Damon scores in tale of hope
It was a tall order for Matt Damon to play Francois Pienaar, being six inches shorter, but the Bourne trilogy star has once again raised his game to portray the former South African rugby captain in Clint Eastwood's story of how Nelson Mandela inspired a team and a nation, writes Evan Fanning
When Matt Damon was preparing for his latest role, he visited the home of the man he was due to play. The first thing Damon said to Francois Pienaar, as the former South Africa rugby captain opened the door to welcome him, was: "I look much bigger on film." It was an excuse he need not have made. Damon refers to the process of persuading an audience that, at 5ft 10in, he can be passed off as the 6ft 4in Pienaar as "a magic trick".
If it is a trick, it is one which has worked, with Damon earning his second acting Oscar nomination earlier this week. He portrays the flanker in Clint Eastwood's story of how Nelson Mandela inspired the Springboks' remarkable triumph in the 1995 World Cup, which, temporarily at least, unified the fragile state.
In one sense, Damon's biggest magic trick is that he is one of the most recognisable and most bankable actors working today. The sense of illusion is because Damon doesn't seem to be a star in any way, shape or form. He seems just like your average guy. He could be a cop or a fireman, a banker or a bar tender. He could work in IT.
It's a Sunday morning in London, and as he sits to talk about Invictus, alongside Eastwood and Morgan Freeman (who also earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Mandela), he cuts a somewhat unassuming figure, although it would be hard for any man to really shine in the presence of Eastwood. He sits down in the chair, stocky and well built, in plain jeans and a black shirt, and runs through his involvement in the film -- already his latest success story.
Damon's career is in its second act, having begun in spectacular fashion when he went from relative obscurity to win an Oscar (along with his childhood friend Ben Affleck) for their screenplay for Good Will Hunting in 1998. He was instantly a star, the good kid who worked hard, and kept his feet on the ground and his head out of the clouds. A son of Boston, who was an antidote to the over-inflated egos of Hollywood.
At least that's how it seemed to everyone but his mother Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a college professor who hit out, not at her son, but the world in which he now had to operate. "He's not a human being any more," she said. "He's a cog in the capitalist system."
Despite the protestations, Damon enjoyed a meteoric rise, but one which didn't quite last, despite the success of movies such as Saving Private Ryan and The Talented Mr Ripley.
Robert Redford's The Legend of Bagger Vance and Billy Bob Thornton's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses both flopped with Damon in the lead role. Suddenly, he wasn't quite as bankable, and the studios and producers looked at him and wondered if his 15 minutes were up.
"Having been on the sidelines in LA and watching the ebb and flow of other careers, I was not unaware of the implications of being in a few flops in a row," Damon has said of this period. "It was around that time that things really started drying up. Roles I thought I had in movies, suddenly disappeared ... For some reason, I was kind of detached about it and didn't take it personally. But it was, really, the end of the ascension of the Good Will Hunting period, if you will."
He has also spoken of the "three strikes and you're out" policy that guides the narrow minds of Hollywood. With two strikes already gone, he might have thought he needed a pinch hit just to get things moving again, but with his next two movies, Damon hit the ball out of the park.
Both Ocean's Eleven and The Bourne Identity were commercial monsters, each spawning two more lucrative -- and in the case of Bourne, critically acclaimed -- sequels. Damon was back, and this time he wasn't going to let it slip away quite so easily.
His great friend Affleck hasn't been so lucky, and after box-office disasters of films like Gigli, he has never been able to get his acting career back on track, although his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone was well received.
While the friends grew up together in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Damon moved with his mother following his parents' divorce when he was just two, there have always been distinct differences between the two.
As Affleck became celebrity fodder, thanks to relationships with Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lopez -- when they were known as Bennifer -- and subsequently his now-wife Jennifer Garner, Damon kept a low-profile, despite having relationships with Winona Ryder, Claire Danes and Minnie Driver.
"If you end up on the cover of Us magazine, you're f***ed," Damon has said of the type of overexposure Affleck received. "Monday, here's so and so buying a cup of coffee ... Tuesday, here he is again at the bookstore ... By the time it gets to Friday, no one is going to see your movie. There's no mystery about you."
