Matt Damon, like his erstwhile Ocean’s Eleven co-star George Clooney, is supposed to be that rare thing, a movie star who can pass for a regular guy – in this case, an A-level economics teacher.
Hunched over a newspaper in his Manhattan hotel suite, Damon, wearing the jeans-and-jumper look of the staff room, reacts to the day’s news with a well-informed scepticism.
He has played tough guys, con-artists and, most famously, rogue CIA agent Jason Bourne (The Bourne Supremacy, Saturday, Sky Modern Greats), but his typifying remark over the course of our interview is this: “The top marginal tax rate until Reagan came along was 70%. After Reagan, it never got above 40% again. In 1945, it was 94%. Now you have these two parties and they’re arguing over 39.5% versus 35%? Insane.”
We Bought a Zoo
Indeed. If Damon, at 41, can make these kinds of statements without falling into Sean Penn-style sanctimony, it’s because he still sends himself up while doing so. He is also inclined to make fun films over worthy ones. His latest, We Bought a Zoo (released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 16 March), is the whimsical story of a widower and his two children who try to rebuild their lives by taking on an unlikely enterprise.
Directed by Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Friday, Watch; Almost Famous), it co-stars Scarlett Johansson and is based on the British journalist Benjamin Mee’s memoirs of buying a wildlife park in Devon. Weirdly, this film is more pressurising for Damon than the high-budget Bourne franchise.
“It ends up being all on you,” he says, looking pained. “I remember being deep in the s**t with Paul Greengrass in the last Bourne movie – no script, writing it as we were going along, but Paul would say, ‘remember, coming up here is a little bish bash bosh.’ There were these anchors you could count on.
“But there’s none of that in this. If this movie tanks, it’ll be very bad for me because it’s hanging on me. Bad for me and bad for Cameron.”
If it tanks it will be because the film is just too sweet. (The animals teach the humans valuable lessons on how to reconnect with one another, the wisest character is a four-year-old girl, etc.) “It will probably cross the line for some people who’ll say it’s saccharine,” says Damon.
It is pretty saccharine. But as the bereaved dad, Damon is hard to resist. As always, there is a good-natured smirk about his performance, as if he recognises the absurdity of the world in general and himself in particular, in collusion with the audience and against lesser entities. He hesitated before accepting the role.
“And what kind of made me feel OK about doing it was Cameron Crowe is the guy who came up with the line, ‘You complete me.’ I mean, f***, are you kidding me? That’s like enriched uranium.”
Filming took place in California, but Damon and his family – wife Luciana Barroso, three daughters and one stepdaughter – live most of the year in New York, which better suits his sensibility. The actor wanted his children to see Occupy Wall Street, when the tents were still out, but didn’t want to go down there himself. He is keenly aware of how celebrity involvement can misfire.
“That image would be too easy to hijack by people who want to demean Occupy Wall Street. I’m not good at knowing what my own baggage is and I didn’t want to mess with it. It seemed like it could go: oh, Matt Damon’s down there.”
Trivialising the cause?
“Yeah. So I didn’t want to do that. But I support what they’re doing.”
His mother took the kids there instead. (A lecturer in education, and a great influence on Damon, she has been volunteering once a week at her local Occupy site in Boston.)
Damon famously dropped out of Harvard to write Good Will Hunting (Saturday, Sky Modern Greats) and he has something of the frustrated student about him. Eighteen months ago he had lunch with Jeffrey Sachs, author of The Price of Civilization, which has informed much of the actor’s thinking.
“He’s an economist and he goes over all these polls, in which people overwhelmingly think that the rich should be taxed [more]. And yet none of that is reflected in the political system.
“To me, what’s great about Occupy is that it’s like the beginning of the engagement of the citizenry. Because it always means going into the streets. The labour movement, any of those things – it always comes from the bottom. It’s the people. So that feels like it might be starting to happen. And that’s exciting because stuff does need to change.”
Let me get this right; Damon is lobbying to pay higher taxes himself? He nods. “Look at Warren Buffett. It’s what’s right. It’s incredible that we even have the argument.” He is disappointed in Obama – “He hasn’t done any of the stuff that he said he was going to do” – but bats away director Michael Moore’s suggestion that he run for president himself with a scornful wave.
“I would never do that. I laughed when I heard it. He was just saying that somebody from outside the political system who hasn’t been corrupted by it… I don’t think that’s wrong. I would hope a third party would emerge at some point to challenge the status quo.”
Why wouldn’t he run?
“I don’t think I’d like that at all. I, I just wouldn’t be… I’m interested in politics, but an actual career? I deeply love what I do and wouldn’t want to stop.”
What he does has of course been terrifically successful. He won an Oscar for the screenplay of Good Will Hunting and, with Bourne and the Ocean’s series (Ocean’s Eleven, Thursday, Comedy Central), has been in two of the most successful franchises of the last decade.
He has just been in Mexico shooting the futuristic action movie Elysium, directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9) and co-starring Jodie Foster, which is why, today, Damon has a shaved head.
Since we’re talking about the over-remuneration of bankers (“these guys who are gaming the system, taking advantage of people to enrich themselves”), does Damon think movie stars are overpaid?
He recoils, slightly. “Ugh. Well, we make something. We do make something. And we get paid based on the success of the things that we make. If you think of each movie as a small business, a start-up, and if we have a history of making a lot of successful start-ups, we get a salary, right? But a lot of times our pay is a piece of the start-up and so when a movie doesn’t do well, we don’t do well.”
Still, getting $20 million a picture sounds kind of inflated. Damon insists those set-ups don’t exist any more, because of the collapse in the DVD market.
“I mean, I remember talking to [Steven] Soderbergh about it and he was like, well that s**t’s just got to die. If I lose you a fortune, I get $20 million? Wow. But those deals aren’t around any more. No. Usually you’ll get a salary, and then you’ll get cash breaks when the studio gets its money back.
“So I don’t see it as the same thing at all as guys who actually, knowingly, defraud people; that to me is a very, very different thing. Whatever you think of movies, they are a product. They generate wealth and jobs.”
He will, alongside the blockbusters, do cameos for the thrill of working with people he admires. Damon’s recurring role in 30 Rock, as Carol, the pilot boyfriend of Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon (sample line: “Those potato-chip bags are designed to be opened in flight. You open ’em at sea level, somebody could be killed”), came about after he and his wife spied the entire cast of the show at an awards do and “freaked out”.
He explains, “It’s the one show we record. So during one of the commercial breaks, I went over to Tina and just basically gushed and said if you ever have anything, I’d love to come on and do a cameo.”
Unsurprisingly, she called him soon after. There is a new Bourne film on the way this summer, The Bourne Legacy, which Damon is not in and which, he anticipates, he’ll feel a little jealous about when it comes out.
When he was filming Elysium in Canada, the Bourne production office was across the hall from theirs and “when I saw the name on the door…” He trails off. But the conditions of agreeing to the movie, fixing a release date before a script had even been written, were too pressurised for Damon.
“The last one was by-the-seat-of-your-pants film-making and was too much; it took years off our lives.” Besides, he says, where else could the character go? “I’d got my memory back three times, you know? It’s like, if my character said ‘I don’t remember’ again, you’d be like, well, I’ll tell you, because I’ve been living with you for ten years now.”
He smirks his Damon smirk. And, folding his newspaper, gets up to go outside and re-engage with the citizenry.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 13 March 2012.