att Damon stars in the upcoming films Suburbicon (October 27) and Downsizing (December 22), he talks about his history with George Clooney, his disdain for the president and his desire to become a director and his fury about Charlottesville. He said it was shocking at the very least to see young white boys acting aggrieved, walking and screaming ‘Jews will not replace us!’.
Photographs by Sebastian Kim
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Why did you ask to shoot in L.A when George Clooney asked you to star in Suburbicon?
I already had a few movies in queue, so I had to start with The Martian, after which I moved on to Te Great Wall and then Jason Bourne and finally Downsizing. I was pretty much going to be extremely busy for the next 2 years, plus, I promised my family I wasn’t going to take-up no new endeavors for that period. So when I received a call from George, I couldn’t turn him down but I had to stay close to my family. Scooting in L.A was George’s idea. I can remember at the time, we were in London for the Jason Bourne movie; I was having dinner with my wife when the text came in. it read “How about if I move it to L.A? I showed my wife the text and she said Ok, you’re taking it.
And she gave you the OK?
Yes. It was just as if George was sending her a text but through me. It was later I got to discover the movie was actually premised on real life events of Levittown, Pennsylvania. You know what happened right?
I had no idea before George showed me some footage. He was so efficient at these things. Similar to Good Night and Good luck, where he took actual footage and set against the story he was telling. I was floored when he showed me some of the clips of people saying “well, we are not racist, we just don’t want them to live here”
The character you created turned out to be a lot more complex than we first thought. What inspired that?
Well, I had a grandfather that for some reason, I just couldn’t connect with him. There was always some sort of distance between us and it took a lot of years but I eventually found out he had a whole life going on that I didn’t know about. He was unknowable and I kind of transferred it into the character. Throwing me a bread roll at the dinner table was the only time I’d see him smile. He was very formal and it was shocking that the kids loved that. He wasn’t one to hug and there was always this distance and coldness underneath which reminds me of the character.
Do you take a character like that home with you?
No. I did that as a younger actor — you spin your wheels a lot. I once heard Anthony Hopkins say that his processes became more refined and energy wasted kept reducing as he got older. It doesn’t mean there’ll be less effort or less work, it just means the work will a lot more efficient. However, you have to be available to the happenings around you. The week of the election was when the last monologue. There was this surprise feeling amongst those who voted for him and those who voted against him that he actually won the elections. This sparked some sort of rage in the air and after George and I talked about it, we decided that was the third rail we were trying to touch in that scene.
Was that in the original screenplay that the Coen brothers wrote, which George and Grant Heslov subsequently rewrote?
I don’t know, I never asked who wrote what. There was all this interesting stuff, even though I never read Joel and Ethan’s script. I found them interesting because from what I understand, they wrote it with the inspiration from Blood Simple. The 2 bumbling killers and elements of subsequent movies they did. There are these tropes of the Coen brothers that you are treading on. It’s more like something that would likely come from those guys except, there is very dark spin to it provided by George and Grant.
With the recent happenings of Charlottesville, it’s become even darker.
This movie was made last year and seeing the recent events in Charlottesville, it’s even more surprising that we have to wake up to see the extent of extreme racism happening around us. It’s even worse than I naively thought. I am extremely disappointed, seeing those kids, mostly in their 20s or even younger walking down the streets in button down shirts, holding Tiki torches. I kept thinking to myself. These are kids, who raised them? I naively thought things like that ended with people of our generation, that people of the younger generation would be better enlightened and that things will only get better as newer generations come along. This was why I was shocked at the age of the white boys walking down the streets with torches, creaming; “Jews will not replace us”. Then the president made his “many sides” comment which I find extremely distasteful. It’s sad but I feel this movie couldn’t have come at a better time.
Have you ever met Trump?
No. The deal was that you had to write him in a part if you wanted to shoot in any of his buildings. The whole crew had to accept Director Martin Brest’s approach of writing something in scent of a woman. Imaging having to waste an hour of your day on a BS shot where Donald Trump walks in and AL Pacino goes; Hello! Mr. Trump. This way, he exists. You’d have to waste a little time on this just so you can get the permit you need then you can cut the scene but I guess the Home Alone 2 movie left it in.
Do you think that was a one-off or you now feel more inclined to use your status to fight for more liberal causes?
At this point, everybody’s got a voice and everybody is voicing their opinions. I am more interested in the level of institutional damage being done and the state of things right now. I find what he is doing very pernicious. At this point, Robert Mueller is representing the institutions and by some trick of history, he’s defending them against the attacks so we can only hope and expect the investigations to be carried out smoothly and as far as I am concerned, I can’t wait for the investigations to be concluded. Personally, I feel Jimmy Kimmel’s line was very accurate when he stated that Trump said there were fine people on both sides and then went on to show clips of people screaming “Jews will not replace us” and then stated accurately “Let’s get something straight. If you’re with a group of people chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’ and you remain there with them, you are not a fine person.”
