In "The Martian," the new space odyssey directed by Ridley Scott, Matt Damon spends a lot of time alone.
He has a good reason: His character, astronaut Mark Watney, has been left for dead on Mars after a routine mission goes wrong. Watney spends most of the movie explaining in a video log (and to the audience) how he will survive. He's a master botanist, which helps.
"I've never really done something by myself like that, and that was really the appeal," Damon says by phone. "It's so risky to try to do something by yourself that I would only ever do it with a master director. When Ridley became interested, that was really the moment it became real for me."
"The Martian," of course, is only a movie (and a very popular novel by Andy Weir, celebrated by fans for its scientific rigor). But Watney and Damon have a little bit in common, chiefly a sense of blissful isolation from the mayhem surrounding them.
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Much as the astronaut keeps a cool head while ground control frets over how to get him home, Damon is the rare Hollywood personality who managed to carve out a regular life far from the madding tabloids and media circus.
When he recently made headlines on the revived filmmaking production series "Project Greenlight," for making a statement about diversity that created ripples of discontent, it was a bit of a shock: Matt Damon said something controversial enough to get people mad? The media chatter machine seized on the rare opportunity for Damon celebrity news, he issued an apology, and he went back to work. (All of this happened after we spoke on the phone.)
I know people who rip Damon for being bland, and I understand the criticism. He's a combination movie star and character actor who can plug into just about any kind of role. He rarely does anything flashy onscreen. The Bourne franchise, to which he will return next year after sitting out the last one along with director Paul Greengrass, is a pretty grounded and cerebral affair as far as big Hollywood properties go.
Damon's perceived vacantness was memorably parodied in the political puppet comedy "Team
America: World Police," in which the only words the Damon puppet can say are his own name. But you can tell there's more going on in there than he reveals.
He regularly collaborates with the best filmmakers out there, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh (several times), the Coen brothers, Greengrass and Christopher Nolan. He tries to learn something from each of them, and he plans to direct someday.
He does odd, little-noticed films like "Gerry" and "Promised Land" when he feels like it. When he opens his mouth to address world events, including climate change, he tends to be well-informed.
He just goes about it all rather quietly. His regularity makes him seem irregular.
Damon, who turns 45 in October, chalks up much of his relative anonymity to his lifestyle choices, including his 2005 marriage to Luciana Barroso, who doesn't have anything to do with the entertainment industry.
"I got lucky in marrying a woman who isn't in the business," Damon says, "so there's less of an appetite for everything relating to our life. The tabloids just leave us alone. Ultimately, what sells those things anyway is scandal and sex and all this stuff. As long as the narrative in my story is, 'He's a married guy with four kids and he lives pretty quietly,' there's no real sizzle there for them, so they don't really bother. Which is great, because we live a relatively normal life."
He had his first blast of fame pretty early, with his starring role and screenwriting Oscar for 1997's "Good Will Hunting."
Along with buddy and co-writer Ben Affleck, whose romances with the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Garner set the tabloids drooling, he became a face of the new Hollywood. And he learned quickly that he'd rather be working than making news.
"My reaction to fame, when it all hit me, was just to run and work as much as I could and not really come up for air," Damon says. "I did that for years. I just had a duffel bag and literally traveled around the world and did movie after movie and never took a break."
He still gets the travel bug, which recently took him to the Great Wall of China for the upcoming Zhang Yimou mystery "The Great Wall." But he's just as likely to take his wife, the kids and their friends -- 17 tykes in all -- on a trip to Disneyland.
We live in a time when the famous grow addicted to their celebrity and the talentless increasingly seek fame for fame's sake. (For this, reality TV remains thankful.) Damon fascinates me because he doesn't seem to care. He took a long look at the lush life. Then he decided to head to Mars.