Matt Damon Grows Up

Before Matt Damon shows up on a rooftop balcony at Rome’s Hotel de Russie, before he sits down and tells me about growing up in Cambridge, his as-yet-unborn kids, and what he thinks about the whole Bennifer thing, before all of that, there are the paparazzi. They’re everywhere. They’re camped out in front of the Pantheon where a crew is shooting scenes for Ocean’s Twelve. They’re casing the Colosseum, where some of the stars have dropped by to sightsee on their days off. This age-old city is in an uncharacteristically starstruck frenzy over the movie. The Romans can’t get enough. The photographers have moved to the roped-off square in front of the Pantheon (it’s a truly strange and modern thing, to see paparazzi in front of the ancient Roman temple) after waiting all night outside the hotel near the Piazza del Popolo where George, Brad, Julia, Matt, and the rest of the Ocean’s Twelve gang are staying. (Yesterday, the stars foiled any chance for a picture by staying in and partying on the hotel’s private balcony.)

For a regular guy from Cambridge who became an international movie star and now works hard to maintain the image of a regular guy from Cambridge, the attention must be nerve-racking. Damon takes advantage of every minute away from the media hordes in an attempt to hang on to what passes for regular: Just before our interview, he sits in the Hotel de Russie’s courtyard, relaxing around an umbrella-shaded table with a dozen or so very American-looking pals and the very exotic-looking Luciana Barroso, a 28-year-old former bartender Damon met in Miami last year, who has been seen by his side ever since. Her five-year-old daughter from a previous marriage is perched on Damon’s lap, arms around his neck. The girl has his undivided attention. Together, they look very much like a family, and Damon looks perfectly comfortable in the role of a dad.

“Normally, I don’t get that much attention,” Damon says of the paparazzi when we finally meet. “I think it’s because of the nature of the Ocean’s movies and the sight of all of us together in all these different places. They think that sells their magazine, so that’s why I’ll be in them for these couple of months. But normally, I’m not. Normally, I kind of fade out of that.”

This is especially true lately. Damon has spent the better part of the past year staying off the celebrity-machine’s radar screen, wrapped up in the back-to-back filming of The Bourne Supremacy and next spring’s Terry Gilliam–helmed fantasy, The Brothers Grimm. He’s kept himself out of the gossip columns, dodging the spotlight in favor of less flashy pursuits, even forming a bowling league in Berlin with the Bourne film crew — in sharp contrast to that other famous actor from Cambridge.

What also helps Damon fade out of things is that he doesn’t really look the part of a movie star. He’s attractive in a wholesome, fresh-faced New England kind of way. His 5-foot-11 frame is compact and muscular after months of playing action-figure superspy Jason Bourne. A day or so’s worth of scruff hardens his otherwise boyish face. But when he smiles that famous smile, with those almost perfectly straight teeth (up close, one bottom tooth is thankfully just out of alignment), his look transforms altogether, from serious and standoffish to carefree and engaged. When we sit down, he’s wearing a navy polo shirt, jeans, and a commemorative Fenway baseball cap. He’s exceedingly polite and unassuming, even a little reserved. He doesn’t mean to be aloof; he’s just too smart to open up. He’s done this before, many times, and he knows how to protect himself. There are no assistants, no bodyguards. Damon is the kind of guy you might see sipping a beer on his front porch. And that’s how he hopes you’ll think of him, too.

But I expected to see the funny side of Matt Damon. The goofy, all-around good guy. The boyish Matt who giggled with real amazement through an Oscar acceptance speech. The mischievous Matt who torments Harvard Square smart-asses in Good Will Hunting. The wry Matt who turned in a hilarious performance as a straight man pretending to be a gay man trying to win a spot on a choir trip to Europe on the television show Will & Grace. The cheesy Matt who likes the Starland Vocal Band’s 1970s hit “Afternoon Delight” enough to weave mentions of it into interviews and onto movie soundtracks. The Matt who did an unbilled cameo as a lead singer of a garage rock band in the teen throwaway Eurotrip. It’s a side of Damon’s personality that makes you want to be in on the joke.

