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Published:December 20th, 2011 12:47 EST
Playing Around with Matt Damon: We Bought A Zoo

Playing Around with Matt Damon: We Bought A Zoo

By H.B. Forman

It seems that Matt Damon creates a family-like atmosphere everywhere he roams.

So when he hung his hat on the set of his recent holiday movie, We Bought A Zoo, it was clear to his co-stars why he is such a likeable guy - on and off the silver screen.

Most recently, Damon, stepped out of his action adventure Jason Bourne shoes, and signed up to play a dad who renovates a failing zoo.

The sweet, funny, and heart-felt holiday movie, We Bought A Zoo, co-starring Scarlett Johannsson as the head zoo keeper, is about love, life, loss and creating an extended family with the one`s you hold dear.

We Bought A Zoo from Fox, opens Friday, Dec. 23, and is based on a true story, about Matt`s character, Benjamin Mee, a newspaper columnist and adventurer writer, who faces the challenges of raising his two young children, after the death of his wife.

Hoping that a fresh start and a new life with restore their family spirit, he quits his job, buys an old rural farm house on 18 acres, with a unique bonus feature: a zoo. With no experience, limited time and a shoestring budget, Mee, his family and the local community embark on an adventure to reopen the zoo and rescue the lions, tigers, bears and cadre of other animals.

When asked what Damon, as a doting dad, brought to the role, We Bought A Zoo Director Cameron Crowe said his authenticity. "Matt always brings a cache of trust. Matt plays [the character of Benjamin Mee] from the heart, with a lot of truth, and that`s why you believe his journey." A native of Cambridge Massachusetts, Damon, 41, his wife, Luciana, and their four daughters make their home in Miami. The girls range in age from 13 months to 13 years, and Matt Damon says he is truly a happy family man, who just happens to have a stellar acting career.
During a recent chat on a chilly day in Manhattan before Christmas, Damon said he was drawn to this movie because of the relationships between the people and the inspiring messages that the movie imparts - hope, healing, feeling joy, being inspired, and never giving up on your dreams. This is a pretty dark time in this country. So do you think we need films with a glimmer of hope?

MATT DAMON: One thing Cameron [Crowe] said to me early on, is `I see this movie as a piece of joy.` And I think this is a good thing to put out into the world right now. And I always held on to that because I intuitively agreed that it`s true.

You make quite an impression as a tough guy in the Bourne movies. When you were growing up, were you the kick-ass guy in the playground?


MD: No, I was the guy thinking up stories.

It`s wonderful to see you play what you really are in life, a family man. But do you ever miss jumping through windows, chopping people in the neck, and you know, having your Jason Bourne moment?

MD: No, we get to switch up enough. Each job is three to six months. So as long as you`re doing something different each time, it feels fine.

Tell me how you see this movie.

MD: At the beginning of the movie Benjamin is a journalist, he`s always looking for an adventure and has had all these incredible experiences. But he finds himself struggling with the balancing act of raising two kids, 7 and 14, and decides they need something new - he finds this beautiful piece of property and it feels like destiny.

But there is a catch.

MD: Yes. They discover there`s an old zoo that comes with the property. E knows nothing about zoos, but in the spirit of adventure his late wife would have appreciated he decides to go for it and buy the zoo.

Did you ever have a lost cause that you didn`t give up on, like in this movie?

MD: I think we all probably had some movies we didn`t give up on. And that might have been lost causes in retrospect.

Did you ever think about starting a business like a zoo, outside of show business?

MD: Well, Water.org, which I co-founded, I`d probably put more time into that.

Tell me about it.

MD: It is a non-profit that helps provide clean water and sanitation in developing countries and provides the people there with great hope.

If you had 20 seconds of insane courage like they are encouraged to have in this movie, what would you go do?

MD: I think most actors have probably experienced that numerous times, in auditions. I know when I started when I was young, I remember feeling that, you know - if I can push through this fear right now, whether I get the part or get rejected, not going through that door is going to be bad for me. Because there`s something better for me on the other side of the door.

Please tell me more.

MD: Well, I remember feeling that way a lot. And the experience, as any of us could tell you - you get rejected a lot. But it gets easier each time you get rejected. And you get used to it. And there`s kind of a gallows humor among the actors, about parts you didn`t get. Or, particularly exquisite rejections that you remember! But those tend to inoculate you as you move forward. You know, down that road of being a professional actor.

Compare and contrast your scenes with the bear and the snakes.

MD: Well, the closest we got to the bear was the scene where Colin [the boy who plays his teen-age son] and I were in the car. And the bear actually did come right up to the window. But they put a little snack on the roof. And so the bear didn`t really see us. He was more interested in the snack.

I know your family visited on the set, loved it and you loved having them there. But what was the toughest part about working with the animals?

MD: The snakes, I was actually more nervous about the snakes. Until Scarlett started making fun of me! And then I tried to get over it as best I could. And I think there was something about there being so many. And watching the little kids handle them that eventually I kind of got over it! And was okay with it. There were all different kinds of snakes, but there were only a few poisonous ones. But you just didn`t know which ones...No, I`m kidding! No, obviously none of them were venomous, And none of them bit. So it was cool.

Were there close calls with any of the animals, and were there newfound friendships made with them?

MD: It`s the first time I`ve worked with big animals in a Hollywood movie. No, I`m kidding! Yeah, I mean other than horses. I`ve done a lot of movies with horses. But no, I`ve never done anything like this. We would joke that, you know, you`re never supposed to work with children or animals. Because they always upstage you. And we joked that we were getting all that out of the way, with one movie. You know, the cutest kids and animals you`ve ever seen.

Did you become friends with the animals?

MD: Like did I stay in the same hotel? [He joked]. No.

What was it like with the animals on the set?

MD: The reality was that everyone was, we all acted with incredible deference to the trainers. And when the animals were on the set, it was all about them. Particularly, obviously the really big scary ones. So those sessions were very regimented by the trainers. And so we would troubleshoot with them, and what was allowed and not allowed. And then we would stage the scenes around that.

Those are some amazing animals.

MD: Yes, and when the lion is coming out of the cage, it`s a big deal. It`s not like everyone is sitting around like normal on a movie set, kind of talking to each other. Everybody`s very quiet. And very observant of the fact that the king of the jungle is kind of amongst you! You know? So those were kind of the most disciplined moments that we had in the entire process. Or when the big animals were working!

As the father of four - what is the big challenge of being a parent?

MD: I had to learn how to be a good disciplinarian. I was always good at winding up the kids, but not as good at chilling them out.

Do you like to spoil them?

MD: Yeah, I spoil them with attention. I play with them any games they like to play. But I don`t like to spoil them with giving them stuff or anything, we`re pretty good about that. Because I don`t think that helps, to give children every kind of material thing they want.

Did you ever get one great piece of advice when it comes to choices in life?

MD: I`ve gotten great advice throughout my life from wonderful people. But the best ones always tell me, just take your time.

And choose carefully, and for the right reasons. Is there something about characters who are searching for their identity that is a fun thing for you to play?

MD: I think so. Since most of us are doing that in our lives anyway, that`s probably why so many movies have that as a central theme.

What is the biggest high for you as an actor?

MD: What makes me happy at the end of the day, is involving myself in projects that are exciting, where the work is fun and challenging, and where I`m not really worried about the results of it.

How are you spending the holidays?

MD: The best way I know how - with my family.

[We Bought A Zoo Opens Friday, Dec. 23]