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Matt DAmon - inferiority complex

March 7, 2010

Can Matt Damon really have an inferiority complex?

He’s a huge star, so why does he think his parts get offered to Brad Pitt first and why is his new thriller such a risk?

Matt Damon

(Jonathan Olley)

Ask anybody on the street which actors starred in the Ocean’s movies, and they’ll tell you it was George and Brad,” shrugs Matt Damon, playing down the stats with which I have just tried to wow him. Stats that say that, in the past decade, his films made $3 billion worldwide, compared with George Clooney’s meagre $2.3 billion and Brad Pitt’s tabloid-headline-assisted $3.5 billion. Damon should like stats — he played the maths god Will Hunting, after all — but he looks nonplussed. “I’m ‘support’ in Ocean’s. As I was in Saving Private Ryan — Tom [Hanks] carried that movie. You could accuse me of piggybacking on other people’s brilliance more than anything.”

You heard it from the man himself. Despite a career reaping both cash and plaudits, the 39-year-old simply doesn’t believe he has the star wattage of Clooney or Pitt. They’re hot enough to make even the stillest heart go boom. Damon? Last month, he was second fiddle to Morgan Freeman in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus.

That said, when I meet him at Claridge’s, in London, his “piggybacking” has helped Invictus to ride high in the British charts and netted him a best supporting actor Oscar nomination. It’s his last afternoon in town after shooting another Eastwood film, Hereafter, in England. He’s here because, this month, he’s the guy in Green Zone, Paul Greengrass’s Jason-Bournealike-in-Iraq film, and he has one day of talking about the film to negotiate — as well as a horde of Bourne fans loitering outside the hotel — before he can jet back to New York to see his family. He hasn’t seen them for two weeks. He’s “going f***ing crazy”.

So, those stats. How about he turns the shakes to nods, accepts a compliment and makes sure he catches that flight home? No. “I’m sure they have very accurate metrics on how to compensate people for what they’re actually worth in Hollywood, and I’m not the big-pay-cheque guy, so clearly they know what the reality is,” he insists, his inferiority complex so knotted, he doesn’t even believe the films he makes are offered to him first. “No, I think they go to Brad. Which is okay.”

Such humility from a multimillionaire A-lister would be galling if, well, he wasn’t actually right. His fees are modest compared with, say, Leonardo DiCaprio’s. Yet, when the business magazine Forbes claimed that Damon was the best value-for-money star back in 2007, rather than banging on studio doors and demanding double, he took the news as a cue to work on more adventurous roles. He’d tried them at the turn of the century, but most had bombed, and he’d needed a franchise to salvage his career. The kinetic Bourne came along, but with that series on hold after Greengrass quit the fourth film over script troubles (in other words, don’t bother watching this space), Damon can now have his career back.

Before heading into the interview, so as to view him in a completely different light from that of his role as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller in Green Zone, I rewatched “I’m f***ing Matt Damon”, the spoof song he recorded with the sharp-tongued comedian Sarah Silverman. What an error, as all I could do while shaking his hand (firm, workout grip) was think of him singing its lyrics: “On the bed, on the floor, on a towel by the door...” So, with Bourne off the agenda, is, titter, more comedy possible? Maybe something, giggle, longer than four minutes?

“Yeah, I’d love to end up in a movie like The Hangover, but I think it’s just really hard to make a good comedy,” he smiles, citing Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell as particular favourites. “To sustain a whole movie? That’s really, really tough to do, and that’s why there are so few great comedies. I mean, there are good comedies made every year, but they definitely have not come my way”

Back to Roy Miller, then, and anyone still not convinced that Damon is at a stage in his career when he’d rather take risks than sit piling up the pennies should take a look at this month’s release. It’s an Iraq film, set in the chaos of post-invasion Baghdad, that drops the partisan reportage from Rajiv Chan­drasekaran’s excellent nonfiction source, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, to create a no-WMD argument. It will — no pressure, then — have to go great guns to buck the trend of all other Iraq films and reap back its rumoured $100m budget. Its Bafta-garlanded, Oscar-nominated predecessor The Hurt Locker made a paltry $12.6m in America, and that was a nerve-shredding action film, rather than the sort of political thriller that rarely plays well in strip-mall America. And The Hurt Locker doesn’t mention weapons of mass destruction. Green Zone’s very first scene has Miller leading his team to where “intel” insists there are WMD, only to find nothing of the sort.

