No one notices the masked man sitting on a bench at the back of the Malibu Seafood Fresh Fish Market & Patio Café’s covered seating area. Nobody catches—floating in the warm ocean breeze above the drone of the cars on the Pacific Coast Highway and the smush of the crashing waves beyond—any of the telltale snippets that might prod them to look twice:
“…I mean, Bono lived down the street…”
“…There was the moment when I passed into the realm of being somebody who was an elder statesman versus the new guy. You know, I never was clear when that happened. It was just kind of like I woke up one day and that was the case…”
“…Those last few days of shooting, we knew that we were going to get shut down…”
“…You just get way too much credit for things that you normally wouldn’t get credit for. ‘Oh, you’re so nice.’ ‘No, I’m not really—I’m not so nice.’…”
Instead, Matt Damon manages to turn up here, talk about pretty much anything and everything for two hours, and leave undisturbed. The mask clearly helps. He is wearing it for our encounter because his 12-year-old daughter, Gia, has COVID. Though she has been isolated in her bedroom and has had nothing but a low fever, and although everyone in the household is having PCR tests every 18 hours, all so far negative (Gia’s aside), caution dictates that our masks stay on and we sit diagonally across a table. It only adds to the all-round strangeness. Before meeting him, I expected that Damon might be one of those polished celebrities who bombard you so affably and articulately with chosen tales from their life that you might not notice until it’s too late all of the things that they’ve carefully decided not to share. But the man I encounter will be nowhere near so controlled or straightforward.
Damon and his family spent the first part of the year in the relative sanctuary of Australia, for reasons we will come to, but about three weeks ago they returned to the Northern Hemisphere. “It’s been a whirlwind,” he begins to tell me, though neither of us is quite yet aware just how roughly some of those winds may have buffeted him. “The relative calm of a COVID-free continent,” he continues, “to L.A. and then France…”—for the Cannes Film Festival—“…and then back here. And, you know, dealing with this.” Family illness, worry, quarantine. “It’s just been a lot, like from zero to hundred again. I was excited to kind of reengage with the world, but I forgot how fast it moves.”
At the Cannes Film Festival, Damon was promoting the release of the movie Stillwater. One possible sign of Damon’s disorientation as he reengaged with the world came during the ovation at the end of the Stillwater screening: Damon was widely reported to have teared up. He says now that he didn’t even realize that he had done so until he was told afterward. “Had it not been for a bright light and the camera literally two feet away from me in that moment,” he says, “I guarantee you nobody would have noticed. But, yeah, I was just pleasantly overwhelmed a little bit.”
Do you tear up easily?
“Sadly, yes. Now, the last few years, more than any other time. Yeah, for a whole host of reasons. I’m an easy get now.”
Why do you say, “Sadly, yes”?
“Well, I’ve never liked, you know, cheap tears. I don’t want to be, you know, the person where it’s like, ‘Oh, there he goes again.’ Because that gets pretty boring too. But, yeah, you do see it a lot as people get older, particularly men—at least in my life, I’ve noticed that—people are a little quicker to tear up.”
I guess they’ve put so much fucking effort into not crying…
“…for so many fucking years! And now they’re just like, ‘Ah, fuck it, I’m not bothering with that anymore.’ ”
A while back, Damon let slip a story about one other time that he cried, right at the beginning of his career. The origin saga of Good Will Hunting is now Hollywood lore: the two teenage Boston friends, Damon and Ben Affleck, both set on acting careers, who shared everything as they followed their quest (their joint BayBank account had the code “River P”: “Because,” Damon says, “he was the guy who got the jobs that we wanted, he was like the best young actor and we just admired him”); how in their early 20s, frustrated by a lack of opportunities, they decided that the only way to break through was to write their own film to star in; the years the two of them spent honing a script about a roughshod but preternaturally talented Boston kid; their willingness to walk away from huge amounts of money if they weren’t allowed to appear in the film; the eventual triumph, leading not just to Damon’s first Oscar nomination for acting but their shared win for best screenplay, which made Damon the second-youngest person ever to win a screenwriting Oscar. (Affleck was the youngest.)
These tears came on the very first day’s filming. In front of the camera were Robin Williams and Stellan Skarsgård. Damon and Affleck sat watching. At last, it was the start of everything.
“Sometimes those moments sneak up on you,” Damon reflects. “And that was another one of those moments we never thought was going to arrive. To see not only actors, but those actors, saying the stuff that we wrote, was like…fuck. Just, I guess, a mixture of joy and disbelief. And relief. And gratitude. That would probably be it. That was a really nice moment. I’m not ashamed to say it.”
