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Matt Damon On 'Elysium,' Turning Down 'Avatar,' And The State Of Hollywood Today

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MATT DAMON ELYSIUM
Matt Damon stars in "Elysium." | Sony

It's startling that even Matt Damon -- who very few people would argue against being the definition of an A-list actor -- feels the crunch of the modern day Hollywood studio system.

Case in point: Steven Soderbergh's "Behind the Candelabra," which starred Damon and Michael Douglas in awards friendly roles, was not distributed to U.S. theaters. (It debuted on HBO in May after a bow at the Cannes Film Festival; Damon and Douglas earned Emmy nominations for their work.) Damon is adamant that he chooses his roles based on the director, but one of his frequent collaborators, Soderbergh, is done making movies. Perhaps this is why we're seeing Matt Damon in his first full-on science-fiction movie, "Elysium."

To be fair, it was almost his second: Damon was offered the lead in James Cameron's "Avatar," a role the actor couldn't take due to scheduling issues (he honestly seems disappointed that it didn't work out). The pitch for "Elysium" from director Neill Blomkamp -- who burst onto the scene with 2009's Oscar-nominated "District 9" -- reminded Damon so much of Cameron's own, that the actor wasn't going to let this one slip through his fingers. So with "Elysium," we have a rarity: An original summer science-fiction movie that doesn't involve a superhero or giant monster and reportedly cost under $100 million to make.

In "Elysium," Damon plays Max, a laborer in the ruins of Los Angeles, circa 2154. After an accident leaves him with terminal radiation poisoning, Max has five days to get to Elysium -- a utopian space station that the Earth's "haves" migrated to long ago in an effort to leave behind the "have nots." Elysium is a place that offers medical care for any possible ailment -- including Max's. With the aid of a strength-enhancing exoskeleton, Max attempts to illegally make his way to the space station.

In person, Matt Damon is as unassuming as they come -- well, at least when you take into account that he's one of the most famous people on Earth. I met Damon earlier this week in Midtown Manhattan to have what turned out to be a relatively loose talk about his first true foray into science-fiction and why he's not about to take any time off anytime soon.

I have to admit, I felt bad for you, at times, during "Elysium," because you have to wear the heavy-looking exoskeleton contraption for most of the movie.
No, they did a really good job, It's the Weta Workshop guys down in New Zealand. So, by the time I got it, they got it down to 25 pounds.

That still sounds heavy.
Well, but distributed over my whole body, so it really wasn't bad.

It's interesting to see you in a sci-fi movie because you don't do a lot of sci-fi. I guess "The Adjustment Bureau" qualifies, but this is your biggest one.
Totally. I mean, some of my favorite movies are "Blade Runner" and "Alien" and "The Matrix." And I've been dying to do a movie like that. The problem is science-fiction is rarely made that's really good.

What kind of sci-fi were you offered in the past?
The only sci-fi movie that I've ever been offered that, had circumstances been different I would have definitely done, was "Avatar." And I literally couldn't do it because of my schedule. But, listening to James Cameron talk about "Avatar" was so fascinating. Because he literally invented the world in his mind -- and it literally existed. It was a place he had been.

And you would have had Sam Worthington's role, right?
Yeah. And, so, when I sat down with Neill Blomkamp and he started to talk about "Elysium," he started to show me the artwork he'd done. He did a whole graphic novel just on his own computer. And he made this book and he started showing me these images and there was a whole other book of weapons and vehicles -- and the details were so insane. And I suddenly felt like I was talking to James Cameron again.

That's an interesting comparison.
And I think, now, that I've kind of reflected on it, that's what a great science-fiction movie needs. It needs a visionary director who has kind of gone down the rabbit hole and has taken this thought to the extreme: Where every blade of grass and every weapon and every single thing has been carefully thought about.

