Mark Watney’s life is an up-at-dawn siege of things he has to deal with, says Matt Damon.
“He has to make sure his habitat is maintained so that he can breathe. He has to make sure that the water reclaimer is working so he won’t die of thirst. He’s got to grow food for himself or else he might starve. And he’s got to keep himself from going totally crazy! So every day’s a pretty busy day for him.”
Damon smiles as he describes the ac cidentally abandoned astronaut at the heart of The Martian. It’s a tale of survival based on the book by Andy Weir, a science geek who used his hobby to craft a story of hope, optimism, resilience and the triumph of the human spirit.
It was the excitement of science that attracted 44-year-old Damon to the project. He describes science as “the crux of the movie and the book”. But there is humour, too, as the stranded botanist squares up to the challenges of being utterly alone on an inhospitable planet 33.9 million miles from home.
“Andy Weir walks you through what it takes to survive on Mars,” says Damon. “From there he just follows the science. And it’s very approachable. It’s entertaining to watch this guy go step by step and do what he has to do to survive.”
He adds: “I guess ‘Cast Away meets Mission to Mars’ might be a good way to describe it. It’s different to Cast Away in the sense that I’m alone but I’m leaving a video journal. So I’m alone but I have the expectation that somebody’s watching me.”
Watney is another character in a line of striving everymen that mark out Damon’s career. In that respect he occupies similar territory to old-time greats like Gary Cooper. Rarely does he play villains – excepting perhaps the talented (and psychotic) Tom Ripley. Thus one can appreciate the appeal of what he describes as a “really exciting” script. Moreover he sees astronauts as embodying humanity’s pioneer spirit.
“Watney represents the cutting edge of humanity – the edge of what’s possible, of what we know we all need, which is to some day move some of the species off the planet to ensure the species’ survival. The people who are doing that work in its infancy right now are incredibly brave and heroic, so the rest of us on earth have an understanding of what this person has sacrificed and the beauty of that. And so NASA want to do everything they can to bring him back because he represents the best of all of us.” The Martian plays out its drama – epic storms, the constant threat of equipment breakdown, Watney’s monologues to camera and the magnificent desolation of Mars – against a backdrop of 70s disco classics and potatoes, which Watney plants and incubates.
“We actually grew potatoes on the neighbouring sound stage,” reveals Damon with a self-satisfied smirk. “We had fun with all the little potato scenes that we did. But all that humour was in the book and [scriptwriter] Drew Goddard really mined the book for all the great lines.”
The Martian sees Damon working with director Ridley Scott for the first time. He calls Scott “a genius” and whilst he clearly enjoyed the experience of working with a master of the sci-fi genre the joy that resulted came via the timeless wonder of playing a spaceman.“You act while standing on one foot and moving slowly,” he says. ”As big as these movies are you end up like you were when you were in your bedroom pretending to be in space.”