In the realm of moments that movie stars should be embarrassed about, uttering one corny line in The Legend of Bagger Vance should not be something you wear like a hair shirt for the rest of your days. Drunkenly accusing the Jews of starting all wars? Yeah, that’s something you should probably regret. Getting arrested for pegging a bellhop in the head with a phone? Certainly shameworthy. But when Matt Damon describes the horror that overtakes him every time he thinks of the moment in Robert Redford’s Depression-era golf melodrama when, backlit and in a tuxedo, he has to look into Charlize Theron’s eyes and earnestly deliver the line “I like the way we danced,” the 36-year-old actor blanches as if he’s just been slipped a photo of himself engaged in some scat action with Andy Dick. “I felt so silly,” he says with a sigh. Damon, then 29, tried his damnedest to avoid reciting those words, telling Redford he didn’t feel he had the mojo to nail the line. “I said, ‘Look, you’ve made a career of saying that line, but I can’t say it. It’s not me.’” Redford made him do it anyway.“If he does something he doesn’t like, it will stay with him,” says Ben Affleck, who seems far less haunted than his best friend by the ghosts of cheesy lines past. “And if you bring up something he did 10 years ago, he’ll be like, ‘Uggh. I fucking hate that.’ Matt takes it harder than most.”
There is material proof of this. Damon’s fingernails have been chewed down into ragged little Chiclets. He talks about the inevitable implosion of his career like a guy whose last two films were The Adventures of Pluto Nash and Waterworld, not one who stars in a brainy action-film franchise that has grossed $502 million worldwide and whose name makes it onto the same producer wish lists as Brad Pitt’s and Johnny Depp’s. The fact that those statements can even be made about Damonwho’s objectively not as handsome as most male reality-show contestants and hasn’t exactly been called the next Brando by criticsis empirical evidence that he’s a nervous wreck, a workaholic, and a control freak.
Back in 1993, when Matt Damon was 23 and had a total of four credits to his nameone of them for saying the line “Mom, do you want my green stuff?” in Mystic Pizzaa team of UTA agents sat him down and tried to persuade him to take a role as “The Kid” in the Sam Raimi Western The Quick and the Dead. Tri-Star was offering him $250,000two and a half times what he’d ever been paid for a role. He thought about playing opposite Sharon Stone, then famous mostly for flashing some bush in Basic Instinct, in a cowboy movie, and he told the group, “I want the kind of career Robert Duvall has. I don’t feel [that] chasing movies like this is going to lead to a 40-year career. I’d rather be broke.” He did, in fact, go broke for a while (Leonardo DiCaprio took the part). But at least, by his standards, he didn’t embarrass himself.