Even more Mr Nice Guy: Stylist sits down with Matt Damon to talk fame, feminism and Jason Bourne

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Helen Bownass
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Our favourite amnesiac, Jason Bourne, is back on the big screen. Stylist has a hot beverage with Matt Damon, a man so refreshingly ordinary he seems to enjoy putting his own bins out

Matt Damon has just given me his cappuccino. I don’t have the heart to tell him I don’t like cappuccinos. Because, well, because it’s Matt Damon, and even my mum (not someone who’s overly impressed by celebrity) is impressed by Matt Damon. Damon, though, is major league. And I’m glad I didn’t turn it down because said cappuccino also provides a moment of interview joy. When an assistant comes in with two coffees, both destined for him, he’s confused and jokes, “Why bring me one when you can bring me two?” “Because you’re Matt Damon,” I offer. “I’m f*cking Matt Damon!” he retorts. Nice guy, giver of coffee, an ability to laugh at himself; I am sold.

“He’s taller than I thought!” is how most people greet the picture (or maybe it’s me who’s short) of us together. His smile takes up most of the bottom half of his face, he’s casually dressed and has little salt and pepper speckles round his temples. “I embrace them,” the 45-year-old laughs when I, rather rudely on reflection, point them out. “I tell my kids, ‘You gave me this one, you gave me this one.’” Those kids are his quartet of daughters, Isabella, 10, Gia, seven, Stella, five, and Alexia, 17, who’s his stepdaughter through marriage to wife of 11 years, Luciana. The family live in LA after moving from New York in 2013.

Life there is quite a diversion from Damon’s early years in Boston, growing up in a left-leaning commune with five other families. His mum, a professor of early childhood education, took him on trips to developing countries and that philanthropic sentiment hasn’t left him. Damon’s since chosen one of the least sexy causes to throw his muscle behind: clean water and sanitation. He founded in 2009 to aid some of the 2.4 billion people globally without access to proper sanitation. He also recently spoke out against the Yulin dog meat festival in China, where around 10,000 dogs and cats are killed and eaten over 10 days.

Damon knew from childhood that he wanted to be an actor, taking part in high-school plays alongside fellow student Ben Affleck. In 1988 he went to Harvard. It was there that he wrote the first ‘act’ of Good Will Hunting, before moving to LA shortly before graduation, where he and Affleck developed it into the critically acclaimed hit that won them an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Screenplay in 1997. After that, the roles came hard and fast (with just a couple of wobbly moments), from Saving Private Ryan and The Talented Mr Ripley to the Bourne and Ocean’s franchises and beyond. Damon has also set up a production company that has created a documentary series – Project Greenlight – to fund film projects from first-time film-makers.

He’s Hollywood’s golden boy. Or, as it stands, golden man. Albeit with a few grievances. Last year he came under fire when in an interview he was accused of suggesting gay actors should stay in the closet. “I was trying to say actors are more effective when they’re a mystery,” he explains, a theme he refers to again later in our interview. He also rankled some when in the latest series of Project Greenlight, he appeared to explain the concept of diversity to black producer Effie Brown after she raised concerns about choosing the right director for a film featuring a black female prostitute. The incident sparked outrage on social media and gained its own hashtag. Damon has since apologised.

But the controversies are few and far between and time spent with the actor is a delight. Damon is as nice as you hope he will be. Equally as charming and generous with his laughter. He has a real ease with people – over lunch at a studio in Toronto’s West End, he talks animatedly to the catering team about the fish tacos we’re eating and they swap tips on where to get the best ones locally. He also scrapes his own plate clean into the bin (Hollywood: it’s not all glamour) and later rhapsodises to me about a particular type of chilli sauce called Cholula, telling me what I can cook with it. Come to think of it, he could do worse than making like Loyd Grossman and bringing out his own brand of sauces.

