July 25, 2004
It was six hours into the first day of the 1999 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, and Matt Damon was sitting pretty.
The actor still had $6,500 in chips (of his original $10,000 buy-in) stacked in front of him and, more important, he was holding pocket kings.
If you’re one of the millions of poker enthusiasts who sit glued to the TV each night to watch the seemingly endless supply of poker shows, you know that "pocket kings" is the secondbest hand in Texas Hold-Em. Only pocket aces beats pocket kings.
Judging by how his opponents made their opening bets, Damon figured that none of them had a strong hand, including the man to his right — the legendary Doyle Brunson, who literally wrote the book on poker.
So Damon, the Oscarwinning screenwriter of ‘‘Good Will Hunting’’ and the star of the 1998 poker movie ‘‘Rounders,’’ made a bold move.
He went ‘‘all-in,’’ meaning that he bet all the chips in front of him. As soon as he did, Brunson turned to him and said, ‘‘I hate to do this to you, Matty.’’
Damon knew immediately that he had been suckered by the master, who hid his pocket aces earlier with a small, unimpressive raise. The actor was out of the tournament, but he smiled as he walked out of the room that day, and he’s still smiling now as he tells the story in a suite at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles.
‘‘My goal was just to survive until the second day of the tournament, but I left satisfied because I got bounced on a good play to one of the greatest poker players of all time. It’s important to go out on a good play.’’
Following that logic, Damon could be bounced from acting right now and declare his career a success because he’s in the middle of a good play.
The good play started when Damon wisely accepted the role of professional assassin Jason Bourne in the 2002 action hit ‘‘The Bourne Identity,’’ based on the Robert Ludlum novels.
Before Damon starred in that film, he hadn’t received a serious movie offer in a year, coming off a slump that included Robert Redford’s disappointing ‘‘The Legend of Bagger Vance’’ and Billy Bob Thornton’s disastrous ‘‘All the Pretty Horses.’’
By the end of ‘‘The Bourne Identity’s’’ splashy opening weekend, Damon was fielding offers for 30 major movie roles.
His good play continues this weekend with the opening of the sequel ‘‘The Bourne Supremacy,’’ followed in rapid succession by ‘‘Oceans Twelve,’’ Steven Soderbergh’s sequel to his immensely popular 2001 caper film, Terry Gilliam’s ‘‘The Brothers Grimm’’ and the geopolitical thriller ‘‘Syriana,’’ directed by ‘‘Traffic’’ screenwriter Stephen Gaghan.
And it all started with a lunch.
BORN TO BE BOURNE
During his career slump, Damon says he had nothing better to do that day, so he accepted an invitation from young director Doug Liman.
‘‘I thought it was one of those lunches that actors have with directors to discuss the movie business in general, but I thought it strange that he kept bringing up the subject of ‘The Bourne Identity.’
‘‘When I finally asked him about it, he told me he was directing the movie. I asked him who he was thinking of to play Jason Bourne, and he said it was me.
‘‘I was floored,’’ Damon says. ‘‘I knew the Ludlum books, and I had my own idea of who should play the character. I was thinking of someone like Russell Crowe. I was totally shocked that Doug was thinking of me. The character in the books is in his 40s, and I look like I’m 14.’’
Liman was persistent, and the baby-faced Damon began the process of trying to look older than 14.
Damon, 33, says never worked harder to get into a character, and he credits a combination of factors for helping him to achieve his goal of looking older, tougher and meaner.
‘‘Part of it is what you’re thinking about,’’ he explains. ‘‘The more you smile, the younger you look, so I stopped smiling. Then I thought bad thoughts. This guy has a lot of bad stuff on his mind, so I kept thinking about a lot of bad stuff.
‘‘A lot of the film was shot at night, which gives it more of a dark, moody and serious tone. Then there was an amazing makeup artist who worked with the cinematographer to make me look older and tougher. It was the opposite of vanity makeup.’’
Damon said he trained as a boxer for six months before the first film because Liman felt that a professional assassin might walk like a boxer, and then he underwent 1,000 hours of weapons training before the second film because of a line in the script that said the gun in Bourne’s hand should look like an extension of his hand.
In the sequel, directed by Paul Greengrass, Bourne and his girlfriend, Marie (played again by German actress Franka Potente) are living a quiet life underground, although Bourne is still haunted by dreams and flashbacks. When it appears as if his old bosses are trying to have him killed, he jumps into action.
‘‘All the training helps to create a sense of realism, but I still don’t think of myself as a real action hero,’’ Damon says. ‘‘I’m certainly not one of those action heroes who walks around bare-chested in a movie with a bandanna on his head and a big gun in each hand. I’ll never be that guy.
‘‘But I’m not complaining about all the training,’’ he adds. ‘‘That’s my favorite part of being an actor. The training and rehearsals are the fun part. Those are more fun than the actual acting.’’
And his least favorite part of being an actor? That would be the tabloids.
Damon has managed for most of his career to stay out of range of the gossip magazines, which is a remarkable feat considering that his best friend from his hometown of Boston is Ben Affleck, the darling of the tabloids.
In his last Tribune interview, Damon was confident.
‘‘I just keep living my life like normal,’’ he said. ‘‘You can’t change the way you live because you’re afraid of getting your picture taken or what someone might say about you.’’
But that was before he left for Europe, where he’s been filming nonstop for the last 18 months. Many of those months were spent hanging out with George Clooney and Brad Pitt during filming of ‘‘Ocean’s Twelve.’’ Those guys are tabloid magnets, and Damon got caught up in their superstar glow.
What has filled the tabloids is a steady stream of photographs of Damon with his new girlfriend, an Argentinian whom he met in Miami, where she worked as a bartender.
‘‘I got a good feeling from her and we started e-mailing each other,’’ the actor says. ‘‘Four months after we met, she was passing through Prague, where I was filming, and the rest is history.’’
A less-confident Damon says he hopes that now that filming on ‘‘Ocean’s Twelve’’ has been completed, interest in his new relationship will wane.
‘‘My only fear is that they (the tabloids and gossip magazines) will keep me in the club. Once you become one of their cover boys, you’re pretty much through in this business.’’
It must be like holding pocket kings in a game with Doyle Brunson.