The level-headed A-lister talks about loving life in Ireland during lockdown, reconnecting with Ben Affleck to write another script, and playing a roughneck in a new movie inspired by the Amanda Knox story
Practically everyone in South County Dublin has a Matt Damon lockdown story, so here’s mine. My son and I were coming back from a swim on the Vico Road last spring when we saw a square-jawed man in a baseball cap striding purposefully towards us. I nodded, he returned the favour, and as he passed, I whispered, “That’s Matt Damon.” The boy, who in fairness was seven at the time, looked up at me, paused for effect and said, “Who’s Matt Damon?”
When I tell this story to the real Mr Damon, speaking to us via Zoom from the Cannes Film Festival, he laughs heartily before describing his Irish lockdown as “just a fantastic experience for my family”. And more on all that anon.
The Hollywood A-lister is in Cannes for the premiere of his latest film, Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater, a slow, sombre thriller with echoes of the Amanda Knox case which features one of his strongest dramatic turns yet. He plays Bill Baker, an Oklahoma oil worker, or roughneck, who travels to Marseille to visit his daughter, Allison (played by Abigail Breslin). She’s in prison, having been convicted of murdering her partner, a local girl.
Allison has always insisted she’s innocent, Bill believes her, and when new evidence emerges pointing to a potential suspect, he decides to stay in Marseille and look into it himself. This is despite the fact that he’s a taciturn chap with no French and middling interpersonal skills.
Hunched and barrel-chested, sporting a sad goatee and what look like jeans from the 1980s, Matt is all but unrecognisable playing a man who keeps his pain buried deep and is the emotional equivalent of a closed fist. He can’t have been an easy character to find a way into.
“The building of the character was really informed mostly by the roughnecks down in Oklahoma,” he tells me. “Myself and Tom [McCarthy] went down there and spent time with them. We went to the oil rigs, went to their homes, met their families, saw how they live. So much was explained to us by Kenny Baker, the guy who consulted on our movie: he drove us all over Oklahoma and took us into his life. It’s a completely different way from how I grew up, and from the part of the country I’m from, and a roughneck is a very specific thing, so as an actor I was very lucky with the access I got.
“The job itself builds a certain type of body, you know. You’ve got all this heavy equipment, so these guys are really strong, they’re tough, strong guys, and then there’s the way they eat and drink, so they tend to be big, beefy fellas. Then the goatee and the wraparound shades and the cap, it’s like a uniform almost. I have pictures of these guys on my phone and they all look like Bill Baker!
“So there was this specific thing I could see, and I could just look back at myself in the mirror and just slowly put this thing together, and that’s how we did it.”
Matt’s character is a complex man, a reformed alcoholic and substance abuser who’s wracked with guilt about being an absent father when Allison was growing up. He’s a devout Christian and is forever asking others to pray with him, but despite his moral and political conservatism, Bill doesn’t seem to have a problem with his daughter’s gayness.
“You know when you meet those guys, they work so hard, and hardship is such a big part of their lives that they’re kind of nonplussed by everything, if you know what I mean. They say, ‘Don’t mean no shit’ and they all have these tattoos: if you see a tattoo that says FFTP on someone’s arm, you know you’re looking at a roughneck. FFTP means ‘F***, fight, trip pipe.’ ‘Trip pipe,’ ‘make hole,’ that’s what a roughneck does all day, and that’s their life, and they’re also like rock stars, because in Oklahoma you come out of high school, you either go to the oil fields or you go to college.
“The guys who go to the oil fields, they make a lot of money when the fields are up, they have a lot of cash in their pockets and it’s kind of a fast life if you’re a 19-year-old. So a lot of them go down this road of drugs and alcohol, and they live a little recklessly, bounce from job to job and live in their truck or whatever. Some of them really have their act together, but then there’s the other end of the spectrum.”
At one point in the film, a French person has the bad manners to ask Bill Baker if he voted for Donald Trump. “It’s a very naive question,” Matt says, “I mean Oklahoma’s either the reddest state in America or else it’s close to being, and these guys work in the oil fields, like they’re always going to vote Republican and they don’t apologise for it.”