I ask Damon whether Affleck was crying too.
“I remember him as crying. Now, memory is a funny thing, as we know, so you would have to ask him, but my recollection is we both were. Yeah. I think, as I recall, I put my hand on his arm, as these guys were talking. On his shoulder. Like: ‘Holy shit…’ ”
Later, I do ask Affleck, who concurs: “We both cried.”
I ask Affleck whether they’d been surprised to see each other cry.
“No, I knew Matt was an emotional…” he replies, leaving the sentence hanging, no noun required. “No, it didn’t surprise me at all to see Matt crying. It surprised me a little bit to be crying along with him, but maybe he felt that way about me.” Affleck likewise reflected to me on why that moment caught them in this way: “It was all we thought about, it was all we focused on, and we never really believed it would happen. And it sort of represented the sum total of what we tried to do. You know…”—Affleck laughs here, perhaps a little wryly—“…we might have cried for other reasons had we been able to see the whole future and understand the complexity of what we’d gotten ourselves into. But at the time, we had the sort of surety and the naivete of being just guys in our mid-20s who weren’t thinking about anything except what was happening just right there in the moment, and feeling a tremendous amount of belief and satisfaction that it actually happened. That we actually accomplished something. We just felt relieved that we hadn’t totally failed.”
Going into the pandemic in the early months of 2020, Matt Damon was better informed, if not better prepared, than many of us, for the most Hollywood of reasons. In 2011, he had starred in the Steven Soderbergh movie Contagion, in several respects an uncannily precise fictional preview of what was to come. After Contagion, Damon had kept in touch both with the screenwriter, Scott Burns, and the virologist, Ian Lipkin, hired as technical adviser to guide the film’s science. Over the years since, whenever some kind of outbreak or epidemic seemed to be threatening, Damon had been in the habit of checking back with them to “get kind of the down-low on what was going on.”
As the first mutterings emerged from China, Damon duly contacted Burns to ask what Lipkin was saying. “No, this one’s real” he remembers Burns telling him. “This is exponential—the world is going to look completely different in two weeks.” Damon was in France, shooting The Last Duel with director Ridley Scott, and they raced to complete vital exterior shots. The plan had been for the production to move on to Ireland, but it became increasingly obvious that this might not happen right away. The day before the scheduled move in early March, the shoot was put on hold.
Damon’s wife and three youngest children were with him in France, and they had a family meeting. Should they fly back to America while they could, or travel on the crew charter flight to Ireland and wait things out there? They chose Ireland.
In many ways, it was a decision that worked out. “We got really lucky,” says Damon. “We had about as good a lockdown as we could have ever hoped.” As well as the house waiting for them in the coastal community of Dalkey, other nearby properties had been rented by cast and crew who had returned to America. These were all now vacant, so there was plenty of room for Damon’s party to spread out. In one house, for instance, Damon installed the teachers they had been traveling with, allowing his children their own in-person private school that they could walk to each day. His assistant and trainer also got their own spaces. Within the two kilometers they were permitted to travel, they could swim in the sea, take long hikes in the Irish countryside. It was like a time out from the world.
“There was like a quiet,” Damon reflects. “There weren’t scripts being sent, or work to do, or people who needed answers for anything. It was just: Take the kids to school and then go train, or go for a walk. It was very simple. That part of it was eye-opening, going forward, in terms of how I’d like to spend my days.”
Meanwhile people elsewhere were watching a younger Damon deal with far more harrowing pandemic circumstances, as Contagion became a hit all over again. Surreally, these viewers were joined by Damon himself. “We were just flipping on Apple TV and it was just there, in our face,” he remembers. “People were kind of hungry for more information, and the information was kind of scarce at the beginning. And so, I don’t know, I think we probably went through the same kind of subconscious or conscious process that everyone did, and just pressed ‘play.’ ” Damon allows that he was pleasantly surprised by what he saw. “I remember thinking: This is better than I remember! Because when we released it, I think it felt more like a science fiction movie. It felt a lot more far-fetched than it actually was.”
