There is a strong argument to be made that Matt Damon has achieved more kudos than any film star working today. Directors such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh clamour to work with him. Audiences, who were unsure what to make of him when he burst on the scene in 1997 after writing and starring in Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting, have become loyal to him, especially when he packs his Jason Bourne passport. Critics have been equally won over by his turns in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Good Shepherd and Syriana. In fact, hardly anyone has a bad word to say about him.
A lot of the 39-year-old's charm comes from the fact that he doesn't take himself too seriously. He seems approachable in a way that Brad Pitt isn't, and has not made the mistake of letting his private life be dragged into the public eye (as his best friend Ben Affleck has). He seems to make films based on the quality of the script rather than the size of the pay packet. The Boston-born actor's new film, The Informant! (directed by Soderbergh), screens tomorrow at the Middle East International Film Festival. In it, he plays one of those absurd characters who prove the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. Mark Whitacre was a high-ranking executive who, in 1992, exposed the fact that his company met with competitors to fix the price of the food additive lysine. He was the first person involved in a price-fixing cartel to voluntarily give information to the FBI. The trouble was that Whitacre, although telling the truth about the scam, was an oddball and compulsive liar. He's a slippery character (much like Frank Abagnale Jr, who Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can).
Damon's popularity almost prevented The Informant! from being made. "It almost started and stopped twice," he says. "Once, The Good Shepherd kind of came out of nowhere, because Leo [DiCaprio] was going to do it and dropped out. So at the last second Robert De Niro called me and asked me if I could be in the film. I was like: "I can't do it. I'm supposed to be doing The Departed and then I'm doing The Informant!' He was like: 'I'll talk to Marty [Scorsese] if you talk to Steven.' Steven said: 'I'd never stop any of my friends from doing a great movie, so please go and do it.'
"So The Informant! got delayed for a couple of years, because Soderbergh then decided to do the two Che movies." Damon, modest as always, neglects to add that he appeared in the second film about the Argentine guerrilla fighter. When he finally came to play Whitacre, one of the first things Damon needed to wrap his head around was what motivates someone that odd and delusional. After all, he believed that he would get a promotion for blowing the lead on the malpractice and driving the company's balance sheet skywards. Yet despite a book by Kurt Eichenwald, upon which the movie is based, Whitacre motivation is still hard to ascertain.
"I think it's complicated," Damon says. "Some people felt that it was about greed. The judge certainly felt it was about greed, but some of those guys who worked on the case - spent years of their lives working on the case - were so frustrated by him and hurt by what he did, still kind of feel like he has a good heart. It was interesting to me because nobody really knows why he did exactly what he did."
Whitacre was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in prison. When he was on trial, he refused a plea bargain to spend three years in jail, and was sentenced to nine years. He has served his time, but Damon did not feel that it would be right to meet the man before he played him. "Once Steven decided to do it as a comedy, it became something different. It didn't have to be a rigorous character study of him."
Soderbergh also persuaded Damon to bulk up for the role. "He wanted me to put the weight on because he wanted the character to have no hard edges," Damon says. "So you couldn't define where he began and ended in the same way that you couldn't tell if he was telling the truth. "The wig is well done, too. In real life, these guys had bets on whether he was wearing a hairpiece or not, and they couldn't figure it out until finally they saw him in court with his wig removed. Some of the guys were like: 'I knew it.' Scott Burns, who wrote the script, even wrote in a stage direction on the script: 'Even his hair was a lie.'
"All those things really helped. I had these plumpers in my cheeks. If there is any jaw line - and there really wasn't by the end - the plumpers just kind of take that away.' Damon was happy to have an excuse to indulge: "In our line of work you don't normally get to eat what you want. Lucy [his wife Luciana Barroso] would walk in and I'd be there with a pizza and a drink. She'd look at me, and I'd go: 'Hey, I'm working.'"
After the film was made, Damon heard from Whitacre, who attended a special screening. "He said he liked it," Damon says. "I think he was nervous about it. This is something that he's been through. He spent nine years in jail and has been diagnosed as bipolar. He wrote a note that said: 'I sure did act crazy then.'" There is a good chance that Damon will be in the frame for next year's Academy Awards - not for his turn in The Informant!, but for his supporting role in Invictus, his forthcoming collaboration with Clint Eastwood. The funny thing about this prediction is that it's not based on anyone seeing the film. On paper, though, the combination of director, star and story has awards written all over it: Dirty Harry directing a Nelson Mandela biopic starring Morgan Freeman is sure to garner interest.
Damon is looking forward to seeing the film himself. "It was a great script and a great experience, but I haven't seen it," he says. "I saw Clint last week and he says he's very happy. I play the captain of the South African rugby team, Francois Pienaar. It's a Mandela movie with all these terrific supporting parts and I'm one of them. It starts off on the first day of his presidency and is about the transition that culminates in South Africa winning the world cup. It's a Mandela film but it's a sports movie as well, and it's very inspiring."
As part of his preparation for the role, Damon learnt to appreciate rugby: "I definitely have an admiration for people who play the game. I didn't realise how rough it was" The roughness meant that he couldn't enjoy all aspects of the game. "There was no way I could go into the rucks and mauls. You can't guarantee that you're not going to get a broken nose and if I broke my nose, work would be shut down for two months."
I know that Damon is a sports fan because, in April 2008, I bumped into him at a match at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium. He was in London shooting the Iraq war movie Green Zone, and attended the game with his co-star, Greg Kinnear, and the film's director, Paul Greengrass. (When Damon spotted the director Spike Lee they got into friendly banter about the relative merits of their hometown teams, the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks.)
What happens in Green Zone is being closely guarded and even now all Damon will say is: "It's coming out in March. It's great. I've seen it, although they're still finishing some of the effects, but we got a $100 million (Dh367m) Iraq war movie. Yeah! I do have high hopes for it. I know that Iraq war movies have not been particularly successful so far, but let's see. It's about a guy who is looking for Weapons of Mass Destruction and it's all based on fact."
Greengrass also directed Damon in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, and conversation inevitably leads to the rumours that a fourth Jason Bourne movie is in the works. Damon is vague: "Maybe, if we can figure out a good story"' He then mischievously adds: "If you have a good fourth, call Universal. They'll give you a load of money." The pressure to do the film is immense, especially from the studio. "You know the studio knows that even if we made a horrible movie, it would make money and there is a huge amount of pressure. It's not expressed as someone hammering on your door, but it's something that you're aware of. They would love to make another Bourne movie and I understand why. It's so hard to have a sure thing in Hollywood and this is as close as you get. From an executive standpoint I get it, it's just that it's our job from a creative standpoint to make sure that we create something that's of a standard."
It's an admirable artistic stance and one that Damon as star is free to make. Getting the story right presents some huge barriers. "This one is really tricky because you can't have the guy say 'I can't remember' anymore because he's lost and gained his memory three times," Damon says. "With James Bond, who goes on individual missions, you can write movies forever. You start at the beginning and then he's on a new mission. Bourne isn't built that way, unfortunately. The studio is like: 'Why don't you build the films that way?' and it's like: 'What is he, going to go back and work for the government now?'
"It's just tricky to work out a way organically to create a fourth story. We want to do it."