Take a look at the 1988 film MYSTIC PIZZA. While Julia Roberts will certainly grab your initial awareness as the star of the film, pay close attention during the dinner sequence to the kid who plays Adam Storke’s younger brother. Though he only says one line, for Matt Damon, that was the line that launched a screen career.
Though he did appear in some school plays, the Boston native did not declare his intent to act until he attended Harvard in the late 1980’s. Initially finding the road a bit difficult, Damon discovered that competition was tough for actors his age and though he appeared in a few well received films, notably SCHOOL TIES and COURAGE UNDER FIRE, it was not until he took matters into his own hands that his career solidified. Along with childhood friend Ben Affleck, they wrote a script about a troubled mathematics genius that went on to become GOOD WILL HUNTING, not only securing leading acting assignments for each but an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay as well.
While it seemed all was bliss for Damon, making films with Robert Redford and Francis Ford Coppola, the 34 year – old admits that after he filmed THE BOURNE IDENTITY in 2001, he did not receive another film offer for one solid year. But what a difference a day makes for when that film opened to big box-office; thirty offers were on his agent’s desk the next day. Needless to say, he has not looked back since.
A self proclaimed “nice guy” in a town filled with sharks, Damon has managed to stay above the fray of gossip mongers and paparazzi. Declaring to one reporter that he probably cares “too much about what others think of me”, he acknowledges that acting has allowed him the opportunity to be somebody who wants to be all things to all people. One look at his eclectic choices and the answer is clear that he just might be achieving that goal.
Growing up, what was your own relationship to fairy tales?
DAMON: My mom read me the Grimms Fairy Tales. We had a book were I still remember the jacket of it. I actually didn’t remember how dark they were though. I think my mom might have edited a little bit. I was a little surprised when I re-read them for this film how macabre they were.
It is interesting how people talk about how dark and violent comic books are today but they are almost tame compared to the darkness of some of these stories.
DAMON: Comic books don’t have anything on the Brothers Grimm. Parents probably tell their kids more sanitized versions of them anyway.
So what makes them so interesting?
DAMON: I think there are life lessons in them. If you re-read them, you can see some judgments in life but more than that for me, I thought they were the first step that you could make up stories and go into these other worlds. I think that is the primary functions in which they serve for kids is that it can allow you to have this imagination and give you permission to tell stories.
When in the process of this film did you come aboard? The script had been floating around for a while.
DAMON: I came on last. Terry was already on it. I was doing STUCK ON YOU and I got this call. I couldn’t believe that the script was still available. The first thing I asked Terry when I spoke to him was why Johnny Depp was not doing this film. I was sitting with Chuck Roven and Terry and Chuck said, “No, we want you. We want you.” Terry was just sitting there and asked him. He said that they wouldn’t let him do it with Johnny. Three months later PIRATES OF THE CARIBEAN opened and I am sure they were kicking themselves because they could have had Johnny Depp (laugh). I was really amazed that a great role like this in a Terry Gilliam film was still available.
There was talk in the beginning of you and Heath playing the others character.
DAMON: Yeah, Heath and I switched roles. At the time when it was offered, I was offered Jacob. Heath and I both lobbied Terry to switch roles because I always play the Jacob role and Heath felt he was always the Will role so we wanted to flip flop. Terry said he did a similar thing with Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt for TWELVE MONKEYS and he switched them.
As an actor, what did you find interesting about the journey that Wilhelm takes that you haven’t had the opportunity to do on screen before?
DAMON: He is just a total blundering fraud. He is very suave and debonair but the minute the shit hits the fan, he is a total coward and panics. I just thought that would be funny as a character.
He also has this pursuit of fame and money. A lot of actors seem to be on that same journey.
DAMON: Exactly but he does it with absolutely no substance (laugh). The discussions that Heath and I had were that Will never even bothered to learn the tales. Jacob was the one that wrote them all down. Jacob knows the legend of the bridge troll. Will doesn’t care. He just wants to make a buck and find the women in each town.
When you start working with someone like Terry Gilliam, who is such a visual artist, how does that affect you as an actor on set?
DAMON: Everything that he does is highly choreographed and so you always know where you are. He needs like 200 people for his vision to come to life and so he is good at communicating with everyone where they need to be and what their job is shot to shot. Unlike most directors, he uses like 14 and 17 mm lenses, which are really wide screen, and so he packs the frame from side to side and really deep. He has all these elements moving around. When you sign up to do a Terry Gilliam film, then you are just one of his elements that he will use in any shot. You are aware of what you are but you are not in charge of your own choreography. I know my job is to walk from there to there but there will be geese in the background doing another thing and horses coming this way. He sits there with all the elements and tinkers with it until he gets the alchemy to his eye. Then you move on.
Is he a Clint Eastwood style director who does three takes then moves on or other directors who do forty?
DAMON: He will do as many as required. He will do a lot because he knows what elements he wants working in a shot and so he will adjust them slightly. He is also capable of getting hung up on the bird that is not flapping its wing in the top right hand corner of the screen. What bird? But he sees it. The love and passion for him is down to the smallest detail.
As he is a director that likes to shoot in camera, it was you strapped onto that ladder with the fire dancing at your feet.
DAMON: It was the first time I ever had to do a film where I was lathered in fire retardant. Heath and I were soaking in fire retardant in the middle of this forest fire looking at each other going, “Well, this is new (laugh).” It was a first but it kind of pays off. When you see the monitor, then you can actually see what the film will look like. This film actually had more CGI than Terry normally likes to work with because of the wolf and the birds but by and large, it was all in the camera.
