February 6, 2011

Matt Damon is Texas Ranger Laboeuf in TRUE GRIT (Opens Feb 23)



Matt Damon likes to joke that it’s taken the Coen Brothers sixteen long years to offer him a job. “Yeah, and then along came True Grit,” he smiles. “So it was worth the wait…”

Joel and Ethan Coen are extraordinary filmmakers, he says, and when they first approached him to ask if he’d be interested in working together there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation – even though, at that point, he hadn’t seen a script. The fact that it was a Coen Brothers movie was enough.

“If the Coen Brothers ask you to work with Jeff Bridges on True Grit, that’s easy,” he says. “I was in before I knew what the movie was. And then I looked at it and the script is great and unlike anything I’ve had the chance to do before so it was a really easy decision.”

Damon first met the Coens back in 1994 when, as a young actor still making his name, he was cast alongside Frances McDormand – Joel’s wife – in a Tommy Lee Jones’ directed made-for-TV western called The Good Old Boys.

Years later, their paths crossed again. The Coens were directing Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Damon and Thornton had been friends ever since they made All The Pretty Horses together and Matt would visit his friend on set.

“I have a lot of friends who have worked with them – George (Clooney), Brad (Pitt), Billy Bob,” he says. “I was on the set of The Man Who Wasn’t There – I went to visit Billy a few times and you talk to crew members, guys like Roger (Deakins, director of photography), and they all say ‘you really should work with Joel and Ethan, you would love them..’ So it’s something everybody knows and everybody is always trying to get a job (with them).

“I was dying to work with them and any actor you talk to would say the same thing. If you ask for a short list of directors, they would be right there.”

True Grit is based on Charles Portis’ classic novel set in the rugged, brutal un-tamed American West of the 1870s. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl determined to seek vengeance for her father who has been murdered by the 'coward' Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).

She hires a trigger happy, drunken Marshall, Rooster Cogbugn (Jeff Bridges) to track Chaney down and bring him to justice. Cogburn has the quality she is looking for – as she puts it, he has “true grit.”

They then discover that a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (played by Damon), is already chasing the killer and is determined to take him back to his home state and collect a handsome reward.

For Damon finally getting the opportunity to work with the Coen Brothers lived up to, and indeed exceeded, his high expectations. “Completely and for a whole host of reasons besides being genuinely nice people. Each phase of the process was a real pleasure,” he says. “For a start it was a wonderful screenplay – it’s a great adaptation of the book.

“And then they sent us all storyboards where we could literally open this giant book and look at the shot design of the film. It was basically like looking at the movie in cartoon form before you go and make it.

“So you got all of this information before you even enter into the process of production, and then within production, they have an incredible flexibility in terms of being available to good ideas that happen in the moment. And so it’s just that kind of combination, which really means that they’ve got total mastery of the process of directing.”

Working with Ms Steinfeld, who makes her feature film debut in True Grit, was a pleasure, he says. Indeed, he pays her the compliment of comparing her to a young Jodie Foster.

“She’s quite extraordinary,” he says. ”She’s thirteen years old and I wouldn’t believe that a thirteen year old would really be capable of this type of performance.

“It’s a really tough role but she’s just got an enormous amount of poise. I would go back and forth to Texas when we were shooting and I would go home and say to my wife ‘this girl reminds me of Jodie Foster..’

“And I hope for Hailee that she is like Jodie because the business can be brutal and Jodie Foster is an example of somebody who clearly has a great deal of intelligence and talent and has come through it and has got the better of the business rather than the other way round.

“She’s emerged as a great artist, and by all accounts a great human being, and I’m hoping that’s what Hailee has in store for her. She’s really bright and she’s a really good kid.

“And this was a wonderful environment for her because there was a crew and a cast full of parents and people who wanted to create a good environment for her. But it’s not always like that and I think we were mindful of that. We all felt a certain sense of responsibility for her.”

Damon had never worked with Jeff Bridges before although, he recalls, he did get the chance to read with him some fifteen years ago.


“I knew Jeff’s work obviously, and was a big, big fan. I reminded him that I’d once auditioned with him. He was reading for potential sidekicks for the movie Wild Bill and I had worked with (director) Walter Hill and so I got to come in and read with Jeff Bridges, which was great.

