In the late ’90s Matt Damon and his buddy Ben Affleck were the newly crowned kings of young Hollywood. The Cambridge, Mass., natives had leading-men looks, were clean cut, smart (Damon had studied at Harvard) and were seemingly unaffected by the glitz and glam even after becoming Academy Award winners in 1998 for “Good Will Hunting,” an original screenplay they had co-written.
But unlike the crowned heads of Europe, Hollywood reigns are largely contingent upon box office returns. And after a series of flops in starring vehicles such as “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and “All the Pretty Horses,” Damon, who had earned a best actor nod for his role in “Hunting,” discovered that despite his golden boy looks, he no longer had the keys to the kingdom. He might have gone the way of countless other one- or two-hit wonders, but a really cool amnesiac dude named Jason Bourne saved Damon from becoming Paulie Shore’s travel companion to the abyss at the turn of the century.
“These ‘Bourne’ movies totally saved my ass,” a casually dressed Damon said during an interview at his hotel to discuss his new film “The Bourne Ultimatum,” the third installment of the spy thriller franchise that hits theaters Friday. “After six months of no calls, after I got ‘Bourne’ I was suddenly getting offers to do other movies.”
The other films that he’s sandwiched in between “Bourne” and the “Ocean’s” franchise don’t exactly fall into the blockbuster category. “The Departed” was a big film in the sense that it was a Martin Scorsese project, but typically his films don’t have mass appeal. And the other films — “Syriana” and “The Good Shepherd” were both critically acclaimed, but made no money.
“I loved the scripts,” Damon said emphatically. “And I loved doing them even though they all were not going to be box office successes.”
‘He works so hard’That’s why it’s nice that Damon has Jason Bourne to fall back on. Critics are already claming that “The Bourne Ultimatum,” directed by Paul Greengrass, is the best of the three. In this one, Bourne, now fully aware of who he is, has but one goal. He wants to go home and kick the collective butts of everyone responsible for him getting his butt kicked in nearly every frame of the previous two films, “Bourne Identity” and “Bourne Supremacy.”
And, oh yeah, naturally everyone involved is trying to kill each other. It’s sort of like Bad Will Hunting and there’s literally not one dull moment — ever. Plus, Damon’s portrayal of Bourne in full tapestry is superb.
“He works so hard,” said costar Julia Stiles, who has been in all three films. “It’s amazing. He sets a tone on the set where everybody wants to make these films as good as they can be and he is tireless. He worked for seven months doing intense physical scenes and then also paying attention to the arc of his character and the storyline and making sure that every line of dialogue is right. And I think that he and Paul really collaborate well together and that goes beyond what an actor usually does.
“He doesn’t just show up and say his lines. He invests a lot in his films.”
Damon’s other costar, Joan Allen, concurs. She says the coolest thing about working with Damon is that he “gets it” and that it doesn’t go to his head.
“He’s just so relaxed about it and good at the same time,” said Allen. “He’s just a really grounded person. I just respect his work ethic. He works really hard and doesn’t take himself too seriously. His ego is incredibly healthy, he’s smart and he’s funny. It’s always great to work with somebody like that.”
The end of Bourne?Both are hoping to get an opportunity to work with Damon again. Greengrass, who directed “Supremacy” in 2004, has said publicly that he’s willing to direct a fourth installment if audiences respond well to the current effort. Damon, however, has said that he’s not that interested in revisiting Bourne now that he’s overcome the ultimatum.
“I said that when we were nine months into filming this one,” Damon said. “But the reality is the trilogy — the story of this guy’s search for his identity is over. He’s got all the answers. What would the fourth one be about? It would have to be the kind of the continuing adventures of … The inner-propulsive drive that the character has to get these answers is now gone. There would have to be some external antagonism, you know, that draws him back in. I don’t see anything happening for another 10 years that could serve as kind of a story engine to do another one.”
Apparently, the Oscar winner didn’t see the ending. It’s just begging for a sequel.
“It is a fun role to play,” Damon, 36, said. “It’s funny. The whole thing is always this kind of middle-aged fantasy in a way, you know. OK, I’m going to get bonked on the head and I wake up and I speak 12 languages and kick everybody’s ass and this really cool German girl falls in love with me. And so, to a certain extent it’s a bit of wish fulfillment.”
One of the reasons Damon, who was single during the first two films, might be wanting to move on is because playing Jason Bourne is rather physically taxing, especially now that he has someone at home to chase around. Isabella, the first child Damon’s had with Luciana, his wife of two years, is one and running.
“I started the movie in really good shape and the one thing I realized about myself now and having kids (Luciana has an older daughter from a previous relationship) is that I used to not have any life. I would go in for the old ‘Bourne’ movies and we would work six-day weeks, 12-15 hours a day and then I’d go to the gym for two hours, eat a little something and go to sleep. In this movie, I showed up in my ‘Bourne’ shape and as the movie went on I would go home and I’d work my 16 hours and I wasn’t going to the gym. I wanted to see my kid.
“Paul and I were laughing because there were some shots where I said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to cut that out!’ I’m 20 pounds heavier than I was at the beginning of the movie. So yeah, that was a challenge and an eye-opener for me.”
Another thing that might have Damon a little concerned about doing a fourth film is that Jason Bourne is probably 10 blockbusters away from becoming as iconic as James Bond. If that’s the case — even though Damon has a very diverse body of work — Bourne could become the definitive character of Damon’s career and at this point it appears that that’s not something he’s willing to risk.
“The advantages of being in a franchise — in this case — is that people seem to like it and we get these great directors who come out of independent film,” Damon said. “That’s been really helpful for me. But you can get involved in franchises where you become so recognizable that you can’t take another role. I think the work I’ve done in between all the movies has kept me from being pigeonholed.”
Now what’s the name of that dude he played in “Syriana”?
Miki Turner is a freelance TV producer/writer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com