By Doug Levy
The best of both worlds
At 27, Damon still looks like a kid, sort of a pumped-up version of fellow teen heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio. Which is a good thing- it enables him to play younger characters like Will Hunting, the 21-year-old namesake of the film which Damon not only stars in, but also co-wrote with lifelong friend and co-star Ben Affleck ("Chasing Amy", "Dazed and Confused").
It's been a tiring weekend for Damon, including the opening of "The Rainmaker," which he also stars in, the New York opening of "Good Will Hunting" just a few weeks away, and extensive press obligations for both films in progress. When I ask him what the last couple of days have been like for him, he simply spreads out his arms and replies, "You're looking at it, man. This is my weekend."
Damon, however, is not complaining.
"Yeah, man," he continues, "It's been cool. I mean, the reviews were really good for 'The Rainmaker' and that felt rewarding, cause I busted my ass on that movie, you know, moving to Knoxville and bartending and doing all that stuff to try and get that guy (the young lawyer he portrays in the film), and he's a really different guy from Will. So, it feels good to have these two characters coming out at around the same time that are so different, because it helps [me in] not getting pigeonholed."
Not only are the two characters different from each other, but both seem worlds away from Damon himself. The affable, friendly guy I'm speaking with is about as far from the violent, tortured soul of Will Hunting as possible. In fact, the only thing the two really seem to have in common is where they're from: Boston, Mass., the setting for "Good Will Hunting" and for Damon's childhood, as well as his time as a student at Harvard, which is also a key locale in the film.
"I grew up in Central Square," he says, "which is kind of between Harvard . . . and M.I.T., so my upbringing was, you know, middle class, in probably a working class neighborhood. My mom teaches at Lesley College, which is a small teacher's college by Harvard, and she teaches in the graduate school - Early Childhood Development, and my dad is retired now. He's the baseball coach for the freshman high school team in a neighboring town."
So, it wasn't a love of acting that Damon inherited, like some actors, but a love of baseball. When watching "Good Will," both of these passions come through. The discussion about baseball great Carlton Fisk that takes place between Damon and co-star Robin Williams is just one of many personal aspects of Damon and Affleck's script. "Carlton Fisk was my hero growing up," Matt says, "and, you know, Ben and I, we basically need exposition to find out why we're going to a Harvard bar [in the film] . . . and we're like, 'Well, let's put it in a batting cage, dude!'"
After a brief laugh at the extent of their obsession, he adds, "I used to have a Carlton Fisk uniform when I was a little kid - number 27."
Damon and Affleck met when Matt was 10 and Ben was 8 and they've been close friends ever since. The fact that the two aspiring actors haveboth become rising stars simultaneously is almost too much for them to comprehend. Shortly after Damon appeared on the cover of "Vanity Fair," Affleck popped up on the front of "GQ."
"Totally weird, yeah," says Matt. "It's amazing. It's awesome . . . I really feel like I'm living a dream; I really feel like I'll wake up at Harvard tomorrow, in my dorm room, [going,] 'Fuck, I gotta go to class!'
"Because, you know, not too long ago, I was there, and they were shooting that movie, 'With Honors,' remember that movie?"
This, of course, elicits immediate laughter from the small gathered group of discriminating critics. "You think that's bad," Matt continues, "I auditioned for that movie, and I almost got it. And I was just . . . I was broke and I was so pissed, I couldn't believe I didn't get it. I was like, 'I go here! How could you not put me in this movie?'
"And then, I wake up one day, and just talk about having defeat rubbed in your face, I wake up and they're shooting outside my dorm. I walk out to go to my class, I'm late, and [somebody's] like, (in a whiny voice) 'Excuse me, don't walk through here,' and I'm like, 'What?'
"They're like, (same whine) 'We're filming a big movie here.'" Matt smiles and adds, "That you're not in! . . .. And I'm like, 'Nooooo!'
"So," he concludes, pondering his recent success, "this just feels like, you know, I can't even wrap my brain around the idea that not only is it happening, but it's happening for me and Ben. It's great. It's just nuts, man."
