The 'True Grit' star talks about working with the Coen brothers on their new western and his "windbag" character, Texas Ranger LaBoeuf.
Had you wanted to work with Joel and Ethan Coen for sometime?
Matt Damon: Yeah, forever. I first met Joel in 1994 when I did a cable TV movie ['The Good Old Boys'] with his wife Fran [Frances McDormand] down in West Texas. So I had met Joel in West Texas 16 years ago and it took them that long to offer me a job! [laughs]. But I was dying to work with them and any actor you talk to would say the same thing. If you ask for a shortlist of directors, they would be right there.
Was it fun building your character, LaBoeuf?
MD: He's a great character and it was a lot of fun. I worked with Tommy Lee Jones in 1994 when he directed 'The Good Old Boys', which Fran and I did with him and that's when I first met Joel and Ethan. And Joel and Ethan subsequently worked with Tommy to incredible effect in 'No Country for Old Men' and Tommy gave a remarkable performance in that. And actually, I had Tommy as a frame of reference [for 'True Grit'] because he's from West Texas. And he's also somebody who is really fun to listen to, he knows a lot about a lot, and there's something of the English teacher in him - you can ask him an obscure question and he enjoys knowing what he knows [laughs]. And so we kind of riffed on that. It's not exact but it's a similar way of presentation. My character in 'True Grit' is supposed to be a windbag - it's like he comes over as a man who knows everything but actually doesn't know very much at all! Not that Tommy's like that, but Tommy is a great storyteller. And that was where we started to build the guy.
And the lovely irony is that this guy - a "windbag" as you call him - gets his tongue badly bitten. How did you play those scenes?
MD: Actually that idea isn't in the [Charles Portis] novel - it's pure Joel and Ethan. But you take the idea of this guy who won't shut up to the extreme, where he actually severs his tongue and still keeps talking. And I figured out how to do it a few months before. 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 in New York with Joel and Fran 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.
Let's talk about Hailee Steinfeld who plays Mattie Ross. She delivers a remarkable performance…
MD: She's quite extraordinary in general. She's 13-years-old and I wouldn't believe that a 13-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.
Did you know Jeff Bridges before this?
MD: I didn't. I'd met him only in passing. 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. And the environment is just joyful when he's working - we had a lot of fun, I laughed a lot. It reminded me of working with another great actor, Morgan Freeman. They are so good that they are carrying both of you. I know I'm in the presence of greatness when that's happening.
Did you watch the original 'True Grit' movie? What was your attitude to that film?
MD: I actually still haven't seen the other film, because when I had talked to Ethan and Joel about this one, they said: 'We are just going to the original source material, we are not seeing it as a remake, we're seeing it as an adaptation of the Charles Portis novel'. So they gave me the novel. And I went out and I did buy a copy of the movie, but I still haven't cracked [opened] it yet and that has more to do with four young kids at home [laughs] and I haven't a lot of time.
Are you a fan of the western genre?
MD: Yeah, very much so and in fact, it's hard to find material that feels like it's not just a retread of something. But this is a western that deserved to be made. I think Clint [Eastwood] did it to great effect 15 years ago but 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.
Clint Eastwood is 80 and still going strong. Would you like to have that kind of longevity?
MD: I hope I'm working into my 80s. I hope I'm able to take care of myself as well as he has because he's got a lot of energy - he feels great, he looks great and I think doing something that you love is energising. Clint is the model and he kept acting, too, and his work kept getting better and better. He's one of the few people that have aged gracefully in Hollywood. So yeah, that's the dream.
But is there a different approach when you get a little older? You've got a family now: would you take on a role in the same way as you did when you made 'Courage Under Fire' and lost all that weight?
MD: I don't think you can carry on like that and I don't think it's healthy. You do it in short verse if you need to. If there was some role where I needed to lose weight, I'd do it. I read something that Anthony Hopkins said once where he talked about getting older and acting and that the whole process becomes far more economic because you don't waste energy. I think as a young man, I wasted a lot of energy doing things that I thought would help my performance and didn't. And so you don't go down those rabbit holes anymore because you've learned the hard way not to. And in the end you can turn in a much better performance because you are using your energy in the right way.
What's it like watching your films for the first time and specifically, what was it like watching 'True Grit'?
MD: Great. I feel about this movie the same way I felt about 'The Informant!' - they are the only two movies in my career that I wouldn't want to change a frame of it. And that's really rare. Normally, it's jarring to see and I think perhaps because I wasn't in a lot of this movie I was really able to enjoy the work that everyone else did. I'm really happy with the way that this one came out and having done 40 movies or whatever it is, I know that's not normally the case.