PLAYBOY: What personal traits of yours do you hope your kids don’t inherit?
DAMON: My kids came into the world with a kind of hyper obsessiveness and stubbornness that I know I have. I’ve always been competitive. I used to be out-of-control competitive, like when I was playing games, maybe because I grew up with my brother, Kyle, who is three years older. I was always smaller, and it was harder for me to win.
PLAYBOY: When do your kids most turn into mini versions of yourself?
DAMON: I would throw blazing temper tantrums as a kid—my parents worried about me. I remember being so angry that I saw red, and no amount of encouragement, love or hugging would get me out of that. It just has to burn out. I’ve seen my kids get to that point where you can’t get through to them. The only reason I can get through those moments is because I remember what it feels like to be in that situation. On the other hand, there’s a great thing that comes along with being stubborn and obsessive, which is a passion for life. Things matter to you. Whatever work you end up doing matters to you. That has brought me so much joy even I’m willing to be a little obsessive about it.
PLAYBOY: With your stepdaughter, Alexia, now a young teen and probably about to date sooner rather than later, do you think you might be a tough father to deal with?
DAMON: Alexia is a terrific girl, sensible and with good taste in music, like the Beatles and Coldplay—good taste in everything. I’m more worried about some of our younger daughters. [laughs] When you grow up, you know what your parents did to you. After you become a parent, you know what your parents felt like when they did what they did. It’s funny; I feel I know my parents more now.
PLAYBOY: What are fans most likely to ask you to autograph?
DAMON: Pictures of the puppet of me from Team America: World Police. I always write “Maaaat Damon,” like they say it in the movie.
PLAYBOY: What do you absolutely refuse to sign?
DAMON: I’ve never had a woman say, “Sign my ass,” but I’ve drawn the line at autographing women’s skin.
PLAYBOY: How does your wife deal with fans who become aggressive or flirtatious around you?
DAMON: The people who are crazy enough to throw themselves at you tend to be so young that I’d be way too old for them. The ones who are slicker are probably interested in somebody else anyway. Besides, the narrative about me kind of goes, “He’s a boring married guy,” which is great, because I don’t get any of that other stuff like Brad Pitt and George Clooney do. Lucy doesn’t have to worry anyway.
PLAYBOY: You met 10 years ago. Why is this relationship better than the others?
DAMON: This is the first relationship I’ve had that wasn’t like work to be in. I never knew it could be like this. There’s always stuff you can work on, of course, but being married and having kids, for me, there’s a lot of romance, but it’s a much bigger endeavor with a lot of nuts-and-bolts problem-solving you have to do together. It’s like building a company.
PLAYBOY: Are you good at turning up the sensuality and romance with extravagant romantic gestures?
DAMON: No, I’m shitty at that. I wish I were better because my wife deserves somebody who surprises her with a gift or flowers or some wonderful idea. I’ve never been good at that, and she’s really good at it, which makes me feel even more like shit.
PLAYBOY: How have you managed to be in the public eye since the late 1990s without—unlike some of your peers—any big public missteps?
DAMON: I did a Larry King interview with Angelina Jolie and Robert De Niro when The Good Shepherd was coming out in 2006, and he read a list of words he got from some website or something about how people saw each of us. For Angelina it was sexy, dangerous. For Bob it was intense. My word was nice. That’s been great for me because people think I’m kind of vanilla and they leave me alone to work, have an actual private life and be a husband and dad.
PLAYBOY: Does being perceived as a decent guy cost you edgier roles?
DAMON: The perception seems to be that I’m boring enough not to pay attention to but not so boring that I stop working.
PLAYBOY: As an admitted competitive guy, do you sweat movie roles that go to other actors?
DAMON: Having to say no to Avatar was tough because I particularly wanted to work with James Cameron, and still do, because he’s fantastic. He knew he was the star of that movie and that everyone was going to go see it anyway. When he said, “Look, I’m offering it to you, but if you say no, the movie doesn’t need you,” I remember thinking, Oh God, not only do I have to say no because of scheduling, but he’s going to make a star out of some guy who’s going to start taking jobs from me later.
PLAYBOY: Do you have pangs of regret about any other movies?
DAMON: Milk was another hard one because I was excited it would have been for Gus Van Sant, and I would have had the chance to do scenes with Sean Penn. They pushed the schedule and it ran into the slot for Green Zone. Steven Soderbergh’s mantra is “The movie gets the right person; the right actor gets the part,” but I was like, “Shit, no. That was my part.” But when I saw Milk, Josh Brolin was so fucking good that I knew Soderbergh was right. Way back, Gus and I talked about my doing Brokeback Mountain with Joaquin Phoenix, but I had just done The Talented Mr. Ripley and All the Pretty Horses, so I said, “Gus, let’s do it in a couple of years. I just did a gay movie and a cowboy movie. I can’t do a gay cowboy movie now.” The right actor got the part. Heath Ledger was magnificent.
PLAYBOY: What drives you to keep working? It can’t be the money.
DAMON: Certainly not now it isn’t. [laughs] I remember coming home to tell Lucy about the first day of filming Invictus with Clint Eastwood, who at 79 was electrifying, great at what he does, had a ton of energy, enormous purpose and was surrounded by a crew who adored him and felt privileged to be there. He was as excited to be there as I was and still has stories he wants to tell. I said to Lucy, “That’s it for me. That’s the goal.” I’ve been making movies for 15, 20 years. I really love it, and I’m getting better at it and want to keep taking chances.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of taking chances, what did you make of Clint Eastwood’s performance during the Republican National Convention, when he questioned an empty chair?
