The outspoken Hollywood power player discusses his philanthropic work and his pending projects.
Actor-screenwriter-producer Matt Damon, Part 2Originally aired on December 12, 2012
Tavis: Back now with part two of our conversation with Matt Damon. His latest project is, once again, called “Promised Land.” The film opens this month in New York and L.A., with more theaters on the way early next year. Here now, a scene from “Promised Land.”
Tavis: So you’re trying to get them to sell some drilling rights to the land. This is a piece that you’ve written, as we established last night. What do you learn from that process? I assume that as you’re writing this stuff, obviously, you’re researching, so this isn’t just about a creative exercise. You must be learning and growing from this process as well.
Matt Damon: Certainly. Yeah, when you have something like natural gas as a backdrop, then you have to research. But for me it’s really the characters. That’s what is really fun. There’s something that happens when you’re writing. There’s this moment where the characters start to talk back, and you just – they become real, and you can answer – the dialogue just starts tumbling out, and that’s when it gets really exhilarating.
But in terms of the fracking and all that, we really wanted to give the arguments as they’re presented by both sides, and show the human beings that are in the middle of all this.
Tavis: Because I live and work in this town, I run into more people – it’s like every day you run into somebody in this town, God bless them all, who’s working on their screenplay. Everybody I know in this town has a screenplay, it seems. Brian, you got a screenplay?
Brian: Not yet.
Tavis: Not yet, okay. (Laughter) Dave, you got a screenplay?
Dave: I got a couple.
Tavis: He got a couple of them, see? Camera guys, floor guys, everybody’s got a screenplay they’re working on. How did you know, when did you know, that you were gifted enough to actually make this work? I’m not suggesting that folks who haven’t gotten their big break yet aren’t gifted.
Damon: Right, right.
Tavis: But when did you know “I’m really good at this?”
Damon: Well, Ben and I just had this deal that whatever we put out, we wanted to like it, and that was it. Even if it was a – we said at the time, even if this is a videocassette on the mantle, we want to both like it if nobody else does.
As we wrote, we were reading a lot. I used to – this is 1994, where we did a lot of the writing on “Good Will Hunting,” and we were both unemployed and I asked Patrick Whitesell, our agent, who’s still our agent 20 years later, to just send me everything that’s being made.
He said, “Well, there aren’t parts for you in a lot of these things.” I said, “I don’t care, I just want to read it all.” So we’d been reading a couple hundred scripts a year and really knew what a script looked like and knew what these scripts getting made looked like.
So it was that thing of having a writing partner where you have checks and balances, where you go, “Am I crazy? I think our script’s pretty good,” and he’d say, “No, I don’t think you’re crazy. Maybe we’re both crazy, but I think it’s good.”
So we were lucky in that we had an agent for our acting, right, Patrick, so I went to Patrick and kind of innocently, not knowing at the time that everybody has a screenplay, I said, “Hey, man, I wrote a screenplay,” and I heard, like (sighs) on the other – (laughter). He said –
Tavis: He’s like, “I’ve got a screenplay too.”
Damon: Yeah, he’s like – no, he just knew that he had to read it and then he’s going to have to Stephanopoulos that situation. Like, “How do I tell him?” No, it’s a lot of promise.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Damon: But he read it and he called us up and he said, “Well, maybe I’m crazy, but I really like this.” So he kicked it down to their literary department, to a young agent who read it, and he really liked it. Suddenly, it made its way up the chain to the head of the literary department, and suddenly we had a whole agency behind it.
Then Patrick just proceeded with really smoke and mirrors to gin up a bidding war. From a Monday to a Thursday, the whole thing went down and we were running from studio to studio, Ben and I. We were, like, 24 and 22 years old, taking these meetings.
By Thursday night the whole thing had sold and we moved out, we broke our lease and moved the hell out of the place. (Laughter) We got new cars and moved up into the hills, yeah.
Tavis: You did a George and Weezie, you moved on up, huh?
Damon: We literally said, “That’s it, we did a George and Weezie, yeah.”
Tavis: What did reading those 200 scripts a year do for you? What did you take from that? I’m asking, obviously, because everybody wants to be something, but don’t nobody want to do nothing.
Damon: Right, right.
Tavis: There’s a process to get to this place.
Tavis: What did reading all – 200 scripts every year – what did you take from reading all those scripts?
Damon: I think there’s just so much you learn by osmosis. They start to make sense to you. You start seeing – people talk about getting your 10,000 hours in. If you work at something, you get better at it, and Ben and I were just struggling to find ways to work at a profession that doesn’t let you work that easily.
