Pop Culture

Bourne again

If you judge Matt Damon by his baby face, you may not realize that he's been around showbiz long enough to experience the euphoria of a string of box office hits and the gut-wrenching horrors of a major disappointment.

In the summer of 2002, two days after the opening of “The Bourne Identity,” Damon received nearly 30 calls from producers offering him projects. The film debuted to rave reviews and was Damon's best opening — $27 million — to date, which, among other things, proved he could carry a major summer release. The film’s success theatrically (over $200 million worldwide) and enormous popularity on home video (almost $90 million in DVD sales plus the distinction of being the top home video rental last year) convinced Universal executives they had the makings of a lucrative franchise. “The Bourne Supremacy,” the second film featuring the assassin Jason Bourne, hits theaters this Friday.

“The only way I wanted to make a sequel was to make sure we had it better than the first one,” Damon, 33, tells MSNBC.com. “I really didn’t think there would be a sequel but they came up with a radical idea that moves in a logical direction.”

“The Bourne Supremacy” picks up right where the first film ends and it likely will continue a line of successes for Damon, who followed up the first “Bourne” movie with the Farrelly brothers comedy “Stuck on You.”

Down but not outBut it wasn’t too long ago that Damon watched his star wane. The deluge of phone calls he received after the release of “The Bourne Identity” was a stark contrast to the drought he'd found himself in prior to the film.

Damon was almost down and out in Hollywood, coming off two big flops: Robert Redford’s “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and Billy Bob Thornton’s “All the Pretty Horses.” Though both tanked at the box office, Damon felt he had delivered strong performances and tried to remain confident about resuscitating his career.

“I was in a different place before ‘The Bourne Identity’,” Damon recalls. “Because of that movie, I am in a good place now. It was a relief and gave me a lot more options; [it also gave] me a healthy cynicism for how things work. If your movies don’t work, you’re not going to get offers and it makes sense. It was a good wakeup call.”

A hunger for different kinds of rolesDamon has demonstrated a willingness to make unconventional career choices. Whether playing the physically demanding role of a soldier in “Courage Under Fire” or the reformed gambler returning for one last game of poker in “Rounders,” Damon firmly believes in taking on risky roles. So when he was offered the role of an amnesiac who learns of his lethal past as an assassin, the big appeal for Damon was that he would be playing against type. To a casual observer, it might seem that the preppy young actor wouldn't be able to play an action hero convincingly, but Damon felt comfortable after a conversation with the director.

“I heard from Doug Liman that he wanted to do the movie but it wasn’t the standard action movie,” Damon notes. “The best analogy I can give is [most] action movies are like porn movies — bad acting, bad dialogue and then the big scene. At the end of the day, you kind of come away feeling unsatisfied. So the way Doug approached it was about the characters and how they grow organically out of what happens to them.”

Years earlier, Damon had read Robert Ludlum’s books featuring Jason Bourne but the movie was just loosely based on the beloved novels.

“To me what was interesting is the amnesia, which is shown in most movies with a guy being hit on the head,” Damon says. “For Jason Bourne, it was a mental breakdown and amnesia gave him the opportunity to become a human being.”

Satisfying sequelMost Hollywood sequels feature bigger explosions and more special effects than their predecessors, but Damon appreciated the fact the filmmakers did not succumb to that temptation with the “Bourne” sequel. Instead, “The Bourne Supremacy” continues the journey of Jason Bourne and his girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente). As Jason rebuilds his life with Marie, a Russian hitman and the CIA track him down, compelling Jason to figure out why they are out to get him. Returning to the action-packed film, budgeted at a reported $80 million, are producer Frank Marshall, screenwriter Tony Gilroy, co-stars Julia Stiles and Brian Cox. Paul Greengrass, the director of the small Irish film “Bloody Sunday,” stepped into Liman’s shoes, who left after a reported clash with the studio.

Working with a new director was a rewarding experience, Damon admits.

“‘Bloody Sunday’ is one of my favorite films in the last 10 years. Paul was a fan of the first movie,” he says. “They have different ways they do things but it wasn’t that difficult having a new director.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge was the task of filming in Germany, India and Russia with their various cultures and locations at play.

“There were at least four languages on the set being spoken with the different crews. The logistics were a challenge but we had good crews throughout,” Damon says.

Next up for DamonAfter several rounds of interviews and publicity promoting the new movie, Damon is back to finish work on the sequel to “Ocean’s Eleven,” which comes out in December. In addition, he has a full slate of movies in the works. “The Brothers Grimm,” directed by Terry Gilliam, is set for release next spring. After wrapping “Ocean’s Twelve,” Damon will begin work on “Syriana,” to be directed by “Traffic” screenwriter Stephen Gaghan.                                                   

“Structurally it is similar to ‘Traffic’ but instead of drugs, the topic is oil,” Damon says, adding he will re-team with “Ocean’s Twelve” director Steven Soderbergh for “The Informant” next March.

Will there be another installment of the Bourne series since there were three books that featured the character?

“I’m happy to leave it as is like I was after the first movie,” Damon says. “I’m not chomping to do it. But I don’t mind playing a character again if we have a great idea.”

Som Chivukula is a production assistant for HBO's “Real Sports” and an MSNBC.com contributor.