Oscar at 27. Box office of $2bn. Best mates with Brad’n’George. Yet he remains one of the most likeable guys around. Now Matt Damon is playing a corporate crook in The Informant!
Then there’s a Liberace biopic for Soderbergh and a little matter of a fourth outing for Jason Bourne. So, he’s good-looking, generous and gifted… How do you like them apples?
The Informant! is a project you and Steven Soderbergh have had in development for a long time. What’s the history of it?
He actually offered me the movie in 2001. I was doing the fourth round of reshoots on the first Bourne movie. I was in a hotel room in Paris.
I had two movies that had come out that had tanked and Bourne had all the signals of being a disaster, because we shot so many times and it was delayed like a year coming out. The phone had stopped ringing completely. And you could really feel it.
In Hollywood, by any measure, I was cold – cold as ice. And Steven was coming off his Oscar for Traffic and two of his movies were Best Picture nominees in the same year. By Hollywood standards, he was as hot as you could get.
And it was in that climate that he called me.
What did he say? “I’d like you to play a rotund ’90s white-collar crook?”
He was really excited and he said, “I’ve found something for us to do together.” I said, “What do you mean?” I literally hadn’t had a phone call in nine months.
He said, “This thing’s called The Informant!. I’m faxing you the first 80 pages. I’ve just read it. It’s great.” And I said, “OK…” And I was genuinely confused.
I said, “Do you want me to write it?” I thought he wanted me to adapt it. And he said, “No! Scott Burns will write it. You’ll star and I’ll direct!”
I was dumbfounded. I went home and read it and thought, “This is one of those great roles that comes along every seven or eight years.”
Next: The Informant! [page-break]
So were you terrified in this period, where everything was tanking?
Look, I can write. I can’t be any more cold than I was when we did Good Will Hunting. Nobody even knew who I was. So that’s about as cold as you can get. I can always go back and write – and I want to anyway. I never felt, like, terrified.
By career standards, you can’t get lower than starting out. So, no, I wasn’t. But I was very aware, I would say, that things weren’t going swimmingly.
So when Soderbergh rang, it was out of the blue?
I didn’t even know what hotel I was staying in. I was totally focused on reshoots. And it was the last day of reshoots. I was sitting in my hotel room – I was going to catch a flight the next morning. And the phone rang and it was Steven.
We’d shot Ocean’s Eleven, but it hadn’t come out. I hadn’t seen it. We had a great time, a great experience, doing that. But I hadn’t spoken to him.
So does it always work that way with you? You take personal calls from directors, rather than going through agents?
No, no agents. If you don’t know the guy, maybe, but if you’re friends… Like now we’re trying to get $30m to get this Liberace movie. It’s about Liberace and his lover.
And when I went to do Che, Steven called me and says, “Will you do a day on Che? I want you to do this scene in Spanish, even though you’re playing a German guy.”
I was like, “Really?” They were in the south of Spain. I said, “Lucy [Barroso, Damon’s wife] and I are going to be there.” I had some press to do there for The Bourne Ultimatum.
So the studio flew us there and we snuck in because Che was the lower-budget movie. We let Bourne get us to Europe and then I went down.
We got to this little resort where they were staying, in the south of Spain. And I showed up. And Steven is at the bar with Greg Jacobs his AD and producer, waiting for me.
And he pulls out a book, Behind The Candelabra. And there’s a picture of this young blond guy with a big fur coat and next to him there’s Liberace, with all of his rings and a fur coat.
Steven hands me the book and goes, “You. Michael Douglas!” So that’s how you get a job. There are no agents!
Next: Gaining weight [page-break]
Will you make it?
Yeah. Next summer. And it’s an incredible part for Michael. It’s this guy who wrote the tell-all book after Liberace died. He was with him for a long time. But he left him before Liberace got Aids.
So if the beginning of this decade was shaky, how do you feel now you’re on a huge roll?
Terrific. The roles just seem to get better and more interesting. It’s that very unfair thing about the movie business where, as a man, when you get to between 35 and 55, those are really the best roles.