One of the ways that we thought about was well, let’s just read everything that’s out there and I’m sure that’ll help. I think I spent a lot of my twenties trying different things and doing different things to form some kind of a process.
Some of it was trial-and-error, and some of it didn’t necessarily help. But I never felt like hard work, there was anything wrong with hard work, you know what I mean? Ultimately, I think that on balance I was just helped in incalculable ways by all the different things that I did and that I tried, and the extra work.
My biggest takeaway from all of it was that in terms of the sacrifices that you make, the bulk of them will be sacrifices of your time and energy and commitments that you make that nobody is ever aware of. That’s really the most important work.
It’s work for its own sake, and you know it, and nobody else ever does, and nobody really cares. Some people, they just see the glory and they don’t want to know about the story. (Laughs) You get to a certain point where you forget how many sacrifices you’ve made.
I remember losing weight for “Courage Under Fire,” losing – I weighed 139 pounds. I weigh 50 pounds more than that right now. So this was 50 pounds ago, and just running.
What that required was eating very little and very specific things and running 13 miles every day, six and a half in the morning, six and a half at night, by myself. I remember thinking to myself nobody’s ever going to see, like, every step. It’s just – but that’s what it is, ultimately, and that’s what it takes.
If you can get into that and understand that, because it was a great lesson for me, because it worked and I was happy with the outcome. So then I never complained about that work in the future.
Tavis: Thank you for answering that. I appreciate that. A few years ago I had an idea. I’ve been fortunate and blessed to write a few books, but I had an idea a few years ago that I haven’t quite gotten around to, with all the other stuff on my plate.
But I had the idea to compile and edit a book of best friends, but specifically males, of all races, all colors, all creeds, to really get into the meat of these best friend relationships between men, which is very different than women.
Damon: Yeah, absolutely.
Tavis: So I may get around to that at some point, but I started to put together a list of the people that I wanted to talk to for this book, and near the top of my list was Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. So I may call you one day.
Damon: Yeah, we would do that.
Tavis: Yeah, I appreciate that. I got you on film saying that, too. (Laughter) But I had you guys on this; there were a few other people. We were talking about Cornel West earlier; my dear and abiding friend, Cornel West and I have a great relationship.
But I have been immeasurably benefitted by having someone for the balance of my career who has a long-distance runner with me, and one can’t overestimate, overstate, what it means to have somebody who is a true friend that runs with you all the way to the end, you can count on them.
For your children, you have children, your greatest, one of your greatest wishes has to be for them that they will find a lifelong friend, as you’ve had with Ben – Damon: Without a doubt. Without a doubt.
Tavis: – who’s going to run this race with you from start to finish.
Tavis: That’s a long introduction to ask what it is, if you can put it into words, that has meant so much to you about this particular friendship, this particular relationship.
Damon: Well, again, I could talk forever about that. I think one big thing is it started in adolescence, in our teenage years, and where so much is changing and you’re starting to become more aware of the world, you’re starting to become less self-centered and start to look outside yourself and start to understand the world.
You’re starting to understand adults for the first time; you’re starting to see through their (blank) for the first time. Really, you question them. We had this love of acting, which he and I have talked about it, now that we’re adults, and gone, “It’s strange.”
A 16 and a 14-year-old kid, we’re on the bus together or on the train together or on the plane together with money that they made, right, because our parents, my parents were like, you can do as much theater as you want, but I don’t want you to act professionally. I want you to go to college.
I said, “But I want to do it,” and they said, “Well, we won’t stop you, but you have to do it on your own.” So Ben and I had a joint bank account when we were 16 and 14 years old and the only thing you could take money out for were trips to New York to audition or if we both decided, we’d convene a board meeting if we wanted to take out $10 and go play some video games (laughter) at the arcade. That was okay too.
But we really did that, and looking back now, it seems crazy. It seems crazy to think about us walking around New York, going to auditions and really – thankfully we got rejected for everything (laughter) and went to college. But it was really great. Those were the experiences that made me who I am, and so we started there.
Then that’s 30 years later, but we’re here, and the number of apartments and lousy apartments and nice apartments when we got a little money, just the experience is just that it’s 30 years’ worth of stuff, and that’s it. It’s somebody going the distance with you.
In terms of writing or even subsequently giving notes on each other’s films – we show rough cuts to each other all the time of everything. He read every draft of “Promised Land,” he looked at two cuts of the film and gave us notes.
People can waste a lot of time with diplomacy in this town, where they just can’t come out and say what they want to say. When it’s your boy, he can just tell you, right, you know, that sucks. I’m sorry, that sucks. (Laughter) And you can take it.
