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Matt Damon on Contagion, Politics, and Being the Source of the Steven Soderbergh Retirement Rumors

Photo: Ian Gavan/Getty Images
Photo: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

In Steven Soderbergh’s virus movie Contagion, out on Friday, Matt Damon plays a man whose wife (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) is one of the virus’s first victims. It’s just the first film of the season for Damon, who will also appear in the long-delayed Margaret and Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo this fall. We caught up with Damon, still sporting a fully shaved head, at Contagion’s premiere last night, and spoke with him about the Purell usage on set, all those Soderbergh-is-retiring stories he’s the source of, and his political future.

When Steven Soderbergh gave you the script, he said, “Read this, and go wash your hands.” Did you? Do you think people will wash their hands more, use Purell more after seeing this?
[Laughs.] I actually did. I actually did. And I think people who see this movie will have that experience, too. This is a kind of horror movie, in a way, a zombie movie without the zombies. I don’t know if it will change behavior permanently, like it did with Jaws, but I think hand washing will definitely increase! Maybe a little more Purell usage. We talked about that when we were shooting, that maybe that wouldn’t be the worst idea. I was definitely washing my hands a lot, more than I used to. I don’t want to overdo it with my kids, though. I think, if they’re sniffling, that could be good. They’re building up immunities. I’m protective, but not too protective.

Maybe like Jude Law’s character Krumwiede, you guys could benefit financially a bit from this — invest in Purell stock!
We were joking about that! “Should we be buying stock?” [Laughs.] We had a lot of Purell on the set. But I think, seeing his character, the message is not to panic. Understand that there will always be people trying to sell fear, and understand where that information is coming from, or why they might be giving it to you in that way. And then try to make a decision. Sometimes it might mean carrying around Purell, sometimes it might mean kicking those people out!

It’s kind of a Ripley reunion for you, though you didn’t have any scenes with Jude.
I know! We have such a great cast, but I don’t work with most of them. When I read Scott’s script, Steven didn’t tell me at first which role he wanted me for, and all the three male leads were all great. So I just said, “I’ll do whatever you want,” and he gave me Emhoff, and he’s the easiest one to relate to. But I could have been Krumwiede. He could have been Emhoff.

Most of your time with the other leads is with Gwyneth, well, until she dies.
That’s one of my favorite scenes, when I find out she’s dead. I didn’t know how to do that scene at first, because that’s a very common scene, when you’re given that kind of horrible information at the hospital, and everyone does it the same way. But then we talked to an emergency room doctor who delivers that kind of news, and apparently, that reaction of not being able to comprehend the info you were just given is just as common as becoming a mess. They have to explicitly explain that someone is dead, really specifically, because they expect you not to get it. People go, “But I just saw her.” So we did an on-the-spot rewrite there.

Steven’s been teasing you a lot over the whole he’s-retiring story, which he told you while you were supposedly drunk so you wouldn’t repeat it. But then you did. He says you gossip like a 14-year-old girl!
Well, I don’t know! [Laughs.] He was like, “I can’t believe you remembered verbatim what I said,” but that’s because he was drunk, you see. So he didn’t realize that I was actually faking it [being drunk], so I could get a scoop, and bring it back to you guys. [Grins.]

Michael Moore wants you to run for president. Would you ever consider running for a Senate seat, or governor, or some other public office? You’re interested in politics, after all …
I don’t think I have an interest in politics any more than anybody else does, or should. I mean, we should kind of know what these guys are doing. We’ve elected them to run the country, so we have to pay attention. That doesn’t mean I would want to go into politics! I have a job, I love my job, and I wouldn’t really be interested in that.

Playing a politician would be more fun …
Than being a politician? I guarantee you it would be more fun than being a politician!

By the way, shaved head … nice look!
Thanks! I’m a walking Brillo pad!

Matt Damon on Contagion, Politics, and Being the Source of the Steven Soderbergh Retirement Rumors