Matt Damon On Life, Acting and Harvard

MATT DAMON

Matt Damon is glowing. Clad in black, he walks in the room smiling radiantly and just exuding star quality. And why shouldn't he be? Hollywood's newest Golden Boy, Matt Damon, is the "big discovery" of 1998.

Following in the footsteps of his friend Matthew McConaughey, Damon landed the lead in The Rainmaker--a Francis Ford Coppola film. Then, the script which he and his best friend Ben Affleck wrote together, Good Will Hunting, was finally picked up by Mira-max--the brilliant Gus Van Sant signed on to direct soon after. And next summer, Damon will headline in Steven Spielberg's World War II epic Saving Private Ryan.

He has become the hottest actor in Hollywood, the guy whom everyone wants in their films even though a few months ago he was still bypassed for even minor roles. Damon deserves his fame--every single second of it.

Damon was in Boston on a cool Sunday morning to discuss Good Will Hunting. Affleck also costars in the movie, along with Robin Williams and Minnie Driver. Damon attended Harvard but never finished his senior year--he would have been class of 1992. We discussed his years at Harvard, his aspirations for the future, and his outlook on the current Hollywood scene...

Crimson: How do you and Ben Affleck go about writing a screenplay together?

MD: We act out the scene and use tape recorders--for like every hour that we improvise we get like 30 seconds of dialogue that we'll keep. [pauses] You guys are like the real writers. You take a blank page and impose a structure on something. I know I can't do that because I was an English major--I've written papers for years and I'm just not good at it. It drives me nuts--I pull my hair out in front of the computer watching the cursor blink.

C: Let's switch the subject to Harvard.

MD: Actually, I heard you guys panned my movie.

C: Which one? [I breathe nervously since it's true I panned The Rainmaker]

MD: Not sure [laughs softly]. Doesn't matter--I just do my best.

C: [anxiously moving on] Well, the hilarious quote in Good Will Hunting about Harvard is that "You're getting an education for $150,000 that you could be getting for $1.50 in overdue library fees." How do you really feel about Harvard and what did you take away from your experience?

MD: Let me tell you, I loved Harvard. It was a huge, huge part of my life. I still have time left and I want to go back when I get a chance. The line was just a way of showing the class dynamics in the film. It's interesting because I grew up in Central [Square] and we are proprietary about our city--we view Harvard students in a different light. I always had an underdog complex growing up, even on an unconscious level. But, my time at Harvard was amazing. I still keep in touch with all my college friends.

C: How did you actually come to the decision to drop out?

M: Actually, I got work--I started when I was 19. It was this thing for TNT called Rising Son. That was my second semester sophomore year so I left. Then School Ties came the second semester of my junior year and I left and then the movie suddenly got post-poned. So I lost that semester but did the movie the following fall of what would have been my senior year. And, a year later, in the spring I left to do Geronimo. What was happening is that I would keep coming back, and I would almost get done with the semester and then I would be yanked out. But I thought it was serving me well, and everyone at that point was saying Geronimo was going to be a big hit, so...[laughs].

C: Were you involved in the Harvard theater scene at all?

MD: Oh yeah--totally. The last play I did at Harvard was Burn This in Winthrop House. I also did a shepherd play directed by David Wheeler and a play over at the North Theatre Company. But I really would have done more--I knew people who were doing like two and three shows a semester. I would have done that if I would have been guaranteed to stay there the whole semester. But college theater is fun--doing student directed stuff is great because everyone gets in there together.

C: You wrote Good Will Hunting as a short piece at Harvard. How did it grow into the screenplay for the movie?

MD: I started it in this class Anthony Kubiak taught--it's a class all you Harvard guys should take because he's just an awesome teacher--I think he's still there. And he told me to keep going with it.

C: Would you have given up the chance to play Will Hunting in order to get the movie made?

MD: Never.

C: You were the only one who could play the role "the right way"?

MD: Oh yeah, that was all part of the deal. The only reason we wrote it was to get jobs! We were totally unemployable and we knew it. That's the frustrating thing about being an actor--you're just not controlling your own destiny. And I felt like I had given up college, and all these great experiences, and all my friends that had graduated--I had missed out on a lot and here I was back at square one living in L.A.

C: Well Minnie Driver claimed that Claire Danes was the first choice for her role. Did you have any choice over who was cast?

MD: Oh yeah, we read with the prospective women. When Minnie left, every guy in the room had tears in their eyes. It was just clear around the room that we would never get a better actress than that. I mean, we all knew who she was. It was intimidating enough when she walked into the room. We started doing this scene in a movie where we get in a huge fight and she did it three times in three different accents. And it was just extraordinary in each one. And finally, she's doing it in this Irish accent and it's the third time she's doing it-- she starts the scene and I totally blanked. After four and half years of trying to get this movie made, I didn't know where I was, who I was or what was going on. And she's standing there with this Cheshire cat smile thinking "Would you like to join me in the scene or are you gonna stand there with your tongue hanging out?"

C: You've gotten to work with Coppola, Van Sant, Spielberg. Anybody else that you really want to work with?

MD: Oh yeah, there are some really incredible actors. I think the best actor in the country is Morgan Freeman. He and Robert Duvall--it comes with their age and experience. They can make things happen without doing much. I'd obviously love to work with both of them.

C: Do you think there's a big difference between the actors of the past generation--Duvall, Brando, DeNiro, Hoffman--and actors of the current one?

MD: Oh yeah, Brando for example. When he was my age, he was the hardest working guy. He had a discipline that was unmatched. But now, because he gets away with everything--I mean the mistakes he made influence young actors. The younger guys are like "Oh all I gotta do is like get fat and go to Fiji." I mean that's just not true. What's true is just look at the young Marlon Brando and how he worked and what he did. He busted his ass--and Robert Duvall, for example, is still like that. That's why I think Duvall is such an amazing actor. He's in his 50s and he's still doing it. I hope that the ethic hasn't been lost, because that's what defined actors and made acting great in America. We had these great teachers and these students who busted their asses--but I think they're still some good guys out there...

His voice trails off as if in contemplation of his place among the actors of the current generation. There is no doubt that Damon is unlike the brooding, bewailing young actors that dominate Hollywood's scene. Witty, down-to-earth and full of enthusiasm, he is a sparkling portrait of normalcy and a worthy successor to the past generations of actors that he venerates.