Matt Damon about the peculiarities of Steven Soderbergh's medical thriller Contagion
U. W.: When you read the script, what was your reaction and how easily were you swayed into being part of the project?
I had a similar reaction. Actually, we were getting ready to do another project that we’re still going to do, and Steven called and said, ‘I’ve got this other thing and we’ve really got to make it now because it’s really timely.’ And he said, ‘I think it’s the best thing Scott’s written,’ which was saying quite a bit. I, obviously, think a lot of Scott. So he sent it over to me with a note that said, ‘Read this and then wash your hands.’ I read it and I had the same reaction that Jennifer and Laurence did. I was just like, ‘I really want to be in this movie.’ It’s just a terrific, riveting, really fast read and really exciting and really horrifying, but it manages to be kind of touching too.
U. W.: Which type of character comes more naturally to you, the ‘everyman’ you play in this film or an action hero like Bourne?
Obviously, the action guys come way more naturally. No, if the director is good and the script is good, it all comes pretty naturally. And if those things aren’t in place then it’s impossible no matter what the role is.
U. W.: If you were in a situation like your character experiences in the film, do you think you’d be very prepared and over-protective, or would you just let things happen?
I think I’m probably more protective than I’ve ever been now that I have children. I try not to be. I mean, my wife’s nickname for me is Red Alert. I sometimes just check to see if the kids are breathing. No, no. I think I have a tendency to be a little over-protective without trying to be a helicopter parent.
U. W.: Do you have earthquake prevention kits, like the backpack with all the stuff in it?
After the Northridge quake, I put the flashlight by my bed for like two weeks. And then forgot about it.
U. W.: Matt, your character has a lot of challenge. It must be difficult to be the person that can survive, maybe the only one to survive. Can you talk about what it was like to play that?
Well, I thought a lot of it was easy to relate to. It was just on the page. And working with Steven’s very different from working with anybody else. To give you an example of a day, we’d go and we’d shoot. We’d talk about what we were going to do. We’d figure it out. We’d kind of execute the plan and then we’d go back to the hotel and go to the bar and in the back room of the bar, they’d deliver the footage.
And Steven, Scott and I, [producers] Greg Jacobs, Michael [Shamberg] and Stacey [Sher], our A.D., we’d just kind of sit there and talk while Steven put on headphones and opened up his laptop and sat in the corner for 45 minutes or an hour. And then, at the end, he’d take his headphones off and he’d turn the computer around and he’d show us what we’d shot that day, cut.
So, when you’re working that way, it’s kind of like making a movie in your backyard with your friends. The body is kind of out on the operating table and wide open. And you just talk about, all right. What else do we need?
And it’s very different from kind of going off on my own and doing three months of research—the hocus-pocus is kind of taken out of the experience. Like, one of my favorite scenes that we did is the scene where I find out that my wife is dead, very early on in the movie. I went to Steven and said, ‘Look, I don’t know what to do. I mean, how do you do this scene? It’s five minutes into the movie. We’re not invested in me or her. We don’t care. You can’t have this big scene.’ And Steven goes, ‘The slump?’
Everybody knows the slump. You’re down the hall. You just see the guy slump. Well, I don’t know. I mean, what do you do? We’ve got to find some shorthand. It’s like, we can’t dwell on this thing. We’re five minutes into the movie.
And we had a guy there who really had done this a lot. And we talked to him and this doctor who delivered this news. We asked for certain trends, like what happens? He said, ‘Yeah, sometimes people fall apart, but there is this other reaction that we get just as much.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘Well, it depends on what kind of death it is. Is it the kind of death where you’re not expecting someone to be dead?’ And we said, ‘Right, exactly.’ And he said, ‘Oh well, what you get a lot is it’s just too much.’ They have this specific way that they put it. And Scott had written it. And it was close. He just kind of intuited it. And it was close. But he had written words like, ‘She passed away,’ and the guy said, ‘No, no, no.’
‘She did die.’ You have to be completely specific and look at the person. You have the social worker with you. There’s a whole script that they go on. And they expect you to not even get it. Like, they expect you to go, ‘Okay, well, can I go talk to her?’ Because that’s a reaction that people have.
So, working with these guys, it’s like I get up in the morning and I’m freaking out about how the hell I’m going to do this scene. And I end up going to work and getting this scene that’s really interesting and I’ve never seen it done that way. And I totally believe that that’s the way and these doctors who really do it say, ‘Yeah, that’s actually how it goes down a lot of the time.’
U. W.: One of the things that really impressed me was how much effort there was in getting things right. You guys are not lab workers. You’re not a doctor at the head of the CDC. But to be around all of the right equipment and using the right terminology, how important is that to you as creating the characters?
Well, you believe it if he’s like, ‘Pass me the thingy?’ It might take you out of the movie.