INTERVIEW

‘I would much rather we were listening to the politicans than the actors, but the politicians aren't talking about this’

MATT DAMON TALKS TO BRIAN D. JOHNSON ABOUT CELEBRITIES RESCUING AFRICA, HARPER'S BETRAYAL, AND ACTORS IN THE WHITE HOUSE

December 10 2007
INTERVIEW

‘I would much rather we were listening to the politicans than the actors, but the politicians aren't talking about this’

MATT DAMON TALKS TO BRIAN D. JOHNSON ABOUT CELEBRITIES RESCUING AFRICA, HARPER'S BETRAYAL, AND ACTORS IN THE WHITE HOUSE

December 10 2007

‘I would much rather we were listening to the politicans than the actors, but the politicians aren't talking about this’

MATT DAMON TALKS TO BRIAN D. JOHNSON ABOUT CELEBRITIES RESCUING AFRICA, HARPER'S BETRAYAL, AND ACTORS IN THE WHITE HOUSE

INTERVIEW

Recently, People magazine named Matt Damon the Sexiest Man Alive. He was the first to scoff at the title, treating it as more of an embarrassment than an honour. Nicest Guy in Show Business might be a more fitting label for the boyish actor from Boston. With the Bourne franchise under his belt, Damon, 37, is a major Hollywood player, but he’s the antiCruise superstar. Face to face, he seems remarkably ordinary and self-effacing. Before sitting down for this conversation, he strolled into the room, unannounced and unnoticed. Damon was in Toronto to host a gala and auction for the Canadian children’s charity ONEX ONE. He personally bid $150,000for a prize that was sweetened, at the last minute, by the offer of a home-cooked meal by supermodel Petra Nemcova, one of the celebrity guests. She offered to make strudel. Damon pledged his money on the condition that he could bring his wife. Later that night, he and his buddy Ben Affleck hopped a private jet to embark on a fact-finding mission in Africa— where Damon is now heavily engaged in the fight against child poverty and disease.

QLet me play devil’s advocate for a second, because I think a lot of people have become very skeptical and jaded about celebrities promoting causes, suspecting that it’s tied into self-promotion or that it’s a public display of virtue. How do you counter that?

A: Well, to a certain extent you can’t, be-

cause you’re at the mercy of whatever coverage you get, and I don’t think there’s any way to convince people of what your motives are. A good example is a couple years ago: Brad Pitt went and did a Diane Sawyer 60 Minutes interview about Africa in prime-time American television. The year before, Africa had received five minutes of coverage in prime time for the entire year. And so when you’re faced with the fact that if you agree to go on one of these shows, then you can actually make that much of a difference—it’s kind of unconscionable not to. So yeah, you get some flak for it, but I can take that hit.

Q: Celebrity is kind of a currency that goes beyond wealth. It really is leverage.

A: It is. Now it’s a different conversation as to is that right or wrong. Look, I would much rather people were listening to politicians about this than actors, but the politicians aren’t talking about this, you know?

Q: None?

A: Well, we’re trying. The great thing about this issue is it’s not partisan. I mean, people from the far right to the far left are over there working, and the church is very active there. Everyone’s there for different reasons but everyone’s there.

Q: Does the position you’re in prevent you from becoming active in a partisan way?

A: It should. If I’m smart it does.

Q: Are you a registered Democrat?

A: I actually registered Independent when I registered in Florida recently because I don’t want anyone taking my vote for granted any-

more, but historically I’ve always voted Democrat. I remember reading an interview with Bono where they said, “What’s the first thing you’d do if you met George Bush?” and he said, “I’d get down and kiss his feet and say thank you for PEPFAR,” which is the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. In Zambia I’ve met thousands and thousands of people who are alive because of that program, and the Global Fund as well.

Q: The fatne and wealth of being a movie star, given that there’s a certain element of serendipity in how all that happens, does it bring with it a measure of social guilt—“What have I done to deserve this?”

A: Probably, but I don’t feel that it’s that. I feel luckier to have been born a white male and American. I mean, that already is...

Q: A step up.

A: Yeah, it’s not a fair playing field and you’re on a good yard line right there. But yeah, certainly the older I get, and now having children, you start to internalize issues in a different way and grow as a human being. Issues end up speaking to you in a more personal way.

Q: Later tonight you’re flying to Africa with Ben Affleck?

A: Yeah.

Q: What’s up with that?

A: Well, I went on a trip last year with DATA—Debt AIDS Trade Africa—and they’re kind of the parent company of the ONE campaign. Bono works with DATA and with ONE, and that was originally how I got involved.

They do what they call listening and learning trips where you can go and hook in with all of these different programs on the ground. Q: What will you actually be doing there?