If all this seems stale to a British public that has been arguing the topic for years — the film is released close to the seventh anniversary of the invasion — it’s a subject Damon says isn’t raised in his homeland. “In America, we’re not talking about Iraq at all. If we’re talking about wars, we’re talking about Afghanistan, because that’s where we’re losing more soldiers,” he says. “Here, you’ve got the Chilcot inquiry. And to have your prime minister questioned publicly... I mean, that’s obviously a dramatic public display! Certainly, we don’t have anything like that happening. It’s riveting.”

His soldier is based on the real-life Richard “Monty” Gonzales, a career militarist convinced he’d find Saddam’s hidden WMD stash. When Damon met him for research, Monty told him how the team leaders had a friendly competition to be the first to hold up weapons on CNN after intel said the first site they were to hit was a weapons plant masquerading as a porcelain factory. “But Monty walked in and just went, ‘This is a porcelain factory!’” Damon exclaims, smiling at the absurdity of it all. “There was no way anyone could say they were manufacturing anthrax or anything here. No way.”

Harvard-educated (well, he attended, but never graduated), Damon isn’t your usual soundbiting actor, as likely to trip up a cause as assist it. He has gone so public with his views, however, that he was one of those lampooned in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 2004 satire, Team America: World Police, as a member of the celebrity campaigning FAG (Film Actors Guild) — and lampooned more mercilessly than most, as his puppet merely sits blankly, repeating his own name.

Damon, however, is thick-skinned, and he’s not about to let a gag from five years ago quell his anger or stop him caring. Green Zone is the first film to offer a detailed look at that hub of international presence in the city, and, as befits a director who made his name with the 2002 docudrama Bloody Sunday, Greengrass had the zone meticulously researched. In the film, when Damon’s Miller walks around a swimming pool with gun on, surrounded by bikini-clad women, beer-swilling grunts and awkward locals, it’s as incongruous as the McDonald’s Golden Arches anointing Mecca, a modern war-movie riff on the scene in Apocalypse Now where Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore sends his troops surfing while the villages around him burn.

“It had a totally surreal feel, it was like a bubble,” Damon says of the titular 3.8 square-mile area, before rolling his eyes as I bring up a story about how Muslim servers had to dish up pork — food they find offensive — to American workers. “How could they be so culturally obtuse? Really? They said, ‘For morale, we have to have bacon with our eggs.’ Really! It’s story after story of that in the book... There’s no dissenting voice. It’s a bunch of believers, and that’s really dangerous. We’re just trying to make an action thriller with that backdrop.”

Green Zone is the third film Damon has made with Greengrass, and the two are firm friends. The weekend before our interview, they were spotted at a Chelsea-Arsenal match at the height of the Vanessa Perroncel scandal. Damon spoke to John Terry, the former England captain, going somewhat against the grain by describing him as “unbelievably gracious”. Was he perhaps pursuing Terry for tips on how to approach one of his next projects — his reunion with best friend Ben Affleck in The Trade, the true story of the New York Yankee team-mates who swapped wives in the 1970s?

Anyway, back working with Affleck, bonding with Greengrass over the football — it all supports Damon’s claim that if he could just work with the directors he has already worked with, he would be thrilled. “Thrilled. My goal is directing, and I can’t pass up chances to work with these great directors.” Relaxed company, he clearly craves a quiet, unstarry life, and from Eastwood to Steven Soderbergh, he has no shortage of Oscar-winners who keep coming back for more, and who, like him, enjoy staying within an established working rapport. But, I ask, there must be others he’d like to work with. David Fincher? Paul Thomas Anderson? The Coens?

“Yes! The first on the list were the Coen brothers, and I’m going to work with them next,” he beams. “It’s True Grit. I’ve been hoping they’d call for years, and finally they did.” Does he think his role in True Grit — a remake of the 1969 western, co-starring Jeff Bridges, although more “a faithful adaptation of the book” — was offered to Pitt first? “It could have been. I don’t know, actually. I don’t even ask the question.”

I am the last interview of the day, and as we end he’s up, off to the airport to fly back to his Argentina-born wife, Luciana Bozan Barroso, a former bartender, and their children, Isabella and Gia. “Awesome,” he exclaims. We shake hands again. He’s well built, not particularly tall, quite normal-looking, if truth be told — something that made his award as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2007 all the more of a refreshing break from the George’n’Brads.

On receiving the award, Damon said: “You’ve given an ageing suburban dad the ego boost of a lifetime.” People responded by saying that he was bestowed the honour for his “irresistible sense of humour, his dedication to his family and his heart-melting humility”. Not every star needs to burn out on the front pages.