Aesthetically, it's one of the few sci-fi movies of the CGI era where it doesn't feel like I was watching CGI.
Yeah, that's Neill's big thing, because he came out of VFX. So his whole thing is to make it -- like with "District 9," you never question that the aliens are real and that they're there, hovering over Johannesburg. That's what Neill's specialty is. And he sits there and troubleshoots with his team, "What will sell this?" He was showing me early mockup stuff and he's like, "Here's what will make this believable. I'm putting this in the foreground and I'm putting that in the background." Or, "Here's where the focus is -- you're walking, the camera is on your back and the spaceship is in front of you, deep in the frame, but the focus is on you and not the spaceship." Because there's nothing special about a spaceship in 2154.

It is startling because it's presented as an afterthought.
And that's why he's so good at it. He thinks about how people are thinking about what they're seeing and why. So, when the Max character is walking along at the beginning, a few spaceships whip over his head and he just kind of glances up. They're like L.A. helicopters -- it's nothing.

I feel that you're really good at choosing interesting roles.
It's really director-driven. I'm just convinced now that it's all about the director. Like, I've done movies with no script, do you know what I mean? And they've worked out. The last Bourne, "The Bourne Ultimatum," we literally started that with absolutely no script.

The last time we spoke you mentioned you were miserable on that movie.
We were! Because that's no way to make a movie. But, when you have a great director, you can do it that way. When you have a great director and a script [laughs], it's even better. So, that, really, has just become the only calculus that I kind of employ when making these decisions is the director.

But is that getting harder to do? First Steven Soderbergh warned us about the future of movies, then Steven Spielberg and George Lucas did the same thing. You're an extremely famous guy and considered an A-list actor, are you noticing any differences?
Yeah, I've definitely felt the change. That mid-level movie -- the movies that I used to love to make -- that stuff seems to be migrating to television now. And, you know, the swings that Hollywood is taking are bigger and bigger. And the bigger your budget, the more accessible the movie has to be for everybody. And that tends to mean that is has to be simpler and simpler. And, so, the complexity and the nuance starts to get run out of the movie -- out of just fear.

It's insane to me that "Behind the Candelabra" didn't get a North American theatrical release.
Yeah.

I would have paid money to see that in a theater.
You know, I feel the same way. But, I sat down at Cannes with Harvey Weinstein and said, "Just take me through the thought process." And he said, "OK, here's the deal. It was $23 million and most of the movie is two guys sitting in a room talking. I'm going to have to market it as well and the exhibitors are taking half." So you have to make $75 million, say, or $90 million to just get out. He's like, "That's a big risk." He said, "If you get everything right, which I think you guys did -- and now that I've seen the movie, I'm kicking myself because I know what I could of done with it. But, everything has to go right for that movie to work." And how many kitchen-sink dramas -- how many out of 10 -- hit on all cylinders and get everything right? One? Two? Maybe?

But that one did.
That one did. But there's no way to know that. Nobody gets to see the movies before they're made. And, so, you have to make all of these decisions in the blind.

But that's crazy that people don't trust that Steven Soderbergh will make that movie hit on all cylinders.
I agree. But I think the mixture of the way the business is going and how uneasy people are, and the subject matter, I think really -- it was a margin call for anybody who did it. I mean, it's not like we didn't take it around. Every studio had a crack and every studio thought about it. It's not like anyone dismissed us out of hand. They knew the ingredients and they knew that there was potential upside. But the risk, the downside, was just too hard to defend that choice for them because the odds were against them.

Related to this, what movies do you see in your free time?
The reality? I don't see as many movies as I used to. Or, I should say, as many movies as I would like to. Just because of having four kids and having three small ones. You know, recently, I was in Germany doing "Monuments Men."

Which I'm looking forward to.
Yeah, it's going to be great, I think. George Clooney is a hell of a director, too. But, sitting in a hotel room in Germany, I watched "The Godfather Part II" again. I went back and re-watched a bunch of movies -- "The Battle of Algiers" -- you know, movies that I knew were good. Rather than watching a new movie that I wasn't sure about, I just went back and watched "Klute" and "The Parallax View" and all of these old movies that I love -- just because I hadn't seen movies in so long.

I have a friend who points out we could spend the rest of our lives watching a new classic movie almost every day.
Sure. You could.

