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THINKING MAN’S ACTION HERO
Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre in The Informant!

This is the first time I’ve done an interview with an ice pack down my pants,” Matt Damon said one recent Sunday, having retreated to the relative comfort of his trailer on a wet and chilly Manhattan film set.

The culprit was a pulled groin muscle, sustained during a full morning of sprinting through TriBeCa streets in the pouring rain for The Adjustment Bureau, a romantic thriller based on a Philip K. Dick story.

The last setup of the morning called for Damon, wearing a porkpie hat, to burst out of a side door and hurtle down an alley that had been rigged with sprinklers. This is the start of the climactic chase, which takes his character, a political candidate, through downtown Manhattan and up the steps of the courthouse on Centre Street. This will amount to just a couple of seconds in the finished film, but Damon was giving it the careful consideration befitting a thinking man’s action hero.

Between takes he walked over to a cluster of video monitors to watch playbacks and confer with George Nolfi, the film’s director. Nolfi, whose writing credits include two of Damon’s films, Ocean’s Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum, talked about the rhythm of the sequence and the music he was planning to use for it. They discussed the impact of the door smacking into the wall. Damon suggested ways he could orient his body in relation to the camera.

Details matter to Damon, who has put together his quietly impressive resume with a curatorial eye, working his way to the top of the Hollywood heap while avoiding the traps of a typical A-list career. “The leading-man stuff doesn’t come easily to me,” he said. “I’ve always felt like a character actor.”

This may sound like false modesty from someone who, at 39, has yet to lose the golden-boy aura of his breakout role in Good Will Hunting (1997), a vehicle he wrote for himself with his boyhood friend Ben Affleck. But the increasing variety of Damon’s roles and the almost perversely self-effacing ease with which he sinks into them suggest the thoughtful, restless sensibility of an actor who, as his frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh put it, “is thinking about expanding himself as opposed to presenting himself as a movie star.”

In Soderbergh’s acerbic character study The Informant!, Damon transforms himself into a doughy, delusional executive who exposes an agribusiness price-fixing scheme. In Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, he’s a rugby captain entrusted by Nelson Mandela with bringing socially unifying sporting glory to post-apartheid South Africa. And he reteams with Paul Greengrass, who directed him in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, for Green Zone, in which he plays a chief warrant officer on a futile hunt for weapons of mass destruction in newly occupied Iraq.

“Matt has a lot of repeat business,” Soderbergh says. “That’s always a good sign. It’s the real indication of how people feel, if they want to have that experience again.” Damon has made two films with Gus Van Sant, three with Greengrass, five with Soderbergh (including all three Ocean’s movies). He has also worked with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Terry Gilliam and Anthony Minghella.

“I’ve learned a lot just by standing next to these great directors and watching them,” says Damon. He shared an Oscar for the screenplay of Good Will Hunting and wants to direct some day. Until he finds the right project, he’s happy to keep “arming myself with information. Clint didn’t start until he was 39, and he’s had 40 great years.”

His watchful acting style comes partly from adopting the mind-set of a student on a film set. “He’s interested in the totality of the film,” says Soderbergh. The few times he required direction in The Informant!, it was because the obliviousness of his character conflicted so starkly with his basic approach: “Matt has such a well-developed understanding of the context of a film, but he was playing someone who’s never aware of context.”

The hallmark of Damon’s screen presence is his intelligent physicality, his ability to convey plot points and character psychology through subtle, precise shifts in facial expressions and body language, whether playing the tightly coiled Jason Bourne or the schlumpy Mark Whitacre in The Informant!

The hugely successful and highly kinetic Bourne movies established his athletic bona fides. It was Franka Potente, his love interest in the first two Bourne films and the star of Run Lola Run, who taught him that “most people look ridiculous when they’re running” . She told him to study videos of himself in motion.

But what Damon does in the Bourne movies is trickier than just making an intense cardio workout look good. “It’s the way he frames his physical choices as an actor,” says Greengrass. “It’s not just: ‘Oh, they’re after me, I’ve got to run; it’s about finding in what he does an impulsion to move. There’s an imminence about his acting.”

He singles out the foot chase through Berlin midway through The Bourne Supremacy that ends with Bourne jumping on a train. “The entire character hinged on that one dialogue-less moment,”observes Greengrass, in which Damon “had to convey three different ideas: first, he’s evaded his pursuers; second, he feels a gnawing self-disgust because he’s discovered he’s a killer; and third, there is a huge implicit sense that he’s got a plan.”

For The Informant!, a very different kind of physical performance, he gained 30 pounds and had his face puffed up with prosthetics. The disguise obscures “the boundaries of the character,” says Damon. “It was all a metaphor for this guy being kind of undefined.”

That more or less sums up the quintessential Matt Damon role: the tabula rasa hero. It’s hard to think of another contemporary star who has played so many unknowable ciphers. Whitacre’s babbling stream of consciousness can be heard throughout The Informant!, but he proves to be an obscurely motivated protagonist and a hopelessly unreliable narrator. The amnesiac superspy Jason Bourne is an existential puzzle, not least to himself. Tom Ripley, of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), is an opaque shape-shifter, the antihero as identity thief.

For Damon, the appeal of embodying these ambiguous characters is in peeling back their inscrutable facades. “As an actor you have to make decisions about what their motivations are,” he says, “even if you don’t let on.”

Damon’s method, discreet to the point of invisibility, is premised on not letting on, not making it seem like work. “Even with a performance that big,” says Soderbergh, referring to Damon’s turn in The Informant!, “you never catch him acting.”

Morgan Freeman, who plays Nelson Mandela in Invictus, says that Damon is, “like myself, a journeyman,” meaning it as a compliment. “He always gets the job done. There’s no strain in his work.”

But understatement is often overlooked, as Damon is well aware. “There’s a style of acting that tends to get rewarded,” says Damon. After a pause, he adds, “It’s not what I do.” (His one acting Oscar nomination was for Good Will Hunting.)

That has never stopped big-name directors from snapping him up, and Damon is solidly booked for much of the next year. After The Adjustment Bureau, he’ll work with Eastwood again in the supernatural thriller Hereafter. He’ll also be in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel True Grit, opposite Jeff Bridges; George Clooney’s Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, about the United States government’s case against Osama bin Laden’s driver; and Soderbergh’s film about Liberace, with Michael Douglas as the kitschy pianist and Damon as his bodyguard and lover.

Damon says he also is becoming more comfortable using his celebrity on causes he supports, though he has made sure to work on nonpartisan issues like clean water for the world’s poor through water.org, a non-profit group that he helped found. “I’m trying to get involved with something you can’t really argue with,” he says.

But he’s also not afraid to show his political stripes. Last fall Damon publicly expressed horror at the prospect of Sarah Palin “having the nuclear codes”.

Damon acknowledges that he occupies an enviable position in the Hollywood firmament. Of the actors on “the shortlist who can get movies greenlit,” he says, “I probably have to deal with the least amount of nonsense around celebrity.”

Damon lives with his wife of four years, Luciana, who is not involved in the film industry, and their three daughters in New York. “Barring me getting up on a bar and dancing or leaving my wife for Lindsay Lohan, there’s no story to update,” he says. “Every six months someone comes and squeezes off a picture of me and, yup, I’m still married.”

His oddly low-key brand of stardom allows Damon, craftsmanlike actor that he is, simply to get on with the job. He is both ambitious enough to mention, more than once, “my list,” an inventory of filmmakers he still wants to work with, and modest enough to note that the list has already exceeded his wildest expectations.

“If I could just go back and work with the guys I'’e worked with so far,” he says, “I’d be thrilled.”

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