THE GOOD SHEPHERD
An Interview with Matt Damon
By Wilson Morales
December 20, 2006
After playing Jason Bourne in the Bourne films, you would think that he can future spy film in his sleep, but each film still presents a challenge, and with his next film, “The Good Shepherd”, Damon really inserted himself in the lives of others to understand the mechanism of what a man does when he’s lying about his job. Damon plays Edward Wilson, one the key figures who was central in the formation of the CIA. At a recent press conference to promote the film, Damon talks about working with Robert De Niro, doing research, and being a new dad.
Can you talk about the parallels between your life and this role, in terms of trying to keep private life private?
DAMON: Actually, I don’t have a very hard time keeping my private life private. There’s not that much interest. To me, what felt surreal, I think, was mostly at the beginning, going to work and working with De Niro and being directed by him. That was intimidating at first and ultimately surreal after and then basically leveled into, ‘OK, I can deal with this,’ somewhere around probably the second month.
How difficult was it to give life to a very unemotional character, to make him human enough that the audience will want to watch this guy for three hours?
DAMON: Good question. I was nervous about that and I think with another director I would have given into my fear and indicated more and pushed it more and been a little more over the top. The reality was that he just insisted on absolute emotional honesty and subtlety all the time, and he just refuses to… I think something that I certainly have fallen victim to in the past is -- because I’m also a writer – you look at every scene and you deconstruct the script and you go, ‘OK, this scene is in the movie for this reason. The audience needs to come away with THIS.’ As a writer, you can do that, but as an actor that’s deadly. You can’t think in those terms or else you’re going to end up just pulling faces and indicating and ultimately losing the movie because people don’t believe what you’re doing. Bob was just insistent on absolute naturalism and realism. He’s a student of human behavior. I’ve never seen an actor as famous as him walk into a room and do what he does, which is he just disappears. He absolutely disappears and he sits there and he watches everything. He says absolutely ever interaction, and the reason his work remains so good and he remains so relevant as an artist is because he sits there and he is constantly just downloading human behavior. Oftentimes actors become famous and they end up doing imitations of their own performances or imitations of what they think people might do in certain situations. Very few of them sit there and do the kind of rigorous observation that it takes to embody people in a subtle, nuanced and real way. We’d have these conversations where I’d say, ‘Well, I’m listening to him here,’ and he’d say, ‘You’re listening to me now. You’re not doing anything. You hear what I’m saying.’ You know what I mean? And to get permission from somebody to do that… normally, a director is telling you exactly the opposite because normally a director is panicking that the audience isn’t going to understand, that the audience is going to be confused. And Bob would not worry about that. He would just say, ‘You play the scene for its absolute honesty and moment to moment, and don’t worry about anything else.”
So, he was your model for your character who can disappear?
DAMON: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, in a lot of ways, yeah. And he also just gave me permission to do that, which I was fighting against the whole time because I’m not used to being able to do that, to be that subtle. But of course the guy should be subtle. He’s the head of counter-intelligence. Like what’s he going to do, tell you how he’s feeling? I mean, it makes total sense when you think about it. He should be reserved and he should be emotionally distant because it’s very dangerous for him to be any other way.
Were you in the clubs at Harvard? Did you see the good old boy network from the inside?
DAMON: I did. I was in the Deltic (??????) club at Harvard and I did some of that, although it had changed. Now, like the Skull and Bones, for instances, this new generation of kids have gone through and they have debunked all of the… I mean, now there’s a lot of writing about the Skull and Bones. ‘OK, there’s this rite of passage and there’s that and you have to do that.’ Starting with around my generation people stopped taking, I think, all that stuff quite so seriously, whereas in 1939 it was of the utmost important. But nowadays all of those secrets are kind of out in the open. So I think they’re a little different now. Skull and Bones is co-ed now.
You’re having a hell of a year. The Departed is a huge hit and there’s Oscar talk for that and for this. You’re a new dad and a husband…
DAMON: Just another years, really.
How is being a new dad?