Can you describe another incident where another director might have turned to CGI but Terry stuck with a practical in camera shot?
DAMON: The fire was a big one. The mirror probably was the other tough sequence. For the mirror in the old tower, they built the old room and then attached to it the exact replica new room. So in between was just the door. Heath had to do one shot in front of the mirror then step around to the other room and do the exact same thing so the effects team could go in and match the shots. When I raised my arm up after I was stabbed and Heath was sitting over me, there was a photo double on the other side matching the action as if it was a mirror. But it was all being done in camera so we could then go look in the monitor and see what we had done.
While you did shoot on some soundstages, you were in Prague. What did that city lend to you as an actor that another location might not have?
DAMON: I think it made it a lot easier for us to be absorbed into this world. It wasn’t like everyone went home to their families each night and then came back to the real world. Prague is a pretty magical place and we were there for six months just working on this project every day. That had a huge impact on the overall feel of the film. When we did go on location to the torture chamber or these old castles, there were authentic locations that felt like they would have been inhabited by these characters. That always helps the performances and we couldn’t have gotten that in Hollywood.
Did you take advantage of being in Prague and sightsee?
DAMON: One of the great things about this job is the ability to travel all over the world but you sometimes can only have time to see what is right in front of you. You don’t get a chance to explore because the hours are long and there is so much work to be done. I also feel guilty if I take time for myself go off and explore that I am ignoring something work wise. So I do see some stuff but not as much as maybe I should.
You mentioned before the torture chamber. As you and Heath did have your share of being dragged around and hung upside down, how physical did it get for you?
DAMON: It only lasted for the duration of any take. In that situation, it was hard to get us up and down and so they had to have people on ladders help us. We tried to stay up as long as we could and eventually we did get sore. But that was what Heath and I signed up for. We expected to be hung upside down, tied to ladders and burned. That is just the way it will be with Terry. You will not be sitting at a kitchen table spouting dialogue.
You and Heath play brothers and you have brothers in your own life. How closely do you bring elements of that into this performance? Did it enable you to shortcut the relationship?
DAMON: Yeah. I have never had a sister but I assume it is a similar bond. I think we were lucky in this case that we had a month to rehearse. We used to time to get to know each other and so when we started to film, we had a very good sense of each other. Obviously we would not be as close as real brothers but we had a good rapport with each other. We had a short hand for working together. That is what Terry asked for us and as we rehearsed all day or learned our accents, we would then go off at night and have dinner or drinks together and shoot the shit and that kind of bonding really helped with the chemistry of the two characters.
You are quite familiar with riding horses but how different was it galloping inside a soundstage and not on the open plains?
DAMON: That aspect was really weird. In the movie, it looks like a forest but we were inside this soundstage. It was like riding in an indoor ring. It was a new experience riding by these plastic trees on dirt that was covering these wooden floors.
There is an interesting parallel to the film in how we are back living in a time of superstition and myth. Do you think Terry might have been commenting on that in this film?
DAMON: I do think so. I think he did want that in the film. There were even more references that were cut out of the film that he made about the modern day political situation.
When you shot THE BOURNE IDENTITY, you had to learn martial arts and weaponry. Did you pick up any new skills on THE BROTHERS GRIMM?
DAMON: I did study tango dancing for three months. It was Terry’s idea. I don’t know if it helped. I am kind of a sloucher and so it helped me stand up more straight. I also took yoga. Will is more of a dandy than I am so that was all of the physical stuff I had to do. I did have to work on the accent a lot. I also worked on sword fighting and took three days a week of that. It felt like I was in summer camp taking all these mini classes.
As a writer yourself, how much infusion do you make on the script?
DAMON: It all depends. Sometimes I don’t say anything. Sometimes I don’t need to say anything or I will make minor suggestions. When you sign up for a film, you believe in it so the suggestions you make are minor or just augmentations. Heath and I loved the idea in the scene where Cavaldi is throwing the knife to start screaming and shrieking like school girls. We should have been stoic and tough but anytime there is danger, they run and scream. It is goofier and broader. Terry loved that kind of stuff and those additions. The script didn’t mention anything about their reaction so he loved how we interpreted it.
The film changes its tone throughout the film. At first it seems more black comedy and whimsical and then it gets a little more serious. As an actor, were you aware of these changes in mood and was it easy to maintain your character development through that?
DAMON: We kind of knew that coming in just from reading the script. You also know that Terry never makes anything that can be categorized. I wouldn’t even know how to describe this film other than to say it is a Terry Gilliam film. It has all those elements of humor, adventure and fantasy. It is really different from anything. Ultimately it is bizarre (laugh).
Did you get all the little references that Terry threw in the film of the different Fairy Tale jokes and insights?
DAMON: Oh yeah. Terry let us know. Heath and I had a copy of the Fairy Tales on set and we would throw out names and words to help. Heath used Piff Paff for the name of his horse. We were constantly using the references. Peter pulled me off the horse once and made references to my goldilocks.
HARRY POTTER has driven kids back to reading. What do you hope THE BROTHERS GRIMM might do for those who see it?
DAMON: Hopefully another avenue to use their imagination. It can be a springboard to creativity as they were in my life. As it did with me, it can help people tell stories. The kids, who Terry showed the film to, really dig it. It gets their adrenaline going and they have responded to the story and they get the images and the references.
Will is forced against his desire to become an adventurer and face his fears. How accessible have you been to face your own fears?
DAMON: I am not put in situations where I have to face fears that often. I have a fear of sharks and I went swimming with sharks about six months ago. I just jumped in the water with them. I had a good feeling that they wouldn’t attack but I wanted to do it just to say that I could do it and get it out of the way.
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