Matt Damon has plans for the evening, and he’s dreading it.
He has to attend the glitzy New York premiere of director Stephen Gaghan’s political thriller "Syriana," in which Damon plays an energy analyst caught up in Middle East intrigue. Sounds like an exciting evening, but Damon is not a red-carpet kind of guy.
Since winning an Oscar in 1998 for co-writing (with Ben Affleck) the screenplay for "Good Will Hunting," he has pretty much shunned the bright lights and tabloid headlines for a low-key acting career that has had its share of ups ("Saving Private Ryan," "Ocean’s Eleven" and the "Bourne" films) and downs ("The Brothers Grimm" and "The L egend of Bagger Vance").
His career is up right now, with this weekend’s release of "Syriana" and three highprestige projects in the works: Robert De Niro’s "The Good Shepherd," Martin Scorsese’s "The Departed" and Steven Soderbergh’s "The Informant."
One of the most well-liked actors in Hollywood, Damon’s personal life also is heading in the right direction. He has bought a new home, is engaged to a woman with a young daughter and has quit smoking.
Q: How long did it take you to figure out what "Syriana" meant?
A: Pretty quickly, because I asked.
Q: Why don’t you enlighten me?
A: It’s the name that think tanks have come up with for the dream state you’d have with a unified Middle East.
Q: I’m curious how this role came about. You’re friends with George Clooney, whose company is producing the film. Does he mention it to you during a chat, or does the offer go through official channels?
A: It can happen the first way, but in this case, it went through official channels. It was surprisingly official given the extent of our friendship, but (Clooney and producing partner Soderbergh) are always diligent about contacting your agent first.
Q: So there was no discussion at all?
A: Well, I had read the script before "Ocean’s Twelve," and I pulled George aside during filming and said, "What’s the deal with this?" It was an informal meeting, and then Steven stopped by, and they sort of convinced me to do it. I think they had talked to Gaghan and vouched for me.
Q: Doesn’t sound very official to me.
A: (Laughs.) They eventually called my agent and made an official offer.
Q: Why did you want to do it?
A: I loved the script.
Q: Did you think it was a risky move for your career?
A: No, I don’t think there’s anything risky about being in a good movie.
Q: Even a movie with such a political bent?
A: It’s not a partisan rant. Stephen met with everybody, from Republicans and Democrats to the head of Hezbollah.
Q: He met with the head of Hezbollah?
A: I’m telling you that he met with everybody. He researched it exhaustively.
Q: But I sense that there are some who feel it is a liberal diatribe against the government.
A: That would be a shame if they dismissed it before they saw it. At the end of the day, it makes an anti-corruption statement. If you’re for corruption, then you’re probably going to be against "Syriana."
Q: You’re working with Scorsese and De Niro. That’s some pretty heavy company you’re keeping these days.
A: You’re telling me. If I mess this up, I’m done.
Q: Why are you working so much?
A: These are things I can’t say "no" to. It’s as simple as that.
Q: Oh, I understand why you’re working with them. I don’t understand why they want to work with you.
A: (Laughs.) Damn, I don’t know.
Q: Speaking of your career, when did reality surpass the dream?
A: There have been a lot of moments when it felt like I had exceeded all my expectations. It’s hard to pinpoint just one moment. This has all been way beyond anything I could have hoped. But I suppose if I had to name just one moment, it would have to be the time I got to take batting practice at Fenway Park.
Q: What was the original dream?
A: Working in movies consistently — just having a job.
Q: Did you believe it was possible to achieve that dream?
A: I did. I always felt like it had to work out because there was no alternative. I know it makes no sense, but I felt compelled to do this.
Q: I hear you’ve settled down and gotten engaged. What happened?
A: You know, they talk about a woman’s biological clock, but I think I had the same thing. This was something I wanted. I’m ready. It feels right.
Q: And I understand that you’ve given up smoking, too. What else have you given up?
A: Man, I have nothing left to give up, except beer. And I’ll never give up beer.