Damon didn't hesitate when Eastwood called with 'Invictus'

Rick Bentley
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — This is a huge weekend for Matt Damon.

He would have been happy with his starring role in the Clint Eastwood directed "Invictus," which hits theaters Friday. But, "The People Speak," a television project he has been working on for years, is also launching on the History Channel.

Both projects appealed to Damon because they deal with the triumphs of ordinary people.

"I didn't hesitate when I heard I would get to be in a film directed by Clint Eastwood and work with Morgan Freeman," Damon says. "And, I am very proud of the television program because of what it has to say."

"Invictus" has Damon playing Francois Pienaar, captain of the South African rugby team when Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) was elected president in 1994. Mandela turns to the team to help reunite the deeply divided country.

"The structure of the script is you have one of the greatest world leaders of our time appealing to this other leader and forging a bond and basically saying 'I need to use you to do this' and this team exceeding its expectation. It was a metaphor for what the country needed to do because everyone expected them to not be able to heal," Damon says.

The story was so important, Damon went through a long preparation of learning a South African accent and developing his upper body strength so he would look like a world-class rugby player. Damon says with all roles he works on anything that might destroy the illusion of the character he's playing.

There was a brief moment when Damon wasn't certain if he was the right person to play Pienaar—and it had nothing to do with acting.

"I went to his house to meet him and when he came to the door I just did this," Damon, 5-feet-10, says as he tilts his head back to mimic looking up to the 6-feet-3 rugby player. "The first thing I said to him was 'I look bigger on film.'"

Damon's been playing bigger in movies since the 1998 film "Mystic Pizza." Since then, the Oscar-wining actor (as co-writer of "Good Will Hunting") has appeared in "The Bourne Identity" trilogy plus "Ocean's Eleven" and "Saving Private Ryan."

The actor also juggles a life in TV from the Emmy-nominated "Project Greenlight" to his current job as a producer and participant in the cable offering "The People Speak."

The History Channel show features dramatic and musical performances of letters, diaries and speeches of everyday Americans who helped forge the nation. Boston-born Damon reads The Declaration of Independence.

Freeman is also part of "The People Speak." He gives a dramatic reading of "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro," originally delivered by Frederick Douglass in 1852. Don Cheadle, Kerry Washington, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Eddie Vedder also are featured.

"The People Speak" is based on Dr. Howard Zinn's book "A People's History of the United States." Damon spent almost 10 years trying to adapt the best-selling book to a TV project. After failed attempts with Fox and HBO to make the book as a film, the project came to the History Channel where it is presented in a very basic format.

"It's actually the most sensible way to do it because it's using words, actual words, and it makes it so much more compelling because it's very hard to give history, to talk about history, in a two-hour movie," Damon says. "This way it's just using actual letters, and everything that's being read has quotations around it. So it's something that somebody throughout history actually said, usually a regular person, who stood up and changed the course of history."

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