"It's the most pointless thing," says Matt Damon, speaking of fame. "If not for something like this, if it can't be used to try to shine some light on some issues, what could celebrity possibly be for?"
He's on the phone from Los Angeles, trying to reflect some of that light onto a handful of issues that are among the toughest facing the people of Africa today: institutionalized poverty, AIDS, water-borne illnesses. From Brad to Bono, Africa is taking up more room on the pop-culture radar these days, thanks largely to the celebrity globe-straddlers who attract spotlights wherever they step off a plane.
Last summer, Damon's friend Brad Pitt sat for an interview with Diane Sawyer to talk up Africa (and to grimace as he was asked about Jen and Angelina).
"Brad took a lot of heat," he says. Still, "in the prior year, Africa had been talked about for about four minutes in prime time, and Brad had gotten it out for 60 full minutes, talking about these issues, and it had a huge impact."
"People were reaching out, saying: 'What do I do to help?'"
In April, Damon visited Zambia as the guest of DATA, where he spent a week travelling from village to village getting educated about the continent's challenges.
And though he realizes he's no expert -- "one week, and here I am preaching to you about it," he says with a chuckle -- anything that brings attention to the problems is worth trying.
"Two-million people a year are dying from water-related illnesses," he says, noting that the wells cost perhaps $15,000 each. "I visited a village with one of these wells and collected water with a girl there. Just listening to the impact that the well had on this one village and looking at how many wells we had a chance to put in by me participating in this event, it wasn't something that I could say no to."
The Sept. 10 gala will also help raise awareness for Damon's own Africa project, a $2-million-plus documentary called Running the Sahara.Produced by his company Live Planet, the film will shoot this winter, around the same time Damon will be in theatres with a clutch of features: Martin Scorsese's Irish mafia story The Departed, Kenneth Lonergan's drama Margaret and Robert De Niro's CIA thriller The Good Shepherd. His documentary will follow three ultra-marathon runners, including Canada's Ray Zahab, as they run the equivalent of two marathons a day, for about 75 days, to cross the Sahara Desert. Damon hopes to bring the completed film to next year's TIFF.
As for her One X One host, [organiser Joelle] Adler has nothing but praise. "I would put my hand in the fire for this man and his partners. There have been situations where I have asked certain things and the answer always comes back from Matt: Whatever you do, make sure it maximizes the moneys for the charities," she says.
"He'll stay at a Holiday Inn Express, if it means saving money. This is a very charitable man."
Note to paparazzi and wannabe stalkers: Damon will not, in fact, be staying at a Holiday Inn Express. Other accommodations have been secured.