Matt Damon Acts Out

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He's not short. For some reason this is the first thing people want to know when they hear you have met Matt Damon. "He's short, right?" the inquiries come. "How tall is he?" "Is he a Pygmy or what?" He's actually 5 ft. 11 in., but still, the fact that the rest of us are not Matt Damon--have no Oscar, have never kissed Winona Ryder and are not making $7 million a movie--would be no more palatable even if we could put him in the "good-looking but short" box with, say, Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson.

It's just our puny way of kicking out at an industry that manufactures a product so completely irresistible to so many of us: the celebrity. And in the 29-year-old Damon, the star factory has found a mother lode of raw material: charm, good looks, an even temperament, smarts, a relish for hard work, devotion to his mom. But if it makes you feel any better, Matt Damon feels your pain. He didn't used to be him either.

"There are times I've been rejected that would spin your head around," says Damon. "You wouldn't believe I sat there and let people say stuff like that to me." Before The Rainmaker and Good Will Hunting--the one-two punch that threw him into the spotlight and led to six more back-to-back roles, including his latest, in The Talented Mr. Ripley--Damon struggled for seven years to get enough work to feed himself. But tough as those years were, they are eclipsed in his memory by an experience he had when he was nine or 10. "I moved to a neighboring city, and I really wanted to go back to my old school and see my friends," says Damon. "And my mother came up with this idea: 'Well, why don't you go back and spend a day there?'" But when she called and asked whether her son could return to say goodbye and achieve some closure, the principal said no. "I couldn't understand it," says Damon, his indignation still palpable. "The feeling of rejection was so deep." His mother, a professor of early-childhood education, wrote a stinging letter to the principal, which the young Damon carried around for weeks. "I remember thinking, 'Someday this person will be in a position of needing something from me,'" he says.

So although it might seem that if one were making a movie about a charismatic, handsome, wealthy young man and the lonely misfit who desperately wants to be him, one would cast Damon in the glamour boy's role, he says he identifies with the dork. "I really relate to Ripley," says Damon. "I always did. I think most people will." And while there are differences--Damon says he played Ripley as a virgin, which, given his dating history (Claire Danes and Minnie Driver are two of the famous ones), must have been a stretch--there are also similarities. Damon and Ripley are both from the Boston area. Both are eager to please, polite and attentive to whomever they're with. Both work incredibly hard on the project at hand. For Ripley, Damon spent a month learning to play the piano and perfected Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring on the harmonium for a scene he knew would be cut from the movie. "I'm a writer. I knew what would be the first to go," says Damon, who won his Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting with Ben Affleck. "But it wasn't a waste of time, because playing the piano informed the way Ripley walked and the way he sat." Besides, he says, flashing his extra-wide grin, "now I can play Bach and Chopsticks and nothing in between."

After Ripley, for which he lost 25 lbs. in order to appear pale and skinny, Damon spent a month learning to ride and bulking up for his portrayal of an 18-year-old cowboy in All the Pretty Horses, which will be released in late 2000. When Ripley director Anthony Minghella visited Damon on that set, he barely recognized him. "He was like the more successful, more centered, more handsome, just generally more masculine and surefooted cousin of Ripley," he says. And as Damon conducted a barrage of press interviews for Ripley, he was squirming under a brace because he had separated a rib while swinging a golf club for yet another role, as a World War I veteran who finds enlightenment through his caddy in The Legend of Bagger Vance, which is being directed by Robert Redford. "Matt seems to work on a process of 'If it doesn't hurt, it can't be right,'" says Minghella. Damon shrugs off the compliment. "I just don't think there's an excuse for not working as hard as you can," he says.

Ironically, the star and the guilt-ridden murderer have something else in common. Both Ripley and Damon work their way through conversations like poachers in Yellowstone. They sense they're being watched, so they constantly observe themselves. Halfway through talking about the responsibilities of fame and how it should be used for good, Damon breaks off. "Oh God," he says. "I sound like Miss America." He seems to have an acute sense of what others, particularly reporters, want to hear. He talks sports with the guys. He does classic movie routines with the show-biz old-timers. To a thirtysomething female, he talks mostly about his mother.

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