In relation to some of the dumb movies we see released.
And I agree with that. So, when I make a movie -- going back to my point about directors -- all of those classic movies you talk about had a brilliant director behind them. As somebody who makes his living in the movie business and wants to contribute to it, I think that the best chance I have of doing that is just consistently working with great directors. Because the chances are that I might make one of those movies.

I feel you have. I mean, "Good Will Hunting," obviously.
Yeah, I mean, I do feel like I have, too. And I try to every single time out.

Would the 25-year-old version of you who got sick after losing weight for "Courage Under Fire" be pleased with the career decisions that the 42-year-old version of you is making?
Definitely. Definitely. It really couldn't have gone better.

It is weird to think of you as 42.
That's how I feel, too. And so much of my life has been spent on a movie set that I feel like I probably am, in some level, still in my mid-30s.

Do you ever feel like what Ryan Gosling's been talking about -- that you do too many movies and that you need a break?
No, I've never really done that. I've taken time off during my wife's pregnancies, so I've taken six months here and six months there. Look, I mean most people get two weeks off a year. So, there are very few actors who are working that consistently. So, even if I have three movies coming out, people say, "Wow, you don't stop working." Well, I actually do. And I never felt like I needed to take a year and just clear my head. Like it was all just too much. You know? On the contrary.

You wouldn't gain too much sympathy with that argument.
And once I started working, I started working and I feel like I'm a better actor for that. I haven't been precious about it. It's more that English, kind of lunch-pail view of things. It's like, you take the role and you do the role. And by the time you're in your 40s, you've done a lot.

Do you feel any pressure from agents or whatever to have another franchise? You've had two in the past. But is anyone telling you, "You need a franchise, this is the way it works now"?
No. I mean ... no. I think in the case of the two franchises that I had, I didn't go into either of them thinking that they'd be a franchise. You know, "Ocean's Eleven" was meant to be a one-off. And "The Bourne Identity," I signed up for one movie. They didn't sign me up for three. And then when I did "The Bourne Supremacy," I signed up for one movie. And then when I did "The Bourne Ultimatum," I signed for one movie. It became a franchise, you know what I mean? It wasn't a foregone conclusion.

I have a weird "Ocean's Twelve" question. There's a plot point where Tess, who is played by Julia Roberts, pretends that she's Julia Roberts. Since the real Julia Roberts exists in that universe, does Linus also realize that he looks like Matt Damon?
No. I don't exist. None of the rest of us exist. Only Julia Roberts exists.

I mentioned this to Steven Soderbergh once and he admitted he thought about taking it further.
[Laughs] Yeah, it would have started interfering.

I liked "Ocean's Twelve." I know that's not everyone's favorite.
It's Steven's favorite of those movies.

Really?
Yeah.

Is it yours?
I don't know, I'd have to watch them all again. It's weird for me, I love all of them. I talked to Clint Eastwood about this once and I was asking him about different movies that he made and he finally just said, "I love them all." Because people say some of them are masterpieces and some of them are terrible, and he goes, "I know why I made each one and I love them all." You spend the same amount of time and energy on the ones that are big hits and the ones that aren't. Do you know what I mean? So you have to love them all, I think.

Even "Eurotrip"? I'd love to see what the "Scotty Doesn't Know" singer is doing today.
Oh, yeah, yeah. I wonder where he is. I think he's still singing in backyard parties.

Speaking of directors, you also worked with Terry Gilliam on "The Zero Theorem."
Yeah, I just did four days on it. But, of course, he called me and I said yes. You know, he's my friend and I love him because we worked together 10 years ago [on "The Brother Grimm"]. But I also just love -- he's one of those directors with a completely unique and wonderful and insane kind of take on things. "Brazil" is a movie that I just re-watched while I was in Germany and I just love it and how precious it was. So, yeah, someone like Terry Gilliam calls and goes, "I got a little thing for four days, can you come to Romania?" it's like, "Send me the plane ticket."

That's not when you want to pull the, "Oh, it's too much," card.
Yeah, exactly! [Laughing] "Oh, no, I'm taking a year off."

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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