Matt Damon for “The Legend of Bagger Vance”

Matt Damon is not only a major Hollywood star these days, but an Oscar winning star at that. He is teaming up with the beautiful Charlize Theron as well as Will Smith, in the poetic new Robert Redford-directed pic, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Paul Fischer reports from Los Angeles.

Matt Damon has much to celebrate these days. Not only can he talk with pride about his starring role in Robert Redford’s The Legend of Bagger Vance, but during the week of the film’s opening, he happened to be turning 30. Ah, the big 30, not that young Matt worries about this particular milestone. “I don’t know how it is for you, but for me, people always ask those questions the minute you have a birthday. Do you feel older? And it’s like: Of course not. 8 hours after than the last time. But I guess this one is significant somehow. I guess I haven’t internalised that.”

Damon’s boyishness masks a clear maturity and eloquence, not the down and out guy struggling to find his place in the world, like the character he so effortlessly plays in Bagger Vance. “I think there’s always a tendency to assume that people are like from some kind of external idea or at times vapid reporting about what’s going on. I don’t feel I know what anybody’s life is like who I see kind of in the news.”

Based on the novel by Steven Pressfield and set in 1931, The Legend of Bagger Vance tells of WWI veteran Rannulph Judah (Damon), once a skilled amateur golfer, who agrees to play Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill), two of the game’s most distinguished players, in a 36-hole match. Since Judah’s swing is not what it used to be, a mysterious gentleman named Bagger Vance (Will Smith) is recruited as his caddy. As Bagger helps Judah to get his game back, Judah discovers that many of Bagger’s lessons apply to life as much as to golf.

Damon admits that the character had certain resonances with him. “There’s a certain amount of disillusionment which I think we all have, the older we get. We see how things kinda work, we all become a bit cynical probably. It’s interesting in a sense that this is the guy [in Bagger Vance] who was like the golden child and he had everything, because he thought there were certain rules that applied, and every time he played by these rules, life was wonderful and he was always very successful. But the fact that there is a reality that is chaotic, that isn’t governed by any rules, and he realises that, is enough to send him into a tailspin. He’s a victim of his own success, in a sense that once he realises that life isn’t all governed by a set of rules, he just completely abandons it.”

Damon had no hesitation in agreeing to do Redford’s film, not so much because of the role, but Redford came a calling. “Good Will Hunting is obviously influenced by Redford’s Ordinary People, not only because of the dynamic between the therapist and the central character, but it’s one of our [Ben and mine] favourite movies, so I couldn’t say no. The odds of working with directors that are this good are really slim.”

In the cynical world of Hollywood, Damon is an example of someone who doesn’t seem to have been victimised by success, unlike so many of his contemporaries. The secret of maintaining a semblance of sanity, Damon argues, “is to do with really great friends and family. What success has really done for me is made me a lot stronger than I already thought before it happened. It may sounds trite and hokey but your deep relationships are what defines you; the rest of it’s bullshit.”

A product of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was born on October 8, 1970, Damon grew up in prosperous surroundings with his tax preparer father, college professor mother, and older brother. At the age of ten, he made the acquaintance of one Ben Affleck, a boy two years his junior who lived down the street. The two became best friends and professional collaborators. Educated at Cambridge’s private Rindge and Latin School, Damon was accepted at Harvard University, where he studied for three years before dropping out to pursue his acting career. During his time there, he had to write a screenplay for an English class: it went unfinished, but it would later be dusted off and turned into Good Will Hunting.

Arriving in Hollywood, Damon got his first break with a one-scene part in Mystic Pizza (1988). However, his film career failed to take off, and it was not until 1992, when he had a starring role in School Ties, that he was again visible to movie audiences. As the film was a relative failure, Damon’s substantial role failed to win him notice, and he was back to labouring in obscurity. It was around this time, fed up with his Hollywood struggles, that Damon contacted Affleck, and the two finished writing the former’s neglected screenplay and began trying to get it made into a film. It was eventually picked up by Miramax, with Gus Van Sant slated to direct and Robin Williams secured in a major role.

Before Good Will Hunting was released in 1997, Damon won some measure of recognition for his role as a drug-addicted soldier in Courage Under Fire; various industry observers praised his performance and his dedication to the part, for which he lost forty pounds and suffered resulting health problems. Any praise Damon may have received, however, was overshadowed the following year by the accolades he garnered for Good Will Hunting. His Oscar win and strong performance in the film virtually guaranteed industry adulation and steady employment, something that was made readily apparent the following year with lead roles in two major films. The first, John Dahl’s Rounders, cast Damon as a former card shark trying to make good, despite the temptations posed by his ne’er-do-well buddy (Edward Norton). Despite a name cast and preliminary hype, however, the film proved a relative critical and financial disappointment. The same could not be said of Damon’s second film that year, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. As Ryan’s title character, Damon headlined an all-star line-up and received part of the lavish praise heaped on the film and its strong ensemble cast.

The following year, Damon further increased his profile with leads in two more highly anticipated films, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Kevin Smith’s Dogma. The former cast the actor against type as the title character, a psychotic bisexual murderer, and featured him as part of an improbably blonde and photogenic cast that included Cate Blanchett, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Dogma also allowed Damon to go against his nice-guy persona by casting him as a fallen angel. One of the year’s more controversial films, it reunited him with Affleck, as well as Smith, who had cast Damon in a bit role in his 1997 film, Chasing Amy.

Matt and Ben remain close pals, though with all the work they do with each other, one would assume that by now, they are well and truly sick of each other. “Funnily, we see each other less now than during our teens and twenties. If we were tired of each other, we would have been tired of each other a long time ago, trust me. We have very similar sensibilities about a lot of stuff.”

With the good Hollywood life that Damon has attained, there is the price he pays for success: Loss of privacy. The thoughtful actor remains philosophical. “Right now it’s hard to wrap my brain around the idea that I’m a public figure. It’s a by-product of the other thing, which is getting the best material first and working with the best people. That’s what a movie star gets.” He concludes that his basic philosophy working in Hollywood “is I want to work as hard as I can and I don’t want to let people down. For me, the best I can do is to just look back and say: “I don’t have regrets. I tried my best.’ I always try my best, and I think that’s probably the most valuable thing that I’ve learnt.”

The busy Damon will next be seen in All the Pretty Horses, Ocean’s Eleven, Third Wheel and The Bourne Identity.