Word soon spread that Damon and his family were here: In the upside-down world of spring 2020, this curious happenstance even prompted its own article in The New York Times. That story, “A Seaside Irish Village Adopts Matt Damon,” detailed a few Damon Dalkey sightings and explained how a photo of Damon holding a bag from the Irish supermarket SuperValu “seems to have been his ticket to local acceptance,” leading to a proliferation of “delighted memes and glowing articles in the Irish press.” The particular excitement triggered by this SuperValu image seems to have been its stars-they’re-just-like-us implication that Damon might have gone gloriously native, his plastic bag loaded with beer cans ready for a determined drinking session.
I speak to one of Damon’s neighbors from that time who recalled for me the disruptions caused by this American movie star’s unexpected presence:
“I’ve lived in this village, or next to this village, for 30 years—this fucker is there for three months and they make him the king of Dalkey! I mean, it’s unbelievable. He’s caught in some kind of local photo shoot with a SuperValu plastic bag, and the rumor that he’s carrying cans, and suddenly he’s got all this credibility that some of us just are incapable of ever achieving. He’s beloved! I mean, there’ll be a statue of him there. I don’t know what it was, and what he did. But I’m very annoyed about it. I’m not happy at all.”
The speaker is Bono. His ire—“Thirty years I’ve put into that fishing village, and suddenly the fisher of men takes over!”—is, of course, theatrical. Damon and Bono are friends, and go back some way. In fact, according to Damon, Bono was indirectly responsible for initiating the third great focus of Damon’s adult life aside from his acting career and his family: his work in expanding global access to water, primarily through the organization water.org. This was back in 2006. Damon had been exploring making a trip to Africa with Bono’s charity. He planned to go just as soon as he could find the right moment. That was when, according to Damon, Bono applied his renowned powers of persuasion: “He called me, and I said, ‘No, no, I’m going to go,’ and he said, ‘No, you’re going to go now.’ I said, ‘No, no, come on, my wife’s pregnant.’ He said, ‘There’s always going to be a reason, and you have to go now.’ And he was right. And that started the journey—it wasn’t going to start until I went. Until I started engaging, nothing was going to happen, and I think he knew that.” (For his part, Bono downplays his role here—“I think he gives me too much credit”—but extols Damon’s subsequent achievements in this arena: “I think he’s better at it than I am—subtler, less hectoring, very effective.”)
When we speak, Bono also offers up some more general reflections about Damon, ones I will come to ponder a great deal.
“In the last hour, with this call coming, I was trying to think what it is about him,” Bono says. “And I realized that he has the thing that the whole world wants: He has freedom. It’s the most intoxicating thing of all. And that, very few very famous people have. He’s free from self-consciousness. For a man who looks in the mirror for a living, he’s not even a little bit self-conscious, I’ve found. I mean, I think I’ve got freedom, but I’m self-conscious. When I walk into the newsagent’s, I can see myself walking into the newsagent’s, do you know what I mean? He’s really himself.” Bono subsequently appends to this a further, related thought: “There’s some things you shouldn’t get too good at. Celebrity’s one of them.”
I ask Bono whether he’s saying that, in the nicest possible way, Damon is not that good at being a celebrity.
“Yeah, that might be the truth,” Bono replies, and contrasts a particular glazed look he has learned to recognize in the eyes of some politicians he meets with the affect of someone like Damon. “He’s not professional,” Bono suggests. “He’s way beyond that. He’s an amateur, in the way that he should always be, regarding celebrity. You know, quite good at it on the weekends, probably falls down in the week. But the respect for people and for human life, and the squandering of it, that’s absolutely core to who he is. And he’s just trying to be useful. Trying to be helpful.”
After about three months in Dalkey—the SuperValu bag, incidentally, had actually been filled with beach towels for the kids—Damon and family headed back to Los Angeles, though they would return to Ireland for two months later in the year to finish The Last Duel. Toward the end of that shoot, Damon turned 50, but the production was under a strict quarantine protocol, so there could be no party. Instead, he conferred with his old college roommates on their shared text chain: “I was just texting that I definitely bested their COVID 50th. I was shooting a battle scene in The Last Duel in which I had nine confirmed kills. We were laughing about that: ‘This is the best midlife crisis ever. I’m just slaughtering my way through my midlife crisis.’ ”
Then, near the end of last year, the possibility arose of a new escape. Damon had made a brief, surreal appearance in Taika Waititi’s 2017 Thor: Ragnarok, as “actor Loki.” Now Waititi was preparing a follow-up, Thor: Love and Thunder, to be filmed in the early months of 2021 in Australia, and asked Damon whether he would consider reprising his earlier cameo. It was not hard to see the appeal. Australia was, as we shall see, somewhere he and family already had close history. It was also one of the safest, least virus-infected places on the planet (and, consequently, not an easy place to visit). Damon agreed to take the role if he could bring his family. Discussions began, and permission was granted. “There were government officials who called me and explained to me in no uncertain terms: The only reason you’re getting in is because this production is creating jobs,” Damon explains. “Now, could the production live without me? Yeah. But you start pulling jokes away from something that’s funny and eventually it’s not, you know what I mean?”
