Matt Damon on Hollywood racism, Africa’s water shortage and privileged upbringings

An Oscar nomination is in the bag, but Matt Damon has much bigger things on his mind than just film awards

Having been known as the linchpin of the Jason Bourne action films for nearly 15 years, Matt Damon has a new mission – to give everyone on Earth access to clean running water, hopefully “within a generation”.

His charity, water.org, is in its second year of operation. It’s a big aim for a man who is normally the epitome of understatement; wrapped up in a sweater and scarf against the chill for the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, Damon attracts barely a second glance.

Yet as one of the “all-white” line-up of actors with an Oscar nomination this year – for Ridley Scott’s The Martian – his is a powerful voice for change. 

The 45-year-old actor’s still baby-faced brow puckers as he contemplates how to navigate the question of this year’s nominations. “Of course I’m very proud to be recognised,” he says, “but, yes, the lack of diversity is embarrassing.”

It’s actually a touchy subject for Damon. Last September, he apologised for an episode of HBO’s Project Greenlight in which he clashed with a black producer, Effie Brown, over who should direct a film that they had discussed making, which had one black character.

Brown was upset at the lack of diversity among the film-makers they were considering for the job. 

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Matt Damon in Ethiopia witnessing the benefit of work done by his charity, water.org

Later, after a backlash on social media, he said that his comments were “part of a much broader conversation”, and he now believes that that uncomfortable conversation is finally taking place.

“It’s more than about the Academy Awards and even about our industry,” he says. “We are talking about bigger problems that are within [the US]. We have to do more to reflect who is watching the films we make, and I think it’s going to be a long road. I think the first steps are being taken, though.”

Affable as well as self-deprecating, Damon brushes off speculation that he might win the Best Actor prize, although he took home a Golden Globe a few weeks ago. “Oh, I think there are other performances that might deserve it more,” he says, diplomatically.

But he won’t be drawn on whether that should be his co-star in The Departed, Leonardo DiCaprio, who is also in the Best Actor frame for The Revenant. He flashes that action-hero smile. “Leo’s my buddy,” is all he will say. 

Matt Damon wins at the Globes

Damon and DiCaprio have more in common than ending up on the most criticised Oscars shortlist of all time. While DiCaprio has attempted to raise global awareness about climate change, criticising the “greed” of energy companies when he spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Damon has launched the #buyaladyadrink campaign.

It is not some creepy dating app, but an attempt to raise enough money to end what he calls “the stupid, pointless poverty that comes with no easy access to clean running water”. 

The emphasis on the “lady” is derived from the fact most water collection is carried out by women. Damon says: “It is abhorrent that women and children can spend most of their day scavenging for water when they could be educated and contributing to the economy of their country.”

On the subject of Hollywood stars and charity work, he says of his friend DiCaprio: “I don’t want to speak for Leo, but I imagine that he’s like me,” he says. “We woke up one day and saw that we had a huge sphere of influence – a megaphone to society – and we decided that we had to do something with it.

"It’s a pleasure rather than a duty, but I do see it as an act of responsibility, giving back for my own good fortune.” 

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Matt Damon and Ben Affleck win Oscars for their peformances in Good Will Hunting

Turning 46 later this year, with “everything I ever wanted in life” – a successful career and four daughters with his Argentinian wife, Luciana Barroso – has turned Damon’s thoughts to his legacy.

“It’s not that acting or producing isn’t enough for me. It’s just that I have the potential to have a significant impact on the world,” he says. “Material poverty leads to another kind of poorness, which is even worse: the poverty of hopes and dreams. 

“My own lightbulb moment came in Zambia. I was doing another charity project a few years ago and, when I was talking to this little girl as she fetched water, she told me she wanted to be a nurse. There was just something in the way she said it that choked me.

"It reminded me of the way Ben [Affleck] and I would say as kids, ‘One day we’re going to go to New York and be famous actors!’ That’s when I first thought of setting up this charity. Our dreams happened for me and Ben; I want others to have their own dreams.” 

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Daunting task: Matt Damon stars in the film version of Andy Weir's The Martian

The fact that women are disproportionately affected by a lack of domestic running water is a big factor in Damon’s commitment to his charity; he is, as he puts it, “totally outnumbered by girls” in his own household. Nor, he adds, does he want his daughters growing up within a bubble of privilege; he intends to take them on trips to the developing world “as soon as we think they’re old enough”.

He adds: “Of course, it’s impossible for a Western kid to understand how lucky they are until they see what life is like for others. I didn’t get it, just growing up in Boston in the Seventies – never mind them. They are going to see it at first-hand one day.”

They might have to wait until shooting the next Bourne film is completed. The fact that Damon has agreed to return to the franchise nearly a decade after The Bourne Supremacy, and after Hollywood tried to continue the series without him in 2012’s The Bourne Legacy, speaks volumes about his bankability, and that Damon himself has made Bourne the most successful spy franchise after James Bond.

But could the fortunate Damon get even luckier this year? He has produced a new film, Manchester By The Sea, which stars his best friend Affleck’s brother, Casey, and is a sombre drama about a man returning home after his sibling’s death.

Described as “a masterpiece” by critics at Sundance, it is already being pointed to as a possible Oscar contender for 2017. 

Damon jokes that he is “kicking himself” that he gave the lead role to Casey and stuck to producing, but he insists he was “just too busy” to do it himself.

“Seriously, it’s one of the best parts I’ve ever seen,” he says. “I’ve never got through that script without crying. I really regret not being in it but, if it can’t be me, there’s no one else in the world I’d rather have the part than Casey.” 

For more information on water.org,  go to buyaladyadrink.com

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