Matt Damon was not among the Oscar nominees Sunday night, but he deserves an award for being one of Hollywood’s most trusted and likeable actors. He plays a straight-arrow U.S. marshal in the Coen brothers’ True Grit, which had 10 nominations, and lent his voice of credence to narrating the Wall Street exposé Inside Job, which won the Oscar for best documentary feature. Now, the star of the Bourne franchise is cast as a charming congressman who chases Emily Blunt through The Adjustment Bureau, a conspiracy thriller about a mysterious force that meddles with his romantic destiny. Damon is also one of Hollywood’s most engaged activists and charity advocates. He is married to Argentine-born Luciana Barroso.
Q: The Adjustment Bureau is the second coincidence-riddled romance you’ve made in the past year, following Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. Do you believe that people are fated to be together?
A: I think it’s probably a coincidence. In terms of Hereafter, if Clint calls me up and offers me anything I’ll go do it. However, looking back on my life and the most significant things that have happened—how I met my wife was such a strange series of coincidences, and eight years and four kids later I kind of look at that and go, “Well, maybe.”
Q: How did you meet your wife?
A: She was bartending in Miami. I was choosing between two different movies, and I ultimately decided to do this Farrelly brothers movie, which was supposed to shoot in Hawaii and then it was moved at the last minute to Miami. During the shoot, a couple of the crew said, “Hey, we’re going to go out for a beer. Do you want to go?” At the last minute I went along. It happened to be her shift that night. I don’t know how else I ever would have bumped into her.
Q: Was it love at first sight?
A: Well, I feel like it was. I don’t know if that’s me revising the memory as I get older, imbuing it with all the subsequent emotion that I felt and all the experiences that we’ve had since then. I feel like if I’m honest, that there was a halo of light around her and I absolutely knew that moment had changed my life before I even spoke to her, but I honestly don’t know whether or not that’s revisionism.
Q: You play an honest politician in this film, and you play an honest suitor. I know you have played the odd liar—notably in The Informant!—but that seems to be casting against type. You’re very convincing at conveying that you’re a good, decent guy. What’s your secret?
A: It’s people’s perception. Some of the best roles of my career have been playing against that, you know? Like Ripley [in The Talented Mr. Ripley], that was one of the first great roles I got where a director [Anthony Minghella] was subverting an image. I guess I just come across as the guy who might be your next-door neighbour, but it’s been a real boon for me.
Q: Could you play a serial killer?
A: Of course. I don’t really have any kind of strategy that I’m trying to adhere to. It’s a one-off thing trying to choose movies, you look at the material that’s out there and the directors and take your best shot.
Q: There’s a difference between playing an honest character and giving an honest performance, which to me means submerging yourself in the character so we don’t notice the acting. You did it in True Grit, Hereafter, and in The Adjustment Bureau. But invisible acting doesn’t get recognized at Oscar time, as much as flashy acting. Do you agree?
A: Yeah. That’s something that actors talk about all the time. But look, your allegiance has to be to the work. I’ve come to believe that the best way, if we really wanted to try to give out awards, would be to wait at least a decade. There are films like Goodfellas, for instance, where if I’m flipping channels and I happen to bump into it, my afternoon’s gone because I’m going to sit there and watch it again. Luckily, I got that awards monkey off my back very young, so I’m not spending my career chasing that.
Q: You shared an Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting with Ben Affleck, and since then you’ve had two nominations for acting. Do you usually go to the Oscars?
A: No. I went the year Saving Private Ryan was nominated. If I’m in L.A. I’ll pull the tuxedo out of mothballs and put it on and go to the parties, because everybody’s out that night and it’s fun to see people. You just jump up, throw your monkey suit on and roll. When The Departed [was nominated] we were watching [the Oscars] on TV, and when Marty [Scorsese] won, my wife and I were just jumping up and down, and then when it won Best Picture I turned to Lucy and I said, “Oh, s–t, we should have gone to L.A.!”
Q: You turned 40 recently. How was that?
