Matt Damon: ‘When this all ends we’re going back to Ireland’

The actor on childhood with Ben Affleck, being a dad, staying grounded and loving Ireland

It’s around nine in the morning in Dalkey, Co Dublin, when Matt Damon’s handsome head suddenly appears on a portrait-shaped screen in a round stone-walled room in the Bartra Martello Tower. It might be morning here where events for the Dalkey Book Festival are being recorded, but it’s evening in Byron Bay, Australia, where the Good Will Hunting and Bourne Identity star is filming his latest project, Thor: Love and Thunder.

The actor is reminiscing with broadcaster and Irish Times columnist David McWilliams about their meeting in Dalkey last year. The pair of them had been guests at a very long lunch in a well known local rock star’s house.

“The last time we met,” Damon remembers with a smile, “all I can say is that we were very eloquent, articulate and emphatic. I know we were making very good points and putting the world to rights but unfortunately I don’t remember any of it.”

McWilliams teases Damon about his status as Irish folk hero, after the actor was photographed with a SuperValu bag on the rocks in Dalkey while going for a swim. “Hopefully, I don’t screw it up,” Damon laughs. Did he have any idea of the impact of being seen with the SuperValu bag that, many speculated, was in fact a bag of cans?


“I was so surprised by all of it. Listen, if any of us Hollywood types knew that, you’d see everybody turning up with those Supervalu bags wandering around trying to get their picture taken. But no, I didn’t know . . . it wasn’t even like a paparazzi shot or anything, because there weren’t any of those. It was just someone who I grabbed a picture with and I was holding the bag . . . I mean when you’re living there, that’s where you shop.”

SuperValu’s favourite customer is here, virtually anyway, to take part in the festival which is happening online this weekend. Dalkey Book Festival is famous for high calibre guests and this year, in addition to Damon, participants include President Michael D Higgins, Edge from U2, US senator Bernie Sanders, author Isabel Allende, Prof Brian Cox and Anne Enright. It also includes the announcement of the Dalkey Literary Awards. McWilliams’s wife Sian Smyth is the brains behind the festival which the couple founded in 2010. Smyth is here too, greeting Damon and liaising with the production crew about every detail of each event being pre-recorded before the festival is broadcast this weekend.

The town is so beautiful and we're just walking up Killiney Hill, walking over to Mugs [cafe] and getting coffee. It was just the best

This stunning Martello Tower built in 1804 was lovingly restored by a previous owner, the architect Simone Stephenson. It’s now the holiday home of Susie Lopez, a long-time supporter of the festival. New York-based Lopez, a Joycean scholar and a generous benefactor in the Irish arts scene, has given over her home for the filming which has also taken place on the roof of the tower and on an elevated part of her garden which enjoys breath-taking views of Dalkey Island and across Dublin Bay. A Glendalough Gin cocktail masterclass was filmed in this spot yesterday. In the near distance you can make out an infinity pool perched on the sea at the bottom of the garden of one of the many lavish homes dotted along the coast.

But back to your man, Matt Damon. In a fascinating, thoughtful and humorous exchange with McWilliams the 50-year-old actor covers a multitude: his Hollywood breakthrough, the perils of fame, American politics, parenting his four daughters and meeting Argentinian wife Luciana who was “working as a waitress in a cocktail bar” when they first met.

Here are some highlights from Damon’s conversation with McWilliams the full version of which can be accessed tomorrow as part of the Dalkey Book Festival.

On how Byron Bay compares with Dalkey …

“There’s no comparison man, we love it [Ireland] so much. One of my daughters said to me just the other day, just out of the blue, she goes, ‘you know, I could live in Ireland.’ It was such a strange time because we got there just as the lockdown started and we lived there for three months, and then went back to finish the movie and lived under kind of even more draconian rules . . . so it’s funny that they love it so much. I don’t know if there’s something about just the fact that we didn’t do any sightseeing. They just kind of lived there as locals for about six months of last year.”

