Movie Stars: Damon, Matt—Hollywood Everyman

“Matt is the best everyman we’ve got in the industry,” says the writer-director George Nolfi, “and because of that he’s extremely believable in a love story.”

Nolfi is talking about “Adjustment Bureau,” his screen adaptation of the short story by the noted sci-fi writer Philip Dick, titled “Adjustment Team,” which was originally published in 1954 in Orbit Science Fiction.

Nolfi has worked with Damon before, as writer of “Ocean’s 12,” and as co-writer of “The Bourne Ultimatum,” the popular franchise directed by Paul Greengrass, which put Damon on the map as mega-star.

From the start, Nolfi was certain he wanted Damon for the lead, and so he wrote the lead part with the actor in mind.  In the film, Damon plays charismatic politician David Norris, a man who glimpses the future planned for him and realizes he wants something else.

On the brink of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, David meets and falls in love with the beautiful and mysterious ballet dancer Elise Sellas (played by Emily Blunt), a woman unlike any he’s ever known.  But a group of strangers conspire to keep the two apart.  David learns he is up against Fate itself—the men of the Adjustment Bureau—who will do everything in their power to prevent the couple from sharing their lives together.  Facing overwhelming odds, David must either let Elise go and accept his predetermined path, or risk everything to defy Fate and be with her.

At the prime of his career, Damon (who turned 40 last October), is one of the busiest and most respected actors in Hollywood today.  Last year, he made two high-profile pictures, playing the lead in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter,” and a supporting role, sort of a comic relief, in the Oscar-nominated Western “True Grit,” by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Several of Philip K. Dick’s stories have been made into big-budget Hollywood movies by major directors, Paul Verhoeven’s “Total Recall” with Schwarzenegger, Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” starring Tom Cruise, and Ridley Scott’s cult noir “Blade Runner.”  But to Damon and Nolfi, “Adjustment Bureau” is very different from the previous adaptations.

Damon says his interest in “Adjustment Bureau” was piqued by a poignant tale of a man who stumbles on a vast, powerful and unseen world that exists on the periphery of our own.   After reading a treatment, he told the filmmakers that if future drafts looked as good, he would be ready to join.  “George has been a friend and collaborator for a long time,” notes Damon.  “He brought to me this script that he’d written on spec, because he wanted to direct it.  I was a big believer in him and felt he could do it.”

“I got the script to a place where I thought it was ready for Matt,” Nolfi says.  “Once Matt said he was interested in being involved, it was a back and forth collaborative process.”  Nolfi and Damon had many philosophical conversations about the material, and it is from these discussions that Nolfi took specific ideas as to how improve the narrative arc and how build out his story.

Damon was impressed with the manner in which Nolfi expanded Dick’s story (which is very brief), making it relevant for modern viewers: “George was specific about everything—from the look of it to the types of people that he wanted to cast.”

Damon says he was interested in “George’s take on what control we have over our own lives, the whole idea of free will and trying to outrun your fate.  He also liked that the film crosses different genres, sci-fi, actioner, thriller, drama about personal crisis, and political parable.

But above all Damon singles out the romance that his character has with the femme fatale dancer: “The love story with Emily, who’s one of the best actresses I’ve worked with, is central to the movie. Regardless of how the movie is being sold or marketed, it is a love story, and that aspect has to work for the movie to succeed.  We felt that if the love element works, then the rest will fall into place, but if we miss that, then the whole movie could fall apart.  There’s basically no movie with the love.”

Though playing a politician, Damon says, “The job itself doesn’t really appeal to me. I’m interested in politics as a citizen’s interested, but not interested in pursuing a career in politics.”  Damon has met many good politicians with admirable skills, but he feels “we’re fast approaching this place where we’re not getting any of the people that we should get to run for office, because the job is becoming so unattractive.”

One of the problems our politicians face is the new social media: “We’re like the first generation.  We haven’t quite figured out how this technology is going to affect us, and so we’re seeing people make mistakes like going on Craig’s List an emailing topless photos of themselves to women who are not their wives.”  But Damon is confident that “these things won’t happen in 20 years, because the next generation’s going to grow up with it Facebook and know how to use it.”

Despite his extraordinarily busy film schedule, Damon finds time for political activism.  His passion issue over the past couple of years has been water supply in third world countries, such as India, through Water.Org.

“We don’t have any other actors involved,” Damon says. “We’ve got some really large institutional grants that have come to us recently, but I’m not allowed to announce them in public.”

“The most exciting program we have is called Water Credit. My partner Gary White basically took the concept of micro-finance and applied it to water.  In India, for example, we realized you could actually connect somebody’s home to the water source that’s piped right under them. It costs about $75 to connect directly, so why not make a loan for $75? You’re basically buying back time, with all the time that you do not spend going a huge distance to schlep water and carry it back. This way you can spend extra time at your job.  We found out these loans pay back at about 99 percent, and once they are free and clear, these people have the extra income. It’s a scaleable idea, we underwrite the loans, and now these programs are up and running.”

Damon explains: “I went to the banks myself, and talked to some managers in India, and these managers said they would call every other branch in India and tell them because it’s a good and reliable business deal.”

Damon was named the “sexiest man alive” by People magazine in 2007, but he has never succumbed to—or suffered from—the price of fame, unlike his best friend and peer Ben Affleck, with whom he co-wrote the 1997 Oscar-winning script for “Good Will Hunting.”

Damon met his wife, Luciana Bozan, who’s Argentinean, in Miami Beach in 2003, while filming the comedy “Stuck on You.” Damon says his five-year marriage to “a lovely woman, and our kids have completely changed the course of my life.  I think I have a lot less of the kind of craziness that most starts have, partly because I am married to a woman who is not in the business.”

Damon and his family live in New York: “As long as we are not in a real touristy area, if we are walking in any of the neighborhoods, New Yorkers are cool. They don’t make a big fuss, and as a result, my kids don’t see any of the star dynamics that Angie (Angelina Jolie) and Brad (Pitt) go through.  This is what I really love about New Yorkers–they just see me as another guy.  I think I probably live a far more normal and mundane life than one might assume.”

Looking back at his glorious, enviable career, which began over 20 years ago and has included work with the greatest auteurs, Coppola (“The Rainmaker”), Eastwood (“Invictus”), Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan”), Scorsese (“The Departed”), Damon says, “I wish I could say it was a product of some master plan, but I was just a guy with my hat in my hand, looking for steady work.”

Damon has just wrapped Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” opposite Marion Cotillard, about a lethal airborne virus, which Warner will release in October.  Right now, he is in production on Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought Zoo,” the true story of Benjamin Mee, a recently-widowed father who moves his family to a beautiful estate that’s a dilapidated zoo, which Fox will distribute in December.

Coming out next year is “Elysium,” by Neil Blomkamp (“District 9”), a movie whose story is kept behind wraps.  But Damon is really looking forward to working on the Liberace biopic, to be directed by Soderbergh and star an actor he admires, Michael Douglas:  “Michael’s going to be great in that movie, because it’s a brilliant role and only he can play it.”

With a big smile on his face, Damon says, “I saw Michael at the Globes. I turned around and he was standing right behind me, and he goes, ‘hey, sweetie.’”