Matt Damon: The Incognito Celebrity

"Good Will Hunting" is just one of the dozens of films that have made Matt Damon one of the biggest movie stars of our time. Harry Smith has paid him a visit for this Sunday Profile:


Jason Bourne: "I don't know who I am, I don't know where I'm going, none of it."

When it comes to identity, few movie fans the world over don't know who Matt Damon is. Jason Bourne made him a mega star.

Guy's guy, and father to four, he lives in New York now where anonymity is an even better fit than amnesia.

"I have the most normal life here that I think I could have anywhere else in the world," Damon told Smith.

"Can you basically be not invisible, but at least incognito in the city?" Smith asked.

"Yeah. Completely," Damon replied. "I'm rarely outside without a hat. And it's great."

Gallery: Matt Damon

He said he didn't want his kids to see a "weird reaction" to fame. "Brad and Angie, I mean, they can't walk around New York without just having it be an international incident," he said. "And having, you know, photographers everywhere and traffic being stopped. And so I feel lucky that I'm able to have a relatively normal life and still be able to do the kind of work that I want to do."

A celebrity who is more interesting than self-interested he has said he thinks of himself MORE a character actor than a leading man.

"There are people who are so watchable, you know, that you just can't take your eyes off 'em when they're on screen," Damon said. "And I feel like, that's not me. But if I have a good character to play, then that takes care of everything, you know?"

Damon is a star who doesn't need the world to revolve around him. It's part of the reason A-list directors Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Soderbergh and Clint Eastwood want him in their films.

"If you had to write a short list of the best people who've directed movies in the last 20 years in America, you've worked with just about everybody," Smith said. "A lot of 'em, yeah, a lot of 'em. It's really the main way that I choose what job I'm gonna take - I really look at the director. And so, I've always viewed it as, that's the horse you're betting on.

"And your big bet, your only bet, is really at the very beginning of the process, when you say 'yes.' And once you say yes, everything you do is in service of that director."

It would only be a matter of time till the Coen Brothers came calling. The film: A remake of the John Wayne classic, "True Grit."

Damon says he's the one guy in America who missed seeing the original.

"When I found out about this one, I asked the Coen Brothers, who were directing it, if I should go see the original. And they said, 'Actually, the book is where you should go, because we're not looking at it as a remake of that film, as much as a strict adaptation of this great book."

In the movie, Damon stars opposite 13-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who- with no prior big screen experience - was picked from a pool of 15,000 for the role.

Sighing, Damon called her "astonishing."

"This character is nothing like Hailee Steinfeld actually is in real life," he said. "For somebody her age, you know, this isn't anywhere near the way she talks off-screen. And so, to be able to connect to the character is not something that you expect a 13-year-old to be able to do."

Damon himself was just a few years older than Steinfeld when he got his first Hollywood role.

The year was 1988. He was 18. The movie: "Mystic Pizza."

Since then, Damon - now 40 - has starred in almost 50 films. Hard to believe there was a time when Damon's name didn't necessarily conjure images of box office dynamite.

"Wasn't there a point in your career where your phone basically stopped ringing?" Smith asked.

"Yeah. yeah. It was after I'd shot the 'Bourne' movie, but it hadn't come out. 'All The Pretty Horses' had come out, and it hadn't done well, it hadn't been received well.

"And I had done this 'Bourne Identity' film, which - all the signals were that it was gonna be a turkey. When the movie came out, the next Monday, I had, you know, 20 or 30 offers."

Long before Jason Bourne, there was a very different character - math genius Will Huntin.

"Good Will Hunting," the 1997 film that Damon co-wrote with his close friend and fellow unknown Ben Affleck, launched both their careers.

Legendary producer Harvey Weinstein played a key role in making the movie. Damon was grateful, but not afraid to fight for what he believed in.

"I mean, that movie was everything to us," Damon said. "And, you know, we wanted to get the right director. And Harvey had gone to a director - he hadn't checked with us. And so, we went in to talk to him about it and just say, 'Hey, you know, there's a process here that we agreed on.'"

"And he said, 'Well, you're a nobody,'" said Smith.

"Yeah, that's true!"

"And what did you say back to him?" Smith asked.

"'I'm a nobody with director approval,'" Damon laughed.

Playing hardball with Harvey Weinstein was not Damon's first big gamble. Even bigger was his decision to drop out of Harvard to pursue a film career.

"Did you always know you would do this?" Smith asked.

"Yeah. I always wanted to. From the time I was pretty young. I mean, I started really seriously doing it in high school. And you know, I had great parents who really encouraged me - not to do it professionally, necessarily, but to do what I enjoyed, and were very supportive."

Damon grew up near Harvard, on the streets of Cambridge, Mass., where he got his taste for activism.

(Gary White/water.org)
He now travels to places like Africa, for his organization, Water.org, which brings clean water to poor villages.

(Left: A school water committee at a pump installed in Mettupatti, Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu, India.)

He's also outspoken about politics - and caused a stir in 2008 when he likened Sarah Palin's vice-presidential run to a "bad Disney movie."

"I just, I was alarmed, at the time," he said. "I remember we were getting very close to the election, and she still hadn't submitted to an interview. And I thought that was really dangerous and reckless of them to put her in that so close to the presidency without anybody knowing who the heck she was. And so, that was why I said something."

Politics may be no laughing matter for Damon, but he does have plenty of reasons to be smiling, including two blockbuster franchises: The "Ocean's 11" series and the "Bourne" trilogy.

He is living the life he dreamed of.

"Making movies is the greatest job," he said. "I spent my teenage years, you know, my formative years kind of hoping that one day I could be in a place where I could make movies. It doesn't get any better than that."


For more info:
"True Grit" (Official Website)
"Hereafter" (Official Website)
water.org
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