30: Matt Damon (last year's ranking 17)
Half a billion dollars. That's what Matt Damon's Jason Bourne franchise has racked up worldwide, and another installment of Glock-and-judo play is due in 2007. With his bankability now assured, Damon has shrewdly returned to Serious Acting. Director Stephen Gaghan cast him in this fall's Syriana as an expat energy-company exec struggling to make nice with oil-rich Arabs, and the early chatter is that Damon might be looking at golden statuette No. 2. Gaghan cites his star's intense involvement in character development as the reason for the buzz. "I think by answering his questions and changing things on the fly, we probably made his story line twice as good," says the director, who also wrote the politically charged thriller. The next year will see Damon in The Departed, Martin Scorsese's remake of the Hong Kong potboiler Infernal Affairs, as well as Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd, keeping Damon squarely centre stage. At this rate, future biographers will be asking themselves whether Ben Affleck even rates a footnote.
Though Lord of the Rings resonated with people precisely because it was so different from what was going on in the world at the time, I had experienced a similar feeling of a film having a connection to world affairs on an earlier piece of work, Courage Under Fire. The director was an inspiration of mine, Ed Zwick. I had auditioned for the part that Ed eventually offered to Matt Damon. While I was extremely disappointed that he chose Matt over me, I certainly understood his choice. I remember when I lost a part in Rob Reiner's movie Stand by me to River Phoenix, how crushed I was initially, and then how utterly inspired I was by River's stunning performance in the picture. It became clear to me that River was ready to perform with a vastly more intense emotionality and basic level of toughness and sophistication than I had at that point in my life I would only have been pretending. Similarly, Matt Damon was honestly more capable of capturing the nuances required by the role. I could have made a good stab at it, but Matt just nailed it. I was worried for hiim that he might fall victim to the same problems I had endured after so dramatically altering his weight for the part, but he has proven over the years that his commitment and discipline are unimpeachable. For all this and more, Matt has my admiration.