A: Actually, it felt really good. I wondered if I was going to have some weird kind of mid-life twang. I remember my dad turning 40 and my uncle turning 40 and them kind of freaking out a little bit and making fun of each other. I actually felt a great sense of calm. I felt lucky to have the family that I have and the wife that I have, and the job that I have, and I just kind of found myself wanting health and more of the same. I remember, in fact, Morgan Freeman, when I was doing Invictus interviews with him, we were sitting there and somebody said, “Oh, you’re going to turn 40 soon,” and he turned and he said, “You’re coming into the best two decades of your life.” I felt that was really cool.
Q: Do you work out a lot?
A: Not if I can help it. I’m doing a Neill Blomkamp movie—a sci-fi movie—this summer where it’s appropriate for the role. But after True Grit I had six months off and then I was working with [Steven] Soderbergh just playing an unemployed guy. It didn’t really require me to be in any kind of particular kind of shape, so I’ve been letting it slide.
Q: So you’ll do it for a role, but you’re not into honing yourself every day?
A: Not for vanity’s sake, no. In fact, the trainer I’m working with now is terrific, and what he talks about is health. I’m becoming far more interested in just functionality and making sure my body is as strong as it can be so I can swing my kids around and not worry about aches and pains. I often found, with some of the Hollywood workouts, they were superficially making me look a certain way but they weren’t making me feel any better.
Q: Do you do yoga?
A: I tried yoga, man, about seven years ago, and I just couldn’t hang with it. I gave it six good months. But the guy I’m working with now, flexibility’s a big part of what he does. Since I last did yoga, I haven’t been able to touch my toes, and I’m grabbing the soles of my feet again.
Q: I understand you turned down Avatar?
A: Well, I joke that I turned Avatar down; the reality is that my schedule made it impossible. I was desperate to work with Jim [Cameron]. Opportunities to work with him don’t come along very often and to be able to watch him direct, for somebody who wants to direct, it’s a very big deal. I do believe that the right actor gets the part. Gus [Van Sant] offered me Milk, the Josh Brolin role, but I had to bow out because I had Green Zone. Now I look at the movie and Josh was so great I go, “Okay, the right actor got the part.” The same thing happened with The Fighter. I was supposed to play Christian [Bale]’s role and I look at that performance and go, “I mean, forget about it.” The right guy got the part.
Q: Ben Affleck and you are best friends. He’s done well as a director. Why not cast you?
A: Because he’s taking all the good roles! The next movie he’s doing is terrific, called Argo. There’s a great role at the centre of it that I would have begged him to do, but Ben took the role. It’s a true story of an operation during the Iranian Revolution. Six diplomats escaped from the American Embassy, and hid in the Canadian Embassy, and the Canadians risked their lives to shelter them, and so there was this whole thing about how do we get these guys out of Iran? Ben’s playing this CIA guy who would go into Iran and, with these six other people, pose as a Canadian film crew on a location scout [and] then fly out of the country all together. It was this unbelievably dangerous, audacious plan, and it worked.
Q: And you do want to direct?
A: I’m desperate to direct. My day job is going so well I just haven’t had time, and what little free time I have I spend with the kids. I’m just looking for a really wonderful thing to direct first time out, and hopefully it’ll come along soon.
Q: You are a pretty political animal, and in The Adjustment Bureau you play a politician well enough that I felt, “Jeez, I’d vote for that guy.” Any temptation to jump into the fray?
A: No, no, no. I’m really interested in politics—and I think we all should be—but I’m not at all interested in being a politician, it’s not a lifestyle that is at all attractive to me.
Q: Is it because there’s even a greater infringement on your privacy?
A: It looks to me like one long press junket, you know? The most exciting part of my job is all the problem solving that goes into making movies and all the collaboration and having a project that you’re all working on together.
Q: What is the secret to living a “normal life,” if there is such a thing, in this business?
A: I don’t know. I live in New York and so I don’t feel like I’m in the entertainment world most of the time. I leave this world to go to film sets, where it’s all about the work and there isn’t a lot of ego. When we’re in L.A. during awards season, that’s when it feels surreal. But it’s kind of fun because we’re like, “Did you see so-and-so?!” For those awards nights, we go out and just stargaze.