damon grew accustomed to watching himself, since he was always considered as much a writer as an actor. He was frequently invited into the problem-solving huddle with directors and producers, to watch dailies and cuts. And the experience shows. Neill Blomkamp, Elysium director, says Damon has “directorial instincts, he gets the bigger picture.” And from a sheer skills perspective, his praise is higher still. “He would do the first couple of takes exactly how I asked. And if I wanted options for the editing room — he was like a computer. Anything I asked, he would just do. On a professional talent level, that was the first time I’d run into that.”
The options for Damon at this point are vast. As an actor, he can do what he wants and it seems inevitable that he will soon direct. He has already begun as a producer. Even though his first, Promised Land (2012), did poorly at the box office — “that’s a movie that four people saw, and I saw it twice,” he says — he enjoyed the process. So he did it again, with the superb Manchester by the Sea (2016) starring Casey Affleck.
But there’s a world beyond film for Damon if he wants it. With his reach, his experience, his dizzying access to the world, he could transcend Hollywood in the way Clooney has, or Angelina Jolie, becoming a global influencer. Would he entertain…
“Are you talking about politics?” he asks, a skeptical eyebrow raised.
Well, yes, I suppose.
“Then no. I’ll support Hillary and do anything I can to help her because the alternative is just unthinkable but…”
It could be the culmination of the Matt and Ben story. Ben looks very presidential.
“He does. And he’s one of the few people I know who’s smart enough. But not me.”
Why, what are they going to find out?
“It’s not that. It’s just not a life that’s appealing to me. I honestly don’t think I’m the best person for the job. And man, it just looks like a full contact sport. I don’t know that I want to instantly have half the country hating me more than they’ve hated anyone!”
Because they kind of love you right now.
“Yeah! I’m the nice guy. Tell you what, I’ll run for vice-president.”
It’s just starting to darken outside when Damon makes his apologies and leaves. They’re shooting nights on Downsizing, and there’s a make-up chair across town with his name on it. He stands and shakes my hand. And then Craig’s, who owns the coffee shop. A couple of girls wave goodbye from their corner table, and that’s it. He walks out as he walked in — alone, no handler, no driver.
“Nice guy,” Craig says.
Very nice, I say. What do I owe you for the coffees?
“Oh, Matt paid, don’t worry.”
Of course he did.