When it came to casting his latest film, Invictus, Clint Eastwood couldn't have asked for a better actor than Matt Damon to play good guy François Pienaar, the South African rugby captain who led his side to a surprise and very significant victory against New Zealand on June 24th, 1995 in the World Cup final. Because everyone loves Matt Damon. You never hear other actors say a bad word about him. He manages to negotiate the thin line between critical and commerical success. And most importantly for a leading man, the box office loves him. In 2007, Forbes magazine credited him as the most bankable actor in Hollywood, revealing that Damon had averaged US$29 at the box office for every dollar he earned for his last three films.
His latest, Invictus, is unlikely to change that. Upon his election as the first president of post-apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela decided to use the Springboks as a means of reconciling the divisions in his country. Taking on the task of uniting blacks (who generally preferred soccer) and whites behind their national rugby team forms the basis for Eastwood's film, itself based upon John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation. Naturally, Morgan Freeman plays Mandela.
"But of course," smiles Damon. "It's hard to imagine anyone else, given the wonderful, effortless gravitas both these men have. It was easy to imagine what it would be like, meeting Mandela, when you're faced with Morgan Freeman. He really should consider running for office..."
In the meantime, Freeman's busying himself with earnest little movies such as Invictus, yet another of those Eastwood dramas that are low on budget and hi-tech wizardy and high on quality acting.
"It's something I'd been observing with a lot of Clint's recent films," nods Damon. "Stuff like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Changeling. People within the industry talk with almost hushed reverence about how the guy would just do one or two takes -- usually one -- and then move on. No fuss, no long blank stares into the middle distance, no chewing it over during lunch. You set up the camera, did the scene and moved on.
"It's a wonderful way to work, because it just keeps you on your toes. You knew you weren't necessarily going to get another chance to get it right, and so, you know, you got it right. Or, at least, you tried."
Matt Damon's been getting it largely right -- or, at least, trying to -- for 22 years now, ever since he got his first line of dialogue -- just the one -- on the big screen, in 1988's Mystic Pizza.
A few years later, he popped up on Hollywood's radar for losing 40lbs in 100 days for a two-day shoot on 1996's Courage Under Fire. It was a movie that didn't deserve such devotion, but, as Damon went on to medication to repair the damage to his body, he was glad to have taken the plunge. Damon knew such a role might just get him noticed, and it did.
The following year, he was leading Coppola's The Rainmaker and had the green light for a script that he'd written with his long-time Boston buddy, Ben Affleck. Directed by Gus Van Sant, Good Will Hunting changed everything, Damon getting an Oscar nod for Best Actor in the lead role and winning, alongside Affleck, Best Original Screenplay. Robin Williams picked up a Supporting Actor gong too, ensuring that Good Will Hunting was the Hollywood fairytale of 1997. The only way was up, up and away. Right?
"Looking back, I don't think we did anything wrong," says Damon about his and Affleck's decidedly choppy post-Oscar careers.
"We were young, and ready to try everything. We were movie nuts, so being allowed inside the circle and being given the chance to make movies that would be released around the world, that was dizzying.
"It's also something of a crapshoot, something we'd both been aware of, having followed a thousand careers through their ups and downs, through their downfalls and their comebacks. You can't really plan a perfect career; you can only be as smart as you can about the films you say yes to. And if one fails, you really just have to move on to the next one. And the next one."
"Well, 'til there isn't a next one," deadpans Damon. "Then, you've got to start planning your spectacular comeback. With a low-budget sensation. That usually works."
Luckily for Damon, it's never got quite that bad. In the aftermath of Good Will Hunting, there was Saving Private Ryan, Rounders, Dogma, The Talented Mr Ripley and then... well, then along came The Legend of Bagger Vance and All the Pretty Horses. Both looked unstoppable on paper: the former co-starred box-office champ Will Smith, the latter was critics' fave Billy Bob Thornton taking on a Cormac McCarthy classic.
Both released in 2000, their complete and utter failure at the box-office was a low blow for Damon. It was a feeling he'd return to in 2003 with the Farrelly brothers' deeply unfunny Stuck On You, and again in 2005 with Terry Gilliam's utterly uncharming gothic fairytale, The Brothers Grimm.
"There's definitely been times when I thought, 'Okay, the jig is up,'" says Damon. "'I'm going to have to take a few steps back and start all over again.' Ben and I both have had those feelings, and I know Ben now feels his career is in a different place from where it was five, ten years ago. He's no longer in the franchise game. I think it was the franchises -- not so much the Ocean's movies, which really aren't mine, but the Bourne outings -- that saved me.
"I'm sure Hollywood would have just written me off as a weirdo liberal, given the art house movies I've made along the way, if the Bourne movies hadn't made such a phenomenal amount of money. I owe a lot to Jason Bourne."
Away from the big screen, Damon found himself thrown into the glare of the Hollywood media-machine soon after his big breakthrough. High-profile relationships with the likes of his Good Will Hunting co-star Minnie Driver and later Winona Ryder put him in the spotlight.
However, all that changed when, in 2003, he met Argentina-born Luciana Bozán Barroso in Miami where she was working as a bartender. They married in a civil ceremony in 2005 and Damon became stepfather to Bozán's young daughter, Alexia, from her previous marriage. The couple's first child together, Isabella, was born in June 2006 and their second, Gia Zavala, in 2008.
Back to his career, and the only shadow on the horizon is that the man who steered the second and third instalments of the three Bourne movies, PaulGreengrass, announced in December that he wouldn't be back for the fourth. He and Damon had just completed work on Green Zone (due out in March), a movie described by some as "Bourne in Iraq". Damon himself won't confirm whether he's signing up for the fourth Bourne.
"Paul's a director that I'd follow to the ends of the earth," he says, "and it'd be tough to go ahead on this journey without him. I'm going to have to talk with him, and others, before I make up my mind on that front."
In the meantime, Damon has plenty of other movies to keep him busy.
Having taken a breather after landing two nominations at the recent Golden Globes -- garnering nods in two different acting categories for Invictus and the Steven Soderbergh-directed The Informant! -- there's a reunion with Affleck planned as well as the Kenneth Lonergan drama Margaret, The Adjustment Bureau with Emily Blunt, a reunion with Eastwood for the supernatural thriller Hereafter (currently filming) and Happy Feet 2 in 3D (also filming). The most exciting of the bunch looks like the planned remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit alongside Jeff Bridges, with the Coen brothers directing.
"What can I say," smiles Damon, "it's a good time to be alive." HQ
Invictus hits Irish screens on February 5th