The Toronto Raptors just advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, and no one is happier about it than Matt Damon. He stayed up to watch them beat the Indiana Pacers in a dramatic Game 7. He watched Drake, the team’s official hip-hop ambassador and Toronto’s unofficial hype man, bound up and down the court, hugging Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and rookie Norman Powell and the rest of them. He watched the highlights of last night’s game again on SportsCentre when he arrived at his trailer this morning at five, groggily reliving the hometown glory of the night before. He’s into it, man. This is his team.
Which is weird, because we all know Matt Damon is a die-hard Celtics fan. What Drake is to Toronto, Damon is to Boston (minus the memes) — a hometown kid made good, who sought brighter lights and bigger fortunes but never really left, a kind of international mascot for all that’s great and good about where he grew up. He might’ve adopted the Raptors for the next few weeks (or months, if they make it that far), but you know it won’t last.
Matt Damon’s professed interest in Toronto sports teams does, however, prove one essential fact about him: he is hell-bent on being as normal as possible.
Damon is up here in The North filming Downsizing, a new Alexander Payne movie. It’ll keep him here for most of the summer, so he brought his wife and four daughters up with him. He rented a house in The Beaches, a quiet residential neighbourhood near Lake Ontario in Toronto’s east end. He has carefully insinuated himself into the life and rhythm of his temporarily adopted city, taking the family out for walks and bike rides and coffee runs, cooking dinner, complaining about our weather, talking knowledgeably and passionately about our sports teams. You know, regular guy stuff.
Considering Matt Damon is one of the biggest stars on the planet right now, we know very little about him. This is by design. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he insisted that mystery is an essential tool for an actor, saying, “I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you, period.” (He would later backtrack from some of his comments, as they would get him in trouble for insinuating that that mystery includes sexuality, one reason gay people should stay in the closet.) Damon, in fact, actively attempts to be boring. He courts it. When it comes to getting press, he’s thankful he doesn’t have all that much going on. “It’s like, ‘OK, you’ve got a bunch of kids, you’re married, and that’s kind of it,’” he says. “And unless I do something to change that, there’s no real reason to follow me around, you know?” So far, he hasn’t done anything to change that.
ONE CONSEQUENCE OF Damon’s self-imposed normalcy is that when you talk about him, you really have to talk about Ben Affleck. For as long as both actors have been in the public eye, they’ve been intrinsically linked, whether by truth, by tabloids, or by late-night talk-show jokes.
In case, somehow, you missed out on that story, it goes a little like this: Damon and Affleck have been best friends for decades, since they were just a couple of scrappers in Boston plotting a way to become stars. Their ticket turned out to be Good Will Hunting, the movie about a brilliant janitor they both wrote and starred in (along with Robin Williams, whose supporting performance earned him his only Oscar).
Good Will Hunting made them famous in a way they claim to have dreamed about, but couldn’t have possibly. Damon and Affleck won an Oscar for their screenplay, and delivered one of the all-time great speeches in Academy Awards history. Seriously. It’s two glorious minutes of frantic shouting, jumping, and unbridled joy. They look young — younger, even, than their ages (Damon was 29, Affleck was 27). They get prompts from their mothers, both sitting in the front row, on whom to thank. They look truly innocent, as though someone had to invent that word for that exact moment. Maybe it’s not fair to superimpose a lifetime on top of that one evening from 20 years ago, but it’s also kind of impossible not to. That moment up there on the Oscars stage — that was the last time they were ever that young. It was the last time these two everyday dudes were ever actually everyday dudes.
Matt Damon is hell-bent on being as normal as possible.
The only reason I’m thinking about Damon’s friendship with Affleck at all is because he brought it up first. Damon talks about his pal Ben — and he calls him Ben, because he knows that I know who he means — in reference to his own fame, to his own family, to his own life. It’s as though, even for Matt Damon himself, there is no Matt Damon without Ben Affleck.
“Ben and I, we grew up together,” he says. “We had a great high school drama teacher — just one of those once-in-a-lifetime teachers — who changes your life completely. He was strict in the sense that he demanded a lot from his students, but he was the kind of teacher you’d just do anything for. And we did.” That was the teacher that inspired Good Will Hunting — if not the movie, exactly, then the work ethic it takes to make a movie, the idea that if you chase your passion and follow through, good things will come.
“We were pretty formed as young teenagers,” says Damon. “When he was 14 and I was 16 we were going to New York together. And we were from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and nobody in our families were in the entertainment business, you know, our parents were teachers. This was just something that we wanted to do and were obsessing about, and I think that because we were friends, and our friendship was built around the love of this thing, we kind of fed off each other and pushed each other.”
