Matt Damon Spills About 'The Martian'

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In upcoming movie "The Martian," Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who faces seemingly insurmountable odds as he tries to find a way to subsist on a hostile planet. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox - TM & © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Updated: This article has been updated to include the newest trailer from 20th Century Fox.

Matt Damon looks terrible. But that’s the point. The make-up department has slathered his face in scabs, bruises and dirt. The black circles under his eyes match his outfit and sneakers (he hasn’t donned his spacesuit yet). His hair and beard are matted and pinned with barrettes. “I have these hair extensions in,” he says. “I look like I should be playing in a rock band.”

Damon might look like he would fit in at a Bushwick dive bar, but he’s actually impersonating an astronaut. It’s February in Budapest, Hungary, and we’re on the set of The Martian, which he’s making with British director Ridley Scott of Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator fame and Exodus: Gods and Kings infamy. The shoot is nearly complete. The story is structured around Mars days (called Sols, which are 39 minutes longer than Earth days), starting at Sol 6 and ending on Sol 549. “Today, I think we’re on 547,” Damon says. “I’m living on Mars time.”

The Martian is based on Andy Weir’s eponymous sci-fi novel, a Cast Away–like­ survival story set on the Red Planet. The book began as a serial Weir posted on his website. Eventually, it became a hit Amazon e-book. Random House came knocking. Then Hollywood. Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, World War Z) wrote the screenplay. This October 2, the film will land in theaters with a cast that includes Damon, Jessica Chastain and Kristen Wiig.

Damon plays Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut on a Mars mission whose crew leaves him for dead after he gets impaled by an antenna in a dust storm. He’s a meat-and-potatoes botanist who literally grows his own spuds in space. In the book, Watney logs entries like, “Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.” He’s also your standard-issue frustrated bro. He sends NASA messages back on Earth: “Look! A pair of boobs! -> (.Y.).” Maybe Weir’s sequel will center on women from Venus.

Damon is the obvious choice for Watney. He’s perhaps the most likeable actor in Hollywood not named Tom Hanks. When he speaks, he opens his eyes wide and smiles. He likes to laugh, and when he laughs, his eyes crinkle. New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis once called him the contemporary ideal for the “American character.” No other actor “can better vault across rooftops and in and out of genres and make you care greatly if he falls. He’s so homespun that he could have sprung wholly formed from a corn silo.” Damon might be the only actor capable of making Watney seem more like your lovable but slightly inappropriate cousin than a misogynist frat boy.

Back on set in Budapest, he sits behind a desk and fields questions from about a half-dozen members of the U.S. and foreign press.

the-martian-TIF_RSS_0003_fr_n_left-1001R_rgb From left: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie portray the crewmembers of the fateful mission to Mars. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox - TM & © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

How exhausting is the shoot?

The surface suit I wear is like a 4/3 wetsuit. It gets hot. The EVA suit is really hard to get into. You can’t really move in it. Jessica [Chastain] said it was like being a baby. You have no control of your body basically and can only sit there and just cry or laugh. And hope somebody picks you up.

Is your work very physical?

When people say movies are physical that’s a relative term. Laying bricks is physical. Movies really aren’t that physical.

Did you get special training for space or the culture?

We have a technical advisor, but it’s all really in the book and the screenplay. We don’t actually have to survive on Mars. We’re there for a little while, and then we go out for coffee and come back.

Do they feed you a potato-only diet, like in the book?

No. They just do the makeup to look like it. It’s funny: They make me all blotchy and they color my teeth in. By the end, he’s in quite a state.

Did you have to lose weight?

I talked to Ridley about it because I’ve lost weight before for movies. We had about six months. And I said, “That’s perfect. I’ll lose about 30 or 40 pounds, and we’ve got to shoot all that stuff first.” And he went, “Fuck that.”

the-martian-DF-07708_rgb (1) In "The Martian," a NASA astronaut grows potatoes on Mars to survive. Giles Keyte - TM & © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

What was it like having a Cast Away–like experience?

