party chat

Matt Damon Has a Small Part in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Photo: Patrick McMullan

Last night, Matt Damon was on hand to toast to his good friend Ben Affleck’s upcoming film, Argo. And so, when Vulture approached Damon, we were all ready to talk fake sci-fi movies and Oscar odds … but we first had to address his appearance: Why was his head shaved again? This led to a revealing bit about a “small part” he’s shooting in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem, which stars Christoph Waltz as a computer genius on some sort of meaning-of-life quest. Herewith, the complete conversation, which eventually did veer into Argo and Oscar territory (he thinks The Town was “snubbed,” by the way) as well as his Liberace movie, Promised Land, Elysium, and more. 

Happy birthday! The last time I saw you at the Contagion premiere, your head was shaved, but that was for Elysium. Reshoots?
I shaved it again this morning. There are two extra days of shooting that we have to do next week, and not to bore you with this, but I had to shave it because I have to do a wig fitting. I’m going to do three days with Terry Gilliam, and now that I have to shave my head, I need to do a wig for Terry’s movie.

You’re doing The Zero Theorem?

I’m just doing a very small part in it. Someone finally gave him money to do this one, thank God. It’s with Christoph Waltz and Tilda Swinton. I’d do anything for Terry. It’s been ten years since I last worked with him. I wrote Terry this whole e-mail, because we had this whole conversation about what the character would look like, because the story takes place in the future, but he had a specific look that he wanted, but then I had to [points to shaved head], and I said, “Terry, what should we do?” And he said, “Actually, we can take advantage of the fact that your head is shaved. Why don’t we change your hairline?” So he mocked up a picture and sent me a real receding hairline, with white spiked hair. “We might as well take advantage of the fact that you’re bald and really do something, present you in a way you’ve never been seen before.”

White spiked hair like punk rock or Graydon Carter–style?
Graydon Carter–style. But we’ll see when I get there. They’re making the wig now, and I saw the hair sample — they’ve got to get it to London and send it. It’s, like, gray-white. He’s supposed to be my age, and it’s supposed to be a believable hairline, but a few inches back to here [points to an area much further back]. Still believable that it could be mine, and then they’ll fine shave my head all the way down. Terry’s so visual, you know, which I love. It makes it very easy to work with him. He always knows exactly what he wants.

Do you think the sci-fi Argo — the film within the film — is filmable?
Judging from the table-read scene? Probably not. [Laughs.] Not that I’m not morbidly curious and wouldn’t want somebody to try, but I hope they wouldn’t sink too much money into it. Maybe with the new way to distribute movies, there’s a way to make it make sense.

How do you think it compares to Elysium?
Hopefully Elysium is a really unique and nonderivative, exciting, futuristic action-science-fiction movie. The thing about making movies, you always feel you’re one step away from making Argo, the movie within the movie. What is much rarer is when you make Argo. That doesn’t happen very often, and it only happens when there is a great director and a lot of really wonderful people who do their best work and make it happen together. I’m so proud of Ben. We don’t get a chance to see each other a lot, but we’ll get a minute somewhere in here to catch up.

He’s doing a lot of press over there, which is good. There’s already talk of an Oscar nomination for him for this one.
I hope so! I think he deserves it. I really do. I’d be shocked if it’s not one of the Best Pictures. It really is. And they snubbed him last time. The Town was great, and Gone Baby Gone was wonderful, too, so hopefully that means something.

Since you sometimes don’t know, can’t know, how a film is going to turn out just from reading a script, how do you separate the bad Argos from the good Argos?
It’s tough. Really, you’re looking for as much information as possible, but at the end of the day, it’s an educated guess. I just take the math out of it and bet on the director, and if I like the director’s body of work, chances are I’m going to like the movie that they make, and I think that’s the safest way to do it. When younger actors ask me, “You’ve been around for a while; you’ve got a good track record,” I tell them that: Work with the best director you can, and chances are you’ll do okay, over time. It doesn’t prevent you from sometime being in a great director’s worst movie, you know? [Laughs.] That can happen.

That ever happen to you?
Yeah, yeah, but certainly none that I would ever mention! [Laughs.] But you know, I live in New York, so people aren’t shy about coming up to you and telling you what they think about your career. And so I’ve certainly, when a movie’s come out, had people come up and say, “What the hell were you thinking? That movie was terrible!” And I usually say a version of what you just said, which is, “Look, we don’t get to see the movie before we make it!” [Laughs.] It’s always a crapshoot. There’s always an element of risk, and sometimes that’s part of the gig.

Well, if you’re doing Zero Theorem, that’s like your fourth sci-fi movie in two years — if you consider Contagion to be sci-fi. Is that a direction you want to continue going in?
I’ve always done it on a one-off basis. I’ve never looked at any trend. I’m interested in making good movies with great directors, and that’s it. It’s all problem-solving, you know? The problems are just slightly different in different genres, but it’s really basically the same thing. Even if you compare big budgets with small budgets, it’s still all the same.

You and Ben are producing The Whitey Bulger Project. Where are you with that?
We’re waiting … Terence Winter is a brilliant writer, and he’s doing a draft right now that we’re waiting for. I’m really curious to see it. I think the world of him. He’s a wonderful writer, so we’ll see — we’ll see if there’s a movie there that we all think is worth telling, that would be different than other things that have been made in the same genre, and then, yeah. It’s so hard making movies because so much has to happen for these things to come together, but I really hope that one does.

For Promised Land, you were going to direct, but you handed it over to Gus Van Sant. Is that a load off?
In terms of things like Promised Land, there’s a huge buy-in there, because we wrote it, John [Krasinski] and I are starring in it and producing it as well, so it doesn’t feel like less of a commitment. It feels like more of one. But, yeah, I think Ben and I are, with our production company now, are gearing up to do that [meaning, produce more films they aren’t actually in]. I wouldn’t count it out. So I think we’re about to start doing more of that, but we haven’t yet, up to now. I mean, I’ve executive-produced things like documentaries, but I haven’t just produced a film yet. Producing is a real trade. I know in this business, people will take a credit if they can get it, but I want to treat it like a real thing. Because we know so many great producers, we wouldn’t want to take advantage of it.

Since Michael Douglas is here, did you guys finish the Liberace movie Behind the Candelabra for HBO? Because they were waiting before for Michael to feel better …
Yeah, and then I pushed it actually because it conflicted when they wanted to shoot, so that was part of the reason it got pushed a year, but we finished. Michael and I are both here, and my kids are in school here, so we wanted to do it in the summer. It turned out great. I’m really proud of it. It doesn’t come out until May, and it’s going to Cannes first before it airs on HBO.

Since you play his lover, did you have any interesting love scenes with Michael?
A lot of interesting love scenes with him, yeah! [Grins.] But you know, look: We knew what movie we signed up for, and it’s a really interesting, the dynamic between the two characters, and a lot like a marriage. So we had a lot of experience, both of us, in that regard, so it’s really unique, just the power dynamic between them and the craziness of their lives. I mean, he was the biggest performer in the world, and what that did to their dynamic, and at the same time, they’re like an old married couple. There are fights, you know, because they battled endlessly, because Scott had a drug problem and they really fell out in large part because of that. And it had a really tragic end there. I’ve never seen a relationship like that portrayed before, so hopefully people will like it. I’m really proud of it. I think it’s really interesting! Maybe people will disagree, but I’m really proud of it.

Matt Damon Has a Small Part in The Zero Theorem