For Matt Damon, the starring role in Rounders came at perhaps the most exciting time in
his career, when he had just begun his catapult to fame with the releases of Good Will
Hunting (for which he won an Oscar for Best Screenplay with co-writer Ben Affleck) and
Francis Ford Coppola's The Rainmaker. As Mike McDermott in Rounders, Damon plays a top
rate poker player who is torn between two ways of life; law and poker. "I'm
portraying a guy who's meant to be at the highest level of the game," says Damon.
"The character I play should be a poker player. This is what he is meant to be. In
that sense, the film is kind of a celebration of who you are."
"four of the greatest actors in the country..." Matt
Damon says of the journey, "Mike is under a lot of pressure not to go back to the
game. The trick for him is to try to keep the promises he has made, because in doing so,
he will basically have to deny a certain part of himself… this kind of passion he
has, to play the game."
For Damon, accepting the role in Rounders allowed him to work with many actors that he
admired. "There are all of these interesting characters, played by some really
remarkable actors; from Edward Norton to John Malkovich, John Turtorro and Martin Landau.
Like four of the greatest actors in the country right there where you can see them."
"He believes in cheating as a way of life." Edward
Himself an Oscar nominee for his role in Primal Fear, Edward Norton joins Damon in the
pivotal role of Worm. Norton took on the challenge of becoming a poker player with
enthusiasm. "I thought it was a great script. The first time I read it, I finished
the last page and said 'Great, let's do it and don't change a word.' Norton was drawn to
the role of Worm for the character's off beat qualities and sincerity beneath the surface.
"I would describe Worm as a philosophic chat. He believes in cheating as a way of
life. It's not as a matter of desperation, but rather a matter of course."
In order to create the authenticity of the character, Norton requested a special
make-up application, as he explains, "I had the make-up artists make me a tattoo of
the ace of spades on my wrist because that's Worm's whole philosophy in life: always keep
an ace up your sleeve." But the character is not all bad, in fact as Norton
describes, Worm is convinced he knows what is best for Mike. "Worm has accepted who
he is, and he knows that Mike needs to embrace the fact that he is a poker player at
"They're like brothers," says Director John Dahl on the relationship between
Mike and Worm. "They share a common bond which is the essence of their friendship.
Therefore, as with a family member, one always feels compelled to help the other. For
director Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction), this project is an exciting and new
challenge. A departure from the neo-noir genre for which his previous films have so
eloquently depicted, Rounders is a drama about life, friendship and following one's dream.
"in this movie, poker is actually the metaphor for all
those other things" director John Dahl
"I thought David (Levien) and Brian (Koppelman) did a real nice script," says
Dahl, in typical Hollywood-speak. "Like Rocky, the character of Mike McDermott
gambles with the fact that he is going to step into the ring... In other words, in life we
all feel as though we put ourselves at risk to achieve what we want to accomplish. It's
just ironic that in this movie, poker is actually the metaphor for all those other things
we see in films that have been more virtuous than playing cards." Dahl continues,
"The idea of this story is if you feel particularly compelled to do something –
and it's not harmful to other people – you should go ahead and put it all on the line
and find out if you've got what it takes."
While Dahl has focused on the dramatic elements of the story, as he describes,
"what the characters are thinking, what they are feeling, what they are doing,"
writers Levien and Koppelman have been readily available on set for technical advice.
"I visited poker clubs and spoke with many card players so that I could really get an
understanding of the way the game is played," explains Dahl. "However, I
realised that these guys (the writers) are an incredible resource because they have
researched it so well."
Though both the film's stars had mild amounts of past experience with the game,
learning the skill of high stakes poker, amidst the world of the true 'rounders' was a new
challenge. To prepare for their roles, Damon and Norton teamed up off camera, and ventured
into the back-room poker clubs of New York. With Levien and Koppelman as mentors, Damon
and Norton discovered that beneath the surface of what appears to be yet another form of
gambling, lies a mind game played with utter skill As both actors will attest, a
philosophy exists behind the game, an unsaid theory to out-wit your competition in anyway
possible in order to win the money.
"It's a game of strategy and skill, and it takes a very
sharp mind" Edward Norton
"What's going on is never what you think" states Damon. "If somebody's
nice to you, they're just trying to take your money. If somebody's mean to you, they just
want your money. They're trying to get a reaction so that you go after them with a hand
when you should have folded. It's very psychological." Norton further explains,
"It's much more like chess, than it is like gambling. It's a game of strategy and
skill, and it takes a very sharp mind. There's very little luck involved in poker."