Matt Damon is a curiosity. Sensitive young man, courageous experimentalist, blockbuster action hero: Damon, it appears, wants to be them all. Oh, and he wants people to like him. He wants people to think can be a cold-blooded killer on screen, but in real life - well, he doesn't want there to be any doubt as to just how nice and ordinary he is.
That much is clear the moment he walks into the small cinema in Los Angeles where he has convened a hastily arranged press conference; hastily arranged, that is, because Damon has been forced to cancel a series of interviews scheduled for the next day because he has to work on Ocean's Twelve, the imaginatively titled sequel to Ocean's Eleven. "First of all let me say, I'm really sorry about tomorrow," he says. "I got called into work on Ocean's Twelve and they are paying me, so I have to go. But I am sorry because I know a lot of you travelled here and I didn't mean to make you come for nothing."
The meeting was arranged, of course, because Damon is promoting The Bourne Supremacy, the rather pointless sequel to The Bourne Identity, in which he is cast against type, playing Jason Bourne, the anti-heroical hero of Robert Ludlum's original novels. The first film, in which Damon played a renegade CIA super-agent, was Universal Studio's biggest-grossing domestic release in 2002, so it is understandable that the studio wanted to do a sequel. That sequel is already doing very well in the US, holding second place at the box office and earning its makers $23.4m in its second week of release.
What is not at all clear is why Damon, with his pretensions to being a "serious actor" would want to be involved in a follow-up, however successful. Damon insists he didn't make it simply to star in another blockbuster: "I was pretty sure I wasn't [going to do a follow-up]. What I said was I didn't want to do it unless we could make it as good as the first one. There are so many sequels that are disappointing for me as a movie fan," he says, "and if I go to a sequel to a movie that I really like and I feel like it was made cynically, as a money grab by the studio, then I end up really resenting the studio and the film-makers. Plus it's just very hard to make a good sequel. I had a friend who said something really funny to me. He said 'You have to be very careful with this sequel stuff. There have only been three sequels in history that are as good or better than the original. The New Testament is better than the Old Testament, Huckleberry Finn is better than Tom Sawyer and The Godfather: Part II is better than The Godfather.' "
Among the factors that convinced him to do this film, says Damon, was that Paul Greengrass, the documentary film-maker whose most recent work was Bloody Sunday, had been lined up to direct. Bloody Sunday was one of his favourite films of the past decade, he says. "Once I started to talk to Paul about what his vision of the movie was and heard not only his enthusiasm but also how he intended to do it - I just felt like it was something I couldn't say no to."
He claims that the boldness of script and the challenge of playing his character with little actual dialogue persuaded him that he was involved in a serious production. "I thought it was a really good thing to take what looks like a classic revenge story and turn it on its head a little bit."
He adds: "I really like the character. I kind of feel like I'm in the same position I was at the end of the last one where I'd like to do a third one but I don't want to do it if it can't be as good as, now the second one. I'm considering it, but I do really feel like I did last time. I am very happy to leave it as this, I am really happy with the way this came out. There was a lot of pressure on the creative group that was behind it throughout the shoot, because we all shared the feeling that we did not want to make a disappointing sequel to a movie we liked.
"Now that pressure has gone, because I am very happy with the way the movie came out. But to go and do a third one, we'd really have to get a great script. And it's hard because, the character, I don't know personally where to go with it. Perhaps there's a rocket scientist who can work it out."
It's an odd, unlikely claim. The Bourne sequel is not terrible: Greengrass has produced a good-looking film with lots of action; a success, given his desire to direct an "intelligent" movie within the Hollywood mainstream. But it has barely any plot and - despite what Damon claims - does nothing to advance the Bourne character. Bearing in mind his friend's advice, it is far from clear why Damon opted for this follow-up.
Much has been written of Damon's decision to play against type - not entirely convincingly, it should be said - as a rugged killer. He says this does not mean he is trying to carve out a niche, especially given his readiness to get involved, again ignoring his friend's advice, in the follow-up to Ocean's Eleven.
"I doubt that these two movies will mean I will only do action movies," he says. "And I never wanted to do the same sort of movie over and over anyway. My theory on it all is I'm just going to try and dodge the labels and keep doing what I am doing. I really like the fact that I can do a movie like this and turn around and do Ocean's Twelve or Syriana [a thriller, still in pre-production, about the CIA's war on terrorism, written and directed by Traffic scribe Stephen Gaghan] or Stuck on You. And it's that which makes it interesting to me. That's what makes me like to go to do work - that things are constantly changing."
He says he selects his films from the countless offers he receives based on three fundamentals. "It's usually the exact same three things, which are the script, the director and the role," he says. "And usually any two of them is good enough, but definitely those are the three things I look for. And.. just the chance to do things that are different."
The likeable and thoughtful Greengrass, incidentally, tells me the following day that he is mightily impressed with Damon, both for his acting and his integrity. "He did [the film] for the same reason that I did - doing something in the mainstream that is intelligent," says Greengrass. "He is a very interesting man. He thinks a lot about what he is doing."
There is no doubt that, in his reasonably short career, Damon has packed in a huge variety of projects. The 33-year-old, who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a few streets away from Ben Affleck, got his first break in Courage Under Fire. But it was in his next film, Good Will Hunting, on the screenplay of which he and Affleck collaborated, which saw him soar to stardom. He and Affleck have been talking recently of getting together again on another project. "It is really something we want to do, but we have to carve out the time and commit to it."
From there, he went on to key roles in films such as Saving Private Ryan, The Legend of Bagger Vance, All the Pretty Horses and Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley, for which Damon, playing alongside Jude Law, got decidedly mixed reviews. In addition, there have been experimental films, such as Gerry, directed by Hunting's Gus Van Sant. He also did the narration for a public-television wildlife production, Journey to the Planet Earth, and this year worked on Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm.
In one exchange that should not be taken too seriously, Damon suggests he is now even ready to make an adult-entertainment film. "My theory on action movies is that they're like porn movies," he says. "A porn movie has got really bad writing, really bad acting and really thinly drawn characters. They have a really shitty scene where they talk and say 'Hey, I'm the milkman'. And you know what is going to happen. And then you get the action and you don't really feel anything for the action and then you get another really stupid scene with 'Hey, I'm the mailman' ".
Given his wish to improve on the action genre I ask if he is ready to try to improve on this type of film as well. "I'm feeling like I can. What I want to do is make a character-driven porn movie," he laughs. "It's all going to be about the character and the porn's going to grow out of the characters and serve as character development. You know how movie titles get porn titles - movies that rip them off? [A producer] suggested that we do 'The Porn Identity'!"
It's all a lot of fun and Damon is keen to please but I'm not sure we've really got to the bottom of it, and identified where his drive and his apparent happiness with this eclectic approach really come from. In the end we might have to settle with an admission he makes, almost as an aside, that it is simply against his nature to turn down offers. This might be why he ends up in films such as the Bourne sequel, when he might satisfy his obvious wish to be considered a serious actor by doing some stage work. "I think it's still hard for me to turn down work, because for so many years I was desperate to get a job and couldn't. Its anathema to me to turn down work..."
Then, back in the PR groove, he continues with a smile: "I don't know if it's being a workaholic as much as having common sense and thinking that these movies are really good. The last year I have worked with some incredible directors and I think I would have regretted passing up any of those opportunities".
'The Bourne Supremacy' opens on 13 AugustReuse content