DAMON: I heard the backlash, but I never saw the whole thing because I just didn’t want to see my friend…you know. Look, his knowledge of filmmaking is so vast and deep that he can wing it beautifully on the set. What he did at the RNC was an unrehearsed bit he decided to do at the last minute. You can’t go onstage and do 12 minutes of stand-up completely unrehearsed. But I agree with what Bill Maher said—Clint killed at the convention for 12 minutes, and the audience loved him. I wouldn’t do that unless I spent a month rehearsing.
PLAYBOY: You were supposed to make your long-promised directorial debut with your new film Promised Land, in which you and Frances McDormand play corporate salespeople who persuade economically strapped rural homeowners to sell their natural gas drilling rights—that is, to allow their land to be fracked, possibly destroying their drinking water, health and futures.
DAMON: John Krasinski and I wrote Promised Land with the intention that I would direct it. I loved working with him. I would have preferred to just direct and have someone else act, but it was easier on the budget for me to play in it too.
PLAYBOY: What stopped you from directing it?
DAMON: Elysium was supposed to finish in October 2011 but ended up finishing in early December, partly because I got sick and shut the production down for two weeks. Then I came back from filming and had two straight weeks of press to do for We Bought a Zoo, and I realized I would have to go into preproduction for Promised Land on January 2. I’d also been away from my kids, and it had been a huge strain on our family.
PLAYBOY: So you were up against the wall?
DAMON: I had to call John one night, and he was great about it, but he’s also a producer on the movie. He said, “We’re going into the holidays—we’re totally fucked! Why didn’t you tell me this a month ago? We could’ve found another director.” I said, “I didn’t know a month ago, and now that I’ve come up for air I’m realizing what the reality of all this is.” It was tough. I said, “I promise you, this is the right thing for the movie—me going into directing it when I’m this burned out won’t be good for us.”
PLAYBOY: How did Gus Van Sant become involved?
DAMON: The morning after that tough night with John, I was in a plane with my family, on the airport runway, going to Florida. The flight attendants were about to tell us to turn our phones off, and I e-mailed Gus what had been going on. He e-mailed back, “I love your writing—why don’t you send me the script?” They said, “Turn your phones off,” and I’m like, “Yeah, one second.” I e-mailed him the script and turned off my phone. When we landed two and a half hours later, there was a message from Gus that he wanted to direct the movie.
PLAYBOY: Did John forgive you?
DAMON: When I said, “Gus Van Sant’s directing our movie,” it was just too much for John to process. His head was still in the middle of dealing with what had happened the night before. I ended up doing the best thing for the movie. We definitely traded up in the directing department.
PLAYBOY: Being a well-known political progressive, you might be accused of making a strident polemic—an anti-fracking movie. But the film is human, funny and moving, and it doesn’t preach.
DAMON: We went to the studio saying, “Who fucking wants to go see an anti-fracking movie?” and were all in agreement. When we were working on the script, it was about wind farms, but we changed it to fracking—a good issue because the stakes are so high. That shit is real. They’re debating about letting it happen in New York now. To us, the movie was really about American identity. We loved the characters because they felt like real people making the kinds of compromises you have to just to live your life.
PLAYBOY: The film raises issues that many politicians appear to be ducking, particularly the potentially devastating effects of hydraulically injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and carcinogenic chemicals into rock surrounding a gas or oil well.
DAMON: We’re at a point where politicians don’t really get any benefit from engaging with long-term issues. Instead, it’s all about the next election cycle. Those guys in the House don’t do anything now but run for office. So unless they can find some little thing that zips them up a couple of points in the polls, they’re not interested. There’s a consensus among scientists, though, that we face serious long-term issues. They’re saying that unless we engage with those issues, we’re genuinely fucked. The way it looks, we’re going to wait until one of those big issues smacks us. Hopefully, [author and futurist] Ray Kurzweil is right and all our problems will be solved by technology.
PLAYBOY: No matter how many times Michael Moore asks you or how many others wish you would, it doesn’t sound as though you will run for office.
DAMON: No, no, no.
PLAYBOY: In December 2011 you said you would have preferred President Obama to be “a one-term president with some balls who actually got stuff done.” Did you vote for him this time?
DAMON: Definitely. I assume there will be some Supreme Court appointments in this next term; that alone was reason to vote for him. I don’t think I said anything a lot of people weren’t thinking. It’s easier now more than ever in my life to feel the fix is in, the game is rigged and no matter how hard you work to change things, it just doesn’t matter.
PLAYBOY: Promised Land has generated awards buzz, including for your performance. Not only do you show gravitas in it, but also, for once, you’re beginning to look your age.
DAMON: I remember having dinner with Tommy Lee Jones 20 years ago. I was looking at his face and thinking, Shit, I can’t wait to have lines like that. A guy like that can just sit there and be so expressive. I mean, he’s also one of the best actors ever, but I remember being in a hurry to get some of those lines. I’m getting more lines every day.
PLAYBOY: You and Ben Affleck, your longtime hometown Boston buddy and fellow Oscar winner for the Good Will Hunting screenplay, have gone your separate ways careerwise. But last year it was rumored he might direct you in a film in which you would play the notorious Boston organized crime kingpin Whitey Bulger.
DAMON: We’re working on stuff, yeah. The movie Ben directed, Argo, is so great, and it’s also nice that I’m starting to get offered scripts that have Ben’s fingerprints on them. It’s about time.
PLAYBOY: You mean because he’s already turned down those scripts?