AN EXCLUSIVE SIT DOWN WITH HOLLYWOOD’S MOST INTELLIGENT SUPER STAR
Looks like another perfect day in sunny Los Angeles. Weaving through infamous LA traffic, I make my way to the SLS Hotel. I’m meeting Matt Damon – the world’s most likable, down-to-earth, and noble celebrity. I’m escorted up via elevator to the Presidential Suite, and then left alone. Suddenly, a familiar figure enters the room, and it’s just the two of us. We shake hands and begin to chit-chat.
Damon’s demeanor is casual, warm, and friendly. He’s wearing faded jeans and a dark blue henley. His wrist game is strong, adorned with several cool mala bracelets. Matt’s hair is cropped short, but looks natural, not styled with product or anything. Overall, Matt looks relaxed and fit. He is “America’s Everyman” yet simultaneously, one of the most famous people alive.
Our publication NOBLEMAN is about being a gentleman in today’s modern world. What does being a gentleman mean to Matt Damon?
Wow. Well, it’s just about being respectful of people. Of everybody. That’s my idea of being a gentleman. It’s somebody who’s considerate and kind.
What is your guide to doing the right thing? Do you have a spiritual code that you stick to?
I have a kind of a moral framework that I operate within that I think is pretty clear, and without a specific kind of spirituality. A sense and appreciation of the divine that feels very real to me.
What do you think happens when we die?
I have no idea and neither does anybody else. (Laughter. Long pause.)
I’ve read a lot of the accounts of people who have died and been bought back. A lot of them report the same experience. I talked to Martin Sheen about this. Martin Sheen very famously had a heart-attack on “Apocalypse Now” and when we did “The Departed” together I had the most fascinating conversation with him. Martin told me about his experience – and it’s similar to a lot of the experiences that I’ve read about – and he said he felt he had a choice and he decided to come back. He had young children and he felt a reason to come back. Martin had been a lapsed Catholic before the heart-attack, but to this day he goes to church every Sunday and he said it’s about taking time and making sure every week that he is taking some time out to think about these things. And he said he likes that he’s taking time out with other people to think about these things.
I asked if his wife goes with him to church and he said, “No no, she’s not religious,” and I thought that was so interesting; and he goes “but she’s this incredibly spiritual woman – she has her own ideas and her own beliefs.” That didn’t preclude him from going to church and it’s really interesting. The whole conversation was an unexpected interaction that I remember with him and that was some ten or eleven years ago.
You have kids and you’re known as a great family guy in Hollywood. What is your parenting advice for our readers?
You have to tailor it to your kids cause they are all so different, but ultimately it’s about building up self-esteem to that point that when they leave the nest, they are going to make positive choices and choices that aren’t self-destructive. You can’t police every interaction they have. It’s about preparing them to have a centered sense of themselves, so that they can handle whatever comes their way. Because you’re not always going to be there.
You’re a huge Red Sox’s fan. How did you get into baseball and why do we still love baseball?
It was my dad and that was really the game we played when I was a kid. I think the more familiar you are with the game, the more that it’s a metaphor for life. Baseball is a situational game and you can compare it, in a way, to the situations that come up in your life. And that’s the beauty of the game. The nuance and intricacy of it… there are parallels you can draw to almost any experience that you have.
Similar to classical music. Long boring stretches, followed by building pressure, that suddenly crescendo, akin to hitting that big standup triple in a key moment.
Yeah, that’s true. We are kind of losing, as a society, our ability to patiently wait for that triple in the eighth inning. We are such a “now” culture and things are happening so fast. My oldest said to me the other day, “well, I mean that movie is almost 2 hours – it’s really long!” It’s like wait, what? That used to be a short movie, but in the world they are growing up in, there are so many distractions.
My God, I mean we had to go to the library. The amount of information at your fingertips now is staggering. There is something great about that. We are smarter or certainly taking in more information, but we are losing those moments to reflect.
So in this world of data overload, if you could have one billboard that said whatever you wanted to say, that everyone in the world could read, what would your message be?
Speaking specifically to technology, I’d say: “Put your phone down for two hours a day.” A friend of mine wrote a book about ten years ago, and I asked him how he did that, and he said that he’d put his phone down and go walk in Central Park in New York. Some days he would sit on a bench and some days he would just wander. It was about deep reflection. He’s an economist and he said the concept he was working through required deep thought, and unless he could walk away from an alert on his phone… he just needed that time to go deeper.
I mean, we all used to sit around living these pastoral lives out in log cabins and reflecting on stuff. There is a balance we need to find.
Do you personally take time to meditate and pray?
In classic fashion, “do I say not as I do.” My wife and I started trying to meditate when we were in China (filming “The Great Wall”). We meditated and got in the habit of doing it, which was great, for about four months. And then we kind of lost that.
