Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress. It has been updated for Matt Damon’s 52nd birthday.
It’s not enough for Matt Damon to be conventionally attractive, or even physically imposing. He also has to be preternaturally intelligent, a savant capable of outwitting a Fields Medal-winning mathematician, a ruthless Russian card shark, or a millionaire casino owner, as the occasion may demand. This is the curious truth at the center of Damon’s career: Though he’s got all the looks you could hope for in a leading man, it’s what’s behind those steely blue eyes that keeps us coming back for more.
Maybe it’s because he played a boy genius in 1997’s Good Will Hunting, then followed up that breakthrough role by starring as a shrewd underdog lawyer (Rainman), a wildly gifted poker player (Rounders), and a calculating psychopath (The Talented Mr. Ripley) for good measure. Or maybe this is simply what we expect from people who once attended Harvard University.
In any case, Damon’s allure has as much to do with his brains as it does with his brawn. This is how the same man who played a nerdy pickpocket in Ocean’s Eleven could turn around and become the action star of his generation the very next year in The Bourne Identity. The frustrating part, at least for those of us who are mere mortals? Even when he’s playing an amnesic action hero who can’t remember his own name, Damon has no problem running intellectual circles around his adversaries.
This much holds true in Damon’s 2015 sci-fi drama The Martian, just as it holds true in the latest iteration of the Bourne series, Jason Bourne. Both films touch on something essential about the actor that’s often overlooked: there’s always some aspect to his character’s identity that he prefers to keep to himself.
While this might handicap a lesser actor, Damon uses it to draw us in, peppering his performances in The Martian and Jason Bourne with enough boyish charm and wise heroics to keep us, the audience, rooting from our seats. Can’t the same be said for the enigmatic schmuck Mark Whitacre in The Informant! or the bumbling, self-satisfied LaBoeuf in True Grit? Even The Departed’s Colin Sullivan, who’s no hero, is motivated by something slightly beyond our grasp, whether it’s sexual impotence or a similarly private demon.
All of this is to say that there’s more to Matt Damon than meets the eye, and so we’ve chosen to dig a little deeper into the actor’s 10 best performances in search of some answers. Of course, if you wanna read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Our list may not be quite as exhaustive, and it may not feature any mentally deficient puppets, but it should serve as a recap of Damon’s best moments.
— Collin Brennan
10. SPC Ilario, Courage Under Fire (1996)
Damon had a small supporting role in the 1996 drama Courage Under Fire as Specialist Ilario, a Desert Storm medic turned heroin addict who took part in a tragic event that Denzel’s Washington’s Lt. Col. Nathan Serling is investigating, Rashomon-style. But despite his limited screen time, Damon makes an indelible impression and not just for his natural acting style and bedrock glimmer of star power. Physically, he is almost unrecognizable.
In between the filming of the flashback scenes in combat and the present-day interviews with Washington, Damon took it upon himself to shed 40 pounds by undergoing a strict diet and exercise regimen, to the point that his health became severely compromised. Damon was put under medical supervision for several months after the shoot and for another year and a half took medication to correct the stress put on his adrenal gland.
On Inside the Actor’s Studio, Damon said that he considered giving up acting after making Courage Under Fire because he nearly killed himself to play his part, and then after the film premiered, hardly anyone in the media mentioned him or his performance. Luckily Damon’s extreme measures did not go unnoticed by all, as Francis Ford Coppola picked Damon to star in The Rainmaker shortly after seeing the film, and Stephen Spielberg was so impressed by his performance that he would go on to cast him as his titular paratrooper in Saving Private Ryan.
