On a break, finally, from shooting the latest installment of the “Bourne” franchise, actor Matt Damon made it to Los Angeles earlier this month to discuss his work in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.” With a worldwide box office haul approaching $600 million and plenty of Oscar buzz heading into 2016, it could net him a nomination for a largely solitary performance. He spoke to Variety about the importance of maintaining a light and positive tone in the film, letting time go by before circling back to the Jason Bourne character and how anyone at any time is on the verge of breaking out in this business. Oh, and “Star Wars,” too. Because “Star Wars.”
So do you and Tom Hanks ever commiserate about having acted opposite, you know, nothing for long stretches?
[Laughs.] You know what, I’ve thought about this, obviously, because I’ve had this question asked of me. But the key difference is, when I first met Ridley [Scott] about this, he said he always wanted to do “Robinson Crusoe,” and he felt like this was his chance. And then as we got into it we realized the key distinction is that in “Robinson Crusoe” — or in “Cast Away,” for that matter — the journey the character is going on, it’s about whether or not anybody is ever going to know that he was alive. Whereas the character in this is surrounded by these GoPros and every minute that he’s staying alive on Mars is a minute longer than anybody has ever been there and he’s got kind of a purpose. He’s got this chance to record for his colleagues the experience that he’s having. So that feeling of being useful is kind of the exact opposite of the existential crisis that somebody who’s marooned on a desert island goes through, which is, “Oh my God, is anybody ever going to know that this happened?”
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And with a story like this, often you might have some sort of “back home” context, either family or friends that contextualizes the character, that the character is eager to get back to. You didn’t really have that in the text of the script here, so what kind of background work did you do to really get where he was coming from?
When I looked at it I felt like Andy [Weir], the novelist, did that, because what he was really interested in was kind of the thought experiment of whether or not somebody could survive. In the interviews I read with him, and subsequently when I talked to him, he said, “I just came up with that premise and then let the science steer the story.” So he wasn’t concerned with writing a novel about a guy. He was more concerned about, “All right, who would a person who could survive this incredibly challenging situation be? OK, he would be a botanist. He would be an astronaut.” And he kind of worked backward from there. So I think a family or a wife at home or kids or something would’ve felt, in an odd way, kind of an extra layer of artificiality to the movie or a conceit or whatever. It’s a pretty lean, focused story. We talked about it but it just didn’t feel right. And it felt good that you don’t know what he’s trying to get back to. He could be anyone. His story could be anyone’s.
What did that do for you as an actor in trying to bring that sort of inner life out when you’re dealing with something that’s so plot-driven, particularly given that you don’t exactly have sparring partners to help with that illumination?
I think any actor carries their own emotional baggage. It’s not that you go in there and there’s a vacuum. You go in there full and kind of, depending on the role, you’re teasing different things out. But he wasn’t a total cipher. I knew that he had gone through this training. In the book they go into detail about the training and how he’s particularly suited to this kind of work. Like, these guys who we send out there, they have to be incredible cooperators and they have to have this incredible positive outlook. Like one astronaut said to me, he goes, “We’re this kind of strange thing where we have to be very smart and there’s all these Ph.D.’s and all these very brilliant minds, but we have to be stupid enough to sit on X numbers of thousand pounds of rocket fuel and get launched into outer space.”
You have to be a little crazy, I guess.
Yeah. Yeah. They were doing this thing with the six astronauts who are literally pretending that they’re living on Mars and they’re sealed into this habitat together for like a year and they cannot leave unless there’s a medical emergency. Because we’re studying the effects of this type of work on the human psyche. It’s so much for a human being to endure. So [the character is] particularly well-suited to that and well-trained for this type of thing. When he comes up with this idea of these GoPros all over the habitat, those just become his de facto Wilson, basically. Although he’s recording these things and the expectation is that someday someone is going to come and retrieve these and they’re going to watch them. So even though he’s sending those missives out into nowhere, they are being recorded for posterity’s sake and he is operating under the expectation that he’s being watched, that he’s, like, in a lab. I think that’s something that buoys him, that keeps him going.
That speaks to an interesting thematic element, of positivity and problem solving. I spoke to Drew Goddard about this, how this genre is often given to gloomy, more cynical material. Tell me about the importance of that positivity for the narrative, and perhaps even for science. Like, I love Drew’s way of putting it, that this was meant to be a love letter to science.
Yeah, which Drew literally said that to me the first meeting we had. That was one of the first things out of his mouth, that he wanted it to be a love letter to science. And I agree with what you’re saying about these movies tending to be kind of gloomy. I think that’s one reason I really responded to it. It was so different. And I think because space travel is so desolate and it’s so dangerous, I think it doesn’t give itself to bright and cheery stories, because you’re living under the threat of death constantly. But that really is something from the book. This character was so clearly drawn in the book and I thought Drew did a great job adapting it. He’s really funny, like that sense of humor.
Material like that can be so given to cynicism, I guess, because in essence that becomes what’s thematically powerful about it. It’s often serviced for cautionary tales. So presenting this kind of outlook is sort of vital.
We definitely talked about wanting to put this out into the world right now. It felt good to make a movie that was uplifting, and certainly Ridley and I aren’t necessarily known for that. And Pietro [Scalia], our editor — he edited “Good Will Hunting,” also, and I’ve worked with him a bunch over the years — I saw him early on in the process and he was like, “Don’t you two f—ing lose the humor!” Because he knew our instincts might lead us toward that darker, cooler space movie, and this is light and entertaining and difficult, tonally. And I say that really because that was all down to Ridley. I mean it’s really hard to keep the stakes as high as they are while throwing off these one-liners. It’s a really tricky tone to strike and I thought Ridley just did it perfectly. He was so sure of every single scene and exactly how to play it.
