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Damon is close to both his father Kent Damon, a retired stockbroker whose marriage to Matt's mother ended when Matt was two, and his older brother Kyle, 32, a sculptor. But it's his mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, who seems to have had the most influence. When colleagues at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., asked Carlsson-Paige for her son's autograph for their daughters, she instead invited the daughters to a discussion group. She showed them pictures of Matt at their age and explained that he was just a regular person, like them. She acknowledges, however, that in one way her son is different. "It's unusual for children to become interested in something really young and then stay with it their whole lives," says Carlsson-Paige, who encouraged her son as she watched him use her hats, tablecloths, necklaces and gloves to make himself into characters from the time he was two. "But that's Matthew. He came to me when he was eight and said, 'I know what I want to be when I grow up.' And I said, 'What's that, honey?,' knowing exactly what he would say. And when he said, 'An actor,' I said, 'That's nice. Now go out and play.'" And in some ways, that's exactly what he still does.
The things that make the real-life Damon a star--his agreeable features, easy smile and whelpish energy--keep the audience glued to his side in The Talented Mr. Ripley despite the repulsive acts his character commits. His apple-pie qualities are essential to the moral disquiet Minghella strives to create in the audience. But they don't necessarily make Damon a good actor. If Damon has a demon, it is that he thinks the jury is still out on whether he can act. "Gwyneth [Paltrow] can walk into a scene and be talking about something else, and they say 'Action!' and she turns into the person she's playing," says Damon of his Ripley co-star. "My life would be a lot easier if I could do that." But those who have directed him demur. "He's way stronger than he thinks he is," says Billy Bob Thornton, who worked with him on All the Pretty Horses. Notes Minghella of Damon's work in Ripley: "It's not a display performance. But the journey that he makes in the film is extraordinary. It's so carefully drawn." And both of them use the exact same phrase: "He just gets it."
He seems to get the fame thing too. When the school that rejected Damon 20 years ago wrote recently asking for a photograph for its 75th-anniversary wall display, Damon and his mother talked it over for a while. What he had predicted had come to pass. "Karmically, it was big," says Damon. A pause. "Of course I'll send them something." Of course.