Fast Chat: Matt Damon talks 'Promised Land,' fracking

Frances McDormand and Matt Damon star in Gus

Frances McDormand and Matt Damon star in Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land," a Focus Features release. (Credit: Handout)

It goes without saying that Matt Damon is one of the most versatile actors in the film business. He's proven himself as an action hero (the "Bourne" trilogy), romantic lead ("We Bought A Zoo"), in costume dramas ("True Grit"), spy flicks ("Syriana"), caper films (the "Ocean's" series) science fiction ("The Adjustment Bureau"). Plus he's an Oscar winner, thanks to the screenplay he co-wrote with buddy Ben Affleck for "Good Will Hunting."

Now, in "Promised Land," the 42-year-old Massachusetts native has taken on fracking, the controversial method by which natural gas is extracted from rock formations. In the film, which he co-wrote with John Krasinski (and is directed by Gus Van Sant), Damon plays the representative of a major energy company, trying to convince some rural Pennsylvanians to sell leases to their land so it can be exploited for the gas underneath. Damon recently spoke with Newsday contributor Lewis Beale.

How'd you decide to make a movie about fracking? It's not exactly something that screams "audience friendly."

John [Krasinski] and I were talking about doing a movie about American identity, and this issue kind of presented itself as the perfect issue. It is dividing these communities, and it's a great issue to use to see how we make our decisions.

The film is actually pretty absorbing, and not didactic, presenting both sides of the issue. What was the trick?

It was really about the characters... as long as the characters were relatable, and we didn't shortchange them, that would make it work. Ultimately, a movie like this is 100 percent about execution; it's a TV movie if you don't get it right.

Your character comes out of a rural atmosphere himself, but believes towns like the one he grew up in are dying, and that people should take the fracking money and run.

The character says early on that he's a pro-industry guy, and he had this argument with his grandfather. He's fighting against what his grandfather stood for , because it's not realistic. We wanted those things in constant tension. We wanted one of those great Kazan characters, with that streak of self-loathing. This guy is angry at these guys , angry at his grandfather, and angry at himself.

You live in New York, and, as it turns out, the state is dealing with its own fracking issues. What's your opinion on the matter?

What Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo is doing is he has decreed this moratorium, and he wants the science to dictate what he does. That seems to be a pretty rational approach. Rushing into something seems insane, given what's at stake, and given some of the complaints we're starting to hear. Let's wait and see. If there is an industry that's safe and can create jobs, I'm all for it, but we should make sure.

You're involved with a lot of issues, particularly water.org, which is dealing with the global problem of potable water. Do you ever feel overextended?

I really try to focus completely on water.org, and the other things I'll do on a more superficial level, but in terms of time and energy, that goes to water.org. If there are one-off fundraisers, like the Japanese tsunami, I'm always happy to help there.

Well, going from the serious to the glitzy, you recently finished filming "Behind the Candelabra" for HBO, in which you star as Scott Thorson, the boyfriend of Liberace, who's played by Michael Douglas.

Liberace had this love affair with this guy, and they were basically an old married couple; it's an intimate look at that relationship. It's the kind of movie if it were between a man and a woman, you'd turn away, it's just so intimate. The power dynamic, the public side of Liberace, it's a beautiful story, it's tragic, funny, sad.

You also recently finished "Elysium," a macho sci-fi flick in which you return to the action scene. How much longer do you think you can continue kicking cinematic butt?

If I look at the role and I can believe myself in it, I'll go for it. Bruce Willis is still pulling it off. Tom Cruise is 50, and looks 30. It's more a question of how I take care of myself. I'm 42 now; I figure I have some time.

I'm assuming in your personal life you aren't excessively macho, especially because you live with five women -- your wife (Luciana Barroso), your three daughters, and your wife's daughter from a previous marriage. What's that like?

It's the full spectrum of experiences from the greatest joy, to sometimes I want to go out the window. Girls engage with the world so differently. The good thing about New York is the parks, and you can go for a walk by yourself.

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