New York, January 1998: The sight of movie-set paraphernalia spread along the sidewalk has caught the attention of a gaggle of secretaries. The bravest of the bunch approaches a young man who’s dressed in a baggy sweater and pants. ”Are there any stars here?” she asks. ”I don’t think so,” he responds earnestly, looking to see if Edward Norton, John Malkovich, Martin Landau, or John Turturro has shown up for today’s work on Rounders, a movie about high-stakes poker. ”Well,” continues the woman. ”We saw a chair that said Matt Damon. Is he here yet?” The young man — who, coincidentally, is Matt Damon — winces. ”Uh, no,” he responds. ”I don’t think so.”
Damon relates this anecdote days later, sounding amused and perplexed. Good Will Hunting is just beginning to catch fire, and four weeks into filming Rounders, in which he plays Mike, a law student torn between court and cards, the actor can still masquerade as himself. But in two months, Damon will pick up an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and realize his ”know the name, can’t place the face” anonymity is gone forever.
Being a star in the making is distracting, especially when the star is simultaneously making a movie. ”I’m trying to give this job my full attention,” says Damon, 27. ”And at the same time figure out what the hell else is going on.”
The trappings of fame are nowhere to be found on the Rounders set, a bombed-out-looking deserted floor in a midtown building, outfitted with a few tables around which sit extras. They’re outfitted in stripes and plaids, like something the other Ed Norton would wear, and Damon, his hair made even blonder than usual for this part, seems out of place. Until the cameras roll and an impassioned game of Texas Hold ‘Em begins. Director John Dahl (The Last Seduction), a soft-spoken Anthony Edwards look-alike, gets into the swing of things by lighting a smelly stogie and listens to the actors’ exchanges, crafted from phrases like ”brass Brazilians,” ”berry patch,” and ”railroad bible.”
”It’s a very inside movie,” Dahl says. ”I love that sometimes you can’t really understand the terminology that’s being used.”
If the language is obscure, the actors’ expressions don’t help. ”It’s strange to play a guy whose biggest skill is having a perfect poker face,” says Damon, who was so eager not to emote on screen that he considered playing with blank cards. ”I’m sure people will accuse me of having a poker face throughout the movie, but that’s kind of the risky sign-on at the beginning.”
Miramax enlisted Damon for the coming-of-age cardsharp role last fall after seeing dailies for Good Will Hunting. ”I wish I could say it was part of some master plan,” said the actor, who’d recently wrapped Saving Private Ryan. ”I was just a guy with my hat in my hands, looking for work.” With Damon on board, Miramax approached Dahl, who’d been talking with the studio about directing the stalled drama Black Out; Norton joined as Worm, Mike’s best friend who’s been sprung from prison and is a questionable (if likable) influence. When Neve Campbell rejected Miramax’s advances to play Mike’s straitlaced girlfriend Jo, the part went to newcomer Gretchen Mol.