DAMON: Great. Great. That’s been just amazing. It defies description, actually. I don’t really know how to talk about it because… I feel I got made a member of a club I didn’t know existed. It’s just wonderful. Other people’s babies; they were always showing me baby pictures or trying to hand me the baby, and I was like get that fucking thing away from me. ‘I don’t want to touch your kid. Give me a break.’ But I’m totally into it now. I was scared at first because I was kind of excited for my daughter to be two. I was excited for her to start talking and walking and toddling around and hanging around, but I didn’t realize how much personality little people have right off the bat. It’s just been fun.
What’s your favorite thing to do with her?
DAMON: Well, she laughs. She has this laugh. You do this thing… you can either give her one of (he makes a zurburt sound) those on the stomach or you can munch under her arm – you go, ‘Whomwhomwhom’ – and she goes ‘Aaaacchhhh, aaaaaccchhhhh.’ It’s just the funniest. She sounds like a little machine gun. She, in particular, is really in a hurry to kind of grow up because she’s got a big sister and she’s got cousins, and when they’re all in a room she just sits there and watches them. She wants to play. You know how babies, they can’t (he goes through this whole set of visual reactions).
Ben told us he wasn’t trusted making food at the beginning with his kid. Did you have any similar problems?
DAMON: Well, she’s just on solids now. So, I mean, it’s just mushing a banana. It’s nothing too hard.
Ben said he couldn’t even do that…
DAMON: Oh really? Like he’s just going to give her a full forkful of spaghetti or something? We’re just starting on solids now, so that question hasn’t come up yet.
You’re working on the third Bourne film now. Does doing something like Good Shepherd change the way you look at Bourne and that film series? And also, can you talk about playing a killer. Apparently one actor passed on your role because the character who was originally going to be thrown out of the plane was your character’s son…
DAMON: Yeah, Eric told me that, Eric Roth, the writer. I didn’t know that, but in an early draft of the script, he threw his own son out of the plane. And Eric went, ‘Maybe that’s too much.’
But were you worried the character was too unsympathetic? He lets and or watches a lot of people die. He’s pretty ruthless…
DAMON: Well, nobody sees themselves as ruthless. If you look at it from his point of view, if you look at the stakes of the game he’s playing, you’re talking about the middle of the Cold War, and in his mind he’s doing things to stop huge conflagrations. It’s like, ‘World War III is going to happen if I don’t do what I have to do.’ These tough choices have to be and he’s the good shepherd and he’s taking care of his flock. And he’s sacrificing, essentially, his own soul to make those decisions. That is another way to look at it. It doesn’t affect the way I think of the Bourne character because they’re very character. To me, the Bourne character allows me to do… In between these two Bourne movies I did Syriana, Departed and Good Shepherd. Departed, at the time I signed up for it, it was thinking that it was not going to be a hit because Marty, classically, his movies don’t make a lot of money. So I felt like, bookended by the Bourne movies, I had a chance to make the movies I really wanted to make, that maybe were a little more challenging. Syriana certainly was kind of a more challenging story and I was really happy to be able to be a part of it. I’m really proud of that movie. Departed, obviously, just surprised all of us, how well it’s done. And then this, which is kind of epic, but it’s a tougher sell when you’re talking about getting a mass audience to the movie. It’s longer. Departed is over two and a half hours, also. But, as you say, the lead character, the protagonist, I’m not out there trying to get sympathy, elicit sympathy from the audience. It’s a tougher character, which I really like. I really like that kind of challenge. I have a real limited chance to choose certain movies and I’m happy with the choices so far, because I think they’re a little more challenging. And it doesn’t last forever. You guys see everybody come and go. I know the deal. I’ve been around. It’s like you breathe this rarefied air for a real short time and then there’s an ebb and flow to everything. Particularly with the choices I make and the material I tend to be drawn to, I can’t be up here for long.
Update on The Bourne Ultimatum? Can Jason ever be happy?
DAMON: Yeah, that's a good question. Well, we're almost halfway through. I don't know if that guy can ever be happy.
Does he know who he is?
DAMON: Well, he will by the end of this one. I don't know how long we can ride that pony. I'd like to think- - maybe he'll get a bump on the head at the end or something.
So how's it going?
DAMON: Really well. Paul's directing it again which is a huge. I mean, that's the reason to do it because he's really just a great filmmaker. We have a story and we have a story to tell. But looking at it, to be fair, we go, Okay, I think this should be the last one because I'm half joking, but how long can you- - his search for identity is definitely going to come to an end.
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