Lead actor contender

Producer Jane Rosenthal heard something on the radio recently that she can’t remember ever hearing before.

“I thought it was a promo for our movie,” she says of the Robert De Niro-directed “The Good Shepherd,” which will be released on Dec. 22. “But it was a commercial, a PSA to join the CIA. Now they’re recruiting like any branch of the armed services.”

The CIA may get another recruiting boost after Matt Damon’s performance in “Shepherd” is considered. The film takes a look at the agency’s beginnings through the eyes of Edward Wilson, who was recruited out of Yale for a career in intelligence and national security. While the CIA and Wilson’s paths contained their share of unpleasantness, it is Damon’s grasp on the role that should draw admiration.

“It’s a very quiet, interior performance,” Rosenthal says of Damon, who joined De Niro on “Shepherd” shortly after shooting “The Departed” with Martin Scorsese. “It’s all about subtleties, although he does have a couple of scenes where he does let go a bit more, which makes it all the more powerful because he’s been so profoundly quiet throughout.”

Rosenthal feels Damon’s performance will provoke lively discussion among Americans about how the CIA operates — both back when it began and today. “I think that it will become everyone’s individual opinion,” she explains.

Rosenthal says Damon’s background provided a unique window into Wilson’s character.

“What Matt brought to us was certainly a knowledge of those Harvard-Yalie types,” she explains of Damon, who dropped out of Harvard 12 credits short of a degree in order to pursue an acting career. “He has a background in that Ivy League-like world. He knew the character fairly well.”

Damon didn’t have much time to prepare for his “Shepherd” role, so he compensated by spending as much time as possible with a CIA technical consultant and by huddling frequently with De Niro.

“They were inseparable,” Rosenthal says of Damon and De Niro, who is directing only his second film after “A Bronx Tale” in 1993. “Matt spent an enormous amount of time with Bob. Matt also comes to the set every day with an incredible attitude. He keeps the morale up and the general good feeling going on the set. He’s just a hardworking, kind man.”

He was also the right man for the job, says Rosenthal. “He brings his everyman quality to a character that is an idealist who becomes a realist in this,” she explains; “that sense of patriotism and idealism embodied in that all-American boy.

“Bob always liked his work. He was perfect for the role in terms of how he can age and where he is in his life.”

Next project: Co-starring with Mark Ruffalo and Anna Paquin in Ken Lonergan’s “Margaret”; following that Damon returns to two franchise pics: “Ocean’s Thirteen” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

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