This morning in Rome, behind the sunglasses (which he wears because it’s sunny, not because he’s a star hiding behind shades and a pulled-down-way-too-low hat), there is the first, slightest hint of laugh lines around his blue eyes. Matt Damon is serious, mellow, relaxed. Grown up.

Damon has family on his mind. it’s on his mind a lot these days. Maybe it’s because he’s reached that biological hour — he’ll be 34 this October — or because his involvement with Barroso and her daughter has brought family into the everyday foreground. Either way, everything about Damon is maturing. Even his characters. This summer, after Ocean’s Twelve wraps, he’ll begin filming the Steven Soderbergh–George Clooney-produced Syriana, in which he plays a man with a young child. It is the first parental role of his career.

“I hadn’t even thought of it,” he says quietly, reflecting. “It was just a role I liked in a movie that I loved. And it was important that he be a father. I think some people take kind of a cynical view of their careers, and they go, ‘Well, now I need to take the next step, and now I need to play a father.’ That didn’t occur to me.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Damon’s career path and the roles he’s chosen are left to circumstance, however. He says he has always wanted to be an actor and has pursued that goal with a singular resolve. “When Matt was a freshman,” remembers Gerry Speca, Damon’s drama teacher at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, “the first thing he said to me was ‘I’m going to be an actor.’ He was so focused and eager.”

Damon shrugs off his success in characteristic nice-guy fashion. “My high school acting teacher put in me and Ben and Casey a really great gift, which was this way to approach work and a type of discipline to have when we approached it. He taught us to approach your work with a kind of abandonment that took out that fear of failure from the equation so you kind of just dive into it and put your head down and bust your ass.”

It’s a strategy that has worked well. His early screen parts, such as the one-line role of a young blueblood in 1988’s Mystic Pizza (Matt was all of 17) or the buttoned-up nemesis to Brendan Fraser’s hero in 1992’s School Ties, didn’t stretch him much. His Cambridge background made playing a preppy New Englander a cinch. It was 1996’s Courage Under Fire that changed everything. Damon was determined to get Hollywood’s attention, and his turn as Army Specialist Ilario, a tormented, heroin-addicted soldier (Damon shed a scary 40 pounds for the role) did the trick: Within the year, he was tabbed for the lead in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker and the title role in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

Everything changed again in 1997 when Good Will Hunting made him famous overnight. Suddenly, he was an “it” boy, and not just because he had turned in a good performance (because he had), but because he had the weight of an Oscar for screenwriting behind him to force Hollywood to take his talent seriously. Meatier, more challenging roles followed, like the lead in The Talented Mr. Ripley, ushering in a new phase in Damon’s career. His Will Hunting became the first of a host of characters who have one thing in common: They are men embroiled in a struggle over their identity. Tom Ripley desperately wants to be someone other than who he is. CIA operative Jason Bourne doesn’t even know his own name.

“There’s a lot of depth to Matt Damon,” Bourne executive producer Frank Marshall has said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on behind the eyes, and I think it’s important to this character because it’s not just an action part.”

Damon himself obviously isn’t struggling with his identity. On screen, he has forged a reputation as a serious actor. His choices have been smart; they’re the choices of someone who knows exactly where he’s been, where he is, and where he’s going. In short, he’s hitting the prime of his career right in stride.

By now the story of Damon’s childhood in Cambridge is engrained in the pop-culture vernacular. He was raised by his mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor of early childhood education at Lesley College who divorced his father, Kent Damon, when Matt was two. Carlsson-Paige raised her two boys (older brother Kyle is a sculptor who still lives in the Boston area) in an unconventional, but fittingly Cantabrigian household, even moving them into something of a communal house in Central Square when Damon was 10. (To date, Damon calls himself “democratically leaning from the left.”)