Your ego doesn’t take a ding from that. You go, okay, well, and there’s a level of trust, where if you can’t see something and everybody’s telling you, and then he tells you too, you go, yeah, I really – there are few primary relationships you have in your life where you can suspend your own feelings about something because you’re hearing from them something different and you trust them that much.
Tavis: I think the term you used last night, speaking of your friend Ben Affleck, was it “actor jail?” Was that the phrase?
Damon: Actor jail, yeah. (Laughs)
Tavis: Actor jail. So last night you were making the point that there was a period in his life where he was confined to actor jail, where in your conversation with him he expressed to you that he was selling magazines but not selling movie tickets.
Damon: Right, right.
Tavis: When your boy goes through something like that, two questions – how did you process seeing him in jail and you couldn’t bail him out as bad as you wanted. He’s in actor jail, you can’t bail him out. How do you process that?
How is that you have – the tabloids, they like chasing you around like everybody else. But how have you avoided that journey that Ben had to go through?
Damon: Well, first of all, it was horrible, I think, for all of his friends and his family and anybody, because for me, what was really tough to swallow about that whole period of time was there was such a misunderstanding, there was such a misconception about who he really was.
He was getting raked over the coals, in tabloid terms. Look, people now probably don’t remember, they didn’t even see these things. But when it’s your boy you’re going to read it and it was really upsetting, because it was like this is not anywhere near – the image of him was so divorced from the reality of him that – so it was that feeling, my sense of fairness and justice was just, like, that line was crossed every single time I read one of these things.
It just made me really mad. Madder than him. He handled it so much better than I would have. I think he’s just far more thicker-skinned than I am, and that’s another thing I really admire about him. But it was tough to watch that, and it was over a period of years, and he knew it, though. He would say, like, “This is going to take a while. This is not – one movie does not bail me out. This is going to be a process.”
He really came through that with so much grace and dignity, and I’m proud for him for that. But it was very, very, very tough to take. In terms of myself avoiding that, I think I kind of stayed out of the crosshairs of those magazines for a couple reasons. One, I married a civilian, and (laughter) that helps.
Tavis: I like that – a civilian, yeah, yeah.
Damon: That helps. Those magazines, it’s really sex and scandal that sell. So if your narrative is well, he’s just kind of a regular guy, he’s married, he’s got kids, and he doesn’t go out and he doesn’t light the bar on fire and start dancing on it. (Laughter)
People who make a living following people around go, like, “This guy is a waste of time.” (Laughter) I don’t want to get another picture of him –
Tavis: Matt Damon, what a bore.
Damon: Yeah, no, literally. He’s, like, professionally boring. So that has really helped me.
Tavis: If you didn’t see last night’s program, go to the website, PBS.org, and you can check out a great conversation with Matt from last night. But last night we started out with some clips of your work. You’re still a very young guy, and there’s so much great work left to come from you.
But when you look back at the stuff that you have done so far, how do you contextualize that? How do you categorize what you have done? How do you describe what you’ve done so far? Is it about where you thought you’d be at this point, given how you took off, or how do you – ?
Damon: Yeah, no, it’s where I hoped. Look, our job, every actor works really at the behest of the average moviegoer. If people don’t buy tickets, you don’t see us anymore. It’s really that simple. So I do recognize that it’s a privilege to be able to keep working, and I feel that.
So I feel happy about where I am and like you, I feel like I’ve got a lot more to do. I look at old stuff and I’m a better actor now than I was then. I know a lot more. I’ve lived a lot more.
Tavis: Can you see that, when you see yourself on screen? Ooh, I was so bad then?
Damon: Yeah, I think –
Tavis: Compared to where you –
Damon: – actors can be hard on themselves and choices that I made in a scene or choices that I might have been talked into that I wouldn’t be now, or things that I couldn’t connect to because they hadn’t really happened to me yet, they weren’t real enough for me, and as much as I tried I couldn’t quite – I was pushing too hard to get there.
I think you get older and somebody tells you to be sad, it’s not a long journey for you. You’ve been sad. Someone tells you to feel joy, and it’s not a big journey for you. You’ve felt joy. Those things are, I think, more accessible to – at least they are to me, as an older guy.
Tavis: We talked last night about the initial plan and your ultimate decision not to direct this new project, “Promised Land.” Gus Van Sant gets the call on this, even though you wrote the piece, you and John, but decided not to direct it.
We also know you made a famous decision not to do the “Bourne,” the last one. Jeremy Winter stepped in for that. I’m trying to get inside your head here. How do you know when you have a franchise like that and there’s so much money on there and you know people are going to line up to go see this, how do you make a decision – I’m just curious – to step away from that?