Success has come for Damon and Affleck in writing as well as acting. "Good Will Hunting," which took them almost five years to complete, is now up for a number of awards, including a Golden Globe for best screenplay. However, they see screenwriting as a way to enhance and highlight their abilities as actors, rather than as an end in and of itself. When I ask whether they would have considered letting someone make "Good Will Hunting" without them as the stars, Matt replies instantly.
"No. We got offered a lot of money to sell it and not be a part of it, but . . . we didn't write it to be produced writers. We didn't really have an interest in that . . . Writing was great, and it was really hard, and it was really challenging, and it took us five years, but acting is really what we like to do, and we wrote it through acting, through improvising and through doing all this stuff, so, I mean, our interest lies primarily in acting. Being produced writers doesn't float our boat."
What did float their boat, though, was getting to work with acclaimed director Gus Van Sant ("My Own Private Idaho", "Drugstore Cowboy") who read the script through Affleck's younger brother Casey, who also appears in "Good Will Hunting," as Morgan, one of Will's townie pals. Van Sant's involvement in the film was cemented by the signing-on of producer Lawrence Bender ("Pulp Fiction", "Resevoir Dogs").
"I'll never have a job that was that much fun, ever," Matt says wistfully, "because every day, I mean, Gus is a very quiet, reserved director, and he really kind of inspires creativity around him; he just really kind of creates an environment where everyone feels good about their work, and in that environment everyone can do their best.
"I mean, I think it's better, because there are some directors who are like, you know, 'Move your fucking ass!' and they're really hard to work for, because you're constantly like a . . . cowed dog or something, and Gus is just very nuturing of what's going on. So, as a result, literally five heads of departments came up to me at the wrap party and said, 'I've never had a movie that was this much fun,' you know, in terms of the experience.
"And it was because of this environment that [Gus] created. And so, to get up every day and not only be going into that environment, but going into that environment to say the words that you wrote, and that you've been trying to get made for four and a half years was doubly rewarding."
One is forced to wonder at this point whether an experience like this will spoil Matt and Ben for future work, performing in roles which they didn't create.
"I think it definitely will," says Matt, "but at the same time, I can't afford to take five years to make every movie, so I gotta be a hired gun sometimes. . . But directors are usually pretty good about involving - if you ask to be involved - it doesn't mean that you'll have decision-making powers, but it does mean that you can at least have the director's ear.
"It taught me a lot, too, about writing, you know, in terms of not wanting to step on another writer's words, in the sense that . . . I can now imagine what it feels like for a writer when you start improvising like a madman on the set. Like Ben - Kevin Smith always called Ben 'King of the Mad Libs,' you know, because he would get on in 'Chasing Amy' and he would just start going, (in a gruff voice) 'You know . . .' and he would just start going into this whole thing, and Kevin would go, 'Stick to the fucking script!' and I think both of us are more aware [now] of what it feels like to really put yourself out there in terms of writing a script and really having something you want said a certain way."
As to where the characters in "Good Will Hunting" came from, here's a couple of examples: "Skylar's my ex-girlfriend, so, you know, that was her. That was my college sweetheart, who went to Columbia med school, so . . . that was pretty easy to think up.
"But Will, obviously, for the title, was named Will Hunting." Matt pauses and smirks. "Apparently, people don't really care for the title, but . . . we liked it. It kind of had that fairy tale aspect and . . . we thought of it as a fairy tale."
Finally, for those of you wondering how to wow your friends and impress perfect strangers, Matt reveals the secret behind creating the voice of Will Hunting, the stifled young genius: "If you just go through anything point by point, you can pretty much sound smart," he advises. "I mean, if you guys read back any of your history papers at school and just . . . if you memorized your opening paragraph of a history paper, and just said it to somebody in a bar, they'd go, 'That dude's a genius!'
"It was essentially just doing that, you know. Economic modalities and all that shit, that was just kind of like, go through the source and try and make an impressive little chunk of dialogue."
So, what are you waiting for? Break out those texts and memorize away. Be the coolest person on your block.