Again, things worked out well. Although he would be required on set for only two days, Damon was able to stay there with his family for five months. He played his onscreen part as required—“It’s going to be a laugh, and it’s going to be a really good movie, so I’m always up for that”—and there is circumstantial evidence of some socializing: A photo surfaced of Damon at an Eighties birthday party thrown for one of Chris Hemsworth’s friends, dressed as…well, best let him explain.
“I didn’t know what the heck to get,” he says of preparing for this outing. “So I went kind of Run DMC and got me the old Adidas tracksuit with the Kangol hat, which was very much the look in the ’80s where I grew up. I think my wife got some plastic chain online that I accessorized with. And, funnily enough, Idris Elba came in dressed in the exact same thing.”
But mostly it was family time, and a further reprieve from what was happening elsewhere.
“So again we were really lucky,” he acknowledges. “I mean, we’ve been about as lucky as you can be throughout this pandemic.”
Which, on one hand, is very evidently true. Though, on the other hand, the fact that he is saying this when one of his daughters has tested positive and is isolating at home, and when his oldest daughter—who was in New York at the beginning of the pandemic—had her own brush with COVID in March 2020, may also show how much we have all learned to recalibrate.
When Damon and I speak for a second time, 38 hours after that first meeting, he is now unmasked (sufficient testing and quarantining has been achieved), and we are two-and-a-half-thousand miles away from Malibu. Today, we have brunch at the Osprey restaurant in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
This is Damon’s new neighborhood. He and his family have been principally living in Los Angeles for some years but are now in the process of moving back to New York. “A big transition for the kids—new schools, new everything,” he says, explaining how he’d like them to be able to have the kind of independence that a less car-dominated environment can allow. “So, ‘in flux’ will probably be the best description of my personal life. Not to say we’re not excited—we’re really excited.”
Damon and his wife, Lucy, have four daughters (the oldest, Alexia, predating their relationship). Their names are inked, one above the other, hidden high on Damon’s right arm— “Alexia,” “Isabella,” “Gia,” “Stella”—though Damon seems momentarily taken aback when I mention this, as though unsure that this is public knowledge. “Did I show my tattoos?” he muses. “I guess I did.”
He added these four names a couple of years back, but his first tattoo, on the same upper arm, was done in 2013. It had been his wife’s idea.
“She just announced it,” he says. “We were in our apartment in Manhattan, and she was, like, ‘We’re getting tattoos.’ I was, ‘Okay.’ ” Damon says that he had only one stipulation—that they fulfill a promise once made. “There is a friend of ours who did all of Heath Ledger’s tattoos,” says Damon, “and I told him if I ever got a tattoo, he was my first phone call.” That call was duly made and the friend, Scott Campbell, biked over from Brooklyn and freehanded the name “Lucy.”
Idly, I ask about the stray tattoo on Damon’s upper arm that doesn’t appear to be a name: a strange loopy line heading up toward his shoulder. This, it turns out, was done on that same day in 2013 and comes with its own story:
“That’s something that Heath had on his arm. Heath was an incredibly restless, creative person. Like, I talked to the person who did his hair on The Patriot and she said he hated sitting still so much ‘that by the time I got the wig on and I set it and everything, and I’d finished, he’d get up and there would be a sculpture of bobby pins that he’d done.’ He was really sensitive. This stuff just flowed out of him. He was really special. I just wanted to get something that Heath had. Scott showed me his laptop and I said, ‘Scott, what’s that one?’ And he goes ‘I have no idea—I think that’s just some shit that Heath squiggled.’ And I went, ‘That’s the one I want.’ ”
Lucy, who was also friends with Heath, got the same tattoo on her foot.
“So we both have that,” says Damon. “It’s like a little creative little blessing. It’s like an angel that looks over all these names that are on the arm.”
Damon was first urged to read Eric Jager’s book The Last Duel, about a dark and dramatic episode in 14th-century France, with a mind to its movie potential, back in 2011. He demurred. Hearing that Martin Scorsese already had the rights, he felt it would be a waste of his time: “I said, ‘Well, if Marty has it, he’s going to do it with Leo.’ ” Seven years later, the rights now available, Damon relented.
