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Matt Damon on "Good Will Hunting"

by Henri Béhar

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There's a unique freshness to Matt Damon. Fresh face, fresh voice. Strong impact. Made you lurch for the Courage Under Fire press kit to find out who this guy was who stole every scene he was in from Denzel Washington. One should have known when Francis Coppola gave the lead part in John Grisham's the Rainmaker to Matt who? Think of the Godfather, think of the Outsiders and Rumble Fish ; if anything, Coppola has the keenest eye in the business for budding talent.

With best pal Ben Affleck, Boston-born-and-bred Matt Damon, 23, comes to Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting as a double-threat: lead actor AND scriptwriter. Having just wrapped Steven Spielberg's Private Ryan, he recently took some time off from his preparation for John Dahl's Parameters, which co-stars Edward Norton, Martin Landau and possibly John Turturro, to sit down and chat with us. Excerpts.

On Fame. I like it. I don't think I'm addicted to what is involved with it. I really could take it or leave it. So far, I'd have to say I don't quite know what you're talking about. Honestly. I haven't met a single person, I have not walked down the street where somebody stopped me and said, "Oh, you're Matt Damon." Not for a movie, not for a magazine cover, not for nothing. Which is normal since not that many people know my work, and which works fine for me: I want to be in a position where I can go wherever the character I'm researching is supposed to be from. That's what I'm doing in New York right now. The nice thing is I'm in a position now where they're actually paying for me to do it. I mean, they're putting me during the time when I research, which I used to have to go out of pocket. Courage Under Fire I did and The Rainmaker I did.

What was great about The Rainmaker was when I was bartending, people didn't know who I was. It would have gotten in the way if they knew who I was. So yes, in that sense, if both movies do well -- that's a lot of if's -- my job might get hindered. But I hope I can find a way, 'cause that's what's most important.

But it also affords you a lot of opportunities. When we did Courage Under Fire, Denzel Washington was allowed to lead tank battles. They really gave him command of these mock tank exercises and strategy lessons. I don't think he would have gotten that if he wasn't who he was. So there's a trade-off. But worse things can happen, you know, there are worse injustices in the world than my not being able to research anonymously.

On getting almost emaciated for Courage Under Fire It evolved essentially because there was a light at the end of the tunnel. There was a time limit. Given that, the person that outlined the diet for me didn't think I was going to be able to stick to it: it was too difficult. When I stuck to it, people got worried. "You have to eat, you have to be fit, you really have to be prepared." And I refused to do so. "Why eat? I've come this far, I'm not going to stop now."

At the end of movie I started eating chocolate cake. That's how I got sick. Literally, the day after I shot the scene with Denzel Washington walking on the lake, I started eating four or five chocolate cakes, twelve beers, four steaks, tons of pasta. And my stomach expanded... I had to go on medication, for dizziness, lightheadedness, stress, post-traumatic stress disorder... I've been off the medication for a couple of weeks now - after two years! That taught me a lot about what I can and can't do, what I should and shouldn't do. But I liked the role and I worked for the role. It cost a lot to get there and I'm glad that I stuck with it.

On his performances. I'm always pleased with my performances because I know that I couldn't do it any better. I always try my hardest, give it all I've got. If people don't like it, then they don't like it, that's totally up to them. But I'll never have a regret about it. And Good Will Hunting is a lot about that, about not having regrets in life. If it's putting on a lot of weight, if it's going to bar-tend or.., whatever it is, fine if you don't like it. You just do whatever it takes to get to the truth of the character. I don't think there's any length that you should not go to do that. That's what we do for a living.

On being best friends with, but also in constant competition with fellow actor-writer Ben Affleck. Well, we've had rises and falls that weren't necessarily meteoric but the word was "Us". If one of us was working and we had enough for both of us to go through life, great. The money was basically there to be shared. Ben would be in a series, like eight episodes, he made a little money, great. I did something, I made a little money, great. We're always looking out for each other. We go out for the same parts all the time but it's never really come down to a director saying, "It's either you or Ben." It would be more like, " It's Brad Pitt or you." But you always root for your own guy. I hung out with a bunch of actors and I always felt that if I don't get it, I hope someone in the group does, because I thought they were the best guys around and they deserved it.