Acting became an obsession early on. Damon’s first small role, says Speca, was as a samurai in a high school production. “Before rehearsal, Matt was pacing back and forth in the corner, practicing his lines,” Speca recalls. “He had commitment. He was a kid who was just glad he got the part he did and then followed through.”

After high school, Damon went on to Harvard and then, true to the making-it-in-Hollywood script, headed out to California with his best high school buddy, a gangly college dropout named Ben Affleck. Together they struggled through a series of go-nowhere, made-for-TV movie roles — The Good Old Boys with Tommy Lee Jones for Matt; Daddy, a Danielle Steel adaptation for Ben — before pooling their talents and writing a screenplay called Good Will Hunting. The rest . . . well, you know the rest.

Matt and Ben. It’s impossible to talk about one without talking about the other. Even Matt can’t talk about Matt without talking about Ben. When Damon relates how he got from there to here, from a commune in Central Square to a balcony overlooking the Piazza del Popolo, Ben’s name punctuates the story. They will be forever linked, and that’s okay. They are still close friends (Matt keeps in touch with Casey Affleck, too), and they’ve relied on each other as they’ve weathered the celebrity storm. In some ways, they needed each other. During the lean times, they shared a run-down one bedroom in L.A., commiserating over audition rejections and sharing the common bond of their Red Sox roots. Which is a good thing, because even the people closest to them worry about the effect of the publicity. Damon’s mother fretted about it from the beginning. In 1997, when the Good Will Hunting maelstrom was just building and Damon got his first magazine cover, she told Vanity Fair, “It’s all so out of the ordinary that I worry he might not grow as I want him to.”

But her boy was well-grounded and had a natural instinct for withstanding the scrutiny. By just being himself, he figured it all out.

“The night after Ben and I won the Oscar, we flew overnight to Pittsburgh to start to rehearse for Dogma,” Damon remembers with a smile. “There were probably 50 or 100 people at the gate waiting for us. So I signed autographs for everyone, took a picture with everybody who wanted a picture, and the hysteria slowly started to die down because we weren’t running away. By the time we got on the shuttle to get our bags, Ben looks around and goes, ‘Check this out,’ and nobody was paying any attention to us. They totally lost interest. Had we gone blasting through with security, everybody probably would have freaked out, but we stopped and we talked to everybody, and it just wore off.”

Still, celebrity is a funny thing, and no matter how much you’ve learned how to deal with it all, and how discreet you try to be, sometimes there’s little you can do to keep your personal life from being splashed across the pages of the supermarket tabloids. Which is what happened to Ben when he began his famous romance with Jennifer Lopez.

“The only thing I have to say about that, and I’ve mercifully missed a lot of this,” Damon says with an honesty that is, frankly, surprising, “is that Ben’s a really smart guy, and watching from a distance, I knew that he knew that the worst thing for his career was to be on the cover of Us Weekly every week. I think it’s funny when people accuse him of wanting that attention, because every actor knows that if you end up in the cross hairs of those kinds of publications, your movies aren’t going to do any business. Why am I going to pay $10 to see that guy in a movie when on Monday, here he is getting a Starbucks, Tuesday, here he is in a bookstore. There’s no mystery in that.”

But why, why the Bentley, the pink diamond ring, the Diane Sawyer interview?

“Because he was in love,” says Damon. “So it was a mixed bag. On one hand, I felt: God, this is really horrible. This must be personally really hard for him. He must feel like a prisoner in his own house. Professionally, he knows it’s bad for him. But on the other hand, I felt like, Well, my friend’s in love. That’s great, because only serious feelings would keep him around in a situation like that.”

For the most part, Damon has avoided the kind of publicity that consumed Affleck and spat him back out. He’s done this by dating civilians — that is, since his earlier relationships with Minnie Driver and Winona Ryder. Damon was even reportedly engaged to Affleck’s former personal assistant, Odessa Whitmire, but that ended last fall, just before he got involved with Barroso.