On his early days, starting off in acting with childhood friend Ben Affleck …

“In retrospect, and Ben and I have talked about this now that we’re older guys, it’s very weird that he and I had this obsession. Because we don’t come from entertainment families, there’s no entertainment business really to speak of in Boston. It’s not like growing up in LA or New York . . . and we didn’t know anybody really, certainly nobody in our families, and nobody was encouraging us. On the contrary, they were telling us not to do it. But it was an obsession for both of us. And I think our friendship is very much founded in that obsession. We kind of found each other at a really young age and became close, because this was something we really cared about.”

On Good Will Hunting the film he wrote and starred in with Affleck in 1997 …

“There was a movie that came out in the early 90s that any young actor who’s watching this, go rent it right away if you haven’t already. It’s called Reservoir Dogs. It’s Quentin Tarantino’s first movie, right? It’s a great, great movie. And the story that we’d heard was that the movie really got financed because Harvey Keitel said he’d do it . . . and so Ben and I wrote a part that we used to refer to as ‘the Harvey Keitel part’. Robin Williams’s role was the Harvey Keitel part. And we wrote it in a really open-ended way . . . it could have been an African-American actor, we always talked about Morgan Freeman . . . and then you would bring that dynamic into the movie . . . it could have been a woman, someone like Meryl Streep and then instead of this father-son relationship, you turn it into a mother-son relationship. And it could change in all these different ways. We were trying to leave it as open as possible, so that we could get anybody who could get us financing. Because the big caveat for us when we sold the script was we had to be in it. And because that was the only reason we wrote it we had ironclad language in the contract that said it wasn’t about money . . . it was about Ben [Affleck] and me playing those two roles because that was really the goal all along.”

On his memories of the late Robin Williams …

“Man, I just have so many great memories of him and his beautiful brain . . . the unbelievable irony is that was what attacked him at the end, that the autopsy revealed that he had this really brutal degenerative brain disease . . . I’ve read he said to his wife ‘my brain’s been hijacked, I just need to reboot my brain.’ And, maybe that’s the cost of having a brain that beautiful. It was the most magnificent, beautiful brain . . . he was so creative and fast and such a great actor. You know, when you’re acting with somebody who’s really great . . . it’s like, there’s an effortlessness to it because they’re good enough for both of you, and they’re just carrying you. And he just carried me every moment of that movie.”

On what makes a great director ...

“It’s the hardest job there is, it’s fascinating to watch. The greatest people in the world do it. They all do it differently. But I would say this one thing they have in common, the great ones that is – Steven Soderbergh always called it throwing the window as wide open as possible, so that all the ideas come. And every single one of these directors has said it to me in a different way that they are absolutely open to wherever the idea comes from. It’s the allegiance to the idea. It’s the allegiance to the project that you’re working on. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. And ego is the absolute enemy of that, right? So if the prop guy comes up and says, ‘hey’, and has an idea for a line, you have to be available to it and your answer is not, you know, stay in your lane . . . I’ve heard Bono talk about songwriting that way. That it’s about this allegiance to, in their case, the song and you feel it when the song comes into the room. And movie-making is like that. When a great idea comes in, everybody knows, and it’s like, you’re in service of that idea. The great directors don’t have any ego about that . . . it’s always about putting their picture first . . . if a director disagrees with me . . . I can fight as hard as I want, at the end of the day, I capitulate, and I’ll do it their way. It’s their movie, ultimately . . . in my experience, it’s a dictatorship, but a benevolent dictatorship”.

On remaining grounded despite his Hollywood star status …

“Well, I have teams of people that helped me do that,” he jokes. “No, my brother has a theory that I think is pretty apt actually. And probably true. Which is that, that everything kind of stops, that your social and emotional development kind of retards at the age that you become famous. And I was lucky in the sense that I was 27. So I’d had some adult life being a normal person and not getting a second look from girls if I’d walk into a bar, you know what I mean? So I think that probably helped and then just being married to a very normal person who wouldn’t ever let me get away with me getting too big for my britches, I hope.”

