Matt Damon walks into the room alone with no fussy minder or manager in sight when we meet him in Beijing, where he's here to promote his new movie The Great Wall. The only thing accompanying him is his big grin, a grin so disarming and approachable yet so recognisable, it makes us throb with excitement and go “Damn, it’s really Matt Damon!” The 1.78m-tall star is taller than we thought he’d be. We can only imagine how Herculean Ben Affleck, who towers over Matt in pics, must be in person. Matt also looks far less boyish than he does onscreen. We’re not saying he’s the Talented Mr Wrinkly, but he just looks so much more… grown up. And his dark blue knitted pullover? More Phil Dunphy than Jason Bourne. It is precisely this moment that we realise that Private Ryan is 46. Didn’t he just star in Good Will Hunting? Wait, what? That’s 20 years ago?!
8 DAYS: The Great Wall is your first Chinese movie. Did you pick up any Chinese words from the cast?
MATT DAMON: (Smiles and shakes his head) Unfortunately, those synapses have calcified.
Not even swear words?
Um, no… not really. The thing the director said the most was “mei wen ti” (‘no problem’ in Mandarin). It’s a bummer. I’ve worked in so many different countries and English is still my... You know, once you’re in production, you’re essentially lighting money on fire, and they don’t have time for you to figure that stuff out. So yeah, I went through a translator for everything.
How many items on you right now do you reckon are Made In China?
(Starts looking at his clothes) That’s a good question! I might not be wearing anything that’s Made in China (laughs).
We hear your whole family, including your four daughters, was with you in China when you filmed the movie.
Yeah, and they loved it. Two of my daughters were crying the other day ’cos they wanted to come back here. They were like, “Why can’t we go [with you]?” They were very upset. We have a thing in our family where we tell the girls that we’re going to take each of them alone on a trip. And two of them told me separately they wanted to come to China. But [by taking them on a trip], we meant like a camping trip, not a trip all the way to China (laughs).
Everyone says you are Mr Nice Guy. But what goes through your mind when you’re on press junkets and answering the same questions over and over again?
You know it’s almost like I compartmentalise this part of my life. It almost feels like I’m playing a role. It’s so unlike any other part of my life. Making movies is really fun. It’s hard work but I love it. And being at home with my kids and hanging out with my friends… no one treats me special. So, to come to these things and have all these people ask me questions and be seemingly interested in what I have to say… it feels very unnatural. I hope it doesn’t bleed into and infect the rest of my life. I think it will destroy my primary relationships. If you think what you have to say is so much more important than everybody else’s, then how are you going to have healthy relationships?
The Great Wall is a monster movie. Which monster was the stuff of your nightmares growing up?
That’s a good question. It wasn’t so much monsters but I watched The Invasion of the Body Snatchers when I was eight. I was too young to see it and I had nightmares for years after that.
Someone once said that every Leonardo DiCaprio movie would be better with Matt Damon in it. We’re going to go one step further and say that every movie would be better with Matt Damon in it.
Oh, that’s so nice of you.
Is there a movie you think you could have done better in?
I always feel like movies get the person they’re supposed to get. You know Milk that Sean Penn starred in? I was supposed to play the Josh Brolin role but I had to give it up ’cos of scheduling. I went to see it and I saw what Josh did and I was like, “Oh, the right actor got the part.” I almost got to be in The Fighter and Christian [Bale] took the part. And he was so perfect. He was meant to play the role. You get the roles you get and it works out.
What about the movies you were in?
All of them. Ask any actor [whether he could have done better] and that’s the answer you’re gonna get. I remember reading something on Anthony Hopkins and he said how economical his process became as he got older. And also the more experiences you have in life, the more available your emotions are for you. I’m 46. So if you put me in my 21-year-old body, I would deliver much better performances.
Speaking of age, were you surprised to find out that Andy Lau is 56?
(Guffaws) Yeah, he looks like he is 30. Wherever he found the fountain of youth, he won’t tell me. I wish he would.