Matt Damon On Playing A Race Car Driver In Famous Ford-Ferrari Rivalry Of The '60s
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
And we're going to let our co-host Mary Louise Kelly take over for this next interview, which is about the new movie "Ford V Ferrari."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Yeah - which, as you probably guessed, is about cars and a race to build a really, really fast car.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FORD V FERRARI")
CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Ken Miles) So the great Carroll Shelby is going to build a car to beat Ferrari - with a Ford.
MATT DAMON: (As Carroll Shelby) Correct.
BALE: (As Ken Miles) And how long did you tell them you needed - 200 or 300 years?
DAMON: (As Carroll Shelby) Ninety days.
BALE: (As Ken Miles, laughter).
KELLY: Christian Bale and Matt Damon - playing two icons of car racing. Bale plays driver Ken Miles, Damon plays former driver Carroll Shelby in the movie about how the Ford-Ferrari rivalry played out at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966. When Damon stopped by NPR West, I asked him about the relationship between the two lead characters.
DAMON: This movie takes place, really, at this inflection point in both of their lives where, you know, Shelby's got a heart condition so he can no longer race, so he's trying to pivot into this new career as a designer. And Miles never really got the great rides that he deserved. He was this incredibly talented engineer and driver, but he just didn't suffer fools, and he was kind of coming to the end of his racing career. So it's about the story between these two friends who come together to collaborate on this car, trying to do the impossible, which is beat Enzo Ferrari.
KELLY: Right. I mean, that's one of the things that was so fascinating about the movie, is it asks us, the viewer, to buy into the idea of Ford, this Goliath of car companies, as the underdog because Ferrari had built the perfect car. Was it clear to you, as you tried to get your head around this character, what was motivating Carroll Shelby to take this on?
DAMON: Oh, yeah. People that I talked to who knew him and all the documentaries ever made about him - and I mean, you can go down a YouTube rabbit hole following Carroll Shelby - but...
KELLY: Have you gone down that YouTube rabbit hole?
DAMON: Oh, yeah. I lived down there for a while. But he could sell you anything. You could come away on the wrong side of a deal with him, and you just still love him. Like, he was one of those bigger-than-life people who had that kind of charm and charisma. He's very unlike me. I'm much more reserved. He excelled at all the things that Ken Miles couldn't do.
KELLY: I have to say that watching you drive a race car insanely fast felt totally natural because I feel like I've been watching you drive insanely fast as Jason Bourne for years.
KELLY: How much of the driving do you get to do?
DAMON: Yeah. We'd like to do as much of it as we can because it's really fun, but Christian did most of the driving in this movie because it's really about him racing. But we did get to do some of the driving. The other thing is, when the cameras are in the car - which Jim, our director, really wanted people to experience that feeling of being in the car - when you're doing that, oftentimes you're connected to a professional driver who's sitting on a rig that's kind of got the horsepower to pull that rig and your car.
DAMON: And so you get all that interactive light, working with a steering wheel that's disconnected, right? So you're just steering along with whatever the car is doing.
KELLY: So are you, Matt Damon, ever actually driving a car anywhere near the speeds where we hear you talking about - what it's like to hit 7,000 RPMs and just how it becomes weightless?
DAMON: Not in this movie (laughter). No, and in fact, because of the period helmets that we wore, in order for the insurance to agree to insure the movie, the safety conditions that these people were driving in were just so laughable compared to what we're used to today. I think they put a governor on Christian. They tried to put a governor of, like, 35 miles an hour on him, which - like an edict. They'd say, look - please, you're not allowed to go faster. And Christian would come back, and Christian was - ah, I forgot to look at the speedometer. I'm not sure what...
DAMON: But it was all very safe. And you know, whenever he was free driving, he was surrounded by a group of professional - either stuntmen or professional race car drivers.
KELLY: You bring all this home at the end of the day - take the minivan out and drive around the block like a maniac?
DAMON: No, no.
DAMON: No, I drive like I'm driving Miss Daisy. I don't know. I think those years are behind me.