At first, he couldn’t see it. “Twenty pages in, I was just thinking, We can’t do this,” he says. “Like, these guys are absolute savages. These guys are born in the middle of a hundred–year war, they do nothing but rape and pillage and fight for their entire lives.…” But then the central story gripped him: of two men, one accused of rape by the other’s wife, and of the woman at the center. “She had, at great risk to first her reputation and then to herself, stood up and told the truth, again and again and again,” says Damon. “It was just pretty amazing.” He sent the book to Ridley Scott, whom he had wanted to work with again since their successful collaboration on The Martian. Scott shared his enthusiasm. Now they needed a script.
One evening, Damon had dinner with Ben Affleck. Over the years, the two teenage friends have remained close, in a way that—as they separately acknowledge—far transcends the cartoon best-Hollywood-buddy way it can often be depicted.
“Like, I don’t want to be his friend in public, you know what I mean?” Damon says. “It’s way too important a friendship for that, and it goes so beyond this career or anything. You know, it’s a significant part of my life and not for public consumption in that way.”
“I can’t speak for Matt,” Affleck offers, “but my own kind of sanity and mental health really benefited from having someone who I grew up with and knew as a child who was also going through something similar—this 20-year-plus journey of being in the public eye—who I could reflect on it with honestly, talk things over with, be myself with, who I knew why we were friends, why he was interested and loved me, why I loved him. I often think of people who just become successful and then get thrust into this, and I think, ‘How do they do it without having somebody that they can talk to? Who they can trust? Who knew them before?’ It’s just been such an asset to me—and, I think, I hope, to Matt—this relationship that we’ve had.”
The two of them have remained periodic work colleagues—they share a production company—but after winning their Good Will Hunting Oscar, they had never even attempted to collaborate on another script. To a large extent this was a reflection of just how successful their initial strategy has been—kick-started by that movie’s success, both had long been busy with the kind of opportunities they could once have only dreamed of. But it was also that what they had done back then seemed too cumbersome to ever repeat.
“The process of writing was so time consuming when we did it, when we were 22 and 20,” says Damon.
“We didn’t have jobs, we didn’t have anything else to do,” echoes Affleck. “We had two years to sort of muddle our way through a draft, and then another draft—to spend time sitting around and drinking beer and talking about the themes and playing video games and bullshitting.”
“We really understood the characters, and so we would take them and we would put them in these different scenarios,” Damon explains, “and then at the end, we kind of mashed these disjointed parts together into what could cohere as some kind of narrative. And that’s a really inefficient way to write. And I think both of us just intuitively felt like: Well, we’re never going to have enough time to do that again.”
But over that dinner, Damon told Affleck about The Last Duel, and at the end of the meal lent Affleck his copy of the book. “He was recently sober,” Damon recalls. “And when he’s on his game, he really sees the matrix. At seven o’clock the next morning, he called me—he had gone home and read it—and said, ‘We should write this.’ ”
Affleck tells me that he had stayed up until three or four in the morning, reading. When Damon had solicited his opinion on material in the past, Affleck hadn’t always “been super-enthusiastic,” he says. This was different. “All of a sudden I had a very clear idea of: Absolutely, this is a movie, this is how we should do it. It just thrilled me. And the story of this woman and what she had experienced and been through and the bravery she’d exhibited and the resilience and strength of character it must have taken to have gone through this—it just became very, very clear to me right away how it could work as a movie.” He became possessed with a great sense of urgency—“we have to do this and get it done now”—that he needed Damon to share. “He’s got a busy life, he’s all over the place,” Affleck explains, “and he frankly requires being marshaled a little bit to focus and zone in.” So Affleck laid out a plan of action: “Okay, and this is how we’re going to do it: We’re going to do four hours a day, I’m going to schedule it, I’m going to come over there…”
As soon as they began, they quickly found a very different rhythm from the last time around. “It really fit in with our lives,” says Damon. “Get up, get the kids out the door, to do everything we needed to do in our personal lives, and then meet in a very relaxed setting, work for four or five hours, then go back and kind of fulfill all of our obligations at home.” He describes these sessions as involving a lot of pacing around, acting out scenes, before one of them consolidated what they had. “He’s a better typist than I am,” says Damon. “But sometimes I’m closer to the laptop.”
