True Grit (M)
03 Feb 2011
Matt Damon has been a huge part of the cinema scene for around 15 years, during which he has taken on a variety of roles from Jason Bourne in the action trilogy to one of the Grimm brothers in Terry Gilliam’s fantasy fairytale. Renowned for hitting the big time in Good Will Hunting alongside his friend Ben Afleck, he has gone on to become a Hollywood stalwart, appearing in box office greats such as The Departed, Invictus, Green Zone, The Talented Mr Ripley and Saving Private Ryan. Talking to Donna Walker-Mitchell, he spoke about his latest role in True Grit alongside Jeff Bridges.
Had you wanted to work with the Coen brothers for sometime?
Yeah, forever. I first met Joel in 1994 when I did a cable TV movie with his wife Fran 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 short list of directors, they would be right there.
Did they live up to expectations?
Completely and for a whole host of reasons besides being genuinely nice people. Each phase of the process was a real pleasure. For a start it was a wonderful screenplay – it’s a great adaptation of the book. And then they sent us all storyboards where we could literally open this giant book and look at the shot design of the film. It was basically like looking at the movie in cartoon form before you go and make it. So you got all of this information before you even enter into the process of production, and then within production, they have an incredible flexibility in terms of being available to good ideas that happen in the moment. And so it’s just that kind of combination, which really means that they’ve got total mastery of the process of directing. And then obviously there’s the whole post-production part, which we actors aren’t a part of, but that’s a whole other phase that they are obviously just at the very highest level. They are pretty great directors. But it’s all set up that way - they knew how they were going to edit the scene pretty much when they were writing it.
My character in True Grit is supposed to be a windbag...
Was it fun building that character?
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 [Frances McDormand] 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?
Actually that idea isn’t in the 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 [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.
Let’s talk about Hailee Steinfeld who plays Mattie Ross. She delivers a remarkable performance …
She’s quite extraordinary in general. 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, 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.