Success story

Not that Damon needs a sideline. His career shows no sign of stalling – an oft-repeated Forbes story once said he’s Hollywood’s most bankable star and a studio gets $29 back for every $1 they invest in him. “I called my agent and yelled, ‘I’m totally underpaid!’” he laughs when I mention it. Last year, he starred as an astronaut stranded on Mars in The Martian, one of the highest grossing films of 2015 which also won him another Golden Globe. And on 29 July he returns to the Bourne franchise for the fifth in the series – after missing the fourth. Jason Bourne is a big, bold adrenaline-drenched return for the eponymous action hero. No wonder Damon is getting his caffeine fix while he can.

The Bourne films are just as appealing for women as they are for men. Why do you think that is?
The character. He’s the opposite of Bond – James Bond is a misogynist. Even Daniel [Craig] has said, “The guy’s a misogynist.” People like Bourne’s integrity, he seems like the right mix of good boy and bad boy. He’s good in the right way.

“Good in the right way” is how people see you. There’s this idea that you’re ‘ordinary’. Is that compliment a double-edged sword?
No! It’s the way that I’ve had the career I’ve had. Even [director] Alexander Payne, who I’m working with now [on Downsizing, a satire with Kristen Wiig] said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I really want you for this because you’re normal.” I got in really good shape for Bourne and he was sending me emails like, “Start eating marshmallow pasta!” I get it, I’ve been in a room with George Clooney and Brad Pitt – those guys don’t look like the rest of us…

What’s the worst thing that somebody could say about you then?
Just go on the internet. Go to the comments section anywhere online…

I‘m not sure that’s true, Matt…
That’s true for everybody. The people on the internet are just… My wife once read a comment and was in tears. I won’t repeat what it said but they commented on her appearance and it was so horrible. It made me furious. It throws you down a rabbit hole. It’s such an attack on your own sense of fairness and justice. The only way to engage with that is to not engage with that at all.

Is that why you don’t do social media?
I don’t do social media because I don’t have time to, and if there are people I want to get in touch with then I know where they are. I have a private Instagram account and that’s nice.

With three Bourne films already under your belt, how do you manage the expectation of success?
I went through it with [Affleck’s] Batman a few months ago. It’s more of a relief when the movie opens than a feeling of exultation. It’s mildly terrifying. You don’t want to let down the people who invest in you. It’s the movie business so it’s always a gamble, but we waited such a long time to make it. It got to a point where we went, “This would be a time to come back and see how Jason Bourne feels in a post-Snowden, post-economic collapse.” You find him in an even darker place than we’ve seen previously.

Do you have to get into quite a dark mindset to play Bourne?
I’m way too happy to get into that mindset. I remember reading something Anthony Hopkins said years ago about his process and how much more economic it was as he gained age and experience, and I’ve found that to be true. Early in my career I would have sat in a dark room and done all that stuff, but I’m convinced now that movies are a magic trick.

When you think back to early in your career and making Good Will Hunting, you were so young and inexperienced, how did you have the balls to make it happen?
I can’t believe it went the way it did. But there was never a doubt in our minds. I look back now at how unlikely it was and I think that’s the naivety of youth. There’s something great about that, good stuff gets done that way. The first question everybody asked was, “Who put this deal together? How can it be that these two nobodies are playing these roles?”

Emma Thompson has criticised the recent trend for studios hiring young actors who have huge social media followings. Do you ever worry about that?
If a studio thinks there’s some quantifiable way that they can ascertain whether or not there’s interest in someone then they’ll use that. But I would caution actors to not do it – if people think they’re getting you, they’re not going to invest in the role you’re playing. If I were a director, I would not want to cast you, the person who has five million followers.

Have you ever had to tell your girls to not google you?
I haven’t told them that, that’s actually a good idea. They’re not on social media, I won’t let them. Even the older one.

As a father to four girls, how do you feel about the world that they’re growing up in?
It’s intimidating because it’s so different from the world I understand and it’s evolving so rapidly. There seems to be so much more at stake. The trouble that we could get into as teenagers was pretty much the same trouble our parents could have got into. But the stuff they’re up against is really terrifying. You see stuff going viral and kids getting bullied – I really worry for them. You have to raise them with the understanding that a little mistake could follow them forever, and that’s a horrible thing to have to think about when you’re supposed to be making mistakes.

