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.
The glaring difference between Ripley and Damon is that Damon has managed to pull off what Ripley doesn't: he has achieved the trappings of privilege and success, but not, it seems, at the expense of his soul. Partly this is thanks to the support of his friends, most famously his childhood buddy Affleck, with whom he has been so closely entwined in the public eye that they now try to avoid speaking about each other to the press. ("It's not like we're bitching ex-husbands, or anything," Damon says.) More important, it's thanks to his family. They're quite a clan: liberal, intellectual, active in social causes, politically sophisticated. "They're the most fun, most interesting people," says Skylar Ulrich, the former girlfriend who was the model for the role Minnie Driver played in Good Will Hunting, and who's now a doctor, married to Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. "They're really tight knit, and yet they're very individual."
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.
With reporting by Georgia Harbison