The actors chat about how their History channel special ''The People Speak'' came to be

They’re more than just pals: They’re also among the stars and executive producers of the History channel’s The People Speak (Dec. 13 at 8 p.m.), a celeb-filled collection of dramatic historical readings. But when EW got Josh Brolin and Matt Damon in a room together, all they really wanted to do was compare the size of their…vocabularies.

How did you both get involved with this project?
Matt Damon I lived next to [A People’s History of the United States author] Howard Zinn when I was a boy. He had a huge impact on my life.
Josh Brolin Somewhere along the line, my mother purchased the book for me. I didn’t read it for probably five years. But then I started to kind of piecemeal through it and was very inspired.

And how did the book turn into The People Speak?
Brolin [Matt] had been trying to figure out how to do a movie of it, with our mutual friend [Good Will Hunting co-producer] Chris Moore…
Damon We couldn’t figure out how to do it, and then we stumbled onto this format. It really brings the history alive. You go, ”This person was living 200 years ago and struggling with the same things I’m struggling with.”

How did you get stars like Bob Dylan, Morgan Freeman, and Marisa Tomei on board?
Brolin Matt knows some people.
Damon I mean, it’s not like we had to pound on any doors.
Brolin Bruce Springsteen sent me a little card that I have hung in my office that said, ”Thank you for making my childhood dream come true. Bruce.”
Damon Really?
Brolin Yeah, I swear to God.
Damon I didn’t get one of those. What the f—?

Is this an ongoing project?
Brolin There’s already 96 hours of readings. And we’ll film more and create Internet spots. Damon There’ll be a growing archive of voices of the past, performed by actors.
Brolin This is going to billow exponentially. [To Matt] That’s pretty good, right? ”Billow.”
Damon I like it. I’ve never heard ”billow” used before [when speaking to the press].

You’ve performed some of these readings at live events, too. Do you usually do the same pieces?
Brolin No, I change it up. There are other people who will do the same piece I did maybe a reading before, even though I’m at that reading.
Damon And kind of show Josh how to do it.
Brolin [Laughs] That’s true, actually! The first reading that I did was John Brown. But then I saw David Strathairn do it in Boston — that’s in the film. It’s mind-blowing.

Were you good history students?
Damon I was fine. But if I could go back and go to college again, I would be a history major, definitely, instead of English and literature.
Brolin And Chris Moore, he was a history major. You talk to Chris and you talk to Howard Zinn, and they have this plethora of knowledge of the truth of what happened…
Damon You just said ”plethora.”
Brolin Thank you. I’m raising the bar. He’s getting angry at me.
Damon I’m down two nothing — ”billow” and ”plethora.” Shutout.
Brolin Why are you even asking him questions anymore? He doesn’t know how to speak.

You guys are also starring together in the Coen brothers’ next film, True Grit?
Brolin Yeah, he got the bigger role. I don’t know how that worked. I thought they were my friends. Obviously not.
Damon [Laughs] Wow. That’s hurtful. Just hurtful.