We lived this gyspy lifestyle, and we went to one place and then another, and before long it was gone. We have been saying to each other that we have got to get back to doing this, we know it’s good for us and we know we need it, but it’s always “it’s going to start soon.” You know, this is my year off, and I keep saying “when I’m on my year off I’m going to…” Now I have a list of start mediating, take voice lessons and all these things.
When I say “success” who comes to mind for you?
Well, there are different variations for me. There’s family – the healthy, loving tight-knit family. There is the work I do with the foundation, which is about access to clean water and sanitation, measured at this point in millions. We’ve reached 5.3 million people at this point but we are talking about 660 million people who have the need, so it’s not even close.
The mission of water.org is that we put ourselves out of business. And that is a very ambitious mission, but we do feel that it’s possible in our lifetime. It will take our entire lifetime, but it is possible. So in that regard, I would define success in that way, how much you can help others.
Then there is also my day job. There are external metrics like awards, but I don’t always agree with those. For me there is a group of people, myself included, whose opinions really matter, and I feel if I’m getting better and challenging myself, and if the work is interesting – that’s success.
Do you have a hero in life? Who inspired you most?
Paul Farmer, who started Partners in Health with Jim Kim and Ophelia Dahl – the three of them. We just made this documentary about them which is really great.
Another obvious one would be someone like Mandela, who I did get to meet before he died, which was awesome. If you look at the incredible ability he had to unify these poles that were so far apart, by pulling them closer – further than either wanted to go or was willing to go – he is just the most extraordinary leader of my lifetime. And to do it out of this place of total humility.
And I think Bobby Kennedy would definitely be someone. Look at the speeches he gave. Some of the things he said in the last 100 days of his life, it was like the matrix. He threw political calculation out of the window. People think “no, he was really calculated,” but making a speech about poverty to medical school students in Indiana is not politically smart. But he won Indiana, and watching that last 100 days, it was almost like he knew that he wasn’t here for long.
Do you have a favorite quote that you live by?
No. There are a lot of them by Bobby Kennedy that he said at the end of his life that were quite beautiful, but no, I can’t think of one that would be my motto.
What book do you give the most? What was the last book you gave someone?
I gave my dad a book, which was given to me, which was the fourth book in the series by Robert Caro about Lyndon Johnson. It was called “The Passage of Power” and it was just really incredible. Paul Greengrass (Director of the most recent “Jason Bourne” film) had given it to me.
For me, I was a lit major, but I really focused on theater in college. So for me it was always plays. It was Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov and all of those guys.
If it was a desert island situation – one collection – it would be Shakespeare. Just because of the vastness of what he did in one lifetime. That would be my desert island choice.
You’re most recent film “The Great Wall” is a co-production between the US and China, do you think these co-productions are the wave of the future?
I don’t know if it’s the wave of the future, but it’s certainly something we’ll see more of. Just because the two markets are so big, that both industries are going to keep trying to make these, what they call “worldwide movies.” Every time a studio says we are going to spend $300 million dollars on a movie they say “it’s a worldwide movie – it’s for a global audience.” (Laughs).
It’s almost like a different business. I made “Manchester by the Sea” for $8.8 million dollars and “The Great Wall” was made for $160 million, you know what I mean? It’s like a completely different animal. Co-productions require the stories to be able to travel, which makes them simpler and simpler, and it will be interesting to see what audiences all over the world will tolerate.
Right now, there are a lot of superhero movies: good guys, bad guys. We all get it, and that seems to be working. But classically, these things have been trends and they stop working. It will be interesting to see what happens if superhero movies stop working on a global scale.
I also don’t know if the industry will be disrupted by some other technology like the Oculus Rift and if so, what does that mean? There is always going to be a place for content providers. So the question becomes what kind of stories do we end up telling, and on what platform? Do you wear an Oculus Rift and are you in the scene with me, and are we talking?
I really don’t know where it’s going to go, which is also great and exciting if you’re a storyteller. We have the impulse to tell stories. It kinda goes back to drawing on a cave wall or sitting around a campfire. We’ll tell stories in whatever medium you ask us to, but I’m not sure where it’s going next.
Over the course of our in-depth, exclusive conversation, I found Matt to be a genuinely humble, intelligent, witty, articulate, caring, and deep human being. With a portfolio of mega-hit movies and superstar charisma to match, it’s no wonder Matt Damon continues to shine as on one of Hollywood’s brightest luminaries.
Best of all, he’s a man focused not only on his own family, but the whole family of humanity. Innovating to end the water crisis, his water.org has transformed five million lives around the world with access to safe water and sanitation. A man on a mission, he concludes, “We have the solutions to transform millions more.”
By Jesse Stirling
Photography by John Russo