Matt Damon, the cherubic epitome of American wholesomeness,
playing a pathological liar and killer? Now there’s a
The clean-cut boy next door who took Mom to the Oscars and
brought her to our last interview in Venice, playing a sociopath
in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley who does the
unthinkable (turns down Cate Blanchett’s rich heiress Marge)
and kills not once but three times? Definitely, it appears to be
casting against type.
anything I’d done before"
Now seated at one of Berlin’s smartest new
establishments, the Four Seasons Hotel, a stone throw from the
Brandenburg Gate, in a warmly heated room that defies outside
temperatures, dressed in plain black T shirt and and dark grey
casual pants, a tanned, relaxed, healthy looking Damon (his
normal weight regained since doing this role) barely resembles
his on screen bespectacled, dorky Mr Ripley persona.
"This role was so different from anything I’d done
before," he says affably in a deep husky voice, virtually
antithetical from his boyish looks. "Subversive, original,
in a story that to me was also very moving."
As soon as he read the screenplay, Damon says, he was
passionate about playing Ripley." I was surprised to see a
Hollywood studio put up the money for something so original but I
guess they were willing to take the risk with Anthony. I threw my
hat into the ring and begged for the job."
Till now Damon has put in some impressive performances as a
young soldier (Courage Under Fire, Saving Private Ryan), a
mathematical genius reformed (Good Will Hunting), an idealistic
young attorney (The Rainmaker) and renegade angel (Dogma) –
mostly characters with moral fibre. As a poker whizz in the
tawdry world of card sharks in Rounders, he was less convincing.
So now a character whose actions can be seen as morally
Damon’s affable credibility was actually instrumental in
getting him the role. On completing the screenplay adaptation of
Patricia Highsmith’s novel Minghella (The English Patient)
made one stipulation to the studio and producers, elated with his
script. He was adamant he wouldn’t make the film - unless he
found the perfect Ripley. The character appears in every frame of
the film; he had to convincing. Minghella had to be excited by
"There are no bad people, " says Minghella.
"Inside your head it all makes sense. That was the key to
finding an actor who could let you understand how he thinks and
So why Matt Damon? "Someone cool would have distanced the
audience," explains the director. "But Matt has a
credibility, and warmth and generosity - such winning qualities
– that make you want to go on that journey with him inch by
inch. We’ve all at some stage known what it’s like to
feel excluded. We might even have pretended to be someone
we’re not in order to be accepted. But not many of us are
flawed enough to kill for it. After I saw Good Will Hunting I
convinced he had the goods. And being a writer himself would
better understand the issues at stake"
"too good a
The central challenge, according to Damon, was illuminating,
at least to some degree, the motives of a character whose actions
could be seen as morally alienating : "Saying OK, he kills
three people and he’s your protagonist. So can you have the
audience sympathetic with you or, at the very least, understand
why you’re doing what you’re doing so they stay with
you for the entire movie? It was too good a challenge to pass
Damon was very impressed with Minghella’s script
adaptation. "Whereas the original work is a celebration of
immorality, this became a much more compassionate work. And I
loved the way Anthony had fleshed out the characters of Dickie
(Oscar nominee Jude Law) and Marge (Cate Blanchett)."
"Everyone has a Dickie Greeleaf in his life, someone he
admires to the point of idolatry," Damon says. "But Tom
takes it even further and makes it obsessive. He finds himself in
a brand new world, completely different from his own and
it’s all tied up with Dickie. He just wants his approval.
But when it seems his dream is over and he’s being ejected
from this world, he becomes desperate. He loves Dickie and his
life so much that he’s actually compelled to take it."
"The script was constructed in such a way that –
though I’m biased, of course – that you can understand
what’s happening with him throughout the movie so at the
end, hopefully, you’re saying "Why was I rooting for
him to get away?" (Though I think the end of the movie
actually represents his arrival in Hell.)
"a terrible, long and
"If he was a total sociopath you wouldn’t have any
emotion for him at the end of the movie. But Anthony wanted the
idea to really land that this has been a terrible, long and
One of the film’s subtleties is the protagonist’s
sexuality. "One of the concerns we had was that it
wouldn’t become a gay serial killer movie, that it
wouldn’t be misconstrued that he’s that he’s
killing people because of his sexuality. That was the last thing
we would have wanted. It made it interesting but it was
imperative that he could still charm women and that what was at
the core of him was this intense loneliness, this need to belong
to people so his sexuality was situational.
He’s so willing to shed his own skin that he becomes
overcome by whoever he’s with."
What made Ripley difficult to play was the character’s
self-consciousness. "You work so hard in this craft to get
rid of inhibitions yet this guy’s so inhibited all the time,
aware of being watched and judged. It’s probably screwed me
up for ever as an actor, "he laughs.
But surely his own meteoric rise to fame following Good Will
Hunting has made him personally more vigilant of his own privacy,
more self-conscious? Surely life has dramatically changed?
"I’m probably more self-conscious when I walk into a
room now because I can’t stand in the corner watching people
the way I used to, " he admits candidly.
"then I go back to my
"There are short bursts – press conferences at major
film festival like this, the Oscars or Golden Globes – when
for 15 minutes I walk in, smile, wave and feel like Miss
America," he laughs. "And then I go back to my normal
life. Actually, I think the whole (publicity) thing’s pretty
funny. It would be different if they were camped outside my home
waiting for me. Most of the changes in my life are superficial,
" he says. "I don’t feel at all like I’ve
changed internally. I’m still really close to my family and
my friends from high school. On New Year’s Eve, Ben
(Affleck) and I hired out a restaurant in Boston on for a party
for 250 people so we could be with them. "
"I really try and safeguard against some deep internal
shift because I think professionally, as well as on a personal
level, it’s dangerous. It could really subvert your
In fact, Damon believes that observation and contact with
ordinary people in life is so pivotal to his craft that he’s
had to be inventive to get around the problem. "I’ve
got a car with tinted windows, " he reveals. "So
I’ll park across the street where people don’t see me
and watch. "…
Just like Tom Ripley? "Well, he couldn’t even afford
a car…" (burst of laughter)
The Talented Mr Ripley led to a discovery of another
undiscovered Damon talent - not really surprising considering his
husky voice – a very impressive singing voice. ("When I
first heard Matt was going to do the song (My Funny Valentine)
himself, I assumed we were going to have to re-voice him, "
says music supervisor Graham Walker. "But he was
extraordinary. His version of the song has beauty, pathos. You
can’t believe he’s not a professional singer".)
Typically modest, Damon light-heartedly dismisses the
compliments. "In America there’s this trend of actors
crossing over into music," he observes. "Gwyneth really
does have a beautiful voice but I’m strictly a shower
performer. I just imitated Chet Baker but I’m no cross-over
His sights are firmly set on performing, writing, producing
and eventually directing. "I believe acting is a trade like
carpentry. And the only way to get good at it is to apprentice
yourself to a master carpenter," Damon says.
Thus far he’s had a terrific innings: Coppola, Spielberg,
Minghella, Gus Van Sant, Robert Redford in the upcoming The
Legend of Baggar Vance – a non-stop four year learning
Like a kid in a toyshop, his eyes boyishly light up;
"I’ve been so excited by the offers that I haven’t
been able to say No. For so many years Ben and I - as out of work
actors - had all this energy and nowhere to put it that to have
so many opportunities now it’s been hard to say No to great
projects. But finally, I was so dog-tired that Robert Redford
really carried me on his back on this last movie. I’ve got
to live a little to recharge. Hey, I might even get time to fix
up a house that I bought in New York. . ."