“He was very nice to me. He, of course, didn’t remember because he’d probably read with 100 guys but that was my one Jeff Bridges encounter. So it was great to work with Jeff and to see him in action.

“I feel like a lot of actors approach their work out of a place of darkness, and I think that’s a very effective way to do it and a lot of great performances have been created that way, but I think there are other actors who come predominantly out of a place of joy, and that to me is Jeff. The environment is just joyful when he’s working - we had a lot of fun and I laughed a lot.”

Damon’s character in True Grit, LaBoeuf, likes to tell a story especially if it concerns his own past exploits – much to the annoyance of Cogburn. It’s ironic then, that after a violent encounter with a band of outlaws LaBoeuf nearly bites off is own tongue. But even that doesn’t stop him holding court.

The actor reveals that he used one of his daughter’s hair bands to help make the speech impediment sound authentic. “I figured out how to do it a few months before,” he explains. “I took one of my daughter’s hair bands and wrapped it around my tongue to kind of give myself that handicap and then tried to speak normally and it just worked really well.

“I had dinner with Joel and Fran (McDormand) here in New York a few months before we started shooting and said ‘let me show you..’ And I pulled the hair band out, wrapped it around my tongue and he liked it and so we stuck with that.”

Damon is a big fan of the western genre and, he says, True Grit is a faithful adaptation of Portis’ highly acclaimed novel. “It’s hard to find material that feels like it’s not just a retread of something,” he says. “But this is a western that deserved to be made. I read everything and I hadn’t come across a script that was this good, with directors of this calibre and a role like this. It was a very easy decision for me.

“I’d say it is a very faithful adaptation of the book, and obviously there are some corners you need to cut to tell a story in two hours but I think this is a pretty faithful rendering of the book.”

Damon, 40, was born in Boston, Massachusetts and first started acting at school. He attended Harvard University to study English and after college returned to acting, winning small roles in Mystic Pizza and School Ties.

His performance as a drug-addicted soldier in Courage Under Fire (1996), for which he had lost 40lbs in body weight, earned him strong reviews. In 1997 he won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for Good Will Hunting, along with his childhood friend, Ben Affleck.

In recent years, he starred in the hugely successful Bourne trilogy, playing Jason Bourne, a former government secret agent who has lost his memory and is desperately trying to piece his old life back together.

His other credits include Saving Private Ryan, The Talented Mr Ripley, All The Pretty Horses, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Ocean’s Eleven, The Good Shepherd and The Informant.

Damon and his wife, Luciana, have four daughters and live in New York City.

Had you ever wanted to work with the Coen Brothers for sometime?

Yeah, forever. I first met Joel in 1994 when I did a cable TV movie with his wife Fran down in West Texas. So I had met Joel in West Texas 16 years ago and it took them that long to offer me a job! (laughs). But I was dying to work with them and any actor you talk to would say the same thing. If you ask for a short list of directors, they would be right there.

Why is that? What is it about them that makes them so vital?

Well their films - the body of work really speaks for itself. It’s not even a personal thing – you just have to look at their work and the quality of acting in their movies and it’s obviously something that they care very much about. And then you start to talk to other actors and they will tell you the same thing. I have a lot of friends who have worked with them – George (Clooney), Brad (Pitt), Billy Bob (Thornton). I was on the set of The Man Who Wasn’t There – I went to visit Billy a few times and you talk to crew members, guys like Roger (Deakins, director of photography, True Grit), Andy Harris, and all the guys say ‘you really should work with Joel and Ethan, you would love them..’ So it’s something everybody knows and everybody is always trying to get a job (with them).

Did they live up to expectations?

Completely and for a whole host of reasons besides being genuinely nice people. Each phase of the process was a real pleasure. For a start it was a wonderful screenplay – it’s a great adaptation of the book. And then they sent us all storyboards where we could literally open this giant book and look at the shot design of the film. It was basically like looking at the movie in cartoon form before you go and make it. So you got all of this information before you even enter into the process of production, and then within production, they have an incredible flexibility in terms of being available to good ideas that happen in the moment. And so it’s just that kind of combination, which really means that they’ve got total mastery of the process of directing. And then obviously there’s the whole post-production part, which we actors aren’t a part of, but that’s a whole other phase that they are obviously just at the very highest level. They are pretty great directors. But it’s all set up that way - they knew how they were going to edit the scene pretty much when they were writing it.

