Friday, February 11, 2011

Matt Damon - True Grit

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.

Watch the trailer here. True Grit opens on Friday, February 11th.

Article courtesy Paramount.

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