WHEN DIRECTOR JOHN DAHL WAS OFFERED A project about poker players with a little- known actor called Matt Damon attached. it seemed like the perfect opportunity to make an unassuming. low-budget independent movie. 'l'hen. soon alter shooting began. (iom/ ll'i/l l/nnn'ng hit cinemas.
‘I remember going to the cinema to see it and thinking that it was great but also. selfishly. "there goes my little poker film".' l)ahl recalls. ‘But we were all happy for Matt because he has worked so hard to get where he has. And the way he got that movie made is such a great story‘.’
That story is the stuff of Hollywood legend. .\'ot so very long ago. l)amon was another unknown actor sharing a tiny apartment with his best friend. Ben Affleck. subsisting on pot noodles and toiling away at a screenplay which. the pair hoped. would finally give them both a decent role. They had been working at it. on and off. for six-odd years. Then. all of a sudden. (iuml ll'il/ llimling had been financed. with Robin Williams signed to co-star as the psychiatrist who convinces l)amon‘s character. a genius drop-out. not to waste his gifts. (ills van Sant. one of America‘s premier independent filmmakers. was on board to direct. .»\nd. almost before they knew it. the two friends were blinking in the spotlight at the Academy :\\\'Ltl‘ds as they collected an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
l’or l)ahl’s film. Rounders. l)amon dived into the world of professional gambling: he plays a young law student with a remarkable talent and a passion for poker. who is lured back to the card tables when his old friend (lidward Norton) is released from jail and promptly involves him in a series of new scams.
By all accounts the two had a ball preparing for their roles -— research which took them everywhere. from seedy .\'ew York underground clubs to last .\lay”s World Series of Poker in [as Vegas. where the pair emerged a scant three hours later and several thousand dollars poorer. 'I gave it my best shot.’ l)amon said ruefully at the time. ‘But obviously I need more practice.‘
More interesting than the cardplay. however. was the psychological sparring between those gathered round the table. 'ln the higher stakes games. lidward and I wouldn’t play because it would just be like giving our money away. We would sit one seat behind at the table and the players would show us their hands. We‘d get to understand why they were making moves that appeared to make no sense. see how they were setting people tip or forcing them out.’
The parallels between the film and l)amon‘s own experience are hard to ignore: the actor had. alter all. jacked in a degree in linglish at Harvard l'niversity when he was offered a small role in Walter llill's western (iemninm. Though well-received by critics. the movie flopped. But l)amon had decided to abandon
'In the higher stakes games, Edward and I wouldn't play because it would just be like giving our money away. We would sit one seat behind at the table and the players would show us their
hands.’ Matt Damon
liollowing a tradition which has become almost obligatory for rising stars. l)amon acquired a series of glamorous girlfriends: ('lare l)anes. Minnie Driver and. currently. Winona Ryder. But it‘s his acting career which has propelled him into the stratosphere.
Over the last couple of years. he has been hired by the cream of contemporary directors. including l’rancis (‘oppola for The Rainmaker and Steven Spielberg for Saving l’rit'ale Ryan. He has _just been in Italy with (iwyneth l’altrow and ('ate Blanchett filming 'I'lze 'l'a/enlt't/ .llr Ripley. Anthony Minghella's follow-up to '/’/n' ling/is/i l’a/ienl. Next is a Version of the classic novel .'\// 'l'la’ I’I't'll)‘ l/(n'ses under the supervision of the actor-- w riter-dircctor Billy Bob 'l‘hornton.
‘lt’s not like I had some grand planf says l)amon. who looks a good deal younger than his ZS years and gives the impression of still not quite being able to believe his good fortune. ‘When Ben look on his role in .‘ll'llH/A’Udt/U/I and I took Saving Private Ryan. we were just looking for work. We‘d finished (imn/ Will Hunting. and it was. like. "Now what'.’ (iuess w e‘d better make some money.“ :\nd I just keep getting offered jobs so good I can‘t say no.
‘I want to do eyerything while they 're still letting me. I certainly don‘t want to get into some rhythm where it‘s just. "Show up and be yourself again." 'l’hat‘s a really boring way to live. The w hole point of being an actor is that I don’t have to do the same thing every single day: l get to check out all these different lives itlttl all these (lilil‘L‘l'Clll [)L‘UPlL‘..
the comparative security of an Ivy League education for the vagaries of showbusiness. ‘lt’s interesting that Matt is drawn to this kind of material. In a way it rellects who he is himself.’ l)ahl says. l)amon concedes the point: 'lidward and I talked a lot about relating the script to our own lives. To become an actor is to choose a risky profession that promises only
hardship and doesn‘t guarantee any kind of
success or security: something that other people would say was sheer l'rivolity. certainly an irresponsible lii’e choice. It‘s out of some sense that you’re compelled to do it and wouldn‘t really want to live without it. I was preparing myself for a much longer haul because everyone said to me. "You're never going to make it in this business the odds are so long".'
For the time being. at least. l)amon‘s gamble would appear to have paid off. though he is well aware of the dangers of being the biggest thing since the last biggest thing. 'lt feels like the limperor’s new clothes.’ he say s. ‘but it‘s easy to live with because I don't go to premieres and stuff. I‘d rather just go to my local movie theatre and see a film without being watched watching.
"l'here’s bound to be some kind of backlash. But I figure that if I keep choosing good scripts and good directors. at least I can cling to the feeling that I did them fora reason. even if they're not successful. :\nd what an amazing thing. to love what you do for your entire life.‘
Rounders opens in Scotland on Fri 20 Nov and will be reviewed next issue.
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