Is there a point in time when you’ve made a decision or after you’ve made a decision where you say, “Ooh, not sure I should have,” or are you cool with your decisions?
Damon: No, I’m fine with it. “Bourne” was, I loved that franchise, but the deal with that was just we did not have anything to say at the moment, and Paul Greengrass, the director, and I, we talked about it, and we still talk about it, but we just didn’t have a story.
Our deal always was if we felt like we could make one that belonged with the other three, we’d do it in a heartbeat. But we just – that story hadn’t come to us yet, and so I’m completely at peace with the decision. Yeah, it was a lot of money, it was a lot of – yes, that’s true, and there’s nothing else in my career that can even compare to, in business terms, what that franchise meant to me.
But that’s the point. That’s why I don’t want to mess with it. It’s sacred. It’s sacred on a whole bunch of other levels that are more important to me than money too, so I’m good with it.
Tavis: Does your being such a good writer come in handy when you’re making those kinds of decisions? I’m not suggesting that because one doesn’t write screenplays that one can’t make good decisions when they see good or bad material. But I’m wondering to the extent that you are enhanced when you are assessing whether or not this makes sense to do or not do, the writing, (unintelligible).
Damon: Yeah, it helps a lot. It helps a lot too when you’re on the set of the third “Borne” movie and you had to write the whole thing yourself. (Laughter) Paul Greengrass (unintelligible) too. Yeah. That’s – he was my partner, and we had George Nolfi, we had a bunch of guys, Scott Burns, a bunch of great writers there.
But we were all just like, “Boys, what are we going to do tomorrow?” (Laughter) It was tough, and we didn’t want to put ourselves in that situation again, and there was just no idea out there that felt like it belonged with the other three.
Tavis: I want to ask you this question now before my time runs out, because I hope to – this is our first time getting a chance to meet, and I’ve delighted in this so much –
Damon: Me too.
Tavis: – for these two nights. Thank you. I hope this is not your last time on the program, so years –
Damon: It won’t be.
Tavis: – from now –
Damon: I promise you that too.
Tavis: Got that on tape too. (Laughter) Years from now, when you come back on this program, I want to ask you a question similar to the one I asked a few moments ago, about how this career has progressed. So when you come back on this program 20, 25 years from now and you look back on the last couple decades of your career, I’m going to ask you again how things are developing for you.
So let me ask in advance of that conversation 20 years from now, where do you want to take this the rest of the way? Where do you – in the long run?
Damon: I want to keep doing what I’m doing and keep working with the caliber of people that I’m able to work with. I want to direct, I want to keep writing. I want to make movies that say the things that I want to say. I want to be on the right side of history, and I want my kids to be proud of me.
Tavis: I would not have asked this question but for the fact that you went there and it just clicked in my head. Do you think that ultimately, on the things that matter to you, the things that matter to me, that Obama as president is going to be on the right side of history?
Damon: I desperately hope so, because we need that, and people need that. I don’t need that; I’m in the 1 percent, so I need to pay more taxes. It’s the truth. I don’t begrudge – I don’t drive by a firehouse and see guys playing cards and begrudge the fact that my taxes pay them, because every once in a while the bell goes off, and those guys run into a burning building for people who are strangers or people who are my friends, or their cats.
I don’t want to do that. I don’t know that I’m built to do that. Maybe I am, but I’d rather pay another percent or two for some police who are going to make sure that our kids are safe and we’re safe. Occasionally they put themselves in harm’s way.
I like driving on nice roads. I believe – I just believe that we’re all in it together, and I wonder, these people who get so angry about a couple of more percentage points, it’s like, what are you talking about, really? You want to see what life looks like without that? Go to the Congo.
There are rich people in Haiti. Go check it out. Do you want to live there? It’s like – so for me, those issues of social justice as well, for me, those are the most important things. I’m reading a lot about Bobby Kennedy right now, and so he was somebody who writes about poverty.
But those things that he was fighting against towards the end of his life and fighting for, there hasn’t been a lot of movement, statistically, on a lot of that stuff, and that’s 40-some-odd years ago, and that’s pretty sad.
Tavis: I’ve been at this for almost 10 years now on PBS. As a matter of fact, in January we start our 10th season here on PBS. It’s nice when somebody comes on the show and they are as advertised. I have so delighted in, again, having you on the program.
Tavis: You are as I expected you to be. The new project from Matt Damon is called “Promised Land.” It’s a good one. Go check it out. Matt, good to have you here.
Damon: Thanks, Tavis, appreciate it.
Tavis: See you again soon.
Damon: Yeah, you bet.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.