Damon and Affleck never stopped pushing. “I think we were a little weird, actually,” he says. They spent the entirety of their teens taking early morning trains to New York for auditions, sleeping on couches, grinding as hard as they could. Then, they spent the entirety of their early twenties writing (and rewriting) Good Will Hunting. It was only after the movie came out that Affleck and Damon found themselves on different trajectories for the first time in their lives. And those differing trajectories would come to define the other.
Affleck would veer towards indies and schlocky, ill-received blockbusters: Armageddon, Shakespeare in Love, Pearl Harbor. Damon, on the other hand, would find himself starring in juicy, star-studded dramas like Saving Private Ryan and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Affleck got panned, Damon got acclaim. Affleck receded, Damon rose and rose and rose. He joined Brad Pitt and George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven, then kicked off his own critically-acclaimed action series with The Bourne Identity.
JASON BOURNE, the eponymous character of Damon’s latest film — and of three previous films that, with their shaky camera work and old-school, non-CGI’d stunts, changed the way we think about action movies (and action stars) — is a CIA-trained assassin struggling to discover his true identity.
Jason Bourne is not, in short, a normal guy. But over the course of four movies now, he has made it his personal mission to become one. In that strange way, Jason Bourne is everything like Matt Damon.
For Damon, the Bourne movies are personal. On the one hand, there’s the fact that they helped propel him to superstardom, proving to the world that this skinny kid from outside Boston could single-handedly take on a global terrorist network, if you’d let him. And then there’s the man who did let him, director Paul Greengrass, the only person with whom Damon will consent to work on anything Bourne-related — a fact that got a lot of press a couple of years ago when a studio-led reboot of the Bourne series, The Bourne Legacy, starring Jeremy Renner and directed by Tony Gilroy, hit cinemas.
Now, after much careful PR-speak and a whole new story, the original Bourne team is back. “Paul and I are friends, and we love working together,” says Damon. “We would revisit the idea of another Bourne movie a couple times a year and talk about it, but it was nine years before we felt that we had a story. In a way, we had to wait for the world to change a little bit, to kind of get a new storyline.”
That’s the other hand. Damon’s Bourne movies all have a very real sense of urgency. They’re grounded in the global anxieties of today, dealing with the heightened emotions of a world at war and constantly on edge, waiting for the next terrorist attack or stray shooter to appear in the news, or worse, in our cities. “We have bigger questions about what direction the world is going in, and how technology is changing all of our lives, and what are the repercussions of this rapidly changing world,” says Damon. “It’s exciting in one sense, but I think it probably creates a sense of unease in another. The Bourne experience should be a reflection of that.”
Like Bourne, Damon is constantly running, charging against his own personal sense of unease. For him, that unease stems from his fame, which, despite seeming so practiced and assured in front of a camera or in an interview, he’s not actually all that comfortable with. He married someone outside of the business, and keeps his children shielded from the press as much as possible. Partly because that’s who he is, how he likes to live. And partly because he’s seen — secondhand — how fame can turn ugly, fast. “I remember when Ben would do all this tabloid stuff in the early 2000s,” he says, “just feeling like, ‘Oh my God, this is unrelenting.’”
He’s talking, of course, about Affleck’s sordid romance with Jennifer Lopez, his partying, the heat he took for, well, not being Matt Damon. The buddy narrative always has a bad side, too.
Also like Bourne, there are obstacles at every turn for Damon. The biggest one seems to be time — the longer he spends as a movie star, the less he can ever hope to be a normal guy. Nearly 20 years after Good Will Hunting — and 14 years after The Bourne Identity — Damon is still working, still famous. He’s a household name in every ordinary household across America. So much time has passed since his early days in Boston, since the college essay he wrote that started with, “For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be an actor.”
It’s the paradox of Hollywood: now that he has everything he strived so hard for, he has to live with it. Not only is he this year’s biggest action star, but so is his best friend — the man is BFFs with Batman. (And, not for nothing, Batman is an Oscar-winning director in his own right.) That’s the other thing about time: it has this way of changing people’s minds and opinions, of changing trajectories. Now Damon and Affleck are just a couple of guys in their mid-forties, at the heights of their respective careers.
So no, Matt Damon is not like other people, not anymore, and he knows it. In some ways, this is the guy he’s always been. “Ben and I have talked about this: we look back at how young we were, and we didn’t feel like we were young,” he says, pausing. “You never do, right?” He’s right, of course. And that’s perfectly normal.