Diff 2017: Matt Damon on ‘Downsizing’
We speak to Matt Damon about ‘Downsizing’, in which he plays
a man who becomes five inches tall
When Matt Damon heard the synopsis of Downsizing, he didn’t know whether to take director Alexander Payne seriously or not. “I had first met with Alexander in 1999 at a party for Paramount Oscar contenders,” Damon explains. “He had made Election and I was in The Talented Mr Ripley, and I’d said to him: ‘I’d love to work with you one day.’ And then 17 years later, we meet up and he says: ‘I have a movie for you, it’s about people who shrink down to five inches in height to save the planet.’ I didn’t know if it was a test, because it sounded so bizarre, so I just said ‘OK’ in case it was a ruse.”
Payne wasn’t lying. Downsizing, which
is playing at Dubai International Film Festival, is one of the most eclectic, fascinating, head-scratching movies of the year – or any year.
The 47-year-old actor plays the conscientious Paul Safranek, an occupational therapist from Omaha who, no matter how hard he tries, is unable to live the American dream. When he and his wife (Kristen Wiig) hear that scientists have found a way to shrink people to five inches tall as a way to offset climate change, like 6 per cent of the global population, they sign up to the programme.
“They realise that at five inches you can consume more,” says Damon. “You can have the equivalent of a huge house and six acres [2.4 hectares] for an area that would be the size of a coffee table. So people feel like they can get the lives that they want, that they can’t have in the big world, whilst doing something good for the planet.”
This is how Paul ends up in Leisureland. When he arrives, he soon finds out that just as in the big bad world, life is not so easy and dastardly acts also occur here. Damon explains: “Ngoc Lan Tran [played by Hong Chau] is a Vietnamese political dissident, and when I first get to Leisureland, downsizing is becoming a bit controversial. The Israelis are downsizing the Palestinians, and other countries are downsizing their political dissents, and there is a story of a TV box that arrived in Leisureland with holes in it holding 20 dissidents, of which only one, Ngoc, survived the journey.”
As such, Downsizing becomes a parable of our times where not a day seems to go by without a horrific refugee story being relayed on the news or another new hard border being constructed. “It’s definitely the right time for this film,” Damon says. “It speaks to the world we live in. The great thing about satire is that it’s not literal, and because this film is really, really funny, you can say more. The movie is profound without being preachy or arrogant.”
The Boston-born actor believes that movies have an increased importance in today’s dark times. “I always think that movies are not there to change the world – they are there to create empathy, helping an audience gain insight into another person’s life,” he says. “Storytelling is in human nature, all the way back to cave paintings. Movies are the most advanced form of storytelling that we have achieved so far and they are the best tool for creating empathy that we have right now.
“I think we will probably go into virtual reality next and I think that will be an even better tool,” he explains. “I did a test on a virtual-reality system where you go and sit in a tent with a Syrian refugee and look around the tent with them and something like that will supplant movies.”
Damon argues that he has also changed as an actor recently, which has helped him when making political satires such as Downsizing and the George Clooney-directed, 1950s-set Suburbicon. “As a young actor, I was taking my work home with me, so if I was miserable in a scene, I’d be miserable for 24 hours and then go into work,” he recalls. “The older I get, the easier it is for me to access profound joy or sorrow. Those are things that I’ve experienced very deeply in my life, and so everything becomes more available to you, and it’s less about trying – you don’t try at all, you just relax and it’s all there.”
Downsizing screens on Tuesday at 9pm at the Madinat Arena
Updated: December 11, 2017 08:32 PM