Who do you want them to have as role models?
Their mother is a very strong woman so she’s their first role model. And my mother and my mother-in-law are incredible women, so I feel really lucky that in their immediate orbit there are very strong, very capable, very smart women. But outside that, I want them to have heroes. One of them is running for president.

So, you’re pro-Hillary then?
Yeah, well would you rather I be pro-Trump? [Laughs]

No, although it would be a great conversation starter…
It would be. I would certainly carve out my special place in Hollywood. If Trump came to do an event in Hollywood I could have dinner with him by myself.

What it is about Hillary that you find so interesting?
My favourite thing about Hillary is her daughter. I’m friends with her and she’s one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. It says so much about her parents that she’s as great as she is. Imagine growing up in that world and then coming out and being such an incredible person. I’m never going to agree with every position of anyone running for president, but I think Hillary is a brilliant woman and extremely capable and I think she would do great things.

Is having a woman in the White House an important message to send out to your daughters and to the world at large?
My kids have only ever experienced an African-American president and hopefully they’ll have a woman president, it won’t occur to them that it would ever be otherwise. They’re going to look back at us like, “Wait, what did you guys do? You just elected white men for 200 years? What the f*ck is wrong with you people?”

Are you a feminist, Matt?
I don’t know. When I was growing up, only women could be feminists. I heard my mother say thousands of times that she was so I can at least say that I was raised by one.

Men can absolutely be feminists: do you believe in equality for men and women?
Alright, then I am one.

Was it your mum who encouraged your philanthropic side?
Yeah, yeah. I think definitely how I was raised, it was incumbent on you to do whatever you can, to use your sphere of influence to affect positive change. I just woke up with a bigger sphere of influence than I thought I’d ever have. I get that not everyone has time to volunteer or start a foundation, but it is something that has given me more than it has taken from me.

What do you want to do next with the foundation?
We’re already reached four million people, but the next step is to try to move into advocacy. That’s another place in which it would be incredible to have Hillary Clinton in the White House, because she understands the issue much better than I ever could. She is committed to issues that affect women and girls, and there’s no issue that affects women and girls more [than access to clean water].

You studied English in your pre-acting life. What’s the last thing you read that had a profound impact on you?
Between The World And Me – [social, culture and race writer] Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book. He framed it in a letter from a father to a son, and it made a very important argument as well as it’s ever been made. It made me think about things in a different way.

Did it make you want to write more or did it make you feel like, ‘Oh God, I’m never going to reach those levels’?
That’s not a kind of writing I do or could do, but I certainly miss writing. I’ve overbooked myself, so I’m in the middle of two and a half years of work, so I haven’t had time to do much of anything.

You have never courted the spotlight – has that helped your career do you think?
But I have a lot of friends who don’t court the spotlight who are in it. Ben Affleck couldn’t be less interested and there are people who park outside his house and wait to take pictures of him, his wife and kids. Brad Pitt is the most normal dude from Missouri you could hope to meet. I don’t know what it is. They’re like catnip to everybody. I’m just not that guy. I’m an actor and I’m really happy with the lane that I get to run in.

It sounds like that’s a relief to you…
I have a normal life. I’m afforded my most precious and pivotal relationships unobserved. That’s great.

But do you ever have a moment when you’re putting the bins out and think, ‘I’m Jason Bourne, why am I putting the bins out?’
But I’m grateful for that stuff. I feel like you can see actors who’ve become untethered from the way we all live. You start to see it in their work, you start to not recognise their behaviour as the behaviour that normal people engage in. They’re playing at what they think someone might do in that situation because they don’t know any more.

So how have you avoided falling down that hole?
By putting the trash out… [Laughs]

Jason Bourne is in cinemas nationwide from 29 July

Images: Rex Features