DAMON: Yeah, but that’s just part of the deal in Hollywood. I know not to take it personally.
PLAYBOY: Are you concerned you will ignite a paparazzi frenzy now that you and your wife have bought a house in L.A. close to Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner’s family home?
DAMON: We lived in the same neighborhood this summer and had no problems at all. Granted, we didn’t look for attention by parading our kids down the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, but scandal and sex are what move most of those publications anyway. That’s not us. Ben and Jen are both famous, and people are interested in her and how she parents, which makes them a target. If we had gotten it like that, I wouldn’t have gone to Los Angeles. It’s just not worth it.
PLAYBOY: Elysium comes out this summer. Did shooting scenes in a human-waste dump for the $85 million science fiction epic trigger any new anxieties?
DAMON: The concept of the movie is that Earth has been ravaged and Elysium is an orbital habitat, 120 kilometers up, where all the rich people have gone.
PLAYBOY: Leaving the poor slobs of the 99 percent to struggle pretty much on their own?
DAMON: Right. We shot in that human-waste dump for two weeks. What you see on-screen is supposed to look futuristic, but it was actually just helicopters flying over us, kicking up dust that coats you and that you know is fecal matter. We were very careful, but it was unbelievably toxic. It’s the worst location I’ve ever heard of and could have been worse only if we’d filmed in the world’s largest waste dump, in South Korea. What was unbelievable and really sad was the giant community of people who are born, raised, live and die in that dump. They just pick through the trash.
PLAYBOY: What convinces anyone, let alone a movie star, to agree to shoot in such nasty conditions?
DAMON: Shooting a big action set piece in a third-world dump was a great idea, visually and dramatically. We did it toward the end of the schedule, and everybody bought in knowing it would be tough but also knowing we would be happy we did it.
PLAYBOY: Was it worth it?
DAMON: Between the concept and the script, it’s going to be really good. I genuinely believe the director, Neill Blomkamp, is the next guy—our generation’s James Cameron. I hope I can work with him a lot more.
PLAYBOY: The movie that put Blomkamp on the map, District 9, touched on apartheid and racism, upholding the tradition of melding science fiction with social commentary. This new one sounds like a kick in the shins to polluters.
DAMON: Yeah, future generations will not look kindly on us. Our grandkids and great-grandkids are going to have to live here. With the “greatest generation,” the attitude wasn’t “Well, I’m not going to be around, so fuck the rest of you,” it was “Well, this is our problem, so let’s work on it together.” It’s like we have this weird block when it comes to projecting beyond ourselves, as though we’ve become selfish on some very deep level.
PLAYBOY: It’s your job to save the world in this movie. How did you prepare?
DAMON: The script wasn’t just run, run, run. It has real characters, so that was great. I worked with an NFL trainer who said, “I’m going to make you stronger and faster. As a by-product, you’ll look the way you want to.” It wasn’t a Hollywood vanity workout.
PLAYBOY: Did vanity creep in when you had to shave your head for the movie?
DAMON: From a practical standpoint, I figured I would like it, but at the moment of truth, I have to admit my worry was, Am I going to look good? Because however I looked, I couldn’t change it. I got quite a few compliments, though, which could have just been their way of letting me down softly.
PLAYBOY: Are there any kinds of roles you think twice about doing now that you’re a family man?
DAMON: Well, normally I’d say no to nudity, but I just did a lot of it playing the long-term partner of Liberace, Scott Thorson, in Behind the Candelabra. I mean, it’s tastefully done. Steven Soderbergh directed it, and Michael Douglas plays Liberace. But this movie’s not going to be for everyone.
PLAYBOY: A movie about a closeted, larger-than-life TV and Vegas entertainer and his much younger lover, whose plastic surgery he paid for so they could look more alike? Sounds like must-see family viewing to us.
DAMON: These two men were deeply in love and in a real relationship—a marriage—long before there was gay marriage. That’s not an insignificant thing. The script is beautiful and relatable. Their conversations when they’re dressing or undressing or having a spat or getting ready for bed? That’s every marriage. It feels like you’re witnessing something really intimate you would normally see with a man and a woman, but instead it’s two men, which was thrilling. There’s stuff I think will make people uncomfortable. Great. It’s HBO—they can change the channel.
