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The Two Faces Of Matt

To See the Star, You've Got To Get Past Mike Smiley

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2004; Page C01

With the exception of Michael Jackson, celebrities always seem more normal in real life than you'd expect, just as they almost always seem shorter. It's a surprise when someone you've seen on a big screen and on posters appears in a hotel room, pacing and holding a cordless phone.

You don't imagine someone like Matt Damon eating his breakfast (or, more precisely, smoking his breakfast) inside a suite at the Ritz-Carlton that's starting to smell like a sports bar. You imagine him standing dramatically at cliff's edge, staring into the distance with troubled eyes, but you do not imagine him clicking off the phone and asking why radio personalities have to be so loud in the morning, or looking weary -- why are movie stars on press junkets always so weary? -- or sitting in the suite's dark office and flicking the ash of his Natural American Spirit into a saucer.

Matt Damon, star of "The Bourne Supremacy," clings to a remnant of privacy. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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He starts telling you about how he spent the night before in Boston, where his new movie "The Bourne Supremacy" was being screened, and how his whole family was there and he'd missed them so much he didn't want to leave, and he pushed back his flight and got in at 2 a.m.

Damon's hair these days is short and jagged, not at all like the floppy blond cut he sported in the late '90s, when he became popular with "Good Will Hunting" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Back then, he looked like a rough-hewn, more masculine version of Leonardo DiCaprio, with the same squinty blue eyes and boyish quality. With his jaunty nose and jutting ears, he looked clean-cut and all-American and a little like Dennis the Menace all grown up, and hot. Now, at 33, Damon's face is more angular. There is a little gray at his temples and grooves around the mouth when he smiles. A light stubble traces the sharp lines of the jaw and dusts his upper lip.

Damon has variously been described as the nice guy, the boy next door, apple-pie. And while clearly this has to do with the ears and the eyes and the big white teeth, Damon says he thinks it's also connected to the way he behaves during interviews. There are few professional duties he hates more than conducting the shallow, five-minute Q&A's required for movie promotions. Some time ago, he says, a friend advised him to come up with an "alter ego" for these interviews, "so your soul doesn't get, y'know, robbed by doing these things." He calls this personality Mike Smiley, and says that when he watches footage of these interviews he sees Mike Smiley instead of himself.

"I can't stand to look at it; it doesn't feel like it's who I am," Damon says. "But it feels like the person who's being as polite as possible and just trying to get the thing over with."

Then, Damon seems to catch himself. He does not mean to suggest he's not enjoying this interview. "These are a little different because they're a little more substantive," he says. "There's a big difference between an hour interview and five minutes."

Damon's publicist has brought in oatmeal but he doesn't eat it, saying that his stomach is just waking up. You figure he's being polite. He offers his guest a cigarette, then he corrects himself for offering, then gets up to grab another and offers to stand in the doorway so as not to offend his guest with smoke.

You wonder whom you're getting. Is this Matt Damon or Mike Smiley? If this were not an interview, would Damon be ripping the filters off his American Spirits and eating oatmeal with his fingers? Or is Mike Smiley the condensed-milk version of Matt Damon -- sweeter, thicker, but the same basic substance? Just as careful, just as solicitous? At last, you bum a cigarette and he leans over to light it.

"I smoked Camels for years," he says, before switching to a brand known as the "natural cigarette."

"It's amazing. I mean y'know, it's about 350 additives your average cigarette has, I mean from arsenic, from cyanide to ammonia."

It's as if you and Matt have a special connection, ashing into the same saucer, talking about your lefty moms, sharing anecdotes of India, laughing at Matt's foibles together. Ahahahaha! What a normal guy!

Poor Mike Smiley, with his sucked-out soul.

Family Ties

Matt was 2 when his parents divorced, though they remain on friendly terms. On Christmas Eve, when he and his older brother, Kyle, were growing up in Cambridge, Mass., their father used to sleep over on the living room couch on Christmas Eve, so he'd be there when they woke up.

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