No one would be foolish enough to ask Damon if he voted for 45th President. A keen supporter of environmental and human rights charities, he publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and previously had ties with the Obama administration. But he understands the roughnecks’ enthusiasm for Trump. “They’re in the oil business,” he says, “so of course they’re going to vote for him. For them, it’s about providing for their families and they were always going to choose that over anything else.”
Talking to Damon, you get the strong sense that this is a man without pretension or an inflated sense of himself. He’s famous for being one of Hollywood’s most level-headed A-listers, a family man who shuns the limelight and is never to be found on the front pages of tabloid newspapers. Born in Boston in 1970, he did well in school and attended Harvard University before a simmering interest in drama took over.
As an actor, he’s starred in everything from The Departed and The Talented Mr. Ripley to the Jason Bourne films and The Martian, but his big break came when he and his boyhood friend Ben Affleck decided to write a screenplay together about a working-class maths whiz negotiating snobbery and prejudice at Harvard. The result, Good Will Hunting (1997), won them a Best Original Screenplay Oscar and launched both of their acting careers.
Two-and-a-bit decades later, Damon and Affleck teamed up once again to write the script for The Last Duel, a Ridley Scott-directed period drama, and the film Matt came to Ireland last year to make.
“We’d avoided writing together, to be honest, only because we didn’t think we’d ever have the time. You know when we did Good Will Hunting, we wrote thousands of pages and then mashed them together into a narrative that worked, but it was a really inelegant process and it took a really long time. So on the basis of that, we had just kind of assumed we wouldn’t have time to write another script. But when we went to write this one, we found that because we’d been doing nothing but making movies for the past 25 years, and telling three-act stories in two hours, we blazed through it. We wrote so much faster than we ever had in the past. You know, we had an outline — that helped!
“The story is based on a history book that we adapted, about the last sanctioned duel in medieval France, a duel to the death sanctioned by the king, and it’s between two knights who had been great friends, and then one accused the other of raping his wife. We saw it as a story about perspective, so Ben and I wrote the male perspective, and then Nicole Holofcener, who’s just a brilliant screenwriter and director, wrote the female perspective, and so that’s kind of our way in.”
After early shooting in the south of France in February of 2020, The Last Duel’s cast and crew moved to Ireland for filming due to take place in Wicklow, Meath, Kilkenny and Dublin. Then, the first lockdown happened.
“It was unbelievably fortuitous, the way things worked out for my family,” he says, “because we ended up in Dalkey right as everything locked down, and by coincidence, my kids were with me. We took them out of school for six weeks, just so they could come over, so I did the beginning of the movie without them for a couple of weeks, then we had the six-week chunk where they were going to be there, and then I was gonna finish without them.
“We had two travel teachers with us, so our travel teachers were in our little bubble, and we just kept them on. So my kids had what nobody else had, which was in-person instruction for the whole school year. We got so lucky, and we really fell in love with it in Dalkey — what a part of the world that is, and the community just kind of absorbed us, it was really a bit like a fairytale. So I had nothing to complain about, that first lockdown was fantastic.”
I ask him was he aware how much his presence cheered Irish people up during those long months of constraint, shutdowns and 5km limits. “Yeah, well that’s great,” he says, “but I feel like the ledger was uneven the other way, because I felt like we got everything out of it, we’re really grateful to have had that happen, it was just really good fortune for our family.”
He did endure some slagging for carrying his swimming trunks in a SuperValu bag. “I had no idea that would be such a thing,” he laughs, “but to be fair, where else do you shop in Dalkey?” And he has fond memories of that magical Vico Road bathing spot so cherished by locals. “It’s incredible there, it’s just beautiful — I had no idea.” The Last Duel got finished eventually, and will be released here in October.
Someday, a journalist will interview Matt Damon without mentioning Jason Bourne. This is not that day. A few years back, Matt hinted that the 2016 film Jason Bourne might be the end of the line for him in terms of the character, but he’s softened a little since and is not ruling out a return to the franchise entirely.
“I mean, it’s obviously something that comes up on the studio side once in a while, so I know they’re tinkering away on it. It’s really a question of can we make one that we think could be great, do we have an idea, does anyone have an idea about where to take him, where we think we’d all want to go? So it’s kind of a tall order, but I know they’re always working on it.”
Stillwater is released in cinemas on August 6