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What was Matt Damon’s greatest fear when taking on the role of an action hero in The Bourne Identity, a Bourne-again spy thriller? It wasn’t the stunts for which he spent five months in training, he explains on a Sydney visit to promote the film. Andrew L. Urban reports.

Looking like a tourist in a blue short sleeved shirt and beige casual pants, Matt Damon walks into the Sydney hotel’s small function room with a shy smile and sits down facing a dozen journalists in a semi circle. A couple of photographers standing at the back flash and then the questions begin. Damon sits facing the window, which overlooks the Sydney Opera House. The man is totally void of star baggage, endearingly straight forward and polite to a fault, but with a ready glint of mischievous humour.

He’s here to promote one of the best spy thrillers of recent years, The Bourne Identity, in which he plays Bourne, the spy who forgot himself. It’s from Hollywood major, Universal, and is a full on action picture. Not the usual Matt Damon role, and the first for a while. How scary is that?

There were just two things that scared Matt Damon about taking on the role of Jason Bourne: being an action movie, would it dumb down to extract maximum dollar? “The inclination is to make them bigger: the more money that goes in, the more stuff you’ve got to blow up,” he says with a touch of dry humour. “They get dumbed down, the higher the budget gets. And this was walking that fine line. It’s a $60 million budget movie – huge for me, but only about half the standard cost for a studio picture like this. Still, you have to do certain things to get that money back. It’s not a kitchen sink drama.”

The other thing was more personal: “being seen in a role like this,” by family and friends. Especially the fight scenes – which, he admits, were the most fun, but also the least like the Matt Damon his friends know. 

"a good, solid action movie"

On the positive side, though, the role had a lot going for it, he says. “A script that I really liked, a character that I really liked, and then it had this director – [Doug Liman] who I really liked! – who came out of the indie world and had a reputation for thinking outside the box. Talking to him about the movie gave me confidence – it seemed it was going to be a good, solid action movie.”

That overcame his fear of it being dumbed down, which is linked to Damon’s biggest and everpresent fear: “ending up in a movie that just sucks,” he says with a chuckle. Looking at the media in front of him, he continues: “You guys know [if it sucks]. I have to come here and what do I say!? It’s actually a good way to pick movies,” he says with another laugh, getting into the joke. “Think about the junket for the movie! You’re going to have to sit there and this line of 15 faces turns into a firing squad!” The banter goes over well, and provides reassurance that no-one in the room thinks that The Bourne Identity sucks. 

Based on Robert Ludlum’s cold war bestseller, the film (executive produced by the late Ludlum) has been reworked for a post-cold-war reality. A body is picked out of the Mediterranean one wet night by the crew of an Italian fishing boat, near death. He clings on to life, but his brain has not clung on to his identity. He carries nothing except a couple of bullets in his back and a Swiss bank account number embedded in a chip in his hip. He realises that he possesses extraordinary talents in self-defence, weapons and languages. When he opens the safe deposit box in Zurich, he discovers a handful of forged passports, a bundle of cash, a weapon and his name: Jason Bourne. Or is it? After a dangerous incident in Zurich, he hooks up with German-born Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente) a traveller down on her luck and short of cash. He offers her US$20,000 to drive him to Paris, to the only fixed address he has found that seemingly relates to his life. But things just get even more complicated, difficult and dangerous.

It’s a European film made with European crews and Hollywood money - and with Matt Damon. But he pays solid tribute to his co-star, the notable Franka Potente, whose memorable starring role in Run Lola Run has thrust her into a new international category for a German actress. Damon talks about her being a star in the industry but not “a multiplex name to hang a movie on.” But to Damon that’s just another example of thinking outside the box, and proof that the filmmakers didn’t want to make a fluffy kind of tag on role for her. She is a strong character, and largely that’s because of Franka.

“ I’ll give you an example: a scene where we get into a fight in an apartment with a guy who then jumps out of the window. What was scripted was for her to be hysterical, screaming and so on, and so out of control that I have to take her with me…because the plot requires us to stay together. So when we’re ready to shoot the scene, Doug’s got the camera on his shoulder, and he’s shouting, ‘OK action, you’re freaking out, hysterical…’ Franka just stands there. So he says, Franka, do you need more time to prepare? And she says no. So he says What’s goin’ on? And she says, ‘Fuck you, that guy just went out the window…I’m in shock!’ So she does the scene and then she drops this great line: ‘He went out the window…why would somebody do that?’ And then as we’re running out of the building she throws up…that was her idea, too. And in the scene right after that she leaves the car to go buy a bottle of booze. These are all her touches…they make her real.” 

"a character driven action movie"

It was a dedication to reality by director Doug Liman from the very first meeting that attracted Damon – and that singles out the film as a terrific example of the genre. “Liman said at the beginning, I wanted this to be a character driven action movie, a little more intelligent than usual…and one of the things that would help if you actually do all this stuff.”

‘Stuff’ meant the action stunts. Damon invested five months of martial arts training and is glad he did. “But we really wanted to be vigilant about every detail and the whole construct of the movie, so the audience isn’t cheated.” 

Nice change.

Published September 19, 2002

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