Whereas, as a woman, those roles start evaporating. So for me it’s great. I’ve worked with all these directors and I want to start directing soon. And these terrific roles keep coming. And it’s with friends I’ve worked with before.
To be able to work with Steven five times… And six next summer. That’s all I could ask for. If I could just keep working, with the people I’ve worked with already, I’d be happy.
You put on a fair bit of weight for The Informant!. Was that on Steven’s instructions?
He never said put on this amount of weight. We’d been talking about the movie for seven years. I sent him a text about two months before we started. I said, “What do you want this guy to look like?”
And he wrote back, just saying, “Doughy!” And then I talked to him later when I got there and I put on the weight. I never weighed myself but I’m guessing it was 30lbs.
And I got there and he said, “I want to put a piece on the end of your nose. I just don’t want any hard edges. I want to look at you and not be able to define where you begin and end.”
And that’s a metaphor for the guy. Nobody can tell where he begins and ends and when he was telling the truth and when he wasn’t. Because the guy did look like that. He actually did.
And the wig that I wore – he did wear a hairpiece. The FBI took bets. They didn’t know whether or not he had a hairpiece. Half thought he did, half didn’t.
Scott even wrote in the screenplay, in the last scene, when he was bald, in the screen directions, “Even his hair was a lie!”
Next: Hair pieces, fake noses [page-break]
You didn’t shave your head then?
No, it was a bald cap. We talked about it, about the best way of doing it. I did it for The Brothers Grimm. I wore a wig for The Brothers Grimm and I was bald underneath. I loved that! It was really liberating, actually. You get out of the shower and you dry instantly!
You also wore a fake nose on Ocean’s Thirteen. Wasn’t that an inside joke?
Well, when I did The Brothers Grimm there was a big fight between Terry Gilliam and me, and the studio. Terry wanted me to have this prosthetic nose. He wanted it to look like my nose had been broken.
So we tested the piece out and it really worked; you couldn’t tell it was a prosthetic nose. Like this one on The Informant! – it’s very subtle. In fact, it’s the same make-up artist who did the nose in The Brothers Grimm.
But the Weinstein brothers came down on the side of, “You can’t put your actor on a poster and have him not be recognisable in a big movie.” Basically, you can’t do a prosthetic nose in a big movie.
So I always took it that Steven gave me this ridiculously big nose in Ocean’s Thirteen for no reason at all. I mean, there’s no reason for Linus to put this nose on.
So for Steven, it was about solidarity with a fellow director, to say to that studio, not only can we put a nose on the very same actor in a ‘bigger’ movie, we can put a bigger nose on him!
What is it that you admire about Soderbergh?
Formally, nobody has pushed the envelope more than Steven. He’s done every kind of movie. He’s totally fascinated by form. He’s basically tried everything. And he’s always in production.
He’s either in pre-production, production or post-production at all times, since sex, lies, and videotape. He has not stopped. Not once. Not for a minute.
And he’ll go do The Girlfriend Experience… which he shot in 15 days! Fifteen days! They don’t shoot TV shows in that time. It’s absurd he did that. He’s never been over-budget and he’s never been over-schedule.
Next: Soderbergh, Spielberg, Eastwood [page-break]
Is this directorial energy common in your experience or is it singular to Soderbergh?
I’ve worked with a lot of directors and it’s not something I’ve ever seen before. Although maybe Clint Eastwood…
In fact, I told Clint Eastwood if he ever acts again in a movie, the only person he should ever act for is actually Steven Soderbergh. Because he’s the only person who is as decisive and as fast.
So as an actor, it’s just a joy. You have a very good idea of the movie you’re in. The score, for instance, on this movie, he said: “Think Bananas!”
So he was playing the music to [Woody Allen’s] Bananas, and then he gets Marvin [Hamlisch, who composed for Allen] to score the movie.
So we all were very clear about what movie we were in, which is important in a movie like this. We were aiming at a really small bullseye, because tonally it’s so specific.
