Matt Damon
Photo by Max Vadukul

Matt Damon: “These types of movies are going away”

Short Profile

Name: Matthew Paige Damon
DOB: 8 October 1970
Place of birth: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
Occupation: Actor, film producer

Mr. Damon, how do you define success?

It’s the work. It’s the process itself. I have done enough movies now — movies that have failed, movies that have been successful. All we have as the people making it is the love of the doing of it. I am aware of the results because I have to be; it has an impact on my career so I can’t be ignorant of the movies that I am doing. But it’s really about feeling that I did my best work, the best work I could do under the circumstances, feeling that we told the story we wanted to tell in the way we wanted to tell it. That’s really the definition of success.

So for you it’s about the journey?

The journey is everything! It’s a cliché, but I have really felt it in my own life, in the 25 or 30 years I’ve been in this… The goal is the process, really enjoying the process. You can’t really predict what is going to happen with movies… I have made movies that I thought were really going to be well received and successful, and they failed miserably. And I have made movies that were very successful that I didn’t see coming.

“It was incredible that we even got the financing to do it because these are precisely the types of movies that are going away.”

Recently you famously admitted to turning down the lead in Avatar and losing out on $250 million due to a lucrative backend deal. Is that another successful film you didn’t see coming?

(Laughs) I know, I know… The cat is out of the bag on that story. I like telling it because it’s the proof that I am the dumbest businessman in the world! But really, at the time, I had no choice. I would have had to screw over the people working on The Bourne Ultimatum and I couldn’t do that ethically. So it’s not like I wasn’t doing anything and I just passed on Avatar. That never would have happened.

That’s a small consolation at least!

Right, at least I can comfort myself with that! (Laughs) But for me, the biggest tragedy of that story was that I was missing out on a chance to work with James Cameron. He was on top of the list of directors that I wanted to work with! When I was talking to him, he said that he had only made six movies. And I remember being shocked by that. I knew all of his films back to front and it felt like he had done much more. He works very infrequently. Now another ten years will have gone by before he is doing another one…

For your standards, it’s been a similarly quiet time: you haven’t starred in a feature film for a few years. What made you decide to take a break from Hollywood?

When I did promotion in Venice in September 2017, I hadn’t worked in almost a year. I moved back to Boston because my father was dying. That was ongoing… That was September 2016, and he died in December. It was a really awful year. I took that year off and I took another year off after that. I had done five movies in a row — The Martian, Jason Bourne, The Great Wall, Suburbicon and Downsizing all back to back — so I had promised my family I was going to take a year off but then that year turned into a year in a hospital with my dad, which didn’t feel a year off for anybody. So I took another year off after that. We really needed to do it, and it was a tough year. We were lucky we were able to do it.

Are you seeing the industry differently since taking that time away?

Yeah. The movie business is so different from 20 years ago. The DVD market is gone. I was talking to one studio head a few years ago that it cut the business in half. Movies like Ford v Ferrari, for example, it was incredible that we even got the financing to do it because these are precisely the types of movies that are going away.

What do you mean?

Well, I remember when we were in Cannes with Behind the Candelabra, and I talked to a studio head and asked him why he had passed on it. Every studio passed on that movie and we ended up doing it at HBO. He said, “It was a $25 million, and then I have to put $25 million into P&A. Then I’ve got to split it with an exhibitor, and the theater chain is going to get half. So you’ve got to make $100 million before I get a penny out of that movie; I’ve got to risk 50. I love Steven [Soderbergh], Michael [Douglas], and you, but that’s a real gamble.” That’s why movies like that are going to TV or they are not getting made. All that was happening. That’s another perspective shift. It’s just a different business.

“The last few years changed me profoundly, whether I wanted to or not.”

Is it a frightening time to be an actor and a producer — or maybe it’s invigorating?

I am very lucky because I have had a really fortunate career. It would be frightening if I were 20, 25 years younger and just getting into the business because I would be less certain about where it was going. But the good news is that a lot of great stuff has just migrated to TV and there is wonderful stuff being made on TV, so I feel there is going to be work available. It’s just my bread and butter movies were movies like this. Those are the kind of movies they are not making...

How are you adapting to this new climate?

It’s a very interesting time to live in because it’s so much less predictable. The last few years changed me profoundly, whether I wanted to or not. I still love my job, I still love making movies, and I love a lot of different aspects of that. I can definitely see directing; I can definitely see writing more in the next decade.

You would give up acting?

No, I would still keep acting but ultimately I love filmmaking because it speaks to that impulse that we have to tell stories to each other. It’s a very human impulse that we have had since we were drawing pictures on cave walls, saying, “Hey look, the buffalo almost got me. My friends and I got the buffalo instead. Can you relate to that?” Film and books and music… Art is the best way to tell each other those stories. I still love that. I still feel compelled to do it and I don’t know where it is all going. I guess I am a little uneasy about it. It’s just something new that puts you in a state of unease. The next 20 years are not going to look anything like the last 20 years. That much is clear.