Damon’s Moment: In his final scene with Washington, Damon’s character tells him the truth about what happened. His gaunt face awash with sadness and regret, Damon hurts to look at as much as his story hurts to hear. And as excessive as the young actor’s commitment to method may have been for an auxiliary role, his account is a pivotal turning point in the film, and his delivery of it a masterclass. — Leah Pickett
09. Mike McDermott, Rounders (1998)
There are traces of Will Hunting in Mike McDermott, the poker-playing law student who flies too close to the sun. Both characters are boyish savants with supreme faith in their own talents, and both have a knack for getting themselves into trouble. The comparisons are inevitable, seeing as how Rounders hit theaters just a year after Good Will Hunting, but playing McDermott presented a new challenge to the young Damon.
Rather than play the emotional loose cannon, he turns in a restrained performance as the straight man to Edward Norton’s wildcard ex-con, Worm. Speaking of restraint, Damon’s two high-stakes Texas hold’em games against Russian John Malkovich are a master class in understated acting. In both scenes, his face is a blank slate that betrays nothing, leaving us genuinely surprised when the cards turn over.
Damon’s Moment: The opening scene, during which McDermott loses a huge hand to “KGB.” There’s no crying, no shouting, no shaking his fists at the sky. Damon merely stares ahead like a deer in headlights, his expression a cocktail of pain and disbelief. It’s a devastating moment, and we feel it right along with him. –C.B.
08. Francois Pienaar, Invictus (2009)
To play South African rugby team captain Francois Pienaar in 2009’s Invictus, Damon underwent extensive training. First, in physique: Damon bulked up to play the “huge” athlete, with the help of director Clint Eastwood’s creative setups and camera angles to make him look taller as well.
Second, in endurance: Damon received intensive coaching at the Garden Rugby Club under Chester Williams, who himself was a player on the 1995 South African rugby team portrayed in the film. And third, in voice: Damon honed his South African accent — along with Morgan Freeman, who plays post-Apartheid president Nelson Mandela — to passable, if not perfect, effect.
Damon’s Pienaar is far from the most complex character that Damon has played. But his commitment to embodying the man, a child of racist parents whose moral compass and empathetic heart transcend his cultivation, is commendable. Interestingly, The Informant! and Invictus came out in the same year, and the characters that Damon played in each could not be more different.
Damon’s Moment: Upon visiting the President’s prison cell, a scene filmed in the actual cell on Robben Island where Mandela spent the majority of his 27 years in solitary confinement, Pienaar steps inside, closes the door behind him, and lingers. He spreads his arms so that his fingers touch the wall. He stares out the window. His face glints with shame, sorrow, and awe.
This scene informs and suffuses the climax, when at the height of the final match, Pienaar gathers his team into a huddle and points to the stadium that rises above, to the voices singing: “Do you hear? Listen to your country…This is it. This is our destiny.” — L.P.
07. Mark Whitacre, The Informant! (2009)
In an underrated film that few people saw in theaters, Damon disappeared into the role of Mark Whitacre, a tentative whistle-blower in the lysine price-fixing conspiracy of the mid-1990s whose story was detailed in a 2000 nonfiction book and adapted for the screen by Damon’s Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen director Steven Soderbergh. The Informant! is a stylish, madcap caper with an arch approach to corporate greed; and as the layers of deceit peel back, so does Damon’s Whitacre, a vanilla schmuck so seemingly unsure of himself and his situation that he borders on naiveté.
Pulling a reverse of his starvation-diet preparation for Courage Under a Fire, Damon packed on 30 pounds of pizza, beer, and hamburgers to more closely resemble the real-life Whitacre, a bumbling pawn who, with more than a little nudging from his wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), learns how to play the game. Damon excels in playing unpredictable characters — his cameo as Dr. Mann in Interstellar being a prime example — and his Whitacre is, to paraphrase Seinfeld, an engima wrapped in a Twinkie.
Damon’s Moment: The courtroom scene. In an interview with NPR, Damon said he was directed by Soderbergh to perform the lines to the judge as if he was accepting an Academy Award. He cited this as an example of “perfect direction,” but with another actor, the moment might have fallen flat. Instead, Damon takes his greasy charm and nails it to the wall. — L.P.