On meeting his wife Luciana …

“I really did see her across a crowded room. And I swear, there was a beam of light around her. I was out [in Miami] with a bunch of guys on the crew of a movie. It was Saturday, our night off . . . I was just going where everybody was going and they went to this place and she was bartending there. And when I saw her there really was this light . . . she subsequently told me ‘that was just the light in the room, you dummy’ . . . that was 2003, so it was before iPhones and phone cameras, people had those, remember, wind up digital little disposable Kodak ones? So people were coming up to me and taking pictures and stuff. And the manager [Hank] said, ‘you could go stand behind that bar’, which I thought was great because this woman was back there. And so I went in behind the bar and the very first thing she ever said to me was ‘you can’t be here’ . . . we’re past 18 years together now. So I guess I’m glad I didn’t listen . . . she had a pretty low opinion of celebrities, because she said, most of them came in and were arrogant, and none of them tipped and they were crappy customers . . . she goes ‘alright, well, if you can be back here, you got to work’ . . . it was great, because I tended bar before . . . so I just started really berating all of the customers. It was all these Miami smooth guys, with their Saturday night duds on, coming up and being big shots. And then I just started abusing them about how little they were tipping. So they would start shelling out, taking back the $5 bill and putting out $100 bills and so I made the whole bar staff a lot of money that night, which was good, because she kept talking to me. She was like, alright, I see you are serving an actual function back here. So you can come bartend with me anytime.”

On the end of Trump …

“I feel like I have that Trump hangover that everybody else has. I try not to check my newsfeed as much. It’s just so nice . . . like I’ve been released from some kind of bizarre purgatory I was in. So yeah, I’m happy that things seem competent and boring.”

On Joe Biden’s presidency …

“It needs to be said, given that I just worked with Ridley Scott. Ridley is 83. I worked with Clint [Eastwood] when he was in his 80s . . . turns out, sometimes, our elders are pretty damn good at what they do. There were all these jokes about how he was gonna be Sleepy Joe . . . no this guy is just tenacious . . . really getting things done. So it’s exciting to watch that.”

On parenting …

“The best thing is to just try to inform them as best you can about what’s going on in the world. You don’t want them to be ugly . . . I think the more you sequester them and keep them from the world, the more chance there is of that happening and you want them to be empaths and understanding and smart and wise and all the things you would want for somebody to live a full life . . . and then there’s nights you crawl into bed, and you’re just like, God, I blew it today. That was terrible. Like, what a s**t parent . . . and you just try to do better the next day”.

On fame …

“In terms of fame I was always really worried about any of that stuff infecting my dynamic with any of my primary relationships. I didn’t want that at all. And I don’t feel like that’s happened . . . the very weird thing about fame, what’s surreal about it, is overnight everything changes for you, but nothing changes in the world. So the world you live in remains exactly the same, but your subjective experience of it is forever changed. And so I’ll be more likely to trust someone else’s opinion about people because I think everybody’s nice, because everybody is nice to me . . . so there are ways in which I try to safeguard against it as best I can. But I’m oblivious and tone deaf and you know, we’re all prisoners of our subjective experience. But mine’s probably a little weirder than most people and probably isolates me even a little more.”

On returning to Dalkey …

“We did make a deal [with his children] both times we left Ireland saying we’ll come back and finish the movie and then we’ll get to travel. We had a plan to take a caravan all around the country. We had all these grand plans and then the second time it was straight into lockdown again and then we had to leave again. So we made a bargain with the kids that when this all ends we’re going back and we’re gonna do our trip . . . we all really want to do it, we just felt comfortable there . . . the town is so beautiful and we’re just walking up Killiney Hill, walking over to Mugs [cafe] and getting coffee. It was just the best . . . I even got a pint at Finnegan’s before they shut. Like the day before the lockdown, I went over and had one pint so and then it was closed literally the rest of the six months that I was there. But Lucy and I did get one pint there . . . and I hope to come [to the Dalkey Book festival] in person next year. That would be great.”

The Dalkey Book Festival continues today and tomorrow with 22 events.. Tickets (€50) are available at Ticketholders will have access to the entire festival and can watch all events until July 20th.

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle is an Irish Times columnist, feature writer and coproducer of the Irish Times Women's Podcast