Was it fun building that character?

He’s a great character and it was a lot of fun. I worked with Tommy Lee Jones in 1994 when he directed The Good Old Boys, which Fran (Frances McDormand) and I did with him and that’s when I first met Joel and Ethan. And Joel and Ethan subsequently worked with Tommy to incredible effect in No Country For Old Men and Tommy gave a remarkable performance in that. And actually, I had Tommy as a frame of reference (for True Grit) because he’s from West Texas. And he’s also somebody who is really fun to listen to, he knows a lot about a lot, and there’s something of the English teacher in him - you can ask him an obscure question and he enjoys knowing what he knows (laughs). And so we kind of riffed on that. It’s not exact but it’s a similar way of presentation. My character in True Grit is supposed to be a windbag – it’s like he comes over as a man who knows everything but actually doesn’t know very much at all! Not that Tommy’s like that, but Tommy is a great storyteller. And that was where we started to build the guy.

And the lovely irony is that this guy – a windbag as you call him – gets his tongue badly bitten. How did you play those scenes?

Actually that idea isn’t in the novel – it’s pure Joel and Ethan. But you take the idea of this guy who won’t shut up to the extreme, where he actually severs his tongue and still keeps talking. And I figured out how to do it a few months before. I took one of my daughter’s hair bands and wrapped it around my tongue to kind of give myself that handicap and then tried to speak normally and it just worked really well. I had dinner in New York with Joel and Fran (McDormand) here in New York a few months before we started shooting and said ‘let me show you..’ And I pulled the hair band out, wrapped it around my tongue and he liked it and so we stuck with that.

Let’s talk about Hailee Steinfeld who plays Mattie Ross. She delivers a remarkable performance…

She’s quite extraordinary in general. She’s thirteen years old and I wouldn’t believe that a thirteen year old would really be capable of this type of performance. It’s a really tough role but she’s just got an enormous amount of poise. I would go back and forth to Texas when we were shooting and I would go home and say to my wife ‘this girl reminds me of Jodie Foster..’ And I hope for Hailee that she is like Jodie because the business can be brutal and Jodie Foster is an example of somebody who clearly has a great deal of intelligence and talent and has come through it and has got the better of the business rather than the other way round. She’s emerged as a great artist, and by all accounts a great human being, and I’m hoping that’s what Hailee has in store for her. She’s really bright, she’s a really good kid, and this was a wonderful environment for her because there was a crew and a cast full of parents and people who wanted to create a good environment for her. But it’s not always like that and I think we were mindful of that. We all felt a certain sense of responsibility for her.

Did you know Jeff Bridges before this?

I didn’t. I’d met him only in passing. I knew Jeff’s work obviously, and was a big, big fan. I reminded him that I’d once auditioned with him. He was reading for potential sidekicks for the movie Wild Bill and I had worked with (director) Walter Hill and so I got to come in and read with Jeff Bridges, which was great. He was very nice to me. He, of course, didn’t remember because he’d probably read with 100 guys but that was my one Jeff Bridges encounter. So it was great to work with Jeff and to see him in action. I feel like a lot of actors approach their work out of a place of darkness, and I think that’s a very effective way to do it and a lot of great performances have been created that way, but I think there are other actors who come predominantly out of a place of joy, and that to me is Jeff. And the environment is just joyful when he’s working - we had a lot of fun, I laughed a lot. It reminded me of working with another great actor – Morgan Freeman. They are so good that they are carrying both of you. I know I’m in the presence of greatness when that’s happening.

You were out in the open filming in some pretty extreme weather, you were riding horses a lot, doing a lot of your own stunts, so how physically challenging was this for you?

It actually wasn’t too physical for me, I do some riding in the movie, but it was the same group of wranglers that I worked with before, ten or eleven years ago, in All The Pretty Horses. The horses were new because my old horses from that one had been retired, but these horses were just as well trained as those and I think for Jeff and me, we had each thrown our backs out, so that was our big concern going in, like are our backs going to survive all this riding, but it turned out to be pretty easy. We made it through.

