Here’s what we know about Matt Damon: He and his older brother, Kyle, were raised in Cambridge, Mass. by their father, Kent, a stockbroker, and mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an emeritus professor of early-childhood education. The couple divorced when the boys were small children, but the relationship remained amicable. “They really co-parented,” offered Damon, whose posture stiffened slightly when questions crept toward the personal. Damon said his mother knew that he’d be an actor from the time he was a small child. A family legend has it that when his mom accidentally started a fire in their apartment by forgetting to open a fireplace flue, 6-year-old Matt’s response was to don a makeshift fireman’s costume and pretend to put it out. He went to Harvard, planned to major in English, dropped out after landing a part in the 1993 western “Geronimo” and never seriously harbored thoughts about having a different job. “I used to feel bad when friends would talk about their future after college and they didn’t know what they were going to do,” Damon said. “I always knew.”
Damon and his wife met in Miami, where she was working as a bartender and he was filming the Farrelly brothers’ slapstick comedy “Stuck on You,” and have now been married for 16 years. Their four daughters range in age from 10 to 23, and their influence means the online presences of Taylor Swift and Timothée Chalamet have been a source of pleasure to their father, whose own social media presence is basically nonexistent. The family’s home in Brooklyn Heights, according to The New York Post, was the most expensive private residence in the borough at the time of its purchase in 2018. For fun while in Australia, he’d been doing some surfing (“I’m pretty terrible,” he said) and horseback riding. The last nonfiction book he read was “Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another,” by Matt Taibbi. The last novel: “The Searchers,” by Alan Le May, which was made into the classic 1956 western and which he’d been sent by producers mulling a remake. “What else do I do? ” Damon said when I nudged for more. “I don’t know, I sound like a pretty boring guy.”
Call it what you will, boring or shrewd, but Damon sees himself as “in the last of that line of people who want to maintain privacy,” he said. “There’s this new line of people inviting everybody into their daily lives: Hey, I’m at the gym! This is me working out! There’s something tactically brilliant about it in the sense that you’re controlling the narrative, but it’s the exact opposite of how I’ve always thought, which is ‘Move on, nothing to see here,’ and just doing the work.” This idea, that knowing where a movie star buys his coffee undermines the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief — to imagine — is a hoary one, and also one we tend to hear coming from the mouths of older white guys, at least those lucky enough to opt out of feeling the pressure to build an audience without selling too much of themselves. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to it.
‘Brad probably wouldn’t even remember how many of the movies that I’m in that he was offered first.’
Even before he was famous, Damon’s impulse as an actor has always been toward a certain inwardness, an emotional mutability he identified in his idols early on. He remembers, thinking back to the fall of 1987, a discussion he and Affleck had backstage at a rehearsal for their high school production of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s bleak morality play “The Visit.” The two boys, students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Massachusetts, were discussing the type of actors they wanted to be when they grew up. Self-taught film nerds in the habit of renting highbrow movies from the local Blockbuster, they’d recently watched the 1985 film version of “Death of a Salesman,” which had ignited a conversation. The movie starred a 48-year-old Dustin Hoffman as that icon of delusional striving, the 63-year-old Willy Loman, and in Affleck and Damon’s estimation, you could see Hoffman working to make that age gap manifest in his performance — you could see the wheels turning. They wondered: Was it good acting when the acting announced itself? Did they want to be actors who did that, self-reflexive technicians? Was it more preferable to be a chameleon? Damon already knew the answer: He wanted to be like Gene Hackman.
When Damon and Affleck were having this conversation, Hackman was 57, seven years older than Damon is now, the star of such classics as “The French Connection” and “Hoosiers” and the sort of actor who disappears into a character but without making a whole show about it — an anti-magician, downplaying his transformation. “Hackman could sit so deeply in a character,” Damon said, “and be so moving even when he was doing very little.” Damon pointed to Hackman’s work in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 paranoid masterpiece “The Conversation.” He noted how in his book “In the Blink of an Eye,” the legendary film editor Walter Murch, who worked on “The Conversation” among other classics, found that whenever he went to make a cut, Hackman was blinking, so attuned was the actor to the narrative rhythms of the film. “He was so locked in,” Damon said of Hackman. It was work, like so much of Damon’s, that elevates a movie and yet, paradoxically, that you might not even notice as great acting.
William Goldman’s old saw about how in Hollywood nobody knows anything could probably now be amended to this: Everyone knows only one thing, and it’s that superhero movies sell. The reorientation of the studios toward those films and other pre-existing intellectual property means the power of actors, even proven stars like Damon, has diminished. It’s the recognizable characters and cinematic universes that can be counted on financially, not the people inhabiting them. Fewer attractive parts adds extra pressure on stars to pick those parts wisely — a big, undervalued aspect of Hollywood acting. In hindsight, when you look over a successful actor’s IMDB page, it’s a list of hits and near misses and duds, but originally, they were all the same: a script. Nothing is preordained. Anyone who has a 25-year career as firmly A-list as Damon is good at picking, at telling not just whether a movie will be good but also whether he can be good in it, and whether it can be good for him. “Sometimes the right choice for an actor isn’t the biggest film, but what is the right choice for that moment in an actor’s career,” says George Clooney, who directed Damon in “The Monuments Men” and “Suburbicon.” “Matt has bounced back and forth between big studio pictures and independent, interesting films. Because he doesn’t keep doing the same thing, audiences don’t get bored of him.”