Among Hollywood’s tiny circle of leading men, Matt Damon is considered a quiet giant. In a look-at-me industry he’s a stealth star, at least compared with Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney or Tom Cruise—free from rumors, personal spinouts and scandals. Fiercely guarded about his personal life, wary of self-promotion and constitutionally allergic to showy moves on-screen and off, Damon is rumored to have earned as much as $20 million a film. In the past decade he has aligned himself with such directing heavyweights as Martin Scorsese (The Departed), Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit), Clint Eastwood (Invictus, Hereafter), Cameron Crowe (We Bought a Zoo) and Steven Soderbergh (The Informant!, Contagion and three Ocean’s caper flicks). He created a definitive franchise hero in Jason Bourne, the memory-challenged ex–CIA assassin, in three spy adventures that have hauled in $945 million globally, mightily contributing to Damon’s worldwide career box-office take of just over $5 billion. Obviously he ranks high in the exclusive club of Forbes’s 10 most bankable stars, with a net worth of $65 million.
Damon is a big wheel but not a squeaky one. He’s been that way since he broke through the ranks of other good-looking, struggling actors by starring in 1997’s Good Will Hunting, which he co-wrote with his longtime friend Ben Affleck. They won a best original screenplay Oscar for their script. Dubbed Hollywood’s new Cinderella boy, he snagged the coveted title roles in Saving Private Ryan for Steven Spielberg and The Talented Mr. Ripley for Anthony Minghella and, on his nights off, squired Minnie Driver and Winona Ryder. But when he tied the knot in 2005, it was to a civilian, Luciana Barroso, a bartender he’d met two years earlier while filming Stuck on You in Miami Beach. Today, raising three daughters, ages six, four and two, and one stepdaughter, 14, Damon looks and acts the very picture of responsible domesticity and contentment, a wet blanket for heat-seeking paparazzi.
Like his friends George Clooney and Brad Pitt, he wins admiration—and ignores ridicule—as a smart do-gooder for philanthropic works such as Water.org, an organization he co-founded in 2009 with Gary White that helps clean-water-impoverished communities improve their methods and sanitation facilities from the ground up. His political inclinations inform his work as well. Damon is about to be seen with John Krasinski in Promised Land, a Gus Van Sant–directed tale about an on-the-ropes American community facing the prospect of utility-company fracking (Damon and Krasinski co-wrote the screenplay). HBO viewers will see him as the longtime lover of flamboyant entertainer Liberace (played by Michael Douglas) in a film directed by Soderbergh. And just to round out the year, Damon heads back into bare-knuckled action mode in the $85 million science fiction thriller Elysium, in which the rich live on a magnificent space station while the have-nots scrabble for crumbs on decimated planet Earth.
We sent Contributing Editor Stephen Rebello, who last interviewed James Franco for Playboy, to talk with Damon in Manhattan. He reports: “I hadn’t seen Matt Damon since we last talked for Playboy in Chicago in 2004. Knowing he can be friendly but dodgy about personal stuff in interviews, I secretly hoped our suite would be stocked with a supply of tall cold beers as it was last time. I needn’t have worried. This time Damon, looking fit and 15 years younger than his 42 years, was much more open. The same appears to be happening on-screen. In a couple of his new movies, beneath Damon’s charm and likability is a new rawness, a vulnerability—the kind that portends an even longer, rewarding career. In conversation he was funny, smart, impassioned and about as ‘regular’ a world-class movie star as one could ever hope to know.”
PLAYBOY: Since we spoke in 2004 you’ve worked nonstop, married and had three daughters, along with a stepdaughter, with Luciana Barroso, kept active politically and philanthropically and—probably most important to moviegoers—become an action star in the Bourne franchise. With Jeremy Renner starring in last summer’s The Bourne Legacy, are you officially done with Bourne?
DAMON: The thing that drove Bourne, the deepest source of his angst and anguish, what made him interesting, was the fact that he didn’t have his memory. By the end of the last one we did, he has his memory back. When he knows who he is and where he’s going, there’s not much left for me to play. He’s just an utterly efficient machine, and when he’s in only that mode—some of us involved with those movies refer to him as “Mission: Bourne”—it’s fun to watch for a little while, but I don’t know if you can watch that for a whole movie.
PLAYBOY: Wait, that sounds like a review of The Bourne Legacy.
DAMON: Jeremy Renner is a terrific actor. I love everything he does. I have not seen the movie yet, but it isn’t in protest or anything. When it came out last summer, I was filming a movie about Liberace right up to the end of August. We then had to rush back to New York, where we live, so we could get the kids settled and into school.
PLAYBOY: In The Bourne Legacy, the rules established by your Bourne trilogy are switched up. For example, Renner’s character is one of a series of genetically enhanced operatives who require regular doses of little pills—or things get ugly.
