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Secrets and spies

Like the shadowy figure he portrays, Matt Damon can sneak up on you.

December 26, 2006|Josh Gajewski | Special to The Times

AND he's quiet.

Imagine, as an actor, reading that line, over and over.

... and he's quiet.

Think, for a moment, of Hollywood's most legendary cinematic performances.

\o7 ... and he's quiet.

\f7And then let us recall the last five Academy Award winners for best actor: Denzel Washington snapped in "Training Day," Adrien Brody starved and shivered in "The Pianist," Sean Penn wept and screamed in "Mystic River," Jamie Foxx boogied in "Ray," and Philip Seymour Hoffman charmed in a falsetto in "Capote."

By contrast, "It's not flashy," a 36-year-old Matt Damon warns of his latest role, a soft-spoken and stiff-shouldered secret agent in Robert De Niro's "The Good Shepherd." "It won't get any attention in terms of awards or anything like that, but for me personally, for just how complex a role it was and how interesting the subject matter is to me, this was definitely up there."

"Up there" despite its on-the-surface simplicity, "up there" despite those three words\o7 -- ... and he's quiet\f7 -- that followed so many scene descriptions and so many speeches in Eric Roth's script, three words that don't often describe a Hollywood protagonist, and -- Damon is well aware -- don't often lead them to golden statuettes.

"[But] Bob said to me very early on, 'This is a different movie,' which is one of the things that made me want to do it."

In the film, which opened Friday, Damon plays a man named Edward Wilson, whose greased hair parts from left to right, whose bespectacled eyes never well and whose rare smile is more like a sneer. He is a CIA operative intent on gaining Cold War intelligence on the Russians, and later on unmasking a mole within the CIA. This obsessive, trust-no-one way of life eats at Wilson's soul, his marriage and the tenuous relationship with his son.

It is the third consecutive role in which Damon must play, well, adult, following his turns as an energy analyst in "Syriana" and a crooked cop in "The Departed."

It's a career direction, says Damon, that he couldn't be happier with.

"I'm aging just like anyone else," he says, though looking at him, you begin to wonder. "But the roles do get better. I'd say objectively that the best roles out there tend to be for men 35 to 55 years old."

For the record, the average age of those best actors listed above is 41-plus, the oldest of the bunch a still-going-strong Denzel at 51.

Also for the record, the story behind Damon's involvement in "Shepherd" is a fascinating one in and of itself, one you might even say has two beginnings.

In 1997, before Matt Damon was Matt Damon -- that is, before the mostly unknown actor and his equally charismatic childhood pal, Ben Affleck, were to become Hollywood darlings by way of their own script called "Good Will Hunting" -- Damon asked his agent, Patrick Whitesell, to send him the five best unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood.

"There aren't any roles for you in these movies," Whitesell told his client.

"I know," replied Damon. "I just want to read them."

The scripts came. Among them: "The Good Shepherd," by Eric Roth. Damon loved the tale, but indeed saw no role in it for him.

No matter, because "Hunting" would soon be released to critical acclaim and a box-office blitz, and in March 1998, Damon and Affleck would hoist Oscar statuettes for best original screenplay and deliver perhaps the most memorable acceptance speech of the night, an unapologetically exuberant Thank You to moms and dads and Bostonians and Cuba Gooding Jr.

That night, host Billy Crystal had plenty of fun at Damon's expense, once quipping that Damon "must feel like he's on the Senior's Tour," the young pup competing also in the best-actor category with screen legends Peter Fonda, Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman and eventual winner Jack Nicholson.

Damon was more than happy to take the ribbing; he and his best bud had truly arrived, and that entire Oscar experience remains something of a dream, including an industry party he attended that same weekend with Affleck and their family members.

"It was like, 'Tom Cruise is here! Brad Pitt is here!' " Damon remembers. "My family would run up and tell me who'd shown up. Then (Martin) Scorsese and De Niro rolled in, and the room just stops -- even that room stops."

Damon reveled in just a brief handshake, nothing more, with both men. And so you can imagine the range of emotions he felt years later, when he signed up for a Scorsese flick and had to say no to De Niro.

And so we turn to the second beginning of Damon's "Good Shepherd" story.

"When you're talking about Bob, you don't say 'Bob was in Taxi Driver,' you say Travis Bickle, you say Jake La Motta, Rupert Pupkin," Damon says, meaning that when you look into the eyes of Robert De Niro, you see the men he's played too.

And so one day it came to be, Damon saying no to Vito Corleone. They were sitting in a Manhattan production office in 2004, De Niro having offered Damon the lead in "The Good Shepherd" by way of a surprise phone call a few days before.

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