The Hollywood star talks to SBS Film about his new epic sci-fi collaboration with the South African director of District 9.
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15 Aug 2013 - 11:19 AM  UPDATED 15 Aug 2013 - 11:19 AM

Matt Damon rose to fame with his childhood buddy Ben Affleck after their surprise best original screenplay Oscar win for 1997's Good Will Hunting. Ever since, Damon has liked to be involved when making his movies and always goes for a director he feels he can trust. He has five movies making their presence felt this year and they couldn't be more varied.

After I saw District 9, Neill jumped to the head of the line of directors I
wanted to work with

The 42-year-old co-wrote and starred in the fracking drama Promised Land, directed by Gus Van Sant (the film barely released here); he made out with Michael Douglas's Liberace in his seventh movie with Steven Soderbergh, Behind the Candelabra (which is doing better then expected); he's fighting Big Brother in Elysium, Neill Blomkamp's follow-up to District 9, which came out of nowhere to be nominated for four Oscars, including best picture and adapted screenplay; it seems he is Big Brother in Terry Gilliam's The Zero Theorem, which world premieres in Venice; and he stars with George Clooney and Cate Blanchett in Clooney's fifth directing effort, The Monuments Men, which releases in the US in time for Oscar consideration, and here on January 9.

A lover of our beaches and our laidback lifestyle, Damon usually visits Australia for movies that have big expense accounts and was grateful that Sony Pictures had booked him in first class when Qantas couldn't manage to get their plane off the Los Angeles tarmac to bring him here for his visit to promote Elysium. Certainly nobody was taking such chances in Cannes when Damon flew by private plane from the Berlin Monuments Men set to talk up Behind the Candelabra.

Always the trooper, Damon had literally only been in Sydney a number of hours, yet had managed to conduct television interviews and the longest line of red carpet interviews, before sprinting to the podium to talk to the crowd at the Australian Elysium premiere.

“After I saw District 9, which I thought was entertaining and thought provoking, Neill jumped to the head of the line of directors I wanted to work with,” Damon explained of the visionary South African, who even if he has spent half of his life in Canada, still draws on his early life for his movies. “Neil wrote a graphic novel about a character with a bald head, an exoskeleton and graphic tattoos. The vision for the character in Elysium is all Neill's.”

Unlike Damon, the hilarious South African actor Sharlto Copley, who in District 9 played the unforgettable Afrikaans bureaucrat who turned into an alien (derogatively called prawns), had never been to Australia.

“I couldn't come for The A-Team and when the pilot slammed on the brakes I almost couldn't come this time,” he joked. “I know so many South Africans who've come over here.”

Even if Copley, 39, is older than Blomkamp, 33, they have been friends since high school. “We met through an art teacher and we struck up a creative rapport,” he explains. Copley started off behind the camera as well and District 9 was based on Alive in Joburg, a short film he produced for Blomkamp. In Elysium, set in the year 2154, his Captain Kruger is a gun toting enforcer for Jodie Foster's Armani-clad secretary up on the circular space station, Elysium, where the rich folk live, while the poor slum it out on the earth below, actually a garbage dump in Mexico City.

“Kruger wasn't written as a South African, but I saw a way to play him that way,” Copley says. “I drew on two South African stereotypes to try and create a unique character that you've never seen before. Firstly, for his accent and sarcastic humour I drew on these guys from 'The South'—a tough neighbourhood south of Johannesburg. Secondly, for the military aspect, there was a unit in the South African Defence Force during the apartheid years called 3-2 Battalion. It was a notorious but highly respected battalion—they fought in Angola during the 'Bush Wars,' trying to stop the spread of Communism in Africa. Kruger's beard, his PT shorts and his utterly lethal military ability was inspired by them.”

Like other South Africans, Copley had been impressed by Damon's accent as the legendary Springboks rugby player, Francois Pienar, in Clint Eastwood's 2009 film, Invictus. Damon impresses again with his Spanish lingo in Elysium, though he notes his Mexican co-star Diego Luna offered some help with the appropriate slang and swear words. While Damon has obviously picked up some vocab from his Argentinian wife, Luciana Bozán Barroso, he explains how he studied Spanish through immersion while backpacking in Mexico and Guatemala in is youth.

Now a strong humanitarian via Water.org—“It's about giving people in the developing world as much access to clean water and sanitation as possible”—during his press rounds for Elysium Damon has continually stressed his personal horror regarding the location of the shoot in Mexico City. “It's the second largest garbage dump in the world. It's really gnarly. An entire community have been born and have died there, making a living by sorting trash and they've never left. I've travelled a lot in the Third World but that took it to a whole other level.”

Damon's Max character, a retired car thief who is determined to stay out of trouble, lives amongst the squalor. When after being exposed to intense radiation at work, he is given five days to live and he becomes determined to make it to Elysium where all ills can be cured. With the help of his former gangster buddy Spider (Wagner Moura, the Brazilian star of Elite Squad 2), he is made stronger than ever thanks to the exoskeleton, so that Damon goes on to deliver a kind of Terminator performance.

“It's a dystopian fantasy,” says the actor. “Max looked at what was going on in terms of the disparate wealth and the increasing gap and thought, 'What if that kept happening for another 140 years?' But really, Max is dying, imminently, so that's probably what's driving a lot of what he does. His actions stem from his imminent death.”

While Damon points out the prescience of the Occupy Wall Street protests happening right when they were shooting, he believes that message movies primarily have to entertain.

“I think the responsibility is to make the movies you're interested in and about the topics you're thinking about. It's just an extension of conversations you're having with your friends or your family.

“I try to think of myself as mindful. I was raised to understand we are not the last ones who are going to be here and now I have children I'm even more intent on wanting to leave something nice for them, a planet that's functioning properly.”

Damon is not an actor who thinks about his image. “When I read a script—and I've read thousands of scripts—whether I like it or not is almost an intuitive thing. My decisions to do movies are never calculated. There's always something in the material that got to me, or it's the director that's doing it and that's it.

“The bulk of the money I've made in my career was from the Bourne and Oceans movies, but I never felt I was selling out on those movies or that I had to compromise. A few times I was offered a lot of money to do movies, but I didn't believe in them and I didn't do them. Subsequently, I've wondered if it really mattered; maybe I could have gotten away with doing that one. But then what? Ben [Affleck] said recently that a good way to look at it is that on the other side of 40 you start to realise that any time spent doing one thing is taking time away doing something else. Certainly, the idea of doing something for just money never appealed to me unless I was broke—like at the beginning of my career I would do a dog commercial and not be embarrassed about it! But now I just don't think I'd have fun.”

Elysium is in cinemas from August 15.