They also soon realized that they needed something else. Damon’s initial proposal had been that they should tell the story from the different perspectives of the principal characters, and it became obvious that they needed a third collaborator, someone who could write the wronged wife’s story in a way they never could. That’s when they brought in the director and writer Nicole Holofcener. “I mean, what a great story, what a unique story, and what a feminist story to tell,” says Holofcener. “It was daunting in that she was a real person, and I felt honored and terrified to make sure that I was doing her justice and make it very clear that her truth was the truth, and to make her a whole person. She was extraordinary for speaking the truth, despite horrible consequences if they decided she was lying.” From the way the collaborators talk about it, their aim transcended the unwrapping of a he-said/he-said/she-said tale to lay bare some of the toxic consequences of even allowing such a story to be framed in that way. “If Unforgiven is the anti-Western Western,” says Damon, “then this is the anti-chivalry chivalry movie.… I think it’s a really good movie. We’ll see what people think.”
Both Damon and Affleck now imagine collaborating together more often in the future. “The discovery, I think, for both of us,” says Affleck, “was: It’s so much more pleasant and rewarding and wonderful to go to work and work with people that you love.” But for now, Damon has nothing planned beyond The Last Duel’s release. He’d like to spend the rest of the year bedding down in New York. If there’s something suitable he can make in the spring, he will; if there isn’t, he won’t. Somewhere along the way, he will eventually direct. He has come close twice but stepped aside. He was initially scheduled to direct Promised Land, a movie about fracking that he wrote with John Krasinski, and was also supposed to direct Manchester by the Sea, which was based on an idea Krasinski had proposed to him over dinner. But when Kenneth Lonergan subsequently tendered the script that they had commissioned, it was obvious to Damon that Lonergan should direct it instead. (He likes to joke that the best move he made as the movie’s producer was to fire himself as the movie’s director.)
Most likely, though, more acting will come first. “I feel like I’ve been steadily improving at my job for a long time,” he says. “And that’s a great feeling.” He muses about how sometimes, for all one’s effort, movies may still misfire. “I really want people to care as much as I do about the things I’m putting out,” he says. “And, you know, some of them have really worked, and some of them really haven’t.”
There’s no one making films, I suggest to him, who gets it right all of the time.
He nods. “That’s what I think’s so interesting about it—it’s impossible to do it perfectly, this. It keeps you coming back, like an addict. You know more and more, but you know you never know enough to know.”
Pandemic aside, there was one previous extended break—over 18 months between the end of 2016 and the summer of 2018—when Matt Damon stopped making films. The first year of this period was spent back in Boston, staying close, during his father Kent’s final illness.
“We rented an apartment a block from his apartment,” says Damon, “so if he was well enough, he’d come for dinner, and if he was well enough to be at home but not to come to our place, we would go to sit and have dinner with him.” And when his father was in the hospital, Damon would be there every day. It was an intense time not just for Damon but for his wife and children. “They were very much a part of that. They had a front-row seat to that process, so it was a big year for them too. For our whole family, it was a seismic event.” Echoes from this time reverberate throughout our conversations. “I remember my dad saying in his last year of life,” Damon will mention at one point, “that he didn’t feel old. His spirit felt the same.”
Damon’s father died of multiple myeloma on December 14, 2017. That same week, the orbit of Damon’s life was also knocked askew in a completely different way. It feels important to note that although Damon points out that these two events occurred at the same time, he never explicitly links them beyond that. Specifically, he doesn’t try to sidestep any of the trouble that would cascade down upon him, as perhaps he might, by excusing himself as a man distracted by grief.
In Matt Damon’s career up until that point, there had been very few significant wrinkles: It generally seemed as though he had fluently mastered how to put his most charming face forward to the world, and that the world by and large had reciprocated by being duly charmed. Until that week. To dutifully promote Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, filmed the previous year, Damon had surfaced to record an interview for Popcorn With Peter Travers, the first part of which appeared on ABC on the morning of his father’s death. At one point, Travers asked Damon a series of questions about the wave of #MeToo allegations sweeping Hollywood. Damon replied at length and with apparent confidence, in a manner that would strike many people as that of some kind of presumptuous luminary who felt he had the answers everyone had been waiting for and who assumed it would be appreciated if he not only stepped in to tell it like it is but also set a few things straight. The response to both what Damon said and the fact that he seemed to believe it would be appropriate for him to say it was forthright.