PLAYBOY: How did you and Michael Douglas ease into your roles?
DAMON: We both have a lot of gay friends, and we were not going to screw this up or bullshit it. It wasn’t the most natural thing in the world to do, though. Like, for one scene, I had to come out of a pool, go over to Michael, straddle him on a chaise longue and start kissing him. And throughout the script, it’s not like I kiss him just once. We drew it up like a football plan.
PLAYBOY: Did that help?
DAMON: Not completely. I remember asking Heath Ledger after Brokeback Mountain, “How’d you do that scene with Jake?”—meaning the scene where they start ferociously kissing. He said, “Well, mate, I drank a half case of beer in my trailer.” I started laughing, and he goes, “No, I’m serious. I needed to just go for it. If you can’t do that, you’re not making the movie.”
PLAYBOY: Is Michael Douglas a good kisser?
DAMON: [Laughs] Michael was a wonderful kisser. My concerns ended up mattering a lot less once we were filming. The dynamic between the men was complex and interesting. Liberace was very powerful and adored, a great showman making $50,000 a week doing his act in Vegas. Scott was much younger and grew up in foster homes, so there was a lot to play.
PLAYBOY: Liberace lived his life in the closet, and times have changed a bit. What was it like when you and Ben Affleck were constantly asked if you were gay, back when you were starting your careers?
DAMON: I never denied those rumors because I was offended and didn’t want to offend my friends who were gay—as if being gay were some kind of fucking disease. It put me in a weird position in that sense. The whole thing was just gross. But look, there have been great signs of progress—the fact that Anderson Cooper and Ellen DeGeneres can come out so beautifully and powerfully, and it’s a big fucking deal that it turns out nobody gives a shit. If Liberace were alive today, everybody would love his music and nobody would care what he did in his private life. Like with Elton John.
PLAYBOY: This marks your sixth time working with Steven Soderbergh since 2001. What has changed in how you work together?
DAMON: The level of filmmaking on this movie is so high—I mean, Steven is in a place I don’t think many other people have ever been. He has mastered moviemaking. Although Clint Eastwood is as fast, the only other person I’ve seen make movies with that kind of prodigiousness was Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan. But Soderbergh is very in touch with the way we all live our lives. He’s not in a bubble. He is incredibly empathic and understands human emotions. He’s retiring, though, which is incredibly sad for me.
PLAYBOY: We’ve heard him announce that a couple of times. We’ve also heard him jokingly refer to you as “a 14-year-old girl” when it comes to keeping secrets. Is he really quitting?
DAMON: He’s serious about painting. He’s going to be 50 this year and feels he has 25 years to devote to something he thinks he could be good enough at to do as an actual other career.
PLAYBOY: You’ve made big movies, not so big movies, hits, bombs. Is there one film that nearly made you want to pack it all in?
DAMON: Everybody who worked on All the Pretty Horses took so much time and cared so much. As you know, the Cormac McCarthy book is set in 1949 and is about a guy trying to hold on to his old way of life. The electric guitar became popular in 1949, and the composer Daniel Lanois got an old 1949 guitar and wrote this spare, haunting score. We did the movie listening to his score. It informed everything we did. We made this very dark, spare movie, but the studio wanted an epic with big emotions and violins. They saw the cast, the director, Billy Bob Thornton, and the fact that we spent $50 million, and they never released our movie—though the cut still exists. Billy had a heart problem at that time, and it was because his heart fucking broke from fighting for that film. It really fucked him up. It still bothers me to this day.
PLAYBOY: At the end of the day, what would you most like to have as your legacy?
DAMON: When I turned 40 I had my whole family and some friends together. I realized I had to make a toast and hadn’t thought of anything to say. I stood up, and what came to me seemed incredibly true in the moment and even more so as time has gone by. I said, “I think I might actually be the luckiest guy on earth. I really might be him.” And nobody in the room reflexively said, “Bullshit,” because I am so lucky to have Lucy, my kids, my friends and this job. It’s been an unbelievable life. So I’m just looking for health and to stay in this groove as long as I can.