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Matt Damon gets down to earth about taking on 'The Martian' role

Matt Damon gets down to earth about taking on 'The Martian' role
Matt Damon portrays a stranded astronaut in "The Martian." (Twentieth Century Fox)

Matt Damon has no illusions about how he'd fare if he were stranded alone on a distant, lifeless planet.

Unlike his astronaut character in Ridley Scott's upcoming sci-fi film, "The Martian" — an outer-space Robinson Crusoe who is accidentally abandoned by his crew mates during a mission to Mars — Damon wouldn't be able to draw on deep scientific know-how to keep himself alive. Nor, despite his generally even-tempered nature, could he withstand that kind of crushing terror and loneliness.

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"I wouldn't handle it at all," the actor — who, oddly enough, has played not one but two stranded astronauts in the past year — said recently. "I would be dead in less than 24 hours."

It's easy to forget sometimes that Matt Damon is just a person like the rest of us.

Yes, Damon is one of the industry's most versatile and bankable leading men, able to pull off drama, comedy or action with apparently equal levels of comfort. He won an Oscar while he was still in his 20s for co-writing "Good Will Hunting" and has been nominated twice for his acting. He dedicates enormous amounts of time and energy to worthy causes such as fighting extreme poverty and providing access to safe drinking water in developing countries. He has a reputation — one that took something of a hit this month when comments he made about diversity in Hollywood stirred controversy — as one of the most likable and thoughtful actors around.

"In a funny kind of way, Matt is almost the perfect representative of the American," Scott said last month. "He's fair, he's sweet, he's firm, he's intelligent, and he's a very can-do kind of guy."

But while Damon's Mark Watney in "The Martian," opening Oct. 2, is a true paragon of humanity, maintaining his wry sense of humor and MacGyver-style resourcefulness in the face of impossible odds, Damon himself isn't superhuman. And he knows it. "I mean, I'm an actor," he said, deadpan. "Talk about a skill set that doesn't really apply anywhere else."

On a late August afternoon, the actor sat on a couch in a Los Angeles hotel room with a cup of coffee, his hair flecked with gray, his muscles sore. In a matter of days, he'd be heading to the Canary Islands to begin work on the as-yet-untitled fifth installment in the "Bourne" action series. At age 44, he said, the regimen of diet and exercise required to play an unstoppable killing machine like Jason Bourne was far more grueling than it used to be.

"It's horrible," Damon said wearily. "I'm in way better shape than I was for any of the other movies, but it's been 10 times harder. I'm really not fun to be around. I have a horrible attitude."

Just as he is not immune to the aging process, Damon is capable of making missteps — as he demonstrated in mid-September when remarks he made on the HBO reality series "Project Greenlight" touching on the sensitive issue of diversity in the film industry blew up in his face.

The series, co-produced by Damon and his longtime friend Ben Affleck, focuses on giving up-and-coming directors the chance to make a feature film. In a heated conversation with producer Effie Brown ("Dear White People"), Damon seemed to suggest that diversity behind the camera was less important than diversity in front of it.

Damon's comments, which many deemed off base and patronizing, immediately sparked criticism, with the hashtag #Damonsplaining taking off on Twitter. The actor soon issued an apology.

"I believe deeply that there need to be more diverse filmmakers making movies," Damon's statement read in part. "I am sorry that [my comments] offended some people, but, at the very least, I am happy that they started a conversation about diversity in Hollywood. That is an ongoing conversation that we all should be having."

Even as he was preparing to lift off into the cosmos on-screen, one of the most respected and heretofore scandal-free actors in Hollywood had, for one uncomfortable moment, fallen to Earth.

Changes in filmmaking

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In the more than two decades he has been acting professionally, Damon, who grew up in Cambridge, Mass., and attended Harvard University (he left before graduating to pursue his career), has seen the industry around him change dramatically.

When he looks back at the movies that launched him to stardom — serious, adult-oriented films like "Courage Under Fire," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "The Rainmaker" and "Saving Private Ryan" — he wonders how many of them would even be made today, as studios shift away from midrange dramas toward branded, big-budget tentpole fare.

"The big whack has been in the kind of $25-to-$60-million movie," he said. "And that was my bread and butter."

"I don't need to be another person to rail against these superhero movies. The bottom line is, they do extraordinarily well, so it's tough to argue with a studio head who wants to keep making them. Maybe there will eventually be a glut and people will be like, 'I've had it with these superhero stories.' But we'll see."

(That Affleck will soon be the fifth actor to play Batman on the big screen went unremarked upon.)

Jessica Chastain, who co-starred with Damon in "Interstellar" and plays the commander of his Mars mission in "The Martian," says that, even amid the seismic changes in Hollywood, the actor has managed to carve out a consistently rich and unpredictable career. "Matt is inspiring to be around," she said. "He is a chameleon, someone who shape-shifts in their roles, and he's a movie star — and it's very rare that I think you can be both things."

Finding great material hasn't gotten any easier, though. In 2013, Damon relocated with his wife, Luciana Barroso, and their four children from New York to Los Angeles. He planned to take six months off from acting to help the kids with the transition. But with the exception of a small role in Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar," he ended up staying away far longer than he intended. "There just wasn't anything interesting, big or small," he said.

When the prospect of starring in "The Martian" arose, Damon had mixed feelings. On the one hand, undertaking an adaptation of Andy Weir's bestselling novel — which blends hard science, humor and a suspenseful survival story — sounded exciting, particularly with Scott, who'd made the sci-fi classics "Alien" and "Blade Runner," at the helm. On the other hand, the idea of immediately following "Interstellar" — in which he played an astronaut stuck alone on an ice planet — with another role as a stranded astronaut gave Damon pause.

"I said to Ridley, 'I just did a movie where I play a guy who's stuck by himself on a planet — I don't think I should just follow it up with a guy who's stuck by himself on a planet,'" Damon said. "Ridley was like, 'Nobody remembers anything!' It's going to be fine!'"

Damon was also somewhat daunted by the challenge of having no other actors to play off for long stretches of the movie. "I think Matt was uncomfortable about that," Scott said. "He said, 'It's a lot of talking to myself.' But I never had any doubt."

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For his part, Damon was reassured with an experienced hand like Scott behind the camera. "To hold the audience's attention with just one guy on-screen is really about how the director shapes the story," he said.

Indeed, over the last decade, Damon said, his primary career consideration has been who will be directing any given project.

"Ten or so years ago, I just removed all the calculus from it and said, 'I'm just going by director,'" said the actor, who himself harbors ambitions to direct. "Like most young actors, I started out pretty snobby about the importance of acting. There was that mentality in the '90s: You do one for them and one for you. But I just kind of abandoned that and went for director. It just clicked: I'm in a director's medium."

Damon's upcoming slate is a testament to his varied tastes and his interest in working with top-flight filmmakers. Along with the next "Bourne" film, which reunites the actor with director Paul Greengrass, Damon is set to co-star in "The Great Wall" — a big-budget monster epic set in China in AD 1100 directed by Zhang Yimou — and Alexander Payne's satirical comedy "Downsizing," in which he plays a man who undergoes a procedure that shrinks him to 4 inches tall.

As for "The Martian," early reviews have been almost universally raves, with critics hailing the film as a refreshingly original blend of spectacle and smarts.

"Movies like this are harder and harder to find," Damon said. "It's not a franchise, and it's not trying to be a franchise."

He laughed. "Though they would try if the movie did well enough. In the sequel, I'd end up stuck on Saturn. 'Not again!'"

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

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