“If you’re with somebody who’s in the business, it becomes exponentially more severe, the attention does,” he says. “So I think if you don’t date anybody who’s in the movie business, you’re one step ahead. And if you don’t live a garish or obnoxious lifestyle, people tend to lose interest. If you’re not going out to nightclubs and dancing on the tables, the [paparazzi] leave you alone, and once they leave you alone then you’re not in the magazines at all, and then the magazines leave you alone.”

For Damon, “alone” means his retreat in Greenwich Village, which he bought in 1999 and where he hopes to spend more time this year. “I live a normal life in New York,” he says. “I walk around by myself, and occasionally people will stop and say, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ Or, ‘I enjoy your work,’ or ‘You suck!’ or whatever it is. There’s an acknowledgement of ‘He’s not making a big deal of himself, so there’s no reason for me to make a big deal of him.’ I can go out and get a beer, and I think once people see that I don’t look at myself that way, they don’t look at me that way, and they end up going, ‘What the heck am I having a beer with this guy for? I should go sit with my own friends.'”

Now that Damon has mastered the whole celebrity thing and the acting thing (though he insists that one is still a work in progress) and the writing thing, what he wants to do more than anything is to direct.

“I think it’s a natural step, especially if you’ve already written, because the director is really the position that controls the project the most,” he says. “You know, movie stars have grown so much over the past 20 years. I think there’s this myth that if the movie’s great, it’s because of them, and if the movie’s terrible, it’s because of them. And the reality when you’re doing it is that sometimes it’s really frustrating because you’re just hired labor.”

Damon looks to his Ocean’s costars George Clooney and Brad Pitt for inspiration on how to build a career that has more substance than just superstardom. They have selected various roles (comedy, action, independents, blockbusters) and dabbled in producing and directing, which combined has earned them serious respect.

“I just want to do stuff that’s different for me,” Damon says. “There are a lot of actors that get pigeonholed, and they have to do the same stuff over and over. I’d die of boredom if I had to play the same guy over and over. Someone like George Clooney, who’s constantly doing different stuff — he’s doing Coen brothers movies, he’s doing big studio movies, he’s directing movies — he doesn’t want to be categorized as just the ‘sexiest-man-alive’ guy. His interests are far more reaching than that.”

Damon has learned a lot, absorbed what he can from everyone he’s come in contact with in the business of movie stardom. Perhaps the lesson he’s learned most thoroughly is how to keep the focus on being a really good actor, not just on being famous. It means being the kind of guy who, when in Boston, heads straight to Sonsie for a low-key lunch instead of checking out the latest hot spot, or who quietly catches a Red Sox game with friends, and without fanfare.

In fact, Damon sees important lessons in being a Red Sox fan. “It takes the rose-colored lenses off your worldview pretty quickly,” he says. “I think it’s a good thing to give children.”

There it is again. Children. Clearly growing up, moving on, and taking the next step is something that’s on Damon’s mind.

“Where I live now in New York, I don’t think I’d want to raise a family there,” he says. “But I look every time I work. I’m looking at all these places. Could I raise a family here? Could I raise a family there? I don’t think there is the perfect place. It’s just where you decide to put your roots down. I could see going back to Boston because my whole family’s there, my mom, my father, my brother, his wife and their kids. A lot of my friends I grew up with. So there’s obviously a big draw.”

So after all the hype of this star-splashed European summer is over, after the paparazzi have found another movie star to chase, Damon will head back to the States to go about living that normal life he loves to talk about.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever settle down in one place — this business doesn’t really allow you to do that,” he says after some consideration. “You can have kind of a headquarters, a base of operations, but a lot of the work is location work, so you’ll be gone for three months at a time. But that’s okay, too. I’d like my kids to have that experience of traveling. I think it’s great for kids to get out. We’re so geographically isolated in America that it’s great to be able to see how other people live and understand that we’re part of a bigger world.”