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Invictus - Matt Damon interview

Matt Damon in Invictus

Interview by Rob Carnevale

OSCAR nominee Matt Damon talks about some of the challenges of playing South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, including overcoming the difference in height and mixing it up on the rugby field.

He also talks about meeting Nelson Mandela and why an award nomination can boost a film’s financial success…

Q. You’ve taken on a lot of physical action roles in films like the Bourne franchise. How does that compare to playing a rugby captain now? And did your co-stars hold back from any of the tackles?
Matt Damon: The biggest reason they held back was that it was Matt Damon’s stunt double in there most of the time [laughs]! No… any time you’re making a movie it’s all choreography, except for this game! It’s really tough to choreograph; it’s a bit more uncontrolled. So, a lot of the stuff we shot was what we called free play, which is just letting these guys go and nail each other, and hoping Clint captured that. But there was a whole physical challenge in getting ready for the role… especially because I was playing a very famous man who everybody knows. It’s like any job… it’s a magic trick really. You look at it and think: “What can really take people out of the movie?” Ultimately, your only job is to… if someone doesn’t believe you for even a moment, then you’ve failed in your job and you’ve taken them out of the story. So, you have to try and trouble-shoot when you’re about a year away from doing it. You have to say: “What’s going to land me in trouble here? What do I have to solve?”

Q. What did you identify as particular stumbling blocks?
Matt Damon: Clint helped me out a lot. Francois [Pienaar] is a big guy and I’m an average size guy, so I’d say: “People know what I look like and they know what he looks like… how are we going to get around that?” And Clint said: “Well, maybe you won’t look 6ft 4ins, but maybe people won’t say, ‘oh, he’s 5ft 10ins’. Maybe we can just get people to not ask the question.” There were little tricks like putting the camera higher, or making me look a little larger in the foreground, or a little insole in my shoe to give me another inch of height. So, there were little things like that as well as, obviously, a lot of work in the gym and on the accent and stuff like that to try and be believable.

Q. Clint Eastwood is known for taking only one or two takes as a director. So, how does he compare in that regard to other directors you’ve worked with?
Matt Damon: There are people who just collect a bunch of footage and then edit it later. You definitely feel more protected when a director is moving on when you’ve actually felt something happen and you know they’re watching intently. [Francis Ford] Coppola told me that [Michelangelo] Antonioni said to him – this was before the days of video village – that a director should stand right next to the camera, look with his naked eye and if he sees something that is real to him, he’d look up at the [camera] operator and if he gives the look to indicate he’d seen it to, then you print and you’d move on.

Actually, Clint was telling me about working with [Vedanta] Desika on a 20-minute short film where he would stop him in the middle of a sentence, and Clint would say: “Well, shouldn’t I finish the line?” And he’d say: “No, because we’ll be out of the shot by then… we’re going to be in this shot over here.” I’ve worked with a few guys who work like Clint and it just gives you a real feeling of security because you know that you’re in very able hands and the director is watching the movie unfold. You know that you’re getting what you need to get and it doesn’t have to take so many hours to do it.

Q. What was meeting Nelson Mandela like?
Matt Damon: I did meet him. We met him when we were there. Incidentally, when Morgan spoke of Nelson leaning over and commenting on his performance while they were watching the finished film, he also said: “The guy who’s playing Pienaar is fantastic!” But we had a chance to meet him when we were in South Africa. I’d met him one time before when he’d come to America about five years ago. And actually I had about 10 minutes with him and I was asked to bring my kids, which was a real thrill. My wife and I brought my three kids and spent the time watching him bounce our babies on his knees. He was just absolutely wonderful with them and we have some wonderful pictures to prove it. It was a big moment for our family. The kids will obviously grow up knowing who he is and some day they’ll have a picture of being bounced on his knee.

Q. What impression did visiting Mandela’s cell on Robben Island make on you?
Matt Damon: Well, I asked Francois Pienaar exactly what he did and the scene where he holds his arms out to gauge the size of the cell is what he did, and hopefully you’re seeing it pretty much as it happened. Obviously, we’re telling this story in two hours, so there’s a lot of poetic licence in some places, but that sequence is very, very close to how it happened.

Q. How important are awards to a film like Invictus?
Matt Damon: Well, awards are really the only reason to make movies [smiles]. The economic point is a good one, though. I remember a studio executive telling me a few years ago when he’d greenlit Master & Commander, which cost $90 million: “Yeah well, the difference between this movie being in profit or loss is whether or not we get a best picture nomination.” He said: “This is a movie primarily about men, there’s no women in it, so we automatically lose half the audience…” He broke the whole thing down for me and said, at that time anyway, to be one of the five best picture nominations meant like $50 million in box office. And that’s because a lot of people will look through the paper and ask: “Which five films have been nominated.”

Of course, most people don’t see many more films than that in a year, so those will be the ones they make the effort to go and see because they’re the ones that are supposedly worth their time. So, there is a huge part of it that does actually matter in the real world for our jobs, I’m sorry to have to say.

Read our interview with Francois Pienaar

Read our interview with Morgan Freeman