The best description of directing that I ever heard was Steven Soderbergh said to me, “It’s like making a giant mosaic from an inch-and-a-half away.” Filmmakers have to keep this big image in mind while they’re working on this tiny little piece. That’s why so often you can make a movie and it just doesn’t cut well together, or it’s all over the place. And he was so sure of himself. In preproduction we sat down and went through the script line by line and he really talked me through the exact movie that he wanted to make, drawing doodles, sometimes handing me storyboards or sometimes just drawing a cartoon on my script and saying, “This is about the size of the frame we’re going to be on here, and then we’re going to cut into this shot.” He just really knew exactly what he was making.
Had you worked with him before, I mean in a producing capacity or anything at all?
No. I’d never even met him!
What was that first meeting like?
Basically what happened was Drew was going to direct it and so I read it and I loved the script and watched Drew’s movies, and then went and met him and really liked him. And then Drew got a shot at directing “Sinister Six,” which he had been waiting to do and it was his dream project and a comic book project. So he bowed out and I thought the thing was just going to go away. And then about a week later my agent called and said, “Ridley Scott read the script and loves it.” So I jumped in my car and drove over to RSA [Films] and met him. I mean it was like 30 seconds, like, “Do you really want to do this, Ridley?” “Yeah. I’m in.” It was a very, very, very easy decision. I obviously wanted to work with him for a long time.
Speaking of the comic book thing, are you interested in diving into all of that? I can’t imagine you haven’t been asked a lot but obviously your old friend Ben Affleck is enjoying himself and diving in headlong.
And I hear [“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”] is good. I haven’t seen it yet but he’s seen a rough cut and I think he’s very pleased. But no, I don’t know that there are any comic book characters left.
Yeah, they’re covering all the bases. What about “Star Wars?” Are you excited for that?
Were you a fan growing up?
Huge fan. Huge fan. I mean the first one, I think my brother saw it 26 times and I saw it 18 times. And that was back in the day where you’d go down to the movie theater and we’d see it — sometimes sit twice through it. I was 7 and it was literally just something we did. I just remembered that it was in the theater for months and months and months and if a week would go by and we hadn’t seen it, we’d just go back down and see it again. So by the time the third one came around, I probably saw the third one five or six times. And then obviously the second three I was kind of an adult and not as keen for those three. But this one, it looks fantastic. The trailers they’ve cut are amazing and J.J. [Abrams] is so talented that I just think it’s going to be great.
Yeah. Someone somewhere thought it would be a good idea to put me on the premiere invite list, so that was special.
Holy shit! Yeah, I talked to Kathy [Kennedy], because Frank Marshall is obviously producing the “Bourne” movies and Frank even said he was getting emails from lawyers who are at the firm that represents him, like, “We’ve never met, but is there any chance…”
It’s interesting, the re-releases of the old trilogy, remember, came out in 1997, same year as “Good Will Hunting.” This is just a random aside, but I read that you wrote that script like a few streets away from me in Eagle Rock, which is sort of inspiring!
Oh really? Yeah. We called it the castle. It was this place, sh-t, if you went down Colorado and went up the hill…
I think it was on Hill Street.
Yeah! We were there because Ben was at Occi[dental College], and so we lived in a bunch of sh-tty apartments in Eagle Rock, but the castle was the nicest place that we lived in because I had done “Geronimo” and Ben, I think he had just done “Dazed and Confused.” So we had enough money to get a nice place and Casey [Affleck] had just graduated high school and he came out and lived with us.
Yeah, anybody can write something. I remember Tom Hanks saying to me in “Saving Private Ryan” — he said it to all of us. We were sitting in a foxhole waiting for a shot, or they were lighting or something, and he was talking about this business and he said, “You’re always one movie away from being the biggest movie star in the world.” He goes, “Your mailman is one movie away from being the biggest…” And if you think about it, he hung in there for so long and then suddenly just exploded. But it’s like that one movie, you’re one away.
Indeed. And speaking earlier of “Bourne,” how’s that coming along?
We’re, like, probably about halfway through. We started in September but they’re going dark for most of December and cutting basically the first two acts. And then we have the third act and then whatever we owe from the first two acts.
Did do you think you were done with that?
I wasn’t sure. I hoped I wasn’t because I really liked the franchise and the character but I didn’t see a way to go. But I wasn’t giving up on the idea of doing it. Paul and I kind of talked years ago about perhaps the way forward was just to let time pass and allow the world to change a little.
Just some built-in richness.
Yeah. Because you’ll find the character — like “The Bourne Ultimatum,” the third act actually in the movie dovetails with the third act of “The Bourne Supremacy.” So technically when the Bourne character disappears, it’s still 2004. So when this next one comes out in ’16, it will have been 12 years — in movie years — that the character as been off the grid. So what’s happened in those intervening years gives you a story.
There’s certainly been a lot that’s happened in the world to work with. Where are you shooting?
We were in Tenerife, which is supposed to be Athens. It would be like a nighttime riot scene to kind of start the movie. And then England, Berlin a little bit for about a week, and a little bit in D.C. Then we’re going to Vegas for the third act.
Oh wow. That’s going to be fun.
Big car chase on the strip.
Well good luck with it.
Thanks. I’ll try not to f— it up!