KELLY: Yeah. To switch gears - pardon that car pun there - but I read that you and Ben Affleck are collaborating again...
KELLY: ...Writing together again, another screenplay.
DAMON: Yeah, we wrote it together with Nicole Holofcener. That movie, we're going to shoot next year. It's really interesting - it's this book called "The Last Duel," and it's a story of the last sanctioned duel in medieval France that was between two knights, one of whom claimed the other raped his wife. And so we had this idea of it being about perspective, and so Ben and I wrote the male perspectives, and Nicole wrote the female perspective. And I think we've got a pretty good screenplay.
KELLY: Am I right in thinking that's the first time you and Affleck have written together since "Good Will Hunting?"
DAMON: Yeah, yeah.
DAMON: We hadn't written together in, like, 25 years. And it was interesting - this time, we had a much more methodical approach. And I think also because our lives are so much more complicated and busy that we had a real finite amount of time, and we really just spent the summer - we would write probably three to four hours a day. We couldn't believe how...
KELLY: Were you in the same room? How do you do that?
DAMON: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. We live around the corner from each other. So we'd, you know, drop the kids off, and then we'd go sit down. And we didn't really put a deadline on ourselves, but we wrote so quickly that it was kind of shocking. And we kind of looked at each other and said, well, we should do this more often. So it was nice to get time together.
KELLY: I want to ask about one other role that I did not see coming for you, and I gather you didn't have that much warning, either, which was playing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
DAMON: (As Brett Kavanaugh) Now, I am usually an optimist. I'm a keg-is-half-full kind of guy.
KELLY: The cold open on "Saturday Night Live" - how did that come about? This is you playing Kavanaugh the week of his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
DAMON: Yeah, well - so we were shooting "Ford V Ferrari," and like everyone else in America, I had been riveted that week with watching the testimony. And so it was 9:00 at night in LA, and it was midnight in New York on Friday. And Lindsay Shookus texted me - and she's a producer over there - and she said, is there any chance you would fly in to play Brett Kavanaugh? And so I got this 6:00 a.m. JetBlue flight and, like, slept on the plane.
DAMON: And I literally landed and walked into the dress rehearsal and then did it, and it was over very, very quickly.
KELLY: Did you worry about wading into the politics? I mean, that was such a week. I mean, being here in Washington, watching it from here, it was just so toxic.
DAMON: Yeah, but I didn't do anything but reenact - you know, the satire is you take what actually happened, and you just enhance it here and there a little bit. But a lot of what makes it work are that people recognize the behaviors as the behaviors they saw, right? So I'm just looking at what he did, and I'm playing it back, you know?
KELLY: Do you know if he ever saw it?
DAMON: (Laughter) I'm sure he saw it, but I doubt he'd ever admit it.
KELLY: Last thing to ask you is - you are, as am I, as someone put it to me recently, we are in our very, very, very late 40s, which...
DAMON: About as late as you can get.
KELLY: I mean, it occurs to me that for women in Hollywood, that's an age where you're starting to get written out of certain roles or where you're aging out of certain roles. Is that something, as a guy in Hollywood, that ever even crosses your mind?
DAMON: It's skewed way more to the advantage of men, without question. You know, we're kind of allowed to age gracefully (laughter), you know, and that's just always been a double standard. As far as I - just anecdotally, just looking at movies in general. You know, hopefully, that's changing. Hopefully, that, you know, with all these platforms and all this interest in inclusion and telling different stories, that we'll see more of everybody.
Personally, I think I'm going to start working a little less. You know, I worked so much in my late 20s and all through my 30s and felt really grateful to do it, and I still feel grateful whenever I get a job. But I started taking more time between jobs a few years ago, and I really see the value in that.
KELLY: Nice getting to come home and have family dinner, I'm guessing.
DAMON: Yeah, it's great. (Laughter) It's great.
KELLY: That is the actor Matt Damon talking about all kinds of stuff, including his new movie "Ford V Ferrari."
Matt Damon, thank you.
DAMON: Thanks a lot.
(SOUNDBITE OF KAVINSKY'S "NIGHTCALL")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.