Matt Damon and director Steven Soderbergh have worked together several times, including Ocean’s Eleven and The Informant! But those are lighthearted movies compared to their new film Contagion which unfolds a frightening scenario about a lethal super-virus that encompasses the world with terrifying swiftness.
Damon portrays Mitch Emhoff, whose wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) dies a horrible death just two days after arriving back from a business trip to Hong Kong. Within days the pandemic has spread around the world.
The actor came to the press conference with a totally new look – bald, which prompted the question…
I’ve never seen you with a shaved head before, what’s that all about?
I’m doing a movie (Elysium) with Neill Blomkamp who directed District 9 and this is what the character looks like.
I did shave my head once when I did The Brothers Grimm, just because it was easier to get the wig on than lacquering my hair down. I just shaved my head, so I walked around in my regular life like this. And I love it; I see why these guys rock the look. It’s great in the summertime, real easy getting out of the shower. I’m a fan.
What was your reaction when you read the script for Contagion?
[Steven and I] were getting ready to do something else, another project that we’re still going to do, and he called and said, ‘I’ve got this other thing and we’ve got to make it now, because it’s really timely.
I think it’s the best thing Scott [Z Burns] has written,’ which is saying quite a bit. So he sent it over to me with a note that said, ‘Read this and then wash your hands!’
I read it and I really wanted to be in this movie. It’s just a terrific, riveting, really fast read, really exciting and horrifying, but it managed to be touching too.
You’ve played a lot of action heroes in your career; you play a family man in this, which comes more naturally to you?
Obviously the action guys come way more naturally to me! (he laughs) If the director’s 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.
Mitch is an everyman, one of the human faces of the epidemic. In very short order he loses his wife and stepson to this super-virus, leaving him with only one surviving family member, his 15-year-old daughter, Jory. For him, it then becomes all about keeping her safe.
The scene where you find out your wife has died was very powerful.
[It’s] one of my favorite scenes that we did. It’s very early on in the movie, and I went to Steven and I said, ‘I don’t know what to do. 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.’
We had a doctor there [on the set] who delivers this kind of bad news a lot and we asked for certain trends. He said, ‘Sometime people fall apart, but there is this other reaction that we get just as much. I said, ‘What is it?’ He goes, ‘What you get a lot is that it’s just too much to [cope with].’
Scott had written, ‘She has passed away.’ And the guy said, ‘No, she died. You have to be completely specific and look at the person.’ There’s a whole script that they go on and they expect you to not even get it. They expect you to go, ‘Okay, can I go talk to her?’
So I got up that morning and I was freaking out about how the hell I was going to do this scene, and I ended up going to work and getting this scene that’s really interesting. I’ve never seen it done that way.
What is it like working with Steven?
Working with Steven is very different than 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 execute the plan and then we’d go back to the hotel and go to the bar.
In the backroom of the bar they’d deliver the footage and Scott and I would sit there and talk while Steven put on headphones and opened up his laptop and sat in the corner for 45 minutes. 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 [together].
When you are working that way it’s kind of like making a movie in your backyard with your friends. You talk about, ‘What else do we need?’ And it’s very different from going off on my own and doing three months of research and showing up [on set], the hocus pocus is taken out of the experience.
In an outbreak like this, would you be very prepared and overprotective, or just let things happen?
I’m probably more protective than I’ve ever been now that I have children. My wife’s nickname for me is Red-Alert. I sometimes just check to see if the kids are breathing. I think my tendency [in those circumstances] would be to be a little overprotective without trying to be a helicopter parent.
Contagion has it’s theatrical release next week on September 9, 2011 but will be screened at the Venice Film Festival on September 3, 2011.