Are you a fan of the western genre?

Yeah, very much so and in fact, it’s hard to find material that feels like it’s not just a retread of something. But this is a western that deserved to be made. I think Clint (Eastwood) did it to great effect 15 years ago but I read everything and I hadn’t come across a script that was this good, with directors of this calibre and a role like this. It was a very easy decision for me.

Would you say it’s a very faithful adaptation of the book?

Yes, I would. I’d say it is a very faithful adaptation of the book, and obviously there are some corners you need to cut to tell a story in two hours but I think this is a pretty faithful rendering of the book.

Did you watch the original True Grit movie? What was your attitude to that film?

I actually still haven’t seen the other film, because when I had talked to Ethan and Joel about this one, they said ‘we are just going to the original source material, we are not seeing it as a remake, we’re seeing it as an adaptation of the Charles Portis novel…’ So they gave me the novel. And I went out and I did buy a copy of the movie, but I still haven’t cracked it yet and that has more to do with four young kids at home (laughs) and I haven’t a lot of time.

Did you take your children on to the set for True Grit?

I took Gia on set and she was totally cool. She wasn’t quite two years old at the time and for her it was all about the horses. I wasn’t working so much that day – they were doing the scene where Rooster says ‘fill your hands, you son of a bitch…’ So I wasn’t needed for a few hours as Barry (Pepper, who plays Lucky Ned Pepper) and Jeff were doing their thing. Barry’s horse was called Topper and Gia was initially a little afraid – so she went from being scared to interested to fascinated and then suddenly, she was sitting on Topper’s back. And literally, for months afterwards every horse she saw was Topper. It was really cool.

And now she wants one of her own…

(Laughs) Yes and I have to explain that living in New York it doesn’t quite work. It’s like ‘sorry, honey, we can’t quite fit Topper into the apartment…’

I was looking back over your films and you’ve covered just about every genre in the last few years. Was that a plan?

No, the roles were great but it was director driven. And I haven’t really had any hard choices since Bourne Identity. Suddenly my choices became really easy – like Paul Greengrass would call or Martin Scorsese. It’s ridiculous! Like someone would ask me ‘why did you do this movie?’ Well, that’s easy, if Martin Scorsese asks me to do a movie I’m there. It’s not even a choice. If the Coen Brothers ask you to work with Jeff Bridges on True Grit, that’s easy. I was in before I knew what the movie was. And then I looked at it and the script is great and unlike anything I’ve had the chance to do before so it was just another really easy decision. It’s like poker. The whole idea in poker is to make your opponent make tough decisions as often as you can. I’ve played poker with some great players and the feeling of pressure is terrible. You are constantly under pressure and they are not. I feel like the playing field hasn’t been level for me at all – but I’m on the winning side and I’ve just had easy decision after easy decision. I haven’t had to do any career calculus the way you normally have to.

Do you think about why that happened?

Well, for years I thought I was inoculated by the Bourne movies. I knew that I had another one two years down the road and that gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do because I had that as a backstop. I remember in 2007 Forbes Magazine did this list and it said I was rated the best investment in Hollywood because of what I got paid and what I delivered at the box office and they measured this thing by the last three movies. Well, this year I’m one of the worst (laughs). And it’s a pretty fickle business. My personal pay cheque didn’t go up in those ten years, just the movies didn’t work, a few in a row. We all talk about how we make our decisions but the only way I can do it is that I don’t want to be one of those guys who just protects his beachhead and gets scared so that you end up not pushing yourself in the right directions.

You don’t strike me as the type of actor who chases the kind of films that you think will have a big opening weekend…

No. And if that becomes your yardstick then you’re fucked, I think. Because all you do is just kind of figure out what it is that people like to see you do the most and you only do that thing. And that eventually is going to run out as it has for every actor in history and if you are judging your own success by the opening weekend and suddenly there isn’t an opening weekend and now you are a failure. For me, it’s about making films that are interesting to you. That’s what Clint Eastwood always talks about – he says, “I make these movies for me..” He says ‘the way I look at it, I’m a tour guide and you are on my tour bus and you are welcome to get off and if you get off I’ll invite you to the next tour but I’m giving the tour..;

Do your films all give you something different?

