Arts

Matt Damon's out on his own in The Martian

Ridley Scott's new sci-fi movie might boast a world-class ensemble of supporting actors but Matt Damon is 'the Martian'. He tells Susan Griffin why the prospect of carrying a film left him more than a little nervous

Matt Damon plays an astronaut stranded on Mars in The Martian

MATT Damon has now been deserted by colleagues not once, but twice. There has to come a point where he thinks, 'Is it me?'

Laughing, the actor acknowledges the unfortunate circumstances his characters have found themselves in for his last two movies.

First there was Interstellar, in which he briefly appeared as one of 12 volunteers individually sent to assess the suitability of planets as a new home for the human population.

"I did that cameo because I've always wanted to work with Chris [Nolan, the director] and then I took a year-and-a-half off work," explains the 44-year-old, who's starred in The Talented Mr Ripley, the Ocean's franchise and Behind The Candelabra.

He wanted to spend more time with his wife Luciana, and four children [one daughter from Luciana's previous marriage and the three daughters they've had together] and the whole family upped sticks to California.

"Then the next movie came along and I'm stranded on a planet by myself. But it was Ridley Scott, so I'm not going to say no."

The movie is The Martian, in which Damon plays Mark Watney, one of six astronauts on a manned crew to Mars that's set in the not-so distant future.

"Watney is a botanist and mechanical engineer, and is sent on the Mars mission to study and take samples of the soil, hopefully to learn more about its composition and feasibility of growing crops," explains Damon.

When a fierce sand storm hits the desolate planet, he's presumed dead and left behind by the crew.

With only a meagre amount of supplies to keep him going, he has to draw upon his wit, ingenuity and spirit to subsist, and find a way to signal to Earth he's still alive.

"He has the knowledge and training to find ways to survive but time is working against him. He believes it will likely be three to four years before the possibility of rescue," continues Damon.

"In man-versus-nature scenarios, the smart money is usually on nature."

Back on home turf, millions of miles away, Nasa and a group of international scientists learn of Watney's fate and work tirelessly to bring 'the Martian' home, as the world looks on.

This team is brought to life by the likes of Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Kirsten Wiig.

"World-class actors," notes Damon – not that he spent much, if any, time with them during the shoot.

"I did get to work with [fellow astronauts] Jessica [Chastain], Michael [Pena] and Kate [Mara] a little bit, but for the most part, it was all the other kids playing without me."

And while he does have a brilliant ensemble cast supporting him, this is Damon's movie, a prospect he found both "intimidating and exciting".

"I don't do too much calculus when I'm taking on a movie," reveals the actor who won a Best Screenplay Oscar in 1998, with his best mate Ben Affleck, for their breakthrough feature film Good Will Hunting. Damon was also Oscar nominated for Best Actor.

"If I want to tell the story and I want to spend half a year of my life telling that story, and feel like the director's great, then I do it. In this case, I did pause and think, 'Wow, if this thing goes down in flames, it's all on me'.

"But it was such an uplifting, optimistic story and then there was Ridley Scott, and that's a lifelong dream for me to work with him."

He counts the 77-year-old director's earlier films Alien and Blade Runner as "formative experiences in my life".

"They changed my life, and I think a lot of people would say that. It's impossible not to talk about them," adds Damon, on whether he discussed the iconic movies with the man himself.

"He's spent his life fielding questions about those films, so he's very generous. And subsequent to those, he's made ones all over the spectrum, from Gladiator to Thelma And Louise, to Black Hawk Down. He's so versatile and still turning out great stuff, so it was thrilling to work with him."

It reminded the actor of working with the now 85-year-old Clint Eastwood on 2009's Invictus.

"Working in his late seventies and showing up with more energy than anybody," explains Damon, who received a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 2010 for his role as the South African rugby hero Francois Pienaar.

The Martian is based on the bestselling novel by former computer programmer Andy Weir. Virtually every scientific aspect of the book is plausible and supported by current theory – with the exception of the violent sandstorm.

It's unfeasible given Mars's low atmospheric pressure but, as Weir has noted: "I needed a way to force the astronauts off the planet, so I allowed myself some leeway."

Left in dire circumstances, Watney uses humour as a coping device, enabling him to stave off hopelessness and keep his mind from fixating on the stark reality of the situation.

"I loved the humour, not only from Watney but from the other characters as well," says Damon. "The comedic tone is never glib and it complements the intense drama of the situation, which is not often something associated with the sci-fi genre."

Filming began in November 2014 and became a family affair when Damon's kids joined him on set.

"They came to Budapest where we shot the interiors on the biggest sound stage in the world. They were walking around on the Mars dirt and thought it was really cool."

And no doubt (if they were a little older), they'd be equally as excited about their dad returning to play super spy Jason Bourne for a fourth time.

"It's really exciting," says Damon, who's currently shooting the movie. It reunites him with Bloody Sunday writer and director Paul Greengrass, who helmed the last two Bourne films in 2004 and 2007.

"Paul's doing it and that's the reason I'm back."

:: The Martian is in cinemas now.

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