Has living in Los Angeles and being successful isolated you from the rest of the country?
I am isolated anyway, so I don’t think I am not the right person to ask. Like a lot of actors, I am walled off. However, in New York, California, the Northeast, it feels like people around you are like minded to a reasonable extent. Then you hear of people on other parts of the country where it’d be difficult to find people who think like you or believe in the things you believe in.
Do you remember when you first met George?
I think I first met him in 1999 and our first work together was in 2001 – the shoot for Ocean’s Eleven.
Has he changed in that time?
In a lot of critical ways, he’s remained the same but he’s evolved. He is the same Guy I met back then, with a huge heart, incredibly loyal and really very smart. However, in terms of his career, he has changed from that time. Back when I met him, he was just coming off ER and was already a massive TV star. Most people saw him as this handsome, matinee-idol TV star but most of them were oblivious of how talented he really was. When he partnered Steven Soderbergh, most people were wondering why on earth Steven Sodderbergh will partner with him. The fact was, Steve already worked with George and had experience firsthand how talented he was and realized they could do lots of great things together. Now, George has built a reputation for himself as a movie star who is as big as anyone else, an A-list director and an Oscar winning producer. Personally, I value his opinion and I send him my scripts for notes whenever I can. I always ask for his suggestions whenever I’m doing a movie. He is what base ballers call a five-tool athlete; one who can do just about anything and get amazing results at all. You could say he’s an easy guy to hate.
Did you discuss The Martian with him?
No, I didn’t because I wasn’t given Ridley Scott notes. That one too was like working with George. We had lots of laughs on that. We were never late and we always left with a sense of accomplishment for the days tasks. They are very similar in that regard. Everything that needed to be discussed was discussed even before getting there which is sign of always being ready. There were no surprises in both the Suburbicon and the Martian and that was their major similarity. I am really happy we made those 2 movies as well as the upcoming Downsizing. To be part of those massive projects that came out of Hollywood system shows we are not completely dead yet.
Are we going to be?
Oh man, I don’t know. At some point, as virtual reality moves in on us, something will come along to replace movies. It’s currently found a home in television however; you can still feel the spirit of calcifying. The big tentpole movies are what the studios want now and making one is really difficult when you go in saying “There won’t be any franchise here.” I guess we’ll have to wait to see how things turn out because the audience doesn’t seem to be getting tired of superhero movies even though we’ve been dealing with them for many years now.
What’ve you liked recently?
Moonlight. I was so deeply move by that movie; I had to see it 3 times. That movie is as much a tool for empathy as any other movie can be. I can’t imagine being so invested in a character that is so far away from my own reality. The movie was made for 1.5million dollars; however, it feels like a $20-$70 million drama in terms of big studio movies is something behind us.
Are you going to do another Jason Bourne movie?
Right now, I don’t think so, but I can’t rule out the possibility. We would have to come up with a story and Paul Greengrass, the director would have to be interested. It’s a lot of ifs but certainly not impossible.
You produced Manchester by the Sea, and you’re developing other projects to produce. Will you direct any of them?
At the moment, I have no plans to direct anything. I’ve had so many near misses; Promise land was supposed to be directed by me but it didn’t work out well with my life and my kids. The movie ends up being better anytime I fire myself as a director. This last happened with Manchester by the Sea which was written for me to direct by Kenny Lonergan. I gave it to him as a kind of writing assignment but when I read it, I knew he had to direct it. Looking in retrospect, I am happy I made that decision. It was the right thing to do and the movie was better for it. I do not regret not directing the movies I refused to direct. However, I would have imagined I’d have directed something by now.
You’re producing some really interesting projects right now, like the Robert F. Kennedy biography.
Nikolaj Arcel wrote a marvelous script, so hopefully, that will be made soon. I have to get rid of about 30 pounds. Making Manchester in today’s market place was a really challenging and we were really luck Kimberly Steward came in and finance the project, else, it wouldn’t have been possible. I was really glad it worked out because she was really brave and risked her finances to make it possible.
I don’t know. Since I finished Suburbicon in last November, I haven’t worked. I am not even thinking about work right now and that’s nice.
What do you do when you’re not working? Read, write?
I read a ton on daily basis, matter of fact; I am addicted to refreshing my newsfeed every 7 minutes. I have The New Yorker, the New York Times and The Atlantic. I just sit and read articles as they land on my page. I know I should be reading great biographies and all, but I’m not. What I read now is mostly politics.
Last time we spoke, you recommended the multi-volume Robert Caro biography of Lyndon Johnson.
It was a gift I received from Paul Greengrass and I found it daunting. Mine was untouched for 2 years. I’d walk by it and go, “Ugh, no. I’m not going to do it.” when he gave e the book, he attached a note that said, “This is my book of the year”. I knew I had to read it. It took me almost 2 years but I eventually did. I picked it up when I fell sick and every other aspect of my life was put on hold. On my sick bed, I picked it up. Rea that book, it’s so gripping; I promise you won’t regret reading