Matt Damon's having a moment, and it doesn't seem like it's a good one.
Whenever an actor has a new project coming out, they're automatically in the hot seat, and you'd better believe there is a small army hard at work trying to make sure that nothing happens during that press tour that might impact the overall success of the film.
Add in a new TV show that's rolling out the same time as the movie is being released, and you have so many more opportunities for the actor to hang themselves, particularly in the atmosphere of constantly-simmering outrage that exists right now.
Damon has never been one to keep his opinion to himself, and it was interesting watching a moment from “Project Greenlight” blow up in his face, especially since he's part of the producing team that is responsible for the show. He could have had that moment where he bulldozes Effie Brown about how diversity works taken out of the final cut of the show, and at first, I was amazed that moment made it to air. One of the many reasons I have done so poorly in the studio system is because I have no poker face when someone in a room says something I think is monumentally stupid, and more than racist, I thought it was really stupid to try to explain diversity to Brown, who comes from such a clearly-stated position that I almost thought Damon was kidding at first.
In his conversation with The Guardian, Damon started down a conversational path that I think is a worthwhile one, bringing up the way Rupert Everett's career was affected by his decision to come out in public. We've never seen anyone test the theory about what would happen if a major action movie star came out as gay after becoming a success. If Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, was on the press tour for “Terminator 2” and casually mentioned, “Oh, by the way, I'm planning to get married to my longtime partner, Jean Claude Van-Damme,” it would have been seismic. Would audiences have really abandoned them? The more important question is whether or not audiences would accept an act they're told is gay from day one as someone playing straight action leads in blockbuster movies, and I suspect this is the model we'll see tested sooner rather than later, and when it happens, Hollywood will suddenly realize how little it actually matters. We have turned a corner, socially speaking, and I think the private preferences of actors are no longer important enough to anyone to affect how a movie does around the world.
Damon's taking some heat for the way the interview suggests that he thinks actors should stay in the closet. I think he's advocating for actors to jealously guard their privacy in order to appear to be blank slates in any role they might play, and I get that. There are plenty of actors I don't know anything about, and each time they play a role, they are able to vanish into it. Here's the part that Damon seems to almost superstitiously ignore, though: there are plenty of actors who I know personally and who I know all sorts of private things about, and when I watch them play roles, they are able to vanish into them, too. It's called acting, and it is a craft, not a form of voodoo.
Is Damon specifically talking about movie stars? Maybe. And if so, I do think there are different rules for movie stars, but his own uneasy relationship with the term may account for how wrong he gets it. Again, if Rupert Everett is the example that Damon's using, I don't think he connects the dots the right way. Everett is charismatic, certainly, and talented, and there was a moment after “My Best Friend's Wedding” when he was the belle of the ball. It was a perfect example of what happens sometimes when a hard-working actor clicks with the right role at the right time. Everett had been working for a little while, had some age and experience on him, and absolutely understood the character he was playing, and both Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz made great comic foils for him. You'll see this sort of thing, when a supporting role turns into a crowd-pleaser and studios immediately turn around and try to find a starring role that can capitalize on what it was that people liked.
The project that got the most press at the time was a sort of James Bond riff with Everett playing a gay 007, and there was some serious time and money spent trying to develop the project. Considering this was almost 20 years ago, that was not the time for that film, but it would work beautifully today. What's important to realize, though, is that no one was making the case for Everett to play anything and everything. The moment he had a big audience-pleasing hit, they wanted him to play gay again. That was the brand that they were interested in selling. So while Damon sees what happened to Everett as a sort of “trapped in a box” scenario, it's not the same as if Everett had been Sony's first pick for Bond after “My Best Friend's Wedding” and audiences just refused to go see it because he was gay. When Damon says about Everett, “it's tough to make the argument that he didn't take a hit for being out,” he's talking about then, not now, and the interview does go on to lay down some context, saying that things are changing.
Where Damon gave people room for outrage is in saying “Whether you're straight or gay, people shouldn't know anything about your sexuality.” When people complain about things being too PC right now, what is actually happening is a sort of redefinition of how we think about language, acknowledging the role that privilege plays in how we view things, and both of these recent incidents with Damon are simply that: him speaking from inside his bubble.
I had a notes session once with a producer who told me that he had never used an ATM, and I couldn't even process what he was saying. He wasn't proud. He wasn't embarrassed. He didn't even realize what he was saying was incredible. He'd just never had any reason to go to an ATM because he lived in such a different financial world. When Damon talks to Effie Brown about diversity, I'm sure he's had conversations about that before, and I'm sure he feels like he's fighting the good fight in his way, but the idea that he can look at her and think he's got something to tell her on the subject is mind-boggling. “Diversity” doesn't happen just because you let someone in the room. You have to understand that you're the gate-keeper, you're the one controlling the other person's access, and for diversity to matter, you have to relinquish that control. You have to be willing to lose fights precisely because of your perspective on things.
Damon became a movie star at a time when he was most likely told over and over that no one could be a big blockbuster action lead while also being openly gay. I'm sure careful conversations were had with his entire team before he took on the role of Tom Ripley in Anthony Minghella's exceptional “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and as Damon explains in that interview, he's learned to pick projects based largely on the filmmaker, trusting them to find the exceptional in something. I love “Ripley,” and I love that he played the part, unafraid of the ambiguity inherent to the character. But when Damon says what he says now, he's telling some insanely talented young gay actor not to set his sights on the same roles that Damon and Affleck and the rest of the A-list get to play. Nonsense.
We are going to see a gay James Bond at some point, and a gay Batman, and a gay Superman, and we'll see some gay Avengers, and we've already seen plenty of gay X-Men, and pop culture will continue the same sort of entropic evolution it always follows, expanding and making room for more points of view. There are so many options available to viewers and readers of all makes and models right now that I can't understand why anyone would be anything less than optimistic. Damon's comments are tin-eared, particularly from a guy who portrays such a thoughtful, engaged, “normal guy” in his public persona, but they're not malicious. Part of the reason we have to push people out of their bubbles is because they don't realize they are in their bubbles. Damon is trying to have a productive conversation about actors and public identity, but he's doing it in a way that reveals a sort of acceptance of “conventional wisdom” that seems a lot less wise now than it did 15 years ago.
More than anything, I want to know what the hell they're going to do to address the idea of water on Mars in the four days they have before “The Martian” opens. I'll bet Fox loooooooooooooves NASA right now.
“The Martian” opens on Friday. And, yes, I am a fan.
The verdict's still out on this season of “Project Greenlight,” though.