On a clear New Mexico morning this year, Matt Damon sat and watched the Coen brothers and the crew of “True Grit” as they prepared horses, six-shooters and the camera for the next scene. With more than three dozen feature films under his belt, it could have been just another mundane moment between close-ups, but instead Damon holds on to the snapshot memory with scrapbook affection.
“We were halfway through the movie and I was sitting on the set, we were doing this corn dodger scene — the characters are throwing these little cornbread cakes up in the air and shooting at them, it’s ridiculous — and it really hit me,” Damon recalled. “I turned to [cinematographer] Roger Deakins — he and I go back, we worked on ‘Courage Under Fire’ in the 1990s — and I said to him, ‘Roger, this is really special, right?,’ and he smiled and he said, ‘Yeah, it really is.’”
“True Grit” has just arrived in theaters as an idiosyncratic gun-smoke adventure with characters who talk like prophets as they ride through rivers, snow and ravines in search of revenge and reward. It’s the first visit to the Old West by the Coens — the Oscar-winning filmmakers best known for “No Country for Old Men” and “Fargo” — and their cast is led by a grizzled Jeff Bridges, the young newcomer Hailee Steinfeld and Damon, who plays a Texas Ranger who may be more windbag than Winchester.
“I am,” Damon declared with mock pride, “a true nincompoop in this movie.”
“True Grit” presents the story of a 14-year-old girl (Steinfeld) who hires a battered and boozy U.S. marshal named “Rooster” Cogburn (Bridges) to hunt down the dim outlaw ( Josh Brolin) who murdered her father. Tagging along on the manhunt is Damon’s Lone Star lawman, LaBoeuf (pronounced “la beef”), who fits in nicely with the Coens’ long cinematic parade of quirky and feckless souls.
That’s not to say that LaBoeuf doesn’t have his moments of valor. Joel and Ethan Coen, though, have stacked the deck against the character; their script is far more faithful to the 1968 novel by Charles Portis than the first Hollywood adaptation (which was released in 1969 and won an Oscar for John Wayne in the Cogburn role), but there is a major added scene of comedic mayhem that leaves the verbose LaBoeuf sputtering blood.
Damon can barely recount the filming of the scene without seizing up with laughter and a bit of lingering horror as well. Without giving too much away, LaBoeuf suffers a significant tongue injury and Cogburn, announcing that he once knew a teamster with a similar injury, reaches down to rip away the flap of flesh. On the set, Joel Coen advised Damon to really enunciate his dialogue, and on the big screen it’s hard to forget Damon’s stricken expression in the moment.
“It’s such a horrible situation, blood is gushing out of my mouth, I’ve been shot and there’s this guy sticking his filthy hand in my mouth, ‘I will rip it free,’ and I’m trying to get him to stop, and as soon as they yell ‘cut’ we just fall down laughing,” Damon said. “It was that kind of stuff. I would come home and tell my wife, ‘I am having so much fun on this movie.’”
Damon reserved a special brand of praise for Bridges, the 61-year-old star who grew up in Hollywood, put together decades of integrity work and now is enjoying a new stratum of acclaim as a celebrated elder statesmen.
“When he works and things are clicking like they were on this film, he’s in a state of just pure joy, and you can feel it, everyone can,” Damon said. “It was a relief in a way too. When you work with someone you really respect and admire, you always have that worry that they’ll be a [a jerk]. To have him show up and live up to his reputation in every way and be so wonderful, it made it all memorable. He’s a good guy, and that’s what you want him to be.”
And if Damon had to list the people who weren’t the good guys as he had hoped? The 40-year-old actor let out a sharp laugh. “That’s at the end of my career. Can I call you back on that one?”
Damon was speaking by phone from frosty Chicago, and he was in no hurry to hang up. The wind outside was too frigid, the hotel room too quiet and his wife and children too far away. “It’s like 10 degrees here, I’m not going anywhere,” said the father of three, “and it’s nice to have a grown-up conversation any time.”
The Illinois visit was for “Contagion,” the Steven Soderbergh pandemic thriller that also stars Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould and Jude Law. “It’s an ensemble movie because, you know, everybody is dropping like flies.” Damon will reunite with Soderbergh for the biopic “Liberace,” which has Michael Douglas slated for the lead role and Damon as the music star’s lover. The Cambridge, Mass., native is also reportedly in talks to star in the sci-fi film “Elysium,” from “District 9" director Neill Blomkamp.
Damon has become a signature Hollywood star for his generation after the Jason Bourne films, two Oscar nominations for acting (“Good Will Hunting” and “Invictus”) and his work with directors such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Soderbergh. There’s also his winking appearances on “30 Rock” and his ongoing comedy feud with Jimmy Kimmel and his good-karma portrayal in the tabloids as an earnest family man and co-founder of Water.org, which champions the cause of safe drinking water and sanitation in impoverished regions.
It was 13 years ago this month that Damon found his real breakthrough with the release of “Good Will Hunting,” which he starred in with Robin Williams and Ben Affleck. Damon and Affleck won Oscars for the script. That film followed the good notices Damon earned a year earlier in “Courage Under Fire” and was followed in short order by Damon’s successes in “The Rainmaker” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
Damon has a flinty American everyman quality that he can play against — as he does as the haunted-soul assassin in “The Bourne Identity” — or channel with unexpected tints, as he did this year in Eastwood’s “Hereafter.” “He’s a gem to work with,” Eastwood said. “He has this reticent Americana persona on screen, and he brings a lot to the set with his writing background and insights.”
Bridges echoed those sentiments: “For ‘Grit,’ he took this character and just ran off with it. He’s a guy that does terrific work and makes good choices, and that’s a big thing in the long haul of a career.”
For years, Damon has wanted to work with the Coens. Back when Damon was working on the 1999 film “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” he would lean forward as Philip Seymour Hoffman told tales of Coen filmmaking. The actors were especially impressed by the Coens’ tradition of giving their cast a daily visual aid by distributing the sketches of storyboard artist J. Todd Anderson.
“Phil had just done ‘The Big Lebowski’ with them, and he was telling me how every day on a Coen set when they hand out the sides — the miniature version of script pages for the day — they also hand out the boards,” Damon said. “You can look at the movie, in a sort of cartoon form, and know what all the shots are. Phil was like, ‘You’re not even going to believe it if you work with them, because you not only know what the scene will look like but you know what shots you will be in.’ That gives you so much as an actor.”
The flip side of that, Damon suspected, was that the shoot would be intensely regimented and perhaps even smothering when it came to improvisation. “But really what happened is they are so deep into the material by the time they actually are on the set shooting that they aren’t afraid to improvise,” the actor said. “They were pretty loose. We had a lot of fun out there.”
If Damon were describing his LaBoeuf character to one of his young daughters he might use a “Toy Story” example — the Texas Ranger dresses like Sheriff Woody but acts like the doofus do-gooder Buzz Lightyear. Damon said he and Joel Coen came to the idea of making the cowboy a sort of Cliff Clavin of the Old West by modeling him on Texas actor Tommy Lee Jones but subtracting the notable fact that Jones is a Harvard-educated intellect.
“The plan was a Tommy Lee who didn’t know what he was talking about — and never stopped talking,” Damon said. “And to practice for the tongue [injury] I actually took one of my daughter’s ponytail bands — one of her hair ties — and just wrapped it around my tongue to try to get this way of talking down. I’m sure the neighbors heard me and just shook their head and thought, ‘This whole Hollywood thing has just gotten to him.’”