Suite 6C in the Lowell Hotel, all chintz and ruffles, looks like a brothel decorated by Laura Ashley. The froufrou is hardly a suitable backdrop for Matt Damon, a hip but humble manchild in worn jeans and a black cashmere sweater that says, I don't want to be obvious about it or anything, but I'm, like, a millionaire.

A clump of hair pokes from a well-worn Sundance baseball cap that apparently needs frequent adjustments: brim up, brim down, brim to the ceiling. The trim, boyish 29-year-old sits on the edge of an overstuffed floral-print sofa, the kind with no room for sitting because it's piled high with pillows.

Nobody will stay overnight in this suite, nobody will soak in the marble bath, nobody will push aside the fussy drapes to view the quiet side street below. Nor will anyone try to seduce anyone, except maybe some journalist hoping to charm Damon into revealing his innermost animus.

Fat chance. After dumping then-flame Minnie Driver two years ago on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Damon has clammed up when it comes to his love life. "No mas" is his response to questions about Winona Ryder, his current amour, or any other matter he deems too personal. He's about as easy to crack as a coconut.

Easy smiles and thoughtful expressions can't disguise the calculation behind his responses, which grow more spontaneous when he's talking about sports, his favorite movies (among them "Tender Mercies," "The Shawshank Redemption" and last year's "Ice Storm") or his mother, author and educator Nancy Paige, one of her son's favorite subjects ("She's wonderful, wonderful").

Paige, her son says, believes that the Matt magazine covers, autograph seekers and gas-guzzling limos that her son attracts symbolize everything that's wrong with society.

"That's why I always take these interviews with a grain of salt," says the star. "Talking about myself just seems so silly. It's this strange thing where I'm being asked personal questions by people I don't know."

Nevertheless, here we are, a couple of strangers brought together for all the wrong reasons--Damon's celebrity and the marketing of "The Talented Mr. Ripley," Anthony Minghella's $40 million adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's eerie '50s-era thriller, which opens Friday in Washington. Damon plays Tom Ripley, a poor little lunkhead who gets a taste of the good life and will do anything, murder included, to stay at the head table.

A wealthy industrialist pays Tom's way to Italy in the hope that he can persuade his son Dickie (Jude Law) to return home. But the bisexual Tom falls in love with Dickie, his fair-haired fiancee (Gwyneth Paltrow) and la dolce vita. Tom becomes Dickie's ally instead of the father's.

He is initially welcomed into Dickie's circle, but the fickle playboy soon tires of the sober young man and his none-too-subtle sexual advances. He orders Tom, who has been living in the couple's villa, to take a hike. But Tom has other ideas. "I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody," he says, by way of explaining the violence to come.

Damon also plays a psychotic avenging angel in his pal Kevin Smith's current "Dogma," but he is taking a greater risk in this high-profile studio project. Tom is a character who has the potential to rile up both gays and homophobes, not to mention certain members of the mainstream, says Minghella, who nevertheless decided that his film should follow the "compass of the book rather than a safer route."

"The novel is about a man who is obsessed with another man, who wants to become him, wants to be loved by him, wants to be accepted by him," the director says later. "That's the heart of the book. You do, however, have to think your way through it. Ripley is not a conventional character, nor is this a movie with its moral painted on its chest."

Damon, perched on the edge of the fussy sofa, pours himself a second cup of black coffee and puts on his sincerest face. "I would be terribly, terribly, terribly upset if people come away from the movie blaming Ripley's behavior on his sexuality," he says. "That is not where the violence comes from. It's born of a deep-seated feeling of inequality, a feeling of being less than somebody else.

"I was discussing this with my mom," he continues.

Yes? And? What does Mom say?

"She was saying this is exactly how violence should be used in a movie because violence is part of the human condition, and to ignore it is just welcoming catastrophe. So you accept it and move down the path to a nonviolent society."


Lifting the Skirt

Damon's father, Kent, was an investment banker, and little Matt spent his early days in the highfalutin Boston suburb of Newton. But eventually his mother decided the family needed to move to a less affluent neighborhood in Cambridge. They lived across the street from a halfway house because she wanted her two sons to live in, and learn about, the real world.

Damon, who met best friend Ben Affleck in elementary school, also mixed with the neighborhood's street people. But after graduating from public school, he was off to Harvard to study English. Eleven credits shy of graduating, he landed a part in in 1988's "Mystic Pizza" and dropped out of school. He had one line--"Mom, do you want my green stuff?"--and a long wait before he won his next movie role, that of a snotty WASP in 1992's "School Ties."

Several TV movies and big-screen turkeys later, he arrived in "Good Will Hunting," which made him a star and won him an Oscar for the screenplay he wrote with Affleck. In that picture, too, he was an outsider with his nose pressed against the windows of the rich.

Minghella wanted his star to look more like Law. He wanted a doppelganger, in fact. "The film is so much about appearance and reality and the American experience of Europe," the director explains. "In 1958 everybody would be dark, the population would have a monochromatic quality. The long-limbed, aristocratic blond princes and princesses would stand out all the more. Traveling then was far from ubiquitous. It became a way of making yourself, reinventing yourself."

