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Matt Damon Talks About "The Good Shepherd"

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Matt Damon Talks About

Matt Damon stars in "The Good Shepherd."

© Universal Pictures

Matt Damon stars as one of the agents who got in on the ground floor of the CIA in the dramatic movie The Good Shepherd directed by Robert De Niro and co-starring Angelina Jolie. De Niro's second directorial effort focuses on the early days of the CIA and how involvement in the ultra-secretive organization plays havoc with one man's life.

How difficult was it to give life to a very unemotional character, to make him human enough that the audience will want to watch this guy for three hours?
“I was nervous about that and I think with another director I would have given into my fear and indicated more and pushed it more, and been a little more over the top. The reality was that he just insisted on absolute emotional honesty and subtlety all the time. I think something that I certainly have fallen victim to in the past is, because I’m also a writer, you look at every scene and you deconstruct the script. You go, ‘Okay, this scene is in the movie for this reason. The audience needs to come away with this.’ Which as a writer, you can do that, but as an actor that’s deadly. You can’t think in those terms or else you’re going to end up just pulling faces and indicating, and ultimately losing the movie because people don’t believe what you’re doing.

Bob [De Niro] was just insistent on absolute naturalism and realism. He’s a student of human behavior. I’ve never seen an actor as famous as him walk into a room and do what he does, which is he just disappears. He absolutely disappears. He sits there and he watches everything. He sees absolutely every interaction. The reason his work remains so good, and he remains so relevant as an artist, is because he sits there and he is constantly just downloading human behavior. Oftentimes actors become famous and they end up doing imitations of their own performances, or imitations of what they think people might do in certain situations. Very few of them sit there and do the kind of rigorous observation that it takes to embody people in a subtle, nuanced and real way.

We’d have these conversations where I’d say, ‘Well, I’m listening to him here,’ and he’d say, ‘You’re listening to me now. You’re not doing anything. You hear what I’m saying?’ You know what I mean? And to get permission from somebody to do that… Normally a director is telling you exactly the opposite because normally a director is panicking that the audience isn’t going to understand, that the audience is going to be confused. And Bob would not worry about that. He would just say, ‘You play the scene for its absolute honesty and moment to moment, and don’t worry about anything else.’”

Was De Niro the model for your character, a man who can basically disappear in a room full of men?
“Yeah. I mean, in a lot of ways, yeah. He also just gave me permission to do that, which I was fighting against the whole time because I’m not used to being able to do that, to be that subtle. But of course the guy should be subtle. He’s the head of counter-intelligence. Like what’s he going to do, tell you how he’s feeling? I mean, it makes total sense when you think about it. He should be reserved. He should be emotionally distant because it’s very dangerous for him to be any other way.”

Your character is part of the Skulls and Bones society at Harvard. Were you in the clubs at Harvard? Did you see the good old boy network from the inside?
“I did. I was in the Delta Club at Harvard and I did some of that, although it had changed. Now, like the Skull and Bones, for instance, this new generation of kids have gone through and they have totally debunked all of the [myths]. I mean, now there’s a lot of writing about the Skull and Bones. ‘Okay, there’s this rite of passage and there’s that and you have to do that.’ Starting with around my generation people stopped taking, I think, all that stuff quite so seriously. Whereas in 1939 it was of the utmost importance. But nowadays all of those secrets are kind of out in the open. So I think they’re a little different now. Skull and Bones is co-ed now.”

Do you see any parallels between your life and this role, in terms of trying to keep your private life private?
“Actually I don’t have a very hard time keeping my private life private. There’s not that much interest. To me, what felt surreal, I think, was mostly at the beginning, going to work and working with De Niro and being directed by him. That was intimidating at first and ultimately surreal after, and then basically leveled out into, ‘Okay, I can deal with this,’ somewhere around probably the second month.”

How was working with Angelina Jolie?
“Working with Angie, I was just talking to somebody about this upstairs, I also experienced working with Brad too… There’s like just this unbelievable extra thing that they bring with them, which I wouldn't wish upon anybody - which is camped outside the hotel right now are 25 to 50 photographers just waiting because she's in this building. And that would happen when we were shooting at the armory over in Brooklyn. I'd know when she was working because I'd come to work and there would be all these people there. But once we were inside, she and Brad both have this unbelievable ability… I've talked to Clooney about it and Clooney's like, 'I could never do this. It would just eat away at me.' But they just leave it. They just leave it behind them.

We'd get into rehearsals and she was so good in this movie, and so different from anything that she'd done. I just remember thinking, 'God, that's why this is all happening in the first place.' You get so caught up in all this celebrity stuff. They're everywhere and you forget that there's this reason underneath all of it is she's an incredible actress. And I don't know how she handles that stuff. I definitely just couldn't do it. I wouldn't be able to do it. But as George always says, in terms of Brad, he says, 'That's why he's Brad Pitt.' I couldn't do it.”

Page 2: Matt Damon on Director Robert De Niro

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