Over the last 20 years, Matt Damon has arguably the highest batting average of any actor of his generation. The critical and commercial hits, from “Good Will Hunting” to “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” from the “Oceans” franchise to the “Bourne” movies, from “Syriana” to “The Departed,” far outnumber the less-remembered (but still solid) works.
Hey, even “We Bought a Zoo” ended up grossing over $120 million worldwide, and I still say it’s not THAT corny.
In Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” (opening Oct. 2), Damon plays Mark Watney: botanist, astronaut, University of Chicago grad, Cubs fans, deep-dish pizza lover and all-around good guy who’s part of a crew on an expedition to Mars. Once they reach the Red Planet, they go about their daily business of collecting samples and monitoring the atmosphere and compiling data — until a massive storm hits, and by the time the dust clears, Mark is alone on Mars.
In a telephone interview, Damon talked about the challenges of filming a movie epic in scope and yet in same ways deeply personal, whether he would ever go to Mars — and what a certain political candidate would say about an astronaut who was left behind on the Red Planet.
“The script came [to me] before Ridley was even attached,” says Damon. “Drew Goddard, who wrote it, was attached to direct. But then he got offered a big comic-book movie he’d been dying to do for years [‘Spider-Man vs. Sinister Six’]. So he left the project and I thought it would just get postponed. But then I heard Ridley was interested, so I jumped in my car and raced over to his office and, five minutes later, we had agreed to do the movie together.”
Scott, of course, is the director of “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Thelma & Louise,” et al. Recent films such as “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “The Counselor” have landed with a thud with most fans and critics — but I think they’re kinda great, albeit in a slightly loony fashion.
“I’m like you, I love Ridley’s work,” says Damon. “I’ve been a fan since ‘Alien.’ As a young guy, ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ were formative movies for me — movies that made me want to make movies. So [making a film with Scott] was at the top of my bucket list.”
In the opening scenes of “The Martian,” Mark is bantering with the crew and it looks like a prototypical ensemble space movie — until the storm hits.
“It’s about a mission to Mars in the very near future that goes horribly wrong,” says Damon. “There’s a storm and one of the astronauts, the one I play, is struck by a piece of the communications tower, and his teammates think he’s dead, so they perform this emergency evacuation and they leave Mars. The presumption is he’s not alive — but they subsequently find out he is alive and he’s on the Red Planet. So it’s about this one guy trying to survive on an inhospitable planet.”
For most of the film, Damon is acting alone, on location in Jordan or on a soundstage, playing a man who will spend the rest of his days or at least a couple of years (the time it would take to send a rescue team) by himself.
“It was a little nerve-wracking going in, a little odd not to have a scene partner, not have someone to bounce things off of. But it was really fun. Ridley was never more than a few feet away. And all those monologues are pretty much from the book and they’re really entertaining and funny. …
“The surface suit I wear on ‘Mars,’ when I put that on in Jordan, it got toasty pretty quick. Luckily Ridley doesn’t do too many takes.”
Even though Mark is alone for most of the story and he has moments where he breaks down, he’s never on the verge of losing touch with reality, a la Tom Hanks in “Castaway.”
“Unlike in ‘Castaway’ or ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ he’s alone but he’s behaving with the expectation he’s being watched,” says Damon, “Because cameras are on him all the time, and he’s leaving a log or a journal for other scientists. It’s a weird thing because it’s like, he’s self-aware because people are probably going to watch this video of him some day. … He’s behaving with the expectation they will some day.”
“The Martian” is really three movies: Mark’s ingenious efforts to live on a planet not designed for human life; the rest of his crew on a ship bound for home, deciding whether they should in effect turn around and go back for Mark, which will take months and months and will endanger their own lives, and the international effort on Earth to figure out a way to bring Mark home. Nations and cultures unite to save one man.
“It’s a very uplifting movie, a nice thing to put out into the world right now,” says Damon. “As another presidential campaign ramps up and everyone works to divide us all, this is hopefully an antidote to that …”
Imagine what Donald Trump would say about an astronaut who needs so much help.
“Right,” says Damon with a chuckle. “ ‘It’s not my fault. He shouldn’t have been left behind. I like the guys who don’t get left behind.’ ”
The 44-year-old Damon has four daughters with wife Luciana. Asked if he’d jump at the chance to actually go to Mars, he laughed.
“I don’t think I can bring that one up at the dinner table. Yeah, that’d be a non-starter.”