Art and Experience: The star of ‘Suburbicon’ and ‘Downsizing’ discusses his long history with George Clooney, his itch to direct, his disdain for the president and his outrage about Charlottesville: “To see these young, aggrieved, white boys walking with their torches and screaming ‘Jews will not replace us!’ It was just shocking.”
Days before the Sept. 2 opening of his new movie, Suburbicon, at the Venice Film Festival (and just before his other Venice entry, Downsizing, played there to raves), Matt Damon spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the dark drama, which tells two stories — one about a seemingly regular family that turns out to be deeply troubled, the other about a black family that comes under fire when it moves into an apparently idyllic white suburb.
The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia have given Suburbicon an unexpected topicality. “I’m obviously very concerned with the state of things and with the damage that’s being done to our institutions,” he said. “It’s just very pernicious.”
When George Clooney asked you to star in Suburbicon, the deal from your end was you had to shoot in L.A. Why?
I had four movies lined up in a row, starting with The Martian. I went from The Martian right into The Great Wall, which went right into Jason Bourne, which went right into Downsizing. It was two solid years of work. And I had sworn up and down to my family that I wouldn’t take [anything else]. When George called me, I was like “I’d rather be waterboarded than turn you down, but I have to be with my family.” Then I remember we were in London, working on Jason Bourne, and I was sitting at the dinner table with my wife when this text came in that said, “How about if I move it to L.A.?” It was George who suggested it. I turned the phone to my wife and she goes, “OK, you’re doing it.”
You got her to sign off?
Yes. George was sending a text to her through me, basically.
I only recently found out the movie was based on real-life events in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Did you know what took place?
I didn’t know about that before George told me, and then he started to show me the footage. That was something he did so effectively in Good Night, and Good Luck: He would take real footage and set it against the story that he was telling. As he started to show me these clips, I was floored. It’s that incredible thing where people are like: “Well, we’re not racist, we just don’t want them to live here.”
You’ve created a character who turns out to be a lot more complex than we first think. What did you draw on?
I remembered I could never really connect with one of my grandfathers; there was something distant about him. And I subsequently found out, years later, that he had a whole life going on that I was not aware of, an inner life. But he was unknowable. And that, by osmosis, went into the character. The only time I’d see him smile — the one thing he’d do was, he’d throw you a bread roll at the dinner table. He was very formal, but the kids loved that one thing that was kind of shocking. Other than that, he wouldn’t hug you. He reminds me of this character: there’s a lot happening underneath, there’s a distance and a coldness.
Do you take a character like that home with you?
No. As a younger actor, I did that — you spin your wheels a lot. I heard Anthony Hopkins once say that the older he got, the more refined his process became and he wasted a lot less energy. It’s not that you’re working less, it’s just that you’re working more efficiently. But you are available to what’s happening around you. The last monologue in the movie was [shot] the week of the election, and the shock of Trump winning — everyone, the people who voted for him and the one’s who didn’t, experienced this incredible “Oh my God, he won!” So there was something in the air, that rage. George and I talked about it, and that’s the third rail we were trying to touch in that scene.
Was that in the original screenplay that the Coen brothers wrote, which George and Grant Heslov subsequently rewrote?
I never asked who wrote what, so I never knew. I never read Joel and Ethan’s script, and there was all this stuff which was interesting, because they wrote it after Blood Simple, from what I understand: the two bumbling killers, elements of other movies that they subsequently did. There are these Coen brothers tropes that you’re stomping into. It feels a lot like something that would come from those guys, but with George and Grant’s spin on it. It’s a very dark movie.
And it’s become darker in the wake of Charlottesville.
We made the movie last year and it’s incredible to see what’s happened in Charlottesville. It’s horrible. A lot of people, myself included, are really waking up to the extent of the existing racism, and it’s so much worse than I naively thought. I just feel naïve at this point. It was shocking to see those kids — they looked 20 and 30 years old — in button-down shirts, with Tiki torches, walking down the street. I thought, “Those people are a lot younger than me. Who raised them?” Again, I naively thought that, behind our generation, [another one] was coming with more awareness and inclusiveness, and that everything was getting better with each generation. And to see these young, aggrieved, white boys walking with their torches and screaming “Jews will not replace us!” It was just shocking. Then the night that the President [made his] “many sides” comment was absolutely abhorrent. Sadly, I feel the movie was made at the right time.
Have you ever met Trump?
No. The deal was that if you wanted to shoot in one of his buildings, you had to write him in a part. [Director] Martin Brest had to write something in Scent of a Woman — and the whole crew was in on it. You have to waste an hour of your day with a bullshit shot: Donald Trump walks in and Al Pacino’s like, “Hello, Mr. Trump!” — you had to call him by name — and then he exits. You waste a little time so that you can get the permit, and then you can cut the scene out. But I guess in Home Alone 2 they left it in.
Do you feel more inclined to use your celebrity to fight for liberal causes now, or is that a mistake?
Look, everybody’s got a voice at this point and everybody’s shouting their opinions. But I’m obviously very concerned with the state of things and with the damage that’s being done to our institutions; it’s just very pernicious what he’s doing. Robert Mueller is kind of representing these institutions at this point, and just by some trick of history he’s the one who’s essentially defending them against these attacks, so hopefully his investigation is going smoothly. He can’t wrap things up soon enough, as far as I’m concerned. I thought Jimmy Kimmel’s line was the best, when he said that Trump said there were fine people on both sides, and showed the clip of the guys screaming “Jews will not replace us,” and cut back to Jimmy saying: “Let’s get something straight. If you’re with a group of people chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’ and you don’t immediately leave that group, you are not a fine person.”