“I mean, we all come into the world and we’re a fucking hot mess, do you know what I mean?” he says now. “And we make mistakes. And even in doing our best we make terrible mistakes.” The ensuing reaction was not one that Damon was accustomed to. “It was painful,” he says. “It’s hard to take punches for things…the person that they were saying, ‘He’s tone-deaf, and he’s…’ you know, I don’t like that guy either. So it’s hard to hear those things about yourself.”
An old friend persuaded Damon that he should rein in any instinct to wade right back into the conversation. “She said, ‘Don’t respond. You’d be inclined to say, “But I’m a good person.…” Don’t do that. Just be quiet for at least a month and just listen. Listen to the objections to what you said. Try to understand why you upset people.’ And that’s what I did. My friend’s advice was great in the sense of not getting in a defensive crouch—because that was my inclination, and you can’t hear anything in a defensive crouch—and as painful as it is, the only way forward is to really try to understand what you’ve done and really reflect on it.”
Even if Damon might still take issue with much of what was thrown at him—“95 percent of the stuff was entirely unhelpful, it was just Twitter-bashing stuff, which did put me in a defensive crouch, because you just go, ‘That’s nonsense’ ”—the more solid criticisms hit hard. “There were articles written about things that I said, about centering a man in a sexual assault situation. And I go, ‘Wow, I did do that. I thought of it entirely from his perspective.’ Like, that’s where my head went. And, ‘I didn’t think about these women’.… Because I’m trying to relate to the situation, and I relate to the person who has more in common with me. But in so doing, I’m doing damage not only to the people in that scenario but to anybody who’s ever been in that scenario and who feels like, ‘Oh, here I go again, getting overlooked.’ So it changed the way that I look at some of these things. It makes me hopefully more aware.”
A month after the initial interview, Damon resurfaced to promote a campaign for water.org and briefly addressed the situation: “I made a very sincere apology about not wanting to further anyone’s pain. Which is my truth. I mean, I don’t think it’s particularly revelatory. I think most of us would say that. But I certainly wanted to make it clear that I was truly sorry; that I didn’t mean to do that.”
And then he went away.
It was Damon’s wife who suggested to him that they go to Australia. This trip, lasting several months, was, says Damon, primarily a response to “the end of this fucking horrible year that I’d spent in the hospital with my dad.… It was like, ‘Let’s go to the other side of the world, just our family, and let’s make memories with the kids. Let’s go on an adventure.’ ” This recent media firestorm provided one further impetus. “I think that we would have gone either way. But certainly I was like: Nobody needs to hear from me for another year at least.”
In Australia, the Damon family traveled around, doing camping trips, finding remote beaches and islands, before returning to a base in Byron Bay where sympathetic friends lived. “The whole Hemsworth family,” says Damon, “and all of their friends, we’re close with all of them, and they were just a huge support system for us.”
Back then, in the year after his father’s death, Damon simply didn’t know when he’d go back to work. But eventually a script came through that enticed him: Ford v Ferrari. Nonetheless, his transition back into the world of what he used to do did not go as smoothly as Damon had anticipated. He was playing the cocksure former racing driver, now race car designer, Carroll Shelby.
“I just kind of showed up,” he tells me, “and I put on everything and none of it felt right. I’m supposed to be playing a guy who can sell anybody anything, and I didn’t feel like I could sell anything to anybody. I really didn’t. And I thought: I’m not ready to work. And I remember walking out of the trailer, it was the summertime so it was over 100 degrees. I remember walking to the set in my boots that were already giving me blisters after about 10 steps, with my cowboy hat that was stiff on my head, with this feeling that I can’t sell anything to anybody and I’m about to pretend that I can. And because I don’t feel that I can, I will be pretending. And I remember thinking: ‘This is a really stupid job.’ ”
Acting? I ask.
“Yeah, the whole thing. ‘I can’t believe this is what I decided to do with my life.’ ”
Damon’s first scene was with “a great character actor from Georgia” named Ray McKinnon. By chance, Damon had worked with McKinnon back when Damon was 19, in a TV movie called Rising Son, one of his first jobs. (Damon, naturally, was the son who was rising.) Somehow that helped. “There was something about coming back to where it all started, and doing a scene with Ray. And he just was so good that I was, ‘All right, maybe this isn’t the dumbest thing in the world to do.…’ ”
Damon’s next scene was with his costar Christian Bale—“one of my favorite actors,” says Damon, and a key reason he’d committed to the film. “Six months earlier, he had been 245 pounds,” says Damon—Bale had been playing Dick Cheney in Vice—“…and he was not a pound over 170. And I came out and he was sunburnt, and he had these coveralls on, and it looked like he’d been wearing them for his entire life, and he had this hat that was just beaten to shit, and it was just every detail. Every detail. I mean, it was fucking beautiful. And I went: ‘Okay. This is why we do it. This is a great thing to do with my life. Because we tell people stories—we tell people stories, and that’s the most human thing there is.’ And if you’re going to tell them stories, then fucking tell it well.”
