Jason Bourne is back – older, wearier, but still deadly. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw meets Matt Damon, the man behind the role.
He describes himself as “a movie fighter – a black belt in fake karate”. But as Jason Bourne, Matt Damon has given the screen its premier exponent of brutally effective killing. Bourne is an assassin, and his toolkit is crammed with guns, explosives and a particular dexterity for martial arts.
Now he’s back, aged 45, for his fourth Bourne adventure, reclaiming the throne that he abdicated nine long years ago.
“It’s a lot harder,” he says, referring to the fitness regime that comes with the territory. “At 45, everything is harder. At 29 I boxed for six months, I was lifting weights, I was running and really working out. A lot of it is the diet. That’s the worst part. I love going out and drinking good wine and eating good food with my wife. It’s one of my favourite things to do. So that was my sacrifice, but it’s not a lot to sacrifice, ultimately, to make a movie that you really wanna make.”
Damon was an unlikely contender for Jason Bourne when The Bourne Identity went into pre-production in the early 2000s. At that point he was still best known for Good Will Hunting, his friendship and partnership with Ben Affleck and supporting work in movies such as Courage Under Fire, Saving Private Ryan and Geronimo.
In The Talented Mr Ripley he revealed his skill in tackling ambiguous characters and playing duplicitous psychotics. But when he took off his shirt there was no indication of the muscles required to play Jason Bourne. Yet he surprised everyone.
Some of Damon’s success as Bourne came from his innate talent. But he’ll always credit the collaborative nature of his relationship with his directors. First there was Doug Liman. Then came Paul Greengrass. And it was Greengrass who brought him back.
“I said I wouldn’t do it without Paul. It was always something he and I would talk about. We knew we wanted to. And then it was a question of what would the movie be, what is the story. It took a few more years to figure it out.”
Damon appears to enjoy the proximity of strong directors. He holds 78-year-old Ridley Scott – who directed him to an Oscar nomination as Best Actor in The Martian – and Clint Eastwood, 86, the man behind Invictus, in similar high regard.
“I’m ashamed to say how easy it was [to work on The Martian], because of Ridley. We sat down in pre-production with the script and he walked me through every page, told me exactly what he was gonna do and over the next couple of months that’s exactly what he did. He’s got so much energy and passion for what he does. He is a young man at heart. And it’s funny, when I worked with Clint Eastwood, who was in his late 70s at the time, it was the same thing: charging out of bed in the morning, ready to go and with more energy than anybody else on the set.
“You meet these guys who are just legends and are masters of what they do. It’s that incredible combination of virtuosity and talent, plus 40 or 50 years of experience. They still have a passion for doing it and it’s just electric to be around.”
Damon is constantly amused by fans who think he’s the real McCoy – that he can do all the things that Bourne does as part of his day-to-day existence in the dark world of espionage.
As he confesses, his dexterity as a martial artist in the mould of Bruce Lee is pure film fakery. As is his command of languages…
“I wish they had an app for that!” he quips. “He’s a lot more tortured than I am. I’ve got a great wife – he definitely doesn’t – and I’ve got kids.” Married to Argentinean model Luciana Barosso for 11 years, they have four daughters together.
“It’s a lot of oestrogen in the house!” he laughs. “I occasionally need to leave to take a walk around the park by myself.”
Remaining grounded doesn’t seem to be a problem for Damon. He’s still friendly with Affleck, his best buddy of 25 years and more, he still takes out the trash when he’s at home, still remembers the time when life was a little tougher than it is today.
On the promotional circuit for Jason Bourne he happily reminisced about his salad days and that incredible moment on March 23, 1998 when, at the 70th Academy Awards, Jack Lemmon announced that the Oscar for best original screenplay was going to “Ben Affleck and Matt Damon! Yeah! Whoo-hoo!”
Damon often tells how he dropped out of college to pursue his scriptwriting project – the idea that became Good Will Hunting – with his best pal. He was 22. Affleck was 20. It took four years to bring the story to the screen.
“I didn’t drop out of college. I took an extended leave of absence, which I’m still on. But I had a job. I got a movie that was gonna be a huge smash hit, called Geronimo: An American Legend. (It turned out to be) a huge bomb but it was a great experience.
“Ben also got a TV show at that time. That helped pay our rent and we were working on the screenplay. So we had money in our pockets. We weren’t living high on the hog but we were fine and we were getting our work done.”
The success of the Bourne series is said to have rejuvenated the James Bond franchise. So who’d win in a one-on-one scrap? Damon smiles.
“Which one? Daniel (Craig) is a pretty fit guy. And Bond is so slick that we haven’t seen him pushed to the edge of his abilities. That worries me a little bit. But Bourne is pretty resilient…”
Jason Bourne (12A) is out in cinemas now.