No dark side to Damon
By Donna Freydkin, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — Matt Damon is so tired that he'd rather talk in the dark.
"There we go," he sighs, rubbing his eyes and turning off the lamp next to him.
The actor, who is wiped out from a long week, prefers the subdued to the obvious. It's that same fondness for shades of gray that drew him to Syriana, a drama from Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Traffic) about the politics of black gold. The film, opening wide Dec. 9, is a series of intertwined stories, starring George Clooney as a CIA agent and Damon as a sincere, well-meaning oil trader who uses his son's death to fuel his own career.
For Gaghan, casting the likable Damon as a morally wobbly slickster made sense.
"I spent a lot of time with actual oil traders and analysts, and these guys are really smart. They all went to Harvard or Yale. Matt went to Harvard. He understands these guys and this world," Gaghan says. "Matt is genuinely kind of a brilliant guy. He's a great writer and incredibly articulate. He's really incisive."
Damon, 35, flashes his trademark toothy grin only when he's congratulated on his recent engagement to his girlfriend of two years, Luciana Barroso, 29.
He is due on the set of the CIA drama The Good Shepherd at 5 a.m. the next day. When it wraps in a few months, Damon is eagerly anti-cipating "taking a break" after nine years of shooting hits, such as The Bourne Identity, and misses, such as All the Pretty Horses.
The actor and his fiancée, who have not set a wedding date, split their time between an apartment in downtown Manhattan and a home in Miami. Damon, who has always been tight-lipped about his personal life, says Barroso hasn't had problems with the attention she now attracts.
"She's been pretty much left alone," he says. "Fame is a really weird thing. It's surreal. Eventually, once you accept it and accept that that's the way it is, you're a little more guarded. It can be as prominent in your life as you want it to be."
Damon would rather focus on the work. He's choosy about his roles. "Whenever I fade, I want to be able to look back and go, 'Hey, that was a hell of a run,'" he says. He plans to write another movie, after winning a screenwriting Oscar for 1997's goodwill Hunting, "when the acting jobs dry up a little bit. Ben (Affleck) and I did goodwill to get work as actors, and that's happened."
Affleck, who is expecting his first child with wife Jennifer Garner, is "pretty excited" about fatherhood, Damon says. The two live on opposite coasts, but "there's no rift between me and Ben."
Unlike Affleck, whose every coffee break seems to end up in the tabloids, Damon lives under the radar. He runs along the Hudson River in the mornings, goes out for burritos at night, catches a movie like Good Night, and Good Luck.
"I don't really live an outrageous lifestyle. I'm not dancing on the bar — ever," he says. "I think it's just not really worth anybody's while to follow me around and take my picture because you're not going to be able to sell it for anything."
That's not the case with Angelina Jolie, who plays Damon's wife in Shepherd. "You'd know when she's working. You'd get there at 6 in the morning, and there's 30 guys camped out waiting for her," Damon says. "With Brad (Pitt) on Ocean's (Twelve), he gets it worse than anybody I've ever seen."
Mention Damon's name to people in the movie business, and they'll rave about how nice he is. Billy Bob Thornton, a man with few actor friends, considers Damon a close one and calls him "wonderful." Gaghan recalls watching Damon cavort with his two young sons on the Syriana set. "He played with them for an hour and 45 minutes, rolling around on the floor and playing superheroes," Gaghan says. "It came from inside him. He's genuine. A year later, my kids still remember him."
Surely even nice guys have nasty habits?
"Besides the bestiality?" Damon says with a grin. "I quit smoking (15 months ago). It's a tough thing to do, so I was happy I did that. I'd been smoking for 17 years. It felt like the joke was over. I wasn't a kid anymore. I'm out of vices, I guess."