In 2003, while filming the Farrelly Brothers' Stuck on You, Damon met former barmaid Luciana Barroso and they married two years later. She seemed like the ideal Damon companion: someone out of the spotlight, someone real. They live in Miami, rather than Hollywood, with their three children, Alexia, 11 (Barroso's daughter from a previous marriage), three-year-old Isabella and 18-month-old Gia.
He talks excitedly of the moment the Damon family met Nelson Mandela while filming in South Africa. "I had met him one time before, when he came to America about five years ago.
"[This time], I had about 10 minutes with him and I was asked to bring my kids, which was a real thrill. So my wife and I brought our kids in and spent the time watching him bounce our babies on his knees and he was just absolutely wonderful with them -- and we have wonderful pictures to prove it.
"It was a big moment for our family. The kids will obviously grow up knowing who he is and some day they'll have a picture and see them being bounced on his knee. It was a special day."
Invictus is a movie which seems special to Damon. It certainly tells a lofty story of how Mandela, in his first uncertain year as president when civil war threatened South Africa, saw success in the rugby field as a far more effective unifying force than any number of political policies.
Through a series of meeting with Pienaar, Mandela manages to inspire the country into getting behind a team made up of 14 white players, and inspire the team to perform beyond their limited means. "I'd say the film is telling a story that is a wonderful thing to remind everybody of in South Africa and all over the world," Damon says.
"If we listen to the better angels of our nature, there are creative and good solutions to serious problems and its just an incredibly uplifting movie.
"From the moment I read it, I was excited about just being a part of the ensemble that told the story. It's a good thing to put out there, particularly now. There's not a lot of good news."
One particularly heartfelt scene involves a visit by the team to the Robben Island prison, where Mandela spent the majority of his 27 years in incarceration. In the tiny cell, the South Africa captain has a profound realisation.
"When I watched the movie with my two boys in Los Angeles at the premiere, and the scene evolved when Matt walks into the cell, it is almost 100 per cent exactly how it happened to me," Pienaar says. "The previous day, we had just beaten Australia, who were the favourites to win the World Cup, and we had a night out and then went to Robben Island the following morning.
"I had never been there before. I was the last guy to file past and I walked into the cell and this enormous emotion flowed over me. I touched the walls and I looked outside through the bars. And then it dawned on me how unbelievably generous Nelson Mandela is and his humility, because he sat there for 18 years and he came out of that prison and he embraced everyone in South Africa.
"So when I watched this scene, and Matt played it incredibly well, I started crying and my two boys turned to me and they were saying, 'Daddy, are you okay? Daddy, are you okay?' I said, 'I'm fine,' but it just brought back so many emotions.
"Right after that, we walked into the mess hall and there was still prisoners on the island at that stage and all the prisoners were coloured prisoners and the roof lifted when they saw the team, and then I just realised how powerful Mandela is and was then, when he said to everyone in South Africa that he wanted them to support the Springboks -- because, if it wasn't for him, we would not have had the support of everyone in South Africa."
So what of playing a 6ft 4in wing-forward trying to take down Jonah Lomu? Surely Damon took some severe hits while they were filming? "I would say Matt Damon's stunt double took some severe hits," he jokes.
If Invictus is a continuation of the second act that looked so unlikely at one point, the third act of Damon's career, whenever that may begin, is likely to take place behind the camera. "I can't wait to direct," he has said. "I choose my movies based on the director and so I've been treating the last 12 years like a film school. And all the directors I've worked with have been very tolerant of my questions. The next step is for me to try it myself."
As he speaks today, he references Coppola and Antonioni, De Sica and, of course, Eastwood. Damon seems fascinated by the industry. At times, it seems like he even knows that he is an unlikely figure to be someone of such influence, so makes up for it with knowledge of directors and camera angles, balance sheets and budgets.
Before his directorial dreams are realised, however, Damon's second act must come to an end. Having seen that happen once before, he will be reluctant to see the curtain come down anytime soon.
Invictus is now showing in cinemas nationwide