DAMON: You know what? They might have taken the Bourne series out back and shot it in the head. If that’s the end of it, that’s just the end of it. I hope not. I love the character and the three movies we did, so I’d love to figure out a way to do another one. I’m going to talk to [director] Paul Greengrass about it. But I know what you mean about the rules and differences, because if they were to put Jason Bourne and Jeremy’s character together in a movie, would those rules, like the pills, have to apply in Jason Bourne’s world? Frankly, though, I don’t see those characters teaming up with anybody.
PLAYBOY: You’ve said you’re not a Bond movie fan, and you’ve called the James Bond character “misogynistic,” “repulsive” and other choice terms. Do you find it ironic that the Bond movies starring Daniel Craig have been influenced by the gritty action style of the Bourne movies?
DAMON: The Bond movies have kind of bent more toward Bourne, but from the reviews I’ve read, this last Bourne bent a little more toward Bond. By the way, I never signed up for three Bourne movies. I signed up for them one at a time.
PLAYBOY: Why was that?
DAMON: I’d been on action-movie sets where people were just sitting around waiting for hours for explosions to be wired. People said I was a surprising choice for the part, but the truth is, I didn’t know if I would want to do it or want to continue to do it or if I even had the patience to do it.
PLAYBOY: You, Daniel Craig and Tom Cruise in his Mission: Impossible movies are the kings of the big-budget spy-thriller franchise world. For a Bourne or any other movie, would you do some of the daredevil stunts Cruise did in, say, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, such as climbing up and down that 160-story skyscraper in Dubai?
DAMON: Seeing Tom Cruise running down the side of that building was the most incredible thing. I went, “Okay, you win. You are the greatest of all time.” He didn’t just appear to do it for the movie; he actually did that. I, literally, could never do that.
PLAYBOY: What else scares you?
DAMON: I learned that I am afraid of heights. When I was doing Syriana, they arranged for my wife, Lucy, and me to go up to watch the sunset over the Arabian Peninsula from the top of that seven-star Dubai hotel that’s shaped like a sail, the Burj Al Arab. So we go to the very top—60 stories or something—we’re given champagne, and we go, “Oh my God, this is great.” But as I started to walk toward the edge, my legs locked up. I was absolutely frozen. I completely jumped my neocortex and went straight to this primal, full lizard-brain fear state. Lucy was walking all around the edge, while I was about to collapse from fear. She thought it was hysterical.
PLAYBOY: Scarlett Johansson kidded you in the press for being squeamish about snakes when you two did scenes with reptiles in We Bought a Zoo.
DAMON: I had to be assured none of the snakes bit. Scarlett was totally cool with handling them. I warmed up to it, but it took time. One of the scariest things I’ve ever had to do was the underwater scene in the second Bourne movie, where the car goes into the river and I’ve lost the love of my life. I didn’t want to do that at all. So I wouldn’t be constantly aware of how scared I am of drowning, I had to go to a pool with this great stunt guy and dive master a couple of times a week for a month or so to train me to relax underwater without an oxygen mask and with a blindfold and, later, to do simple tasks underwater like tying a shoe.
PLAYBOY: Did the training take?
DAMON: After we shot for one day, that night I woke up probably four times gasping for breath, thinking I was drowning. It was terrible. When you make movies, you end up being trained to do really weird things you don’t do anywhere else.
PLAYBOY: Have you ever talked with a professional about how to conquer fear?
DAMON: When I was in Mexico City filming Elysium, I had a conversation with one of the bodyguards they hired for me. He’s one of our special forces guys who was in the Army’s Operational Detachment Alpha. They’ve trained and have been fighting for 10 straight years and are now the best; they’ve pushed it to another level. After every combat experience, every traumatic event, these guys talk to a therapist. There was a problem with the first group of Alpha guys. You’d ask them, “How does it feel to see your son?” They’d go, “It feels okay.” “How does it feel to shoot somebody in the face?” “It feels okay.”
PLAYBOY: So they’re almost numb from the stress and trauma they’ve sustained?
DAMON: They found that if you don’t deal with trauma, it cripples you, and the next time you’re in that situation, it’s even worse. Processing it, talking it out with a professional who knows how to help, almost serves as an inoculation. So these special forces guys are now absolutely cool under fire. They’re not detached; they’re highly emotional, connected, unbelievably engaged and have a deep understanding of what’s going on. They’re able to hang on to their humanity and do these incredibly inhumane things. You wouldn’t see Rambo sitting down and having these types of conversations, but that’s exactly what these real guys do.
PLAYBOY: Do people always expect you to be in freakishly good physical condition in your real life?
DAMON: I don’t have much time between work, parenting and other pursuits I’m involved in, but I lift weights. If somebody’s around to box with, I can hit the focus pads, but I haven’t done that in a while. I used to jog a lot, but now I’ll do maybe one long run a week, or I’ll do sprints.
PLAYBOY: Has being a husband and father made you more aware of your vulnerability?
DAMON: I don’t know, but Lucy and the girls can definitely bring me to my knees. They just know. My wife gives me shit because it’s harder for me to discipline my girls, probably because they’re girls. With boys, I could relate more and it would probably be easier. Growing up, girls are so mysterious to us. Even as a grown man, they remain mysterious.