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).
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’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, 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.