On co-writing, part one. There are a bunch of different ways to do it. We really didn't have a formula. There were a lot of times when Ben and I just improv'd. We'd take a tape-recorder, put it down and just start improvising. Eventually we might come up with for a half-hour improv out of which we might have fifteen seconds that were good. And we'd be looking through the tape and "Yeah yeah yeah! That's it! That one! Write that down." And maybe a scene would start from that line.

It also depended upon our work schedules. At one point, I ran out of money and I took a job that ended up being a wonderful job, a TNT movie called The Good Old Boys that Tommy Lee Jones directed. The bad part was I was stuck in Alpine, Texas. There was one fax machine in the entire town run by this Iranian guy named Rajou. I used to go and he would send my fax away for me. He drove a Lexus and it was the only Lexus in West Texas. And his license plate read "Rajou". Anyway, Rajou was our middle man for our script for a few months there.

So Ben would fax me scenes, I'd look at them and I'd make notes. It would give me ideas, I'd send that back to Ben, Ben would read it... You know what I mean? And then we'd call each other on the phone and say, "Okay, that worked, this didn't work. -- All right, now I see from this scene we needed this other scene... -- Okay, I'll work on that. I'll take a shot on the set tomorrow, they're shooting a scene I'm not in, I'll have a couple of hours to do just that and I'll fax it to you at the end of the day." That's basically how it went.

On co-writing as opposed to going it alone. Well, two things: In the first place, writing came out of frustration, 'cause I didn't get a job. Two: co-writing was the only option. I had written forty pages for a class and I didn't know what to do with them. Didn't know where to go, didn't have the discipline to sit in front of the computer and wait for something to happen.

I showed it to Ben who, I think, is one of the brightest guys that I know, we have similar sensibilities -- and he had the same reaction: He liked it but didn't know where to go with it. We sat on it for a year. And then it started coming. And it was through conversation that the movie kind of came out. Had I written it alone, it would have never gone beyond the forty pages.

On Gus Van Sant. Oh, man. Just that edge that we see in his films! All actors want to work with him because of the moment-to-moment honesty that he gets out of interaction with people. Whatever they are, he always has a great idea as to where to put the camera, and he gets good performances out of the actors because he shoots around them. He rehearses them, then very calmly decides where to put the camera, in a very unobtrusive place. It's just amazing. I felt like my acting process - whatever you want to call it - was nurtured by him. I would very much like to work with him again.

The fact that Ben and I had written the script didn't interfere at all. As a matter of fact, when it all started, there was almost a ceremonial handoff of the project. We said, "Look man, you are the director. This was our baby, it's yours now, go and do whatever it is you have to do." Despite the fact that Gus is a very communal director in that he wants everyone's opinions, which makes you feel you're part of the team, there can only be one chef in the kitchen when it comes to making a movie. Movies are the last great dictatorship. They need that. They need a strong voice, and a decisive voice, and the director is that voice. It has to be. Ben and I were very conscious about our place. As actors. When it started.

Before that was something else entirely (he laughs). Gus and Ben came down to Memphis while I was shooting The Rainmaker. As we were working on the script, Gus said, "I want Chuckie (the Ben Affleck character) to get flattened on a construction site. -- What do you mean? -- Killed. Crushed like a bug. I want somebody to say, 'Chuckie was killed, he was crushed like a bug.'" Ben and I said, "That's a terrible idea! You can't kill him! -- No, man. It'll be cool. It'll be the Act II climax. -- That's a terrible Act II climax."

Anyway, we wrote a draft where Chuckie got crushed like a bug. When Gus read it, he said, "It's a terrible idea", so we threw it out. We probably have it on our hard drive somewhere. We also have Will getting killed on our hard drive somewhere. That was an original ending: Carmine came back with his boys and a baseball bat to kill Will Hunting, who deep down actually wanted to be killed. It was his way of getting out. You can kind of sense the movie is going that way. You know: "Will drives off into the sunset to find the girl he lost - except for that 18-wheeler that he didn't see." (laughs)

What will happen when - if - Will gets to California? You have to ask Minnie Driver... I think Skylar, her character, will whip his ass. That's it: Good Will Hunting the sequel, scene one: " Will gets whipped." But I don't really know where we would go from there.

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