Interview: Matt Damon

In 'True Grit', Matt Damon plays LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger who joins young Mattie Ross and U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn on a mission to hunt down Tom Chaney, the man who killed Mattie's father. LaBoeuf is there for other reasons, though, having already been hot on the trail of the elusive Chaney after he murdered a Texas Senator. Acknowledging their mutual goal, the three then set out to capture Chaney together. On the release of True Grit on DVD we tracked down an interview with Matt Damon on the film.

Hey Matt. I was wondering what you thought of the original True Grit film starring John Wayne in 1969?

I didn't see the first one. I keep trying, but I just haven't had a chance. When the Coens came to me with the project they said it was the book that they were focused on and they were not interested in making a re-make of the True Grit movie. But, it's funny when people came up to me and said what role I was going to play I'd just say 'The Glen Campbell role' and they'd say 'Are you going to sing?' (laughs). I'd tell them 'No, I think we are doing something different'.

So instead of giving you a DVD of the original True Grit the Coens gave you a copy of the book by Charles Portis?

Yes they did. I soon realized what a great book it is. The copy they gave me had an essay in the back written by somebody who said the book would probably be admitted to the canon and it would be an important American book, but when the Henry Hathaway-John Wayne movie was made it put a pop culture patina on the book and it fell out of favor. It was Joel and Ethan who read it and fell in love with it. After I read it I went handing the book out to people saying 'Have you read this really great American novel?' What the Coens did with their adaptation, which I thought was really smart, was they took as much of Charles Portis' dialogue as possible. That's the striking thing about the book. He writes beautifully, but his ear for dialogue is just incredible.

There's definitely some classic Coen elements in the film.

(Laughs) True. Like, in the book, the LaBoeuf character doesn't sever his tongue. That's Joel and Ethan's sense of humor. You know, 'Why don't we sever the tongue of the windbag guy who won't shut up'.

Is it true you put an elastic band around your tongue for that scene?

Yeah. It was like one of my daughter's ponytail bands. You take it and wrap it around a few times.

What was it like working with Jeff Bridges? Your characters are kind of rivals.

Playing with Jeff is really fun.  He's in a state of joy when he's working. You can feel it. Some actors predominately bring their performances out of a dark place and that's fine. It works. You can feel it when you're working with them, but others bring it out of a joyful place and Jeff is definitely that. He's a lot of fun to work with.

Do you have a favorite western movie?

I love westerns. Recently my favorite was Unforgiven. I watched it again recently. Earlier Clint Eastwood movies like Pale Rider. I was in high school when that came out.

How did you handle the horse riding? Your rear can get a bit sore after a while.

The wranglers we used on True Grit were the same as another film I did, All the Pretty Horses, which I think nobody saw (laughs) and for that movie I went a few weeks earlier to get acquainted with the horses. The horses are so good and the wranglers so good that you can know nothing about horses, but still look like you do. It's safe. The horses are very calm. You could fire a gun between their ears and they won't spook. It's Horse Riding For Dummies really.

What about saddle soreness?

Yeah. You definitely walk funny for a couple of days.

I read that you were inspired for this movie by Tommy Lee Jones.

Yes. I did a movie with him in 1994. It was a cable TV movie he directed in west Texas where he is from and that's actually where I first met Joel Coen because Frances McDormand, his wife, was also in it. We were in this tiny town in west Texas for a whole summer. Tommy was a great reference for me. He is fun to listen to. He knows a lot about a lot and when you are in a room with him he holds court. There's a bit of English teacher in him. We'd play trivia games with him where we'd say 'Scottish history' and he'd go 'I know Scottish history' and would tell us things and then we'd go look it up and he was right (laughs). So, we came up with this idea in the movie that what if LaBoeuf is similar to that in his delivery, but unlike Tommy Lee, he doesn't have any substance. We thought that would be funny.

You mentioned Unforgiven earlier. What do you think about the evolution of the western. It has become very raw and dark and Unforgiven could be viewed as the first post-modern western. Where do you think your True Grit falls into the evolution?

I don't know. I do know it is a very faithful adaptation of the book and so I don't see it as a post-modern western. In terms of how it was beautifully shot by (cinematographer) Roger Deakins, it looks how it is supposed to look. It is a perfect adaptation of this book. Maybe in 10 years I'll have a better perception of where it fits in, but right now it was very much as faithful an adaptation as we could render.

You have four daughters. Would you like them to grow up as cocky and enterprising as Mattie Ross?

