Secrets and spies

Special to The Times

AND he's quiet.

Imagine, as an actor, reading that line, over and over.

... and he's quiet.

Think, for a moment, of Hollywood's most legendary cinematic performances.

... and he's quiet.

And then let us recall the last five Academy Award winners for best actor: Denzel Washington snapped in "Training Day," Adrien Brody starved and shivered in "The Pianist," Sean Penn wept and screamed in "Mystic River," Jamie Foxx boogied in "Ray," and Philip Seymour Hoffman charmed in a falsetto in "Capote."

By contrast, "It's not flashy," a 36-year-old Matt Damon warns of his latest role, a soft-spoken and stiff-shouldered secret agent in Robert De Niro's "The Good Shepherd." "It won't get any attention in terms of awards or anything like that, but for me personally, for just how complex a role it was and how interesting the subject matter is to me, this was definitely up there."

"Up there" despite its on-the-surface simplicity, "up there" despite those three words -- ... and he's quiet -- that followed so many scene descriptions and so many speeches in Eric Roth's script, three words that don't often describe a Hollywood protagonist, and -- Damon is well aware -- don't often lead them to golden statuettes.

"[But] Bob said to me very early on, 'This is a different movie,' which is one of the things that made me want to do it."

In the film, which opened Friday, Damon plays a man named Edward Wilson, whose greased hair parts from left to right, whose bespectacled eyes never well and whose rare smile is more like a sneer. He is a CIA operative intent on gaining Cold War intelligence on the Russians, and later on unmasking a mole within the CIA. This obsessive, trust-no-one way of life eats at Wilson's soul, his marriage and the tenuous relationship with his son.

It is the third consecutive role in which Damon must play, well, adult, following his turns as an energy analyst in "Syriana" and a crooked cop in "The Departed."

It's a career direction, says Damon, that he couldn't be happier with.

"I'm aging just like anyone else," he says, though looking at him, you begin to wonder. "But the roles do get better. I'd say objectively that the best roles out there tend to be for men 35 to 55 years old."

For the record, the average age of those best actors listed above is 41-plus, the oldest of the bunch a still-going-strong Denzel at 51.

Also for the record, the story behind Damon's involvement in "Shepherd" is a fascinating one in and of itself, one you might even say has two beginnings.

In 1997, before Matt Damon was Matt Damon -- that is, before the mostly unknown actor and his equally charismatic childhood pal, Ben Affleck, were to become Hollywood darlings by way of their own script called "Good Will Hunting" -- Damon asked his agent, Patrick Whitesell, to send him the five best unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood.

"There aren't any roles for you in these movies," Whitesell told his client.

"I know," replied Damon. "I just want to read them."

The scripts came. Among them: "The Good Shepherd," by Eric Roth. Damon loved the tale, but indeed saw no role in it for him.

No matter, because "Hunting" would soon be released to critical acclaim and a box-office blitz, and in March 1998, Damon and Affleck would hoist Oscar statuettes for best original screenplay and deliver perhaps the most memorable acceptance speech of the night, an unapologetically exuberant Thank You to moms and dads and Bostonians and Cuba Gooding Jr.

That night, host Billy Crystal had plenty of fun at Damon's expense, once quipping that Damon "must feel like he's on the Senior's Tour," the young pup competing also in the best-actor category with screen legends Peter Fonda, Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman and eventual winner Jack Nicholson.

Damon was more than happy to take the ribbing; he and his best bud had truly arrived, and that entire Oscar experience remains something of a dream, including an industry party he attended that same weekend with Affleck and their family members.

"It was like, 'Tom Cruise is here! Brad Pitt is here!' " Damon remembers. "My family would run up and tell me who'd shown up. Then (Martin) Scorsese and De Niro rolled in, and the room just stops -- even that room stops."

Damon reveled in just a brief handshake, nothing more, with both men. And so you can imagine the range of emotions he felt years later, when he signed up for a Scorsese flick and had to say no to De Niro.

And so we turn to the second beginning of Damon's "Good Shepherd" story.

"When you're talking about Bob, you don't say 'Bob was in Taxi Driver,' you say Travis Bickle, you say Jake La Motta, Rupert Pupkin," Damon says, meaning that when you look into the eyes of Robert De Niro, you see the men he's played too.

And so one day it came to be, Damon saying no to Vito Corleone. They were sitting in a Manhattan production office in 2004, De Niro having offered Damon the lead in "The Good Shepherd" by way of a surprise phone call a few days before.

De Niro, who'd long worked to make "Shepherd" his second directorial project after 1993's "A Bronx Tale," had finally locked down reliable funding along with a narrow time window in which to shoot the film. The problem: Leonardo DiCaprio, De Niro's original choice for the lead, had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts within that time window.

"When he called me and offered it to me years after [reading the script], it was just really out of left field," Damon says. "I was suddenly old enough to play the part, it had fallen apart with Leo, and he had all of the pieces kind of together. He had this moment where he knew that if he couldn't get me to do it, the whole thing was going to fall apart."

Problem was, Damon was booked too. He, like DiCaprio, was set to shoot Scorsese's "The Departed," and was then lined up for Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant" immediately after.

Recalls Damon: "I was like, 'I can't believe I'm saying this to you, but ... no.' "

Recalls De Niro: "No, he didn't say, 'no.' He didn't come in and say that, at least not that I remember."

Recalls Roth, the screenwriter, who says he got a telephone call from De Niro: "Bob told me, 'He said no to me, but I'm not gonna let him say no to me.' But that's Bob for you -- he's a dog with a bone."

Um, that's two against one, Bob. It seems that Damon was, indeed, talkin' to you.

"I can't possibly do it," Damon says he told De Niro. "He eventually just said, 'Look, I can talk to Marty if you can talk to Steve.' "

That, De Niro says, he remembers. "I asked Marty if he could help me out and he did everything he could to get Matt out [of 'The Departed' shoot] ahead of time," he said.

As for Soderbergh, Damon chuckles when he remembers their approximately 15-second phone conversation. Soderbergh, who directed Damon in "Ocean's 11," "12," and the upcoming "13," was already aware that De Niro had been eyeing Damon, and he answered Damon's call not with a 'Hello,' but with a "You want to do 'The Good Shepherd.' "

"I've heard about this script," Soderbergh told Damon, "and I know it's been around forever, and I know De Niro's really hot to make this movie. We'll figure it out."

Soderbergh pushed "The Informant" back to next year, and Damon's 'no' to De Niro turned to a yes.

"I'm lucky I got him, frankly," De Niro says. "His name value is very important, and there are only a few actors I would have done this with and Matt was one of them."

Together, the pair brought to life Roth's cold and calculating character, one whose similarities to Damon seem to pretty much start and finish with that title of husband and father.

While filming "Shepherd" late last year, Damon sneaked off to New York's City Hall to quietly wed Luciana Bozan, a former bartender he met while shooting "Stuck On You" in 2003.

Already a stepfather to Bozan's 8-year-old daughter, Alexia, Damon and his bride then welcomed to the world their first child together, Isabella, in June. The happy foursome -- relative to Damon pals Ben and Jen, and Brad and Angelina -- now lead a remarkably quiet home life in Miami Beach.

"It's the most important thing," Damon says of family. He then stutters a bit, saying, "It all ... it ... The world just makes sense in a different way."

He smiles.

... and he's quiet.

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