Matt Damon: The Man of Good Will

Not long ago, Matt Damon was congratulating his friend Matthew McConaughey for being "the guy." Now, as the star of Francis Ford Coppola's The Rainmaker, Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting and Steven Spielberg's upcoming Saving Private Ryan, Damon's "the guy," too.

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You might remember Matt Damon as the edgy medic/junkie from Courage Under Fire, although that wouldn't help you recognize him now--he lost 40 pounds for the role. It's unlikely you'd remember him as the innocent lieutenant opposite Jason Patric in Geronimo: An American Legend, since just about no one saw that one when it came out in 1993. But perhaps you remember him as the anti-Semitic prep school kid in School Ties, although he made that movie when he was 21 and he has since grown up nicely. Even if you don't remember Matt Damon, take my word for it--you're about to see a lot of him. He plays the lead in Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of John Grisham's The Rainmaker. He plays the lead in Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting, a film he himself cowrote. And he plays Private Ryan in Steven Spielberg's upcoming World War II epic Saving Private Ryan. The way things are going, you might have a hard time getting Matt Damon's face out of yours.

I meet Damon in his room on the 43rd floor of New York's Four Seasons Hotel, probably the most luxurious hotel in the whole city. Damon is on the phone when I get there, so I do a two-minute snoop around his posh suite. Here's what I discover. The bathroom has more marble than Venice. Damon is a restless sleeper (his sheets are all balled up at the foot of his bed). The rumor that Damon is seeing his Good Will Hunting costar Minnie Driver is obviously true, since there's a photo of the two of them on the windowsill.

"Fame looks good on you," I say to Damon, gesturing towards the surroundings as he hangs up the phone.

"Fame?" he asks incredulously. "My assistant and I got in here last night and we felt just like the Jeffersons. We were saying, 'How did we end up in this place?' Then we hit the minibar and ate everything in it. I kept saying, 'We're not paying for any of this shit, right?'"

Damon looks out the window at the vista of Central Park far below. "Fame, huh? Are you kidding? I'm knocking on wood so hard my knuckles are bleeding. I cannot believe any of this. You probably feel more comfortable here than I do."

Trust me, this wide-eyed stuff is not an act. I probably am more comfortable here than he is.

Damon and I could have met at the Manhattan apartment he shares with Ben Affleck, his buddy and coscripter on Good Will Hunting (you might remember Affleck from his starring role in Chasing Amy), but he hasn't really spent any time there since he rented it, and now all his friends from high school have taken it over. He signed the lease on the place the day before he got the call from his agent to go to Knoxville, Tennessee, to screen test for The Rainmaker.

"I never even unpacked," Damon says, lighting the first of many cigarettes. "I absolutely thought I wasn't going to get this job. I mean, what were the chances? Slim to none, right? But it was New Year's Eve, Knoxville sounded warm, and I was getting the chance to audition for Coppola. Am I a moron? No. I threw everything I could think of into my Jeep and took off."

"Slim to none" turned out to be a misjudgment--Damon was hired immediately.

Since Coppola is a director whose reputation precedes him, I ask Damon, "Was he a madman on the set of The Rainmaker?"

"Nah, not at all," the actor replies. "The guy's a fucking genius, pure and simple. Working with him was wonderful. Everyone had a ball."

"Are you one of those guys who can quote The Godfather line and verse?"

"Of course. I know every line. Me and my friends used to sit around, drink beers and watch that movie dozens of times."

Damon jumps to the edge of his seat. "I'll tell you the most embarrassing story about_ The Godfather_. I went to San Francisco to do some post-production stuff on The Rainmaker, and one night there was a premiere for the rerelease of The Godfather. I went with Danny DeVito, and sat with him and [Paramount exec] Sherry Lansing. I had never seen it on the big screen, because I was only two when the movie came out. Before the film started I said to Sherry, 'This is so cool. I've never seen it on the big screen.' She looks at the guy next to her and says, 'See Al, Matt's never seen it either.' Then Al Pacino peeks around Sherry and says, 'You've never seen it on the big screen? Me either. I saw it on TV, but never on the big screen.' I was so stunned to be looking Al Pacino in the face, I just said, 'Well, it's good, and you did a good job.' Then I kinda leaned back in my chair and felt like such a putz."

Damon shakes his head at the memory.

"Do you want to talk about that photo on the windowsill of you with Minnie Driver, or should we talk about your other films?"

Damon jumps right in about his other films. "When Ben and I sold Good Will Hunting, we almost died. Then when Gus Van Sant agreed to direct it, we died again. I mean, this guy is a fucking genius. Then it was unbelievable when Robin Williams agreed to be in it."

"Wait, hadn't you worked with Robin Williams before?"

Now Damon rolls his eyes. "No, Martha, he was in Dead Poets Society, not School Ties. You're not the first to confuse those two films. Anyway, you know those magic moments that happen in your life that you just don't see coming? Well, the first day we shot, me and Ben weren't working, we were just on the set as writers. We wanted to see the first day of principal photography. It was a scene with Robin, and when they rolled the cameras and said, Scene 41, Take 1, Action, literally tears were coming down my face. I just couldn't believe it. For four years, Ben and I had worked on this script. We loved it and believed in it. But to see Robin totally believing what he was saying--words Ben and I had written--was really too much. I looked over at Ben and tears were running down his face, too. I just put my head down and wept. Robin witnessed the whole thing and he came over to me and Ben. He was so tender, like a father. He put his hands on our heads and said, 'It's not a fluke, you really did it.'"

"When you work with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan, are you going to carry on about what a genius he is, too?"

"I tried to act unimpressed around Denzel Washington on Courage Under Fire, but one day I just couldn't help it. I started to quote Malcolm X, the part where he talks about the chickens coming home to roost. He was so amazed--I think I knew more of it than he did. So yeah, I may have an_ E.T_. moment with Spielberg."

"What about your costar, Tom Hanks?"

"I gotta tell you, how am I gonna be able to do a movie with Tom Hanks and not quote Forrest Gump? That must get so old for him. Maybe what I should do is rent Turner & Hooch. Even if I have to play the dog, even if I have to drool, at least I'll get to run through a scene with Tom Hanks."

"Matt, you're going to be in a real scene with him," I point out.

Damon smacks his head. "Can you believe it? This is a chance of a lifetime. I get to put on a soldier's uniform, hold a pretend gun, shoot fake Nazis--and with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg! I don't know how to react to the great and wild year I've had."

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