(Laughs) Mattie is very enterprising. What I love about the character is she is incredibly smart and quick, but she still doesn't know the world she lives in and she still is a girl that goes and talks to her horse. She's still a little girl, but is at the moment in her life where she is crossing over. The men around her are very aware of how horrible the world is and trying to protect her. In terms of my kids, I think this is a great coming of age story. She's a 14-year-old and I think we probably do baby our kids too much. It is a tough thing. You want your kids to have the emerging sense of independence without smothering them. You want them to be safe, but you want them to be free. You want strong women. I'm hoping to raise strong women.

You have been really busy the past year.

It seems that way, but really I've had more time off this year than what I have the last 15 years. Hereafter was a three week job. True Grit, I was finished by May. I did two weeks on a (Steven) Soderbergh movie, so I literally didn't work for six months in 2010. I just spent time with my family and we had another baby. I think it just seems I was busy because I had a couple of movies that came out in a row.

How do you choose your roles?

I throw darts at a board and wherever it hits ... no. It is by the director usually.

What director would you like to work with in the future?

There's a lot. Ben Affleck. He has a story he likes, but he hasn't written a script for it yet. It's a long way off. It's a story about two baseball pitchers in the 1970s. It's based on a book.

You have worked with most of the great directors of your time.

 I've had a lucky run of people like the Coens, Paul Greengrass, Clint Eastwood, Soderbergh. As long as those guys keep calling with jobs I'll be happy.

When will we see Matt Damon direct?

I'd love to direct. I've been looking for something. I know the first time I do it will have a big impact on me doing it going forward so I want to be careful about the first one, or first couple really. It's really like acting for me. I'll probably have to write a script just because they don't start sending you scripts until you have actually directed something. Ben did it in a very smart way. He adapted two stories he wanted to tell with another friend that we grew up with. With me, it's also a matter of time. If I'm not shooting I'm with my family. I haven't carved out time to just sit down and write.

Fame doesn't seem to have changed you. Did someone give you advice early on how to deal with it?

No. I don't know how else to live. I'd rather live as normal life as I can.

I haven't' seen a spanking scene like the one in True Grit for a long time.

Well, one that you'd admit to (laughs).

True. I was wondering how was it to do? Did Hailee get padding on her rear because you appear to hit her very hard.

Yeah. Jeff and I are both fathers so there is no way we'd both spank a girl like that. It's a very funny scene. He gets so flummoxed by this girl he doesn't know how to handle it so he gives her a spanking, but yeah, they put a pad on Hailee. The spanking needed to be hard enough that it forces Jeff's character to pull his gun out and point it at me.

What's your favorite Coen movie?

I love Lebowski. No Country was brilliant. I love The Man Who Wasn't There. Miller's Crossing. Blood Simple. Raising Arizona. Fargo. There are all these lines. The other week we were on a movie set and quoting lines. Somebody said something about a deal and I said 'This is my deal Wade' you know, that line from Fargo. Everyone started laughing. That movie is 20-years-old but it has made a lasting impression.

You have worked with so many great directors, what makes the Coens special?

They do all of it at a very high level. They identify the material. They did this great adaptation. I write scripts and it is a really special adaptation. They also hand you a book of storyboards of all of the shots they are going to do. You can leaf through it before the movie is made and basically watch the movie. On set they are open to suggestions, watching everything people are doing and change their storyboards slightly depending on what information they are getting form the real world. I don't know how anyone does all the phases at such a high level. There was never a moment where I felt anxiety or felt the movie wasn't going to work. It felt like they were in complete control of the process.

What's the difference between Joel and Ethan Coen?

I don't know. A lot of their creative discussion happens when it is just the two of them and they are writing it. That's where they deal with their issues. They have storyboarded the whole movie so have already talked about shots at a deep level. By the time you get to the set with them, there's no argument between them. Their notes are so unified. When you are doing a scene one of them may come over and give you a note. Then later the other brother would come over and give you a note. You don't even know if they are conferring. It's just incredible. Going into it I wondered how it would work with two directors, but if there was ever any disagreement on set it would be such a superficial thing that they would instantly defer to the other like if one said 'Pick that up with your left hand' and the other would say 'No, I think it should be the right hand' the first would go 'Ok, pick it up with your right'. There was absolutely no ego.

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  • SJPONeill says
    If you haven't seen the new True Grit, ignore the negative interviews and make your own minds up. I really like the original movie and found that the new movie only added to my enjoyment of the original. They are both very good and (without having read it yet) fairly true to the book.
  • I'd have to agree with you. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Mr Damon, you're a class act... or...
  • DeviousX says
    I also really enjoyed this movie. It's funny how things get such negative reviews and are actually quite good.
    Just like everything I guess you have to make up your own opinion.
  • KH says
    I haven't seen this film yet but I definitely want to! I've heard quite a few good things about it.

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