A Using the last trip I went on as a model, each day had a different learning focus, so on your itinerary it would say, “Today’s learning focus: urban AIDS.” We were in South Africa and we’d go in Johannesburg to Hillsborough—which is a very inner-city neighbourhood—and visit an AIDS clinic there, speak with a doctor, speak with some patients, get a sense of what the issues are. The next day the focus is microfinance, and we’re in Zambia and so you go to a little bank in Chongwe and meet with the banker, discuss how many loans he’s given out, who he’s given them out to, then go and meet with all of the women who’ve received these micro-loans and listen to their stories about what kind of businesses they created—from a woman who owned a restaurant to a woman who sold peanut butter. The trip changed me in the sense that reading something in a book is a very different experience from going. Coming back from that trip, I felt like all of these problems had solutions.

Q: When you come back, does the world look different here?

A: Yeah, sure. The stat that always gets me is that 4,500 children a day, mostly under the age of five, die because they don’t have access to clean water and sanitation, and that’s a kid every 15 seconds. Most of them are five or younger and vulnerable. You think about that and you go, “Wait a minute. There’s something that I can actually do that’s tangible that can help that? I’d like to do that!”

Q: To the casual observer, or say someone from Mars, an event where you get rich people eating and drinking in glamorous circumstances to help kids in Africa—it seems like a rather inefficient conduit, doesn’t it?

A: To the casual observer, it would look utterly ridiculous, but the reality is that the ones that have raised the most money have the biggest [names], with people like Wyclef Jean and Shakira performing. People are paying $2,500 a plate for their dinner, and I guarantee the dinner didn’t cost $2,500.

Q: I hope not.

A: I think the alien would be too shocked at the inequalities in the world and the fact that people are dying at such alarming rates because they got bit by a mosquito and the rich nations aren’t doing enough to stop it— aren’t even keeping up with their promises. Everybody in the world says, “Canadians are great,” but after the G8 this year Geldof said

Harper showed up and left the Canadians at home, because promises were made—in ’03 they said, “Okay, well, we’re going to double our aid by ’08,” and that promise was renewed at Gleneagles in ’05—and DATA put out a report this year that said Canada is coming up with only half the money they said they were going to come up with. So it’s not even about future promises, it’s about keeping promises that have already been made and aren’t even being kept.

[Harper] didn’t make the promise but Canada did, and he’s gotta keep that promise. But look, again you’re talking about politicians who have absolutely no incentive to do anything because the problem is, our systems are set up to not deal with longterm problems. It’s all short-term. It’s all, you know, “What’s going to get me elected next time?”

Q When it comes down to philanthropy versus political change, which is most effective?

A: Well, it’s going to be both, but I don’t think that the political change is going to come from the politicians. The leadership is going to come from the citizenry and they’re going to push the politicians in that direction because people in Africa don’t vote. And unless we convince the politicians that the people who do vote care about these issues and understand them, we’re not going to get much movement.

Q: Any desire to push political change yourself by getting directly involved?

A: No. I don’t think I’d like it. I can hopefully do a lot without getting into that.

Q: Michael Moore pointed out that Republicans keep finding these bad actors to go into politics, like Ronald Reagan.

A: So the Democrats need some bad actors!

Q: The Democrats have George Clooney and yourself. So it’s a dirty job and nobody wants to do it—is that the problem?

A: No. I think a lot of people want to be the president of the United States. I just think you have to be a certain type of person to want [it] and I don’t think I’m that kind of person.

Q: What about George?

A: He’d be terrific, but I don’t know that he would ever do it.

Q: For the Ocean’s 13 gang, notably you, Clooney and Don Cheadle—I wonder if the studio is like this vast casino and each movie’s a heist where your real agenda’s somewhere else. With the last film, you really leveraged the media exposure for social causes.

A: Tried to, yeah. The money we made was incredible and it just literally went in through Oxfam and the International Rescue Committee and the UN food program. It was really wonderful because when we conceived of it, everyone was saying, “Well, it’s not the money,

it’s the awareness,” and we got into it and started to talk about the numbers and suddenly it was around $10 million and we were like, “Wait a second! This is an unbelievable amount of money.” But that was the point when the calorie count had been cut from 800 to 400 a day in the refugee camps—you can’t survive on that.

Q: Tell me about Running the Sahara.

A: The description of it kind of sounds like a joke but it’s not. A Taiwanese, a Canadian and an American decide to run across the Sahara Desert, and James Moll—who’s an Academy Award-winning director—came to us and said he wanted to document it, and so we produced this documentary about these guys and they run across six countries. They start in St. Louis, Senegal, and they go across through Mauritania, Mali, Niger, up through Libya and Egypt and then to the

‘The stat that gets me is that 4,500 children a day die because they don't have access to clean water’

Red Sea. It took them 111 days. They ran a marathon and a half a day, about 40 miles a day every day, and they never took a day off. But what they said before they set out was, “We’re going to run through villages and cities and we’re going to be stopping and talking to people,” and it really changed their world view. We launched a water initiative with it and they visited well projects along the route and identified projects to invest in with the money we raised at ONE X ONE last year. It was really one of those life-changing things. M