Matt Damon has been honored for his work on both sides of the camera, including an Academy Award for Best Screenplay and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. In his latest project Invictus, he’s taking on real-life sports hero Francois Pienaar, the captain of South Africa’s rugby team, who helped unite the country by leading the underdogs to victory in the 1995 World Cup Championship match.
While at the film’s press day, the actor talked about the challenges of playing rugby, portraying a real-life hero, working with Clint Eastwood and the importance of doing things of social value.
Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: What are the challenges of playing a real-life sports hero?
Matt Damon: The first thing I did when I read the script was call Clint and say, “I can’t believe this happened. I can’t believe this is true.” And, he said, “I couldn’t either, but this is true.” So, I went immediately and looked up Francois Pienaar online and I said, “Clint, this guy is huge. We’ve never met but I’m 5’10.” He started laughing and said, “Oh, hell, don’t worry about that. You go worry about everything else.” And, I said, “All right, I’ll worry about everything else. You worry about the fact that I need to grow six inches to play this guy.” I had about six months to get ready. I worked hard on the accent and on training physically to build myself up, to try to pull off the illusion of being the captain of a South African rugby team. Ultimately, I just tried to look at every possible pitfall, and then I start thinking about ways to solve those problems before I really get into it. So, I made my little checklist of things I had to do, and just planned it out. And then, I got to South Africa. The very first day, Francois invited me over to his house for a gourmet dinner that he was cooking, so that I could meet his wife and two boys. Morgan and I went. I just remember ringing the doorbell, and he opened the door and I looked up at him, and the first thing I ever said to Francois Pienaar in my life was, “I look much bigger on film.” He laughed and laughed and he gave me a big hug, and then took me into his house and that was it. We were off and running. And, he was just an invaluable resource for me, the whole time. I was constantly asking him questions about everything from what color his mouth piece is to what his philosophy is on the captaincy and on leading a team, and life in general. He just was incredibly available and a very articulate guy, and he was incredibly helpful to me.
How hard did you have to work on the South African accent?
Matt: Francois’ accent has changed quite a bit because he went and played in England for so many years, and listening to any existing interviews from that day, you can hear how it’s changed. But, there was a good key to that. The dialect coach and I talked a lot about how, when a lot of people do a South African accent, they really overdo it and end up making somebody sound like Frankenstein. It’s actually a quite beautiful accent. We talked about smoothing it out because Francois speaks quite smoothly, and trying to make it subtle, so that it’s not so over the top where you’re just like, “Wait a minute, that’s a little big.”
Matt: There are the more obvious physical things that I had to do, to try to pull off that magic trick. If you look at the structure of the script, it’s the greatest world leader of our time appealing to this other type of leader, and forging a bond with him. He basically said, “I need to use you to do this,” and the guy said, “I understand exactly why.” This team was asked to exceed their expectations. It’s a metaphor for what the country needed to do because everybody was expecting them to not be able to heal. It was Francois’s integrity and leadership that I needed to get across with the role. The obvious physical things were taken care of by lifting weights and stuff.
What do you remember about Nelson Mandela coming to Boston in 1990?
Matt: I was 19 and in college. I remember the Boston visit. I remember the whole world tour. I remember he just went all over the place. In fact, in my high school, we had the Free Nelson Mandela ribbons. Kids were wearing those black ribbons with the writing before they knew who he was. In fact, I have an old scrapbook that I was looking through, that my mother put together for me to go to college, with pictures from my whole childhood that progressed. And, the Free Nelson Mandela ribbon was in there from 1988, when I graduated high school. It was very big. It was my freshman year at Harvard, in the Fall of ’88, and I remember the Divest Now marches, and everything that was going on. College campuses are usually the places where a lot of that stuff is cooking, and people are talking about that stuff. The Boston visit and that whole coming out tour that he did was a very, very big deal.
If you had to compare the rugby scenes in Invictus to the fight scene in The Bourne Ultimatum, which were you in better condition for?
