Matt Damon is back — but not in the typical role that audiences expect from him.
In the new film “Stillwater,” the Academy Award-winning actor plays Bill Baker, an oil rig worker who travels from Oklahoma to Marseille, France — a place where language and culture clash for the character.
Bill Baker visits his estranged daughter Allison Baker, played by Abigail Breslin, who’s been accused of a murder she claims she didn’t commit. While she’s resigned to her fate, her father refuses to give up the hunt for the man she says has blood on his hands as French authorities remain uninterested in the pursuit of a different suspect.
Director and writer Tom McCarthy says he was influenced by the real life story of Amanda Knox, an American college student who was accused of and cleared in the murder of a roommate in Italy. But “Stillwater” has its own unique twists and turns.
Viewers may have their own set of expectations for Damon, well known for his deep Boston roots and iconic roles in “Good Will Hunting,” “The Departed” and “Bourne” movies. But the actor says he was drawn to “Stillwater” because it “upsets the expectations.”
Bill Baker isn’t a protagonist with a hyper-specific set of skills from a Liam Neeson movie, Damon says. Rather, Bill Baker is a man who possesses none of the requirements needed to capture a killer and repair a broken father-daughter relationship. He’s an Oklahoma roughneck with a difficult job in the oil field — work that very few could handle, Damon says.
“I certainly couldn’t do it,” he says. “When I went down there and hung out with those guys and went to these oil rigs, it took me about 15 minutes to figure out that I wouldn’t last.”
While visiting Oklahoma to get ready for the role, he and director McCarthy’s main point of contact was with a drilling supervisor named Kenny Baker. “Bill Baker was really a nod to Kenny,” Damon says.
Kenny Baker drove the Hollywood pair around in his truck, showing them a glimpse of the roughneck reality. The men, usually young, can make a lot of money when the fields are up and running, Damon explains, and sometimes they indulge in a rock star type of lifestyle.
Bill Baker fell somewhere in the middle — a man who once was caught up in that life but now shouldered guilt and shame from being an absent father, he says.
Damon and the “Stillwater” team kept Kenny Baker close during production. They’d call him with questions about how to pronounce certain words, Damon says.
Bill Baker, a normal guy in all his damaged glory, sits in juxtaposition to Jason Bourne, an action hero who can speak several languages and think or fight his way out of any sticky situation. Damon says he was pleased to play Baker, the “inverse” role of Bourne.
“I don’t want to do any of that stuff. I remember when we were doing ‘The Departed’ and I remember saying to Marty [Martin Scorsese], like, I just want to lose every fight that I’m in in this movie,” he laughs. “It’s much more interesting.”
Virginie, played by French actress Camille Cottin, helps Bill Baker as he investigates the murder. In one scene, an argument ensues between Virginie and Bill Baker when she refuses to keep questioning a possible witness, a French-speaking man who is eager to accuse any Muslim of a crime.
Director McCarthy said he wanted the script to reflect how other countries’ perceptions of the U.S. and Americans have changed. Damon was exploring this theme, specifically in this scene, when the two just can’t see eye to eye.
Bill Baker, who doesn’t speak a lick of French, only sees Virginie, who he thinks lives in a “fancy world,” getting frustrated and walking away from a lead in his daughter’s case, Damon says.
Virginie, on the other hand, can’t understand why the witness’ behavior would be acceptable in Bill Baker’s eyes. Bill Baker argues he doesn’t get the luxury of choosing who he does and doesn’t associate with as a blue-collar worker.
“If you understand your characters and love your characters and empathize with your characters, you can play each one of those people and you have a great scene where they’re just not getting each other … which is what the movie is,” Damon says. “It’s those cultures clashing.”
In “Stillwater,” Bill Baker tries to reconnect with his daughter. Damon, a dad of four daughters, says he feels fortunate he’s been able to keep his family and private life out of the limelight for the most part.
“I think I give [the tabloids] the sense that if they stake out my house, they’re not going to get much,” he says, “which would be true.”
Damon says he has the best of both worlds — working a fulfilling career that he “really, really” loves while keeping a relatively low profile.
“None of that celebrity stuff is intriguing to me or interesting,” he says. “I don’t want it. I don’t need it.”
That’s not the case for his notable longtime friend, colleague and neighbor Ben Affleck, but Damon says his fellow actor “takes the same view that I do on all that stuff.”
At Cannes Film Festival, the screening of “Stillwater” was well received and left Damon in tears. In addition to “getting old and soft,” the actor says it was the first movie he saw back in theaters after 18 months of the pandemic. Viewers looking to follow suit can grab their tickets for “Stillwater,” which is out in theaters on Friday.
The release of “Stillwater” was held back last Thanksgiving because of COVID-19, so finally viewing the film in theaters washed Damon over with emotions.
“It’s such a different thing to go into a big room with a bunch of strangers and turn the lights out and watch something together — and so it just hit me,” he says. “We had that wonderful reaction, and I just felt like this wave of gratitude really for being back at the movies again.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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