So do you see Eastwood as similar to Soderbergh in terms of technique?
Those two guys in particular are similar in that they cut in-camera as they’re working. And they’re totally fluid. They don’t storyboard. They don’t come with a pre-conceived idea. They know the style of the film they’re shooting, but they’re not rigid.
They’re so fluent in the language of cinema, that they can come in, watch what’s happening and listen to suggestions and collaborate and get the best out of all the people that are working with them. Then make a decision and shoot it.
Have you seen that sort of skill with any of the other directors you’ve worked with?
I remember Spielberg, on Private Ryan, had a bank of video monitors and three or four cameras working and he would sit there and do a take.
There would be four cameramen running around, into each other’s shots, through each other’s shots, explosions going off, people flying through windows, and people shooting each other.
He would play it all back and go, “Watch this – we’re here, now we’re here, now we’re there, now we’re back there, we cut to there.” And when I went to see Saving Private Ryan, those sequences were exactly as he’d described. And that’s a different league.
Next: Bourne 4 [page-break]
Would you like to be that kind of director?
I don’t know that I can. That comes from a lot of experience. The things those three guys have in common is that they have a lot of experience between them. They’ve made a lot of movies. Their understanding of how to tell a film visually is remarkable.
Another director you keep on teaming up with is Paul Greengrass… So, spill the beans, when are we going to see Bourne 4?
Look, it’s a question I get a lot from people on the street and I was talking to Paul and he gets the question a lot too and he said, “That’s the signal that we really should do another one. People want it.”
Also, we love the character and we would love to do another one. For us, that means reuniting with all of our friends who made the other movies and going on another round-the-world adventure again.
So, personally, selfishly, we’d all really like to do it, but we are really serious about trying to get the story and the script right because the only thing more disappointing than not having another one of these movies is – for us or for movie fans – to make one that isn’t good.
Because everyone would say, “They should have quit after three.” And we’d feel that way too. We don’t have the script yet, but hopefully we’ll be shooting in 18 months or so…
And when do we get to see Green Zone – your first non-Bourne film with Paul?
It’s coming out in March. Paul’s finished cutting except for some effects. He hasn’t had a break, literally, since he did The Bourne Supremacy – which is six years ago now. So he’s been on vacation for about three weeks…
Next: Ben Affleck and that Oscar [page-break]
Ben Affleck, meanwhile, is on his second film as a director, The Town . Did he ask you to be in either of his films?
He didn’t ask me but I’d love to work with him as a director. We were so young when we wrote Good Will Hunting and we’ve known each other forever, we work well together and we enjoy it. So, yeah, I’d work with him again in a second.
So you’re still friends with Ben?
No! I threw him out! He’s really such a boring guy!
You’ll always have that Best Original Screenplay Oscar… Where do you keep it and how much did it change your life?
We’re renting an apartment in New York and so I just saw my Oscar because it was moved out of storage and it’s in the closet… I was looking for some shoes and I found it there!
Winning that award at that time changed our lives completely because to get that much attention and to have our profile raised in the industry that much led to much more work.
It affected everything from the amount of money I got paid to the number of jobs I got offered to the quality of the jobs that I got offered.
Next: Villains and Maaaatttt Daaaamooonnn [page-break]
Would you consider playing a downright villain? Do you get offered those roles?
Yeah, yeah, if it’s a good part. The Departed, the guy was definitely not a good guy. And The Good Shepherd, he has his son’s wife thrown out of the aeroplane. There are definitely aspects of him that weren’t good. And the Ripley character… he’s my favourite character.
Yeah, that movie still holds up.
More than The Departed?
Finally, we have to ask: did it annoy you to have the piss taken out of you in Team America?
No, I loved that! I still get people coming up to me with pictures of the puppet and I sign it. But they say, “Could you just write, ‘Maaaatttt Daaammoonnn’?” So yeah, I was really happy to be in that. I actually really like that movie.
The Informant! opens on 20 November
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