On March 23, 1998, Matt Damon became, in no uncertain terms, an overnight sensation. Along with childhood friend Ben Affleck, he was awarded a screenwriting Oscar for the 1997 film Good Will Hunting. Serenaded by Billy Crystal and applauded by a grinning Jack Nicholson (along with millions watching without sunglasses at home), the two had done the impossible. Like Sylvester Stallone before them, Damon and Affleck, two jobbing actors, had catapulted themselves from obscurity by writing their own movie, surprising everyone, including themselves.
"It was surreal," says Damon of that initial rush, some 10 years on. "People talk about 'overnight success,' but I'd been working professionally for 11 years by the time Good Will Hunting hit. Still, the change is nearly indescribable - going from total obscurity to walking down a street in New York and having everybody turn and look; to feel the temperature of a room change when I walked in."
Damon is now 36. He lives in Miami, and is married to former bartender Luciana Bozan. He is the stepfather of her daughter, Alexia, and the father of a one-year-old, Isabella, from whom, it seems, he's caught a cold. "When they're sick, they don't sleep so well, so you don't sleep either," he says with a smile. Aside from a pack of tissues clutched in his left hand, though, you wouldn't know it. Wearing a black linen polo shirt and charcoal trousers, he's here in Los Angeles to promote the third film in the Robert Ludlum-inspired spy series, The Bourne Ultimatum, which opened in Taiwan on Friday. Given the logistics of launching a major Hollywood juggernaut (while moonlighting as a night nurse), he is in surprisingly good form.
"A Guardian reporter - better watch your back," he says, jokingly. He's referring to the first act of the new film, in which an investigative reporter from my very newspaper brings Jason Bourne out of hiding and both become the target of a team of CIA assassins. "The Guardian was [director] Paul Greengrass's idea," says Damon.
But Damon is certainly not dismissive of the Bourne franchise, viewing it instead as the catalyst that launched the second act of his career. "After The Bourne Supremacy, I really had the freedom to make the films I wanted to make," he says. "So I did Syriana, The Departed and The Good Shepherd, based on how good the scripts were and who was directing them. That's pretty much all the control you can assert over your career - the choices you make and the jobs you take."
Damon, whose parents divorced when he was two-years-old, was raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was a working actor by the age of 16. He attended Harvard, but dropped out just short of graduating to pursue his career, all the while writing Good Will Hunting with Affleck. He describes his early years as "fighting for table scraps"; his dining companions were Ed Norton, Brendan Fraser and Chris O'Donnell. He lost out to Norton for the 1996 drama, Primal Fear - "we all knew that was an instant career changer for whoever got it" - scoring a key role instead opposite Denzel Washington in Courage Under Fire. "You'd go in and fight each other," he says, now. "And if you got hold of a role, you'd have to make enough of an impression to get another job."
Things changed dramatically for Damon with the release of Good Will Hunting. He quickly solidified that position by heading for the big leagues: he worked for Coppola (The Rainmaker) and Spielberg (the title role in Saving Private Ryan). He kept a little indie cred with the pitch-black comedy Dogma for Kevin Smith. Meanwhile he launched Project Greenlight with Affleck, lending his Good Will kudos to other aspiring hopefuls. For director Anthony Minghella, he played against type and turned in one his strongest performances to date as a calculating killer in The Talented Mr Ripley. Indeed, it seemed as though nothing could go wrong for Damon.