Matt Damon is locked, loaded, and ragin' in Contagion

In <em>Contagion</em>, the movie star must survive a deadly virus-but in Vancouver, there just may be a touch of Matt Damon fever

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      LOS ANGELES—Matt Damon is everywhere. He’s been photographed bicycling with his family on the seawall in Stanley Park. Was he wearing a helmet? He was. Were his biceps bulging? They were. He is rumoured to have lately been hiking Grouse Mountain’s vertically extreme Grouse Grind several times a week. He’s even been snapped—gasp—mailing a letter. How much longer can this possibly go on?

      “I’m working until the end of the year up in Vancouver,” says the actor himself, having slipped south for a moment to answer questions in an L.A. hotel room. He’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt, his biceps are sizable, and his well-shaped noggin is entirely shaved—but more on that later.

      Damon has jetted in to talk about his new sci-fi thriller, Contagion, which opens this Friday (September 9) and was directed by his frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh. In the film, Damon plays regular family guy Mitch Emhoff, whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns to Minneapolis from a Hong Kong business trip stricken with something much worse than jet lag. As the movie’s title suggests, a deadly contagious virus globetrots from China to the U.S. and points in-between. While experts (played by such stars as Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, and Laurence Fishburne) struggle to track the virus backward and forward and come up with a vaccine, Mitch struggles to survive in a collapsing society.

      A question is asked in the hotel room about the shotgun Mitch takes from a neighbour’s eerily empty house. The question leads Damon to thoughts of zombies, which, curiously—as Contagion is no zombie flick—seem to be much on his mind.

      “I was very aware that in kind of the second act—I haven’t seen the final film yet, but that’s about where this is taking place—that would be about where the zombies would come. And you’re going to want a gun for that,” he says with mock seriousness. “I don’t care who you are. It’s not a political statement at all.”

      Seated next to Damon, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns attempts to explain Contagion’s multitude of characters. When he gets to Damon’s he says, “And then we wanted kind of a proxy for a human being and how they would experience the virus—”

      “—in a land of zombies,” Damon interrupts.

      “In a land of zombies,” Burns agrees.

      “And that got my interest,” Damon says, clearly enjoying things.

      Perhaps his reasons for taking the role were just a bit different. “Actually, we were getting ready to do something else—another project that we’re still going to do,” he says, possibly referring to Soderbergh’s yet-to-film Liberace, in which Damon will play alleged lover (and drug addict) Scott Thorson to Michael Douglas’s glitter-prone pianist. “Steven called and said, ‘I’ve got this other thing and we really gotta make it now because it’s really timely.’ And he said, ‘I think it’s the best thing Scott’s written,’ which is saying quite a bit. I obviously think a lot of Scott. So he sent the script over to me with a note that said, ‘Read this and then wash your hands.’ ”

      Damon, who’s been nominated for three Oscars and won one (for cowriting Good Will Hunting with mate Ben Affleck), tends to speak with what seems to be characteristic good humour and enthusiasm, and with that certain joie de vivre of movie stars who are at a particularly rosy place in their careers. Then there are his nonactor wife, Luciana, and their four young daughters, in whose defence—if stranded in a place like Contagion’s plague-walloped world—he just might cock a loaded shotgun.

      “I think, you know, with kids I’m probably more overprotective than I’ve ever been, now that I have children,” he says. “I mean, my wife’s nickname for me is ‘Red Alert’. Sometimes I just check to see if the kids are breathing.”

      Someone asks which comes more naturally for Damon: playing “action heroes” or playing “family men”?

      “I mean, the action guys come way more naturally,” Damon says immediately, to much laughter. “Yeah, uh, no, if the director’s good and the script’s good, it all comes pretty naturally. And if those things aren’t in place, then it’s impossible no matter what the role is.”

      So what about that bald noggin, anyway?

      Damon glances over at the hairless heads of Burns and Soderbergh. “Well, inspiration can strike at any time.”

      In actual fact, the Bruce Willis Jr. look is in the service of Elysium, the sci-fi drama he is shooting in Vancouver for the South African wunderkind, District 9 director Neill Blomkamp.

      “I love it,” Damon says of his deforested pate. “I see why these guys rock the look. It’s great in the summertime. It’s real easy getting out of the shower.”

      The screenwriter and the director look bemusedly at their star.

      “We just lost our hair,” Burns says, although he seems not to really mind, all things and major motion pictures considered.

      Watch the trailer for Contagion.