Yes, totally. Even when the movies don’t work – and they are not always going to work – you are there for the right reasons. I’m aware of how the movies perform, because I have to be aware of how they perform because it will have an impact on my life. But the key is not to let that scare you into making decisions for the wrong reasons.

Clint Eastwood is 80 and still going strong. Would you like to have that kind of longevity?

I hope I’m working into my 80s. I hope I’m able to take care of myself as well as he has because he’s got a lot of energy – he feels great, he looks great and I think doing something that you love is energising. Clint is the model and he kept acting, too and his work kept getting better and better. He’s one of the few people that have aged gracefully in Hollywood. So yeah, that’s the dream.

But is there a different approach when you get a little older? You’ve got a family now and I wonder whether you would take on a role in the same way as you did when you made Courage Under Fire and lost all that weight?

I don’t think you can carry on like that and I don’t think it’s healthy. You do it in short verse if you need to. If there was some role where I needed to lose weight, I’d do it. I read something that Anthony Hopkins said once where he talked about getting older and acting and that the whole process becomes far more economic because you don’t waste energy. I think as a young man, I wasted a lot of energy doing things that I thought would help my performance and didn’t. And so you don’t go down those rabbit holes anymore because you’ve learned the hard way not to. And in the end you can turn in a much better performance because you are using your energy in the right way.

You live here in New York. What’s a perfect day for you and your family?

Well, we have a routine and that’s dominated by the fact that the kids are in school so that kind of book ends the day. But if they’re not in school, well, there’s so much to do here, which is great. There are parks everywhere and it’s a great city just to walk around in. I think it’s easy to get isolated, particularly for me, in LA – I end up going from behind a wall into a car and behind another wall. And I just worried about what that would mean for my kids. It’s nice to just walk around the streets with your kids and there aren’t that many places to do that in LA – or if you do, it’s like the 3rd Street Promenade (in Santa Monica) and that won’t go well for me (laughs). Here walking around is just part of life and your kids see all kinds of people, all shapes and colours and handicaps and everything and hopefully they kind of feel like they are part of a larger community and a diverse community. I worried that in LA that we would be living in a community that wasn’t that diverse.

Are you still hoping to make the Liberace biopic with Michael Douglas?

We are hoping to go this summer (2011) – that’s the plan. There are fewer movies being made than there were even three years ago because of the economic situation. I’m encountering something that I didn’t encounter four or five years ago which is I can’t get a lot of movies made just on my name. And I’ve talked to a lot of directors who say ‘we tried to get this or that off the ground, but it didn’t happen..’ But with Liberace we’re planning on doing it, Michael is planning on it – everything is going great with him, which is fantastic – it’s just that the money is not in the bank yet. But we’ll get it.

The Coen Brothers said that they were initially worried that they would get the funding to get True Grit made…

Yeah, the Studio drove a hard bargain on this one – every nickel is up on the screen. But it’s worked out because this is a movie that has a chance to be a really big hit at the box office. But I know while we were making it they were concerned that they were working with really narrow margins. But every movie is under that kind of scrutiny right now. It’s a tough job to run a studio right now.

What’s it like watching your films for the first time and specifically, what was it like watching True Grit?

Great. I feel about this movie the same way I felt about The Informant – they are the only two movies in my career that I wouldn’t want to change a frame of it. And that’s really rare. Normally, it’s jarring to see and I think perhaps because I wasn’t in a lot of this movie I was really able to enjoy the work that everyone else did. I’m really happy with the way that this one came out and having done 40 movies or whatever it is, I know that’s not normally the case.

Were there any surprises?

Well, there were scenes that were shot when I wasn’t there so they were really a lot of fun to see. I had seen the story boards that Joel and Ethan do to plan out the movie so I knew what was coming. I have to say, I was really moved at the end when Jeff is riding with Hailee on the horse – when he gets to that cabin and the last thing he says in the movie is, ‘I have grown old..’ when he collapses on the ground and he shoots his gun into the air. I love that line ‘time just gets away from us..’

“TRUE GRIT” is released and distributed by United International Pictures through Solar Entertainment Corp. Showing on February 23. Nationwide.

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