Damon bleached his "taxidermist brown" hair for the movie and, because he initially outweighed the reedy Law by 40 pounds, lost 16 pounds to more closely mirror his co-star. Law, in turn, put on weight to look more like Damon. "Anthony went on a sympathy diet," says the actor, whose Italian entourage included a nutritionist. Which made it a lot easier than his last weight loss.

He had asked for a nutritionist when he decided to shed 40 pounds to look the part of a drug-addicted Gulf War veteran in 1996's "Courage Under Fire." The studio said no because, he says, he was some nobody in a supporting role. Along with running 16 miles a day, he subsisted on a menu of boiled chicken, potatoes and Ex-Lax, and ended up with a distended stomach and a touch of anorexia.

"Mom and Dad were furious, understandably" when they saw the picture. "Independently of each other," explains Damon, whose parents have long been divorced. (But there are no hard feelings. His father hosted a celebration for the family on what would have been his and Nancy's 25th wedding anniversary.)

For "Mr. Ripley," Damon also learned to play the piano, or at least look as if he were playing. "It's a lot like learning another language, you know," he says, adding that it's harder when you're not a kid anymore.

Although he learned a couple of pieces by rote, Damon says, "there was this one that was just, you know, like lightning"--too tough to pick up. "Our dialect coach, Tim, is a pianist--a big man--who sat behind me wearing the same sweater and reached around. I put my arms behind me, and Tim played this fugue he'd never seen from sheet music on my back."

What daring! The anecdote is the closest Damon comes to indiscretion. And though no one else is likely to be upset, Minghella is appalled when he learns of it.

"You shouldn't know any of those things," he huffs. "That's disgraceful. He's lifting the skirt of a movie. And now I must pull down the hem."

The director softens a little. "He is very good at pretending to play the piano. He's got a good eye, and he's learnt to sketch the actions. To puncture a movie's surface is a dangerous thing."

Letting Go

When Damon made it big with "Good Will Hunting," he pigged out on hotel minibar eats. After all, he and then-roommate Affleck had lived on ramen noodles while waiting to sell their screenplay, so fancy chocolate bars and macadamia nuts made a nice change.

But he's clearly over all that as he picks indifferently at a proletarian plate of cheese and crackers and gulps down another black coffee. Then, apparently sated by a nibble or two, he pulls out a pack of Camel Lights. "You won't be upset if I smoke?" he asks. Assured that inhaling secondhand carcinogens is no concern, he lights up and takes a long, satisfying drag. "The world is filled with air Nazis," he laments.

"Oh, please don't print that I smoke, especially if any kid would see it and think it was cool," he pleads. (We might not squeal except that Entertainment Weekly already outed him on that score.) "I think it is just the stupidest habit in the world, and I wish I didn't do it," he says. "My dad quit 25 years ago, and to this day, he says if he found out that he was going to die in a year, the first thing he'd do is buy a pack of Luckies."

Damon has quit smoking in the past only to take it up again, which brings him to the day's most deeply personal revelation: He had much better luck when it came to giving up his "binky"--that would be his pacifier--as a 3-year-old.

"It was actually a huge day in my life. It was a huge rite of passage because it wasn't taken from me. I was empowered by doing it myself. My mom walked me out as the garbage truck pulled up and said, 'Okay, if you feel ready,' and I looked up, took my binky out of my mouth and trundled up to the truck and just threw it right into the back."

A breakthrough! Now let's dish the real dirt! Boxers or briefs?

Damon flashes his perfect teeth. No mas. "I feel like if I start saying I, me, it starts to become really revealing," he insists. "I feel a lot safer talking about ['Ripley']."

Breathing Out

Damon has been working nonstop since he and Affleck picked up their Oscars for 1997's best original screenplay. In addition to "The Talented Mr. Ripley," he's starred in "Rounders," co-starred in "Dogma," completed Billy Bob Thornton's upcoming western "All the Pretty Horses" and is currently shooting Robert Redford's mystical golf movie, "The Legend of Bagger Vance," in South Carolina.

Once he's finished that one, he says, he plans to unpack his duffel bags and settle down for a while. Or maybe not: He and Affleck have already been at work on a second screenplay, and he's just seen "Matrix," which reminds him that he'd love to do a science-fiction thriller "as long as a good director's attached."

How about a romantic comedy? His fans would love it.

"Sure, I'm no genre snob." Of course, that would mean sharing that big, fat screen.

Clearly, he's a workaholic. Reminded that he once told an interviewer, "No offense, but I wouldn't be sitting here with you" if he ever made "five million bucks once. That's $500,000 a year for life if you invest." Damon grossed $5.5 million for "All the Pretty Horses," yet here he sits.

"Well, if the house of cards crumbles, and I've been around the business long enough to know that it always does, I'll go quietly," muses the hoary twenty-something. "Honestly, I'm incredibly lucky not only with the money but the work I've had a chance to do. I feel great about it. I feel like I put everything I had into it, and I'm at peace with it.

"The biggest step is being able to let it go. Yesterday I was talking to my mother, and she was telling me about this philosopher who said you have to breathe out so that you can breathe in. If you hold your breath, you die."

Out of the mouths of hunks.