I loved it. It was one of the reasons to do the movie. I’d never been offered anything like that. It seemed like an interesting challenge. Acting is literally about the other person. It’s always about what’s going on and what are you getting from them. But to have nobody? The other person here is really Ridley.

I also thought it was supported enough by the script. There’s the whole other side of the story with all the bells and whistles and NASA and all of that exciting stuff. They had wrapped 55 actors before I even got here. It’s like they shot three separate films. And ours is this weird little movie about a guy on Mars all by himself. But there’s this whole other, exciting mission-control movie. And then the movie in space with Jessica and the crew. It wasn’t two hours of a guy by himself. Which I think would have been really hard to do. I mean it’s been done. 127 Hours did it. And he was talking also to his camcorder.

But the design of this feels like it really works. I read the script and then I reread it and then I reread it. I think it was about three times in one day. And I was like, “This really is a page-turner.”

Is your character funny?

A huge part of the book and the screenplay is that the character is funny. As a lot of people have this gallows sense of humor doing impossibly difficult things. Ridley and I talked from the beginning about how we want to preserve all that humor. But also not lose the stakes. We never want him to seem glib and like, “Yeah, no problem.” Especially when we got here and saw the set the set that Arthur Max had built. And that concept of being miles away a hundred million miles away from another human being.

The first time I talked to Ridley, I talked about that movie Touching the Void. Which I thought was brilliant. And I said, “Look, this is not one of those existential survival movies, but there has to be a sense of terror and we have to feel the enormity of the stakes for the character. Or else it’s just a popcorn-y whiz-bang-he’s-never-really-in-danger type of experience.” So that was really the key. And that’s really down to Ridley. Just striking that tone of having it feel dangerous without ever being ponderous.

the-martian-DF-20914_rgb Matt Damon portrays the titular hero in Ridley Scott's upcoming movie "The Martian." Aidan Monaghan - TM & © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

When did you first meet Ridley, and what was it like?

I’d never really met Ridley, and obviously he’s been a big hero of mine. I’d taken a year and a half off of work—my family moved to L.A., and I wanted to be around for my kids. And the one thing I did was a couple weeks on Interstellar. And so I went in after not having done a movie in a really long time and said, “Ridley, I just have to tell you something.” Because Interstellar hadn’t come out.

“We should probably get a rough cut of this film Interstellar because I play a dude alone on a planet. I don’t know if I should follow that up with a movie about a dude alone on a planet.”

He was like, “When does it come out?”

I said, “It’ll probably come out in November.”

He said, “That’s a full year. Nobody cares.”

He’s probably right.

I told Chris Nolan that, and Chris thought, Yeah, they’re coming out with another Batman already.

And it’s a very, very different movie obviously from that. In every way. With a very different character.

Your character is offbeat and kind of raunchy.

And yet really capable and smart. The writer Drew Goddard said he read the book and he fell in love with it, and he wanted to do because it was like a love letter to science. And he wanted to make that cool. In one sense, the guy’s an incredible nerd. He’s a botanist. But that’s really what’s cool about the character in the movie. He needs every single one of his skills to save his life. It’s fun to play a character who’s smarter than you. He gets to the right answers quicker than I would. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in my surface suit on set thinking, I wouldn’t last 20 minutes on Mars. Every mistake is life-threatening.

the-martian-DF-08050_rgb Matt Damon in "The Martian." Giles Keyte - TM & © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

How were you at school? Did you take a lot of math and engineering and science?

No. I was an actor and a writer in school. I took the other classes because I made a decision to get a liberal arts degree.

Don’t you mean Harvard?

I got in there. Nobody turns that place down.

Did you get to meet any real astronauts to study the part?

No. Jessica did. But by the time you get to my part, it’s a Robinson Crusoe survival story. The only time I’m in space is the very end.

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A publicist enters the room and points to her watch. “OK,” Damon says. “I have to go to Mars!” And like a shooting star, he disappears.

Update: 20th Century Fox has released a new theatrical trailer for The Martian. See below:

 

 

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of The Martian protagonist Mark Watney.