'The Martian': Damon's latest seems familiar, but different


TORONTO — When we last checked in on Matt Damon, he was stranded on a faraway planet, hoping to be rescued by NASA. The movie was "Interstellar," Christopher Nolan's space-time-continuum epic, and the actor — uncredited, but pivotal — was abandoned on a galactic orb, desperately plotting to get himself back to Earth.

So, for Damon's next movie, what's the actor offered? The lead in something called "The Martian," directed by Ridley Scott, about an astronaut left for dead on the Red Planet, hoping against hope that NASA will discover he's alive and dispatch a crew to collect him.

"It's a bizarre coincidence, to be sure," Damon, soon to turn 45, acknowledges with a laugh. "The two movies are so different, obviously, and the characters are so different. But to start with the premise of a guy alone on a planet — I never thought I would do that more than once in my career, so it was funny.

"And I brought it up to Ridley when I first met him. ... 'Interstellar' hadn't come out yet, and I said, 'Ridley, I've got to tell you, this is crazy, but I do an unbilled cameo in Chris Nolan's movie, 'Interstellar,' and this is what it is.'

"And Ridley says, 'When's it coming out?'

"'Interstellar is coming out in November.'

"'We're coming out a year later,' Ridley says. 'No one will remember.'

"'OK, you're the boss. I'm just letting you know.'"

Alone: Even if audiences do remember, the two characters — and two movies — are, indeed, light-years apart. In "The Martian," opening Friday and likely bound for awards-season glory, Damon is Mark Watney, a botanist and engineer who has been camped on Mars with his Ares 3 shipmates (Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, among them). A violent sandstorm forces the expedition to evacuate. But Watney gets lost in the otherworldly dustup, communications are cut, his suit has stopped emitting vitals, and the crew has to take off before the whole place blows.

For many, many, many sols thereafter (a solar day on Mars — 24 hours and 39 minutes to be exact), Watney is left to figure out how to grow food, keep the electricity running and re-establish some kind of contact with Houston. For nearly half of "The Martian"'s suspense-laden survival tale, Watney is on his own — and Damon, too — talking into computer monitors or mirrors or the hollow shell of his space helmet as he tramps around the alien terrain. (The Mars sequences were shot in Wadi Rum, Jordan, on the desert sands where "Lawrence of Arabia" was filmed.)

It's an acting challenge, and an acting feat, to be alone on screen, with no one to bounce off of or to act or interact with.

There's a scene — we won't get specific about it — when Damon's Watney wells up and cries. It's the kind of moment that Oscars are made of (Oscar nominations, anyway), and Damon says it just happened, unplanned, unscripted.

"It was really surprising — I started to cry," Damon remembers, holed up in a hotel banquet room on the day after "The Martian's" Toronto International Film Festival premiere. "And Ridley came running in and said, 'This is it, we've found the moment!'

"But we would have screwed it up if we'd been planning to do it. We would have never gotten it right. It was just an accident."

Process: "Your subconscious is solving these problems," Damon continues, talking about the process by which an actor, ideally, finds his way into a role. "You're living with it, you're steeped in it, all the research and the reading.

"A long time ago, 20 years ago, when I was a young actor, Robert Duvall said, 'You don't know what you're soaking up. You don't have to. You need to just do the work and know that something's going to come of that, you just sponge it up, and it comes out somewhere.'

"And I think that's true — older actors would always tell me when I was young to relax, that you just have to be relaxed. And the older I get, the more I realize that's it. Because you become available. You're filled up with all this stuff, but you're not trying to push it anywhere, or force it, or indicate it — you're letting it just happen."

Author: For Andy Weir, the software programmer who self-published "The Martian" in 2011 — and then watched, happily, as it became a New York Times best-seller and then a $108 million Twentieth Century Fox movie — Damon's performance was a revelation.

"Obviously, I'm incredibly biased," he says, reached by phone in Los Angeles the other day. "But Matt just absolutely nails the character, the personality. The physical affectations that I imagined, his body motions, body language. ...

"And that's very hard to do, because Watney has to be serious and stressed enough to show the dire situation he's in, but at the same time snarky and smart-ass enough to have a gallows humor about everything. If he'd gone too far in one direction, then he would just be this archetypal, cookie-cutter astronaut problem-solver — kind of boring, right?

"And if he'd gone too far the other way, he'd be like this flippant idiot, just not taking his situation seriously. Come on, dude, I'm not buying that you would be so lighthearted in the face of such severe danger!

"That's a very fine line to walk, and Matt just did it perfectly."

Science: Weir prides himself on the science of "The Martian" — orbital mechanics, extraterrestrial gardening, physics, chemistry. With one plot-propelling exception, the stuff that happens in this near-future thriller is stuff that NASA scientists and Jet Propulsion Lab engineers agree could happen. The belief, the faith, the knowledge of scientific fact is what ultimately might save the day.

"Yeah, it's just this incredibly uplifting, optimistic celebration of nerds," Damon says. "At the very first meeting I had with (screenwriter) Drew Goddard, who was originally going to direct, he said, 'I want this to be a love letter to science.' And that's what it is.

"It celebrates that spirit of exploration, of pushing the envelope. ... And it celebrates sacrifice. But it also celebrates the enormity of one life, that every life matters. If you believe that it's worth going to get this guy, then what does it say about the 2 million kids who die every year because they lack access to clean water and sanitation right here on Earth?

"You could save them a lot cheaper."