Has living in Los Angeles and being successful isolated you from the rest of the country?
I’m not the right person to ask because I’m isolated anyway. I’m kind of walled off, like a lot of actors. But in California, New York, the Northeast, it feels you’re surrounded by like-minded people, and then there are other parts of the country where you’d be hard-pressed to find people who believe what you believe.
Do you remember when you first met George?
I met him in ’99 and then worked with him in 2001 on the Ocean’s Eleven shoot.
Has he changed in that time?
Sure, he’s changed. He’s evolved, but he’s the same in a lot of critical ways. In all the important ways, he’s the same; he’s got a huge heart, he’s incredibly loyal, and he’s really, really smart. He’s changed his career, in a way. When I met him, he was just coming off ER; he was known as this massive TV star. People didn’t understand how talented he was; they just thought he was this really handsome, matinee-idol TV star. And then he partnered with Steven Soderbergh, and everyone was sort of scratching their heads like, “Why would Steven Soderbergh partner with George Clooney?” as if he was slumming with George. But the reality was, Steven had worked with George and realized how talented he was, and that the two of them could get this really great stuff done. Now the perception of George is as big a movie star as you can get, an A-list director, an Oscar-winning producer. He’s somebody whose opinion I really value. If I’m working on a script, I’m sending it to him for notes; if I’m doing a movie I’m showing him a cut and asking for suggestions. In baseball, they would call it a five-tool athlete — just somebody who can do everything. He’s an easy guy to hate, I guess!
Did you discuss The Martian with him?
No, not that one, because I wasn’t giving Ridley Scott notes. We had a lot of laughs on that one, too. It was a lot like working with George: We never went late, we left feeling we had what we wanted, and it was very methodical. They’re similar in that way: they’re very, very well prepared and everything is discussed before you get there. Those two experiences, The Martian and Suburbicon, were very similar because there were no surprises. With both these movies [this and the upcoming Downsizing] I’m really proud they got made, and that a studio made them. To be a part of those two things and know that they came out of the Hollywood system is great, because it means we’re not totally dead yet.
Are we going to be?
Oh man, I don’t know. Something’s going to come along and replace movies at some point as the VR world moves in on us. A lot has migrated to television, so it’s good, because there’s a home for it somewhere. But you can feel this spirit of risk calcifying. The studios just want those big tentpole movies, and it’s really hard to do a tentpole movie when you go in saying “There’s not going to be a franchise here.” We’ll see where it goes. It feels like there should be a correction, because we’ve been dealing with these superhero movies for so many years, but the audiences don’t seem to be getting tired of them.
What’ve you liked recently?
Moonlight. I absolutely loved that film and I saw it three times. I was deeply moved by it. Talk about [film being] a tool for empathy: when a movie is about something that’s so far away from my own personal experience and yet I was so deeply invested in the characters. And that movie was made for a million and a half bucks. So film’s not dead. But in terms of the big studio movies, it feels like the $20 million to $70 million drama is just gone.
Are you going to do another Jason Bourne movie?
I don’t have any plans to. We have to come up with a story and Paul [Greengrass, the director] would have to be interested, so there are a lot of ifs. But maybe someday.
You produced Manchester by the Sea, and you’re developing other projects to produce. Will you direct any of them?
I don’t have any plans right now to direct anything. I’ve had all these near-misses: I almost directed Promised Land and then it didn’t work with my life, because of my kids and I’d been away. Every time I fire myself as a director it becomes a vast improvement for the movie. The last time was Manchester by the Sea, and Kenny [Lonergan] wrote it for me to direct. I brought it to him as a writing assignment, but when I read it I was like, “You have to direct this.” Looking back, I completely stand by the decision; it was the right thing for the movie, he told that story beautifully. I don’t regret not directing any of the things I haven’t directed. But we’ll see. I would have thought I’d have directed by now.
Some of the things you’re producing look really interesting, like the Robert F. Kennedy biography.
RFK we’ve been working on for a number of years, and Nikolaj Arcel wrote a wonderful script, so we’ll hopefully be making that soon. I have to get on the treadmill and lose about 30 pounds! But Manchester was a challenging movie to get made in the marketplace today, and we actually got really lucky; it was only because Kimberly Steward stepped up and financed the whole thing. If it hadn’t been for Kimberly, we couldn’t have even made it. It took one person being really brave and really putting herself at risk financially. So I’m glad it worked out.
I have no idea. I haven’t worked since November, since I finished Suburbicon. I’m not even thinking about work right now, which is really nice.
What do you do when you’re not working? Read, write?
I’ve been addicted to refreshing my newsfeed every seven minutes, so I’m reading a ton every day: I have The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Yorker. I’ve got my list of newspapers and magazines; articles are just landing on my phone and I just sit down and read. But it’s all politics, so I’m not sitting down and reading great biographies. I should, but I’m not.
Last time we spoke, you recommended the multi-volume Robert Caro biography of Lyndon Johnson.
Paul Greengrass gave it to me, but it’s daunting. Mine sat on my shelf for two years. I’d just walk by it and go, “Ugh, no. I’m not going to do it.” And he gave it to me with a note that said, “This is my book of the year.” I knew I had to read it, but it took me 18 months. And what happened was that I got sick, so I was in bed, and the rest of my life shut off, so I had nothing to do and I went, “OK, now’s the time.” And honestly, it’s so gripping. You won’t regret it, I promise you.