It had come back to him. He was Matt Damon, and—for now, anyway—he knew what to do.
Matt Damon has never embraced social media.
“I just never saw the point,” he says. “And I feel better and better about that decision as time goes on. I understand wanting to be connected to everybody on Facebook, but my life is so full and I’m connected, really, to everybody I need to be connected to. And then Twitter, I just reflexively didn’t believe that my first knee-jerk response to something was necessarily something that should go all over the world.”
But then Damon mentions that he does, nonetheless, have “a very private Instagram account,” one he uses to see friends’ kids growing up around the world, and to which he only very occasionally posts.
I reflexively ask him what one of his typical posts would be. Slightly to my surprise, he pulls out his phone.
“I’ll show you,” he says.
As the app opens, he reads out his stats: “I have 76 followers and I’ve done 40 posts since 2013.” Then he shows me the most recent photo. It was taken of 15-year-old Isabella on her birthday. “That’s what she’s been doing,” he says, by way of explanation, “every time we take a picture of her nowadays.”
In the photo, his daughter is looking at the camera—and at her father—brandishing two raised middle fingers.
Days after our final meeting, something new blows up and I am reminded of the impulsive ways in which Damon seems to oscillate between great reserve and openness. This circumstance also stems from Damon sharing something about his family. An interview appears in the British newspaper The Sunday Times in which Damon is quoted as explaining how, some months earlier, one of his daughters had left the dinner table after he had made a joke using what he said she called “the f-slur for a homosexual”; how she had subsequently written him a letter explaining his transgression, and how Damon had agreed that she was correct and that he would retire the word. If he intended this story to show how we all must continue to learn and adapt and listen and strive to be better (and maybe also to show appreciation and deference for daughterly wisdom), that was not how it was widely received. The message that landed was: Matt Damon had been blithely using that word until a few months ago (and so might be, it was often also implied, a thoughtless homophobe). In the wake of the unfavorable coverage that followed, Damon issued a statement. In it, he sidestepped an apology, arguing for the good intentions behind the father-daughter story he had told, disputing its status as a “personal awakening,” denying that he uses “slurs of any kind,” and asserting, “I stand with the LGBTQ+ community.”
It nonetheless left an uncomfortable and unresolved mess. When GQ sought to discuss this further with Damon, he declined. In that vacuum, I found myself thinking about this, and about other unguarded moments that punctuated the conversations we did have. It made me consider how for all his poise and worldly bearing, there could be something guileless about Damon; and whether there was an aspect of himself that made him somehow vulnerable to stepping into those puddles that more deftly cynical men know how to step around. It made me wonder, too, whether a celebrity who shuns social media might also fail to learn how to inoculate themselves against the perils that lie in wait in the savage judgment chamber of the modern world. And it made me ponder anew Bono’s observation about how Damon wasn’t good at being a celebrity. Bono clearly meant this as a grand compliment, but perhaps the same virtues Bono sees may sometimes carry their own cost, out here with the rest of us, adrift in the follies and rewards of being human.
Back before, in the last few minutes of our Brooklyn brunch, I had asked Damon whether he ever felt misunderstood. In answering, he once more referenced back to his 2017 missteps. “I felt like I was being represented as something that I didn’t feel in my heart,” he said. “And the media, it’s so powerful—like, that fire hose of attention is overwhelming, no matter what. Even when it’s good, it’s really overwhelming. Some people love it, and you can see that they’re looking for it and they need it, constantly trying to get more of it. I’m not passing any judgment on that, I’m just not that way. Some people love a bright light on them. I’ve never been that person. I always really wanted to work. I really wanted to work. But not the other part.”
Chris Heath is a GQ correspondent.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2021 issue with the title “Sincerely, Matt Damon.”
Photographs by Lachlan Bailey
Styled by George Cortina
Hair by Teddy Charles for The Wall Group
Skin by Francelle Daly using Love+Craft+Beauty
Tailoring by Susie Kourinian
Set design by Heath Mattioli for Frank Reps
Produced by GE Projects