Matt: Oh, I was in better shape for this movie. I was in the gym every day, and Francois came with me to the gym a few times. This is his life. I didn’t want to embarrass him. If Jason Bourne looks a little flabby, that’s on me. This is the fictionalization of somebody’s actual life. I didn’t want to let him down. It wasn’t going to be for any lack of effort, which really was what that team was actually famous for. They were known for going the extra mile and for knowing themselves well enough to say, “Okay, we might not be the most talented team, but we’re going to be the fittest.” Francois talked me through their training regimen. It was just unbelievable what all those guys did, every single guy. That’s the thing about a great team. When every single person commits to something and sublimates their own personality for the greater good of the whole team, that’s basically the metaphor for that whole country.
Have you played rugby since you finished filming?
Matt: Hell no!
Did you film this before or after The Informant?
Matt: After. So, I had a good time putting the weight on, and then a tough time reshaping the weight.
How much did you know about the sport of rugby, and do you still know the rules?
Matt: I knew a little bit about rugby, but very, very little. I do think it helps, in terms of an American audience, that the game is enough like football, in the sense that it’s a battle for field position, and you score by running into what looks like an end zone and putting the ball down. In terms of the nuance of the game, obviously Americans won’t get that stuff, but in terms of the peanut butter and jelly version of what you need to know, I think it’s pretty clear.
What is the experience of working on a Clint Eastwood film?
Matt: It’s incredible. Between us, we’ve probably been on 100 different film sets, and it doesn’t get any better than the way that he runs it. Clint says, “Look, I hire the best people I can and I put them in a position to do their best work, and I get out of the way and take credit for all their stuff.” He’s got this crew that just is the top flight crew, with every key and every person working under that key, for every department. You walk on some movie sets and it’s like walking into an emergency room, and you’re like “We’re just making a movie here.” And, that tension bleeds into the performances and the film itself. Clint just runs an incredibly tight ship. It’s very laid back. Because we all have experience working on other movie sets, everyone is aware that they’ve been given enough space to do everything they need to do. If you need something, it’s given to you. If the key of a department says “I need this,” or the camera department says, “I’d like this,” it shows up. It’s just very easy. We’ve been entrusted to do our jobs. And then, he’ll occasionally come over and give a little bit of direction, but it’s not a lot of chatter. It’s just a little suggestion here, or a little suggestion there. After you do a take, Clint’s favorite saying is, “Well, let’s move on and not fuck this up by thinking about it too much.”
Why is this an important film?
Matt: I’d say the film is telling a story that is a wonderful thing to remind everybody of, in South Africa and all over the world. If we listen to the better angels of our nature, there are creative and good solutions to serious problems. It’s just an incredibly uplifting movie and, from the moment I read it, I was excited about just being a part of the ensemble that told this story. I think it’s a good thing to put out there, particularly now. There’s not a lot of good news, so this is a nice thing to put out for the holidays.
You have done a number of films that have a social consciousness to them, and you also have The People Speak on TV. Can you talk about doing films that have some kind of social value and what that means to you?
Matt: As actors, we react to the material that’s out there, and I probably just react more strongly to things that I feel will have some social value. I think this movie is a great example. This is a really wonderful message to put out. It’s a completely non-partisan message, incidentally. This is about healing and coming together, and it’s an incredibly uplifting story. That’s why it appealed to me. It wasn’t that I went and said, “I want to make a movie that’s about this.” It’s that I read this terrific script and it was about the greatest world leader of the past 50 years, and he was being played by Morgan Freeman, and Clint Eastwood was directing. It was a pretty easy decision for me.
What was your involvement with The People Speak?
Matt: I’m really proud of The People Speak. It came out really well. It’s going to air on the History Channel on December 13th. We just stumbled on a way to tell history that I think is great because it’s factual. It’s just the actual documents. It’s all these great speeches, diaries and journal entries. There are these great, inspirational speeches, and we hope to have a website where teachers are going to be able to access them. If you’re teaching about Frederick Douglass and you can bring a reading by Morgan Freeman into your classroom, I have a feeling high school kids are going to be much more interested and be able to connect to these voices. There’s just something very powerful about it.