Matt Damon on the surprising life lessons he learned shadowing roughnecks for Stillwater
Matt Damon is nervous, but it's probably not what you think.
He spent several weeks before the filming of his new movie, Stillwater, in the titular Oklahoma city learning from real roughnecks — oil rig workers — in order to play one in the film. One of them, Kenny Baker, was so influential in Damon's portrayal that they named his character, Bill Baker, after him. The two have kept in touch, and on the day Damon is speaking to EW, Baker is slated to see the film for the first time.
"I was with him on Saturday night, out way too late," Damon says. "[It's] his first time in New York, and he's here with his wife and his daughter. I'm real… I'm real anxious to know what he thinks."
The film isn't based on Baker's life, though anyone not living under a rock in the late aughts will note the similarities between Stillwater's story and that of the Amanda Knox case, which director and co-writer Tom McCarthy has said served as the initial inspiration for the film in its nascent stages. It follows Damon's Bill as he travels to the French city of Marseille to try to exonerate his daughter, Allison (played by Abigail Breslin), who is in prison for the highly publicized murder of her roommate (and lover), which she swears she didn't commit.
And though it wasn't based on any one man's experience, Damon says it was absolutely critical to his portrayal that he — a Harvard-educated actor from Massachusetts — understand where a born and bred Oklahoma roughneck was coming from. The problem was in gaining their trust.
"I think at first they were naturally kind of wary, like, 'What are you doing? You're making a movie about a roughneck? Are you gonna make a caricature out of us? Are you looking down your nose at us?' And I think once they realized what we were doing, and how we really just wanted to get it right, they could not have been more accessible and helpful," Damon says. "The physicality of the guy, and everything from the small ways in which I changed my body to the clothes I was wearing, all came from those guys."
That initial apprehension went both ways, because as Damon puts it, this was at the height of the political division that the U.S. is still grappling with. And while he disagrees politically with many of these men, he says they got past those differences "so quickly." "All the media was yammering on about was how divided we are, and it was just a great reminder that what binds us is so much greater than what divides us," he says. "I know that sounds hokey, but it's true."
Damon continues, "I'm really lucky that I have a job that allows me to parachute into somebody else's life in this way, and walk next to them while they're living that life and gain insight about it. Most people just wouldn't ever get a chance to do that, and if they could, I think the world would be a lot better place, because I left there with some lifelong friends, and with a complete understanding of why this character does what he does."
Damon wasn't the only one to do such intense research. To prepare for her role as Allison, whom Breslin describes as "at her core, a really good person who just had a very rough go of things," the actress went inside the real prison in Marseille where her character is held. "I definitely did some research on people who had been wrongfully convicted and falsely accused," Breslin says. "We got to film at the actual prison, and so getting to kind of talk with the guards and walk through kind of what my day-to-day life would be in prison was overwhelming, and really helped me get a grasp on the isolation and the fear that it causes."
Breslin and Damon have received high praise for their performances in the film, which debuted to a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month. The moment meant the world to both actors. "We filmed this before the pandemic, and we all kind of wanted it to premiere at Cannes, we just didn't know if it was going to be possible given the state of the world," Breslin says. "So to finally be back in France and screening it with everybody and having an audience and just being there was, I think, overwhelming for all of us, and a really special moment."
Videos of the ovation have made the rounds on the internet, thanks in part to the fact Damon can be seen getting a little weepy. Of the moment, Damon says it took him by surprise, too. "Suddenly, I just felt this wave of gratitude to be able to be in the same theater with a thousand other people. It just felt great to be back at the movies again," he says. "I think I said to Tom, 'I think I'm getting old, because I'm really emotional right now.'"
Now, after almost a year of delays, Damon is ready to share Stillwater with the world; it hits theaters Friday. "It's a very interesting journey Bill goes on, and where he ends up at the end, he is a very different person than he was at the beginning of the movie," he says, "and I hope people just give themselves away to the character and go on the ride with him." You know, kind of like Damon himself did.