Ben Affleck and Matt Damon interview: On ‘Air’ and the art of staying best friends for 40 years

In an exclusive interview with The Hindu, the Hollywood hotshots discuss collaborating on the sports drama ‘Air,’ their new company Artists Equity, and their enduring bromance

May 11, 2023 02:21 pm | Updated May 12, 2023 06:08 pm IST

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon pose for a portrait to promote the film ‘Air’

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon pose for a portrait to promote the film ‘Air’ | Photo Credit: Ashley Landis

Matt Damon lets out an exclamation of delight when I tell him I am from Chennai. “Oh, I’ve actually been there! I’ve not had the chance to shoot there (he did film bits of The Bourne Supremacy in Goa), but I visited Chennai sometime in 2013-14 for’s projects. I really enjoyed my time there.”

Apart from being one of the most celebrated movie stars on the planet, Matt is also co-founder of the international non-profit outfit that seeks to give people from economically disadvantaged sections access to safe water and improved sanitation in countries across the world, including India.

He is also best friends with... well, Batman.

“Matt is brilliant. Truly. He’s also one of the great gifted actors in the world,” smiles Ben Affleck, sitting next to him. 

It feels surreal to be talking to these two Hollywood behemoths — buddies since they met over 40 years ago, after Ben stopped Matt from getting beaten up in a high school near Boston — now facing me over a Zoom call, as they promote their latest collaboration together, Air. 

Directed by Ben, the biographical sports drama traces the incredible true story of how the legendary Michael Jordan — then, a rookie — signed with Nike’s fledgling basketball division. The partnership would result in a cultural revolution with the introduction of the Air Jordan brand, which then redefined the legacy and design of sports shoes forever. 

Alongside Ben and Matt, Air also features an ensemble that can be best described as true-blue big screen royalty; Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker and the inimitable Viola Davis.

Chris Messina, Marlon Wayans, Ben Affleck, Viola Davis, Matt Damon, Julius Tennon, Jason Bateman, and Chris Tucker attend the world premiere of ‘Air’ in Los Angeles, California

Chris Messina, Marlon Wayans, Ben Affleck, Viola Davis, Matt Damon, Julius Tennon, Jason Bateman, and Chris Tucker attend the world premiere of ‘Air’ in Los Angeles, California | Photo Credit: LAUREN JUSTICE

But this, of course, is not the duo’s first association together; after acting in small roles, the pair achieved global fame in 1997 after winning the Best Screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting, a film they wrote together after drawing inspiration from their coming-of-age years in Boston.

Since then, they have co-starred in titles like Chasing Amy, Dogma, and most recently, the 2021 historical drama The Last Duel, while garnering critical and commercial success in their individual film careers. But how have they stayed tight for four decades — and counting — now?

“One of the most profound things that anybody’s ever said to me came from Ben, when we started writing Good Will Hunting together. He said, ‘Judge me for how good my good ideas are, not how bad my bad ideas are’. That, to me, is the most important thing when you embark on a collaborative process with somebody. The window has to be open to throw every idea in there, and not be afraid to have shitty ideas, because we all have shitty ideas. Sometimes you need the shitty idea, and then you iterate on that, to build it into a good idea. But you have to feel free to express it,” said Matt recently, in a viral video clip while promoting the film.

This friendship has weathered box-office highs and lows, high-profile relationships, publicised personal struggles and redemption arcs. There is a palpable feeling of mutual respect and just outright sheer love for each other that seeps into any conversation Ben and Matt are part of; surely their creative endeavours together should make for captivating viewing?

But Air is much more than that; the project marks their first production under their newly-launched company Artists Equity. The independently-capitalised studio — with Ben as chief executive and Matt as head of content — partners with filmmakers and gives profit-sharing back to artistes in an attempt to prioritise creators first.

Next up, they will present heist thriller The Instigators (starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) and wrestling drama Unstoppable(with Jennifer Lopez). 

It is also the first time Ben is directing Matt in a film (“Took him long enough,” Matt mutters), an association they assure audiences are going to see more of, in coming years.

Excerpts from the interview:  

Ben, as a filmmaker, you have had incredible success with films like ‘The Town’ and even a Best Picture Oscar win for ‘Argo’. But why did it take so long to cast your best friend in a feature?

Ben: I had to wait to become a good enough director! (laughs) The truth is, one of the things I regret in my career is that Matt and I didn’t look for more things to do together. When I think of this in retrospect, I spent the last 20 years of my life working on sets with some really talented people... but they weren’t my best friend. 

Your life improves so much if you’re lucky enough to work with people who make you feel good to be around them. So this is something we are trying to change going forward. 

‘Air’ is the first film to be helmed by your production company Artists Equity, which aims to give the cast and crew a fair share of the profits made, and implement a data-driven approach to distribution. How did this decision come about?

Matt: The idea evolved while discussing the business of the industry (and where it was heading) and the kind of experiences we have had here. We found ourselves at a moment in our careers — after three decades of working in Hollywood at the top level — with the necessary know-how as well as being young enough to have the energy to put this into motion. Having entered our 50s now, we want to go in wiser and be more strategic about how we work for the next 20 years, which means getting the most of every experience in every way.

Ben, you play the most famous character in ‘Air’; Nike co-founder Phil Knight whose own life is the stuff of legend. But the film isn’t about him, and is instead centered around basketball talent scout Sonny Vaccaro, played by Matt. Why did you decide to be part of the supporting cast and not take on the onus of lead star?

Ben: Honestly, I was lucky to find a part in Air that I could bring something interesting to. Over the last few years, I’ve found myself drawn more to somewhat idiosyncratic roles — oftentimes, let’s say, character-sized parts — that I could have more fun with or have the latitude to take chances with. Case in point being my characters in The Tender Bar and The Last Duel. 

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in ‘Air’

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in ‘Air’

In Air, I really don’t think I could have played any of the parts better than the actors who were cast in them. Matt, Viola (Davis), Chris (Tucker), Jason (Bateman) and everybody else; I had the very best people we could possibly have. I never take any of them for granted, or their trust and faith in me. As a director, I feel the pressure and weight everyday; that I needed to deliver, and that this movie better work.

Matt, how have you seen Ben evolve as a creative outlet over the last three decades? Now, after being directed by him, how would you judge him as a filmmaker?

Matt: He’s always been the smartest person I knew. Having really taken his brain around the track for a number of laps — from doing high-school theatre to writing movies now — and combining that with the intellect and experiences he’s had makes him one of the best filmmakers today. 

It’s great fun to be on his set; you hear actors talk about it, and everyone says it’s the best time they have ever had working on a film. That ability to create an environment for others to thrive in is not an accident. For me, it’s the functionality of that brain combined with 30 years of collaborating with people at the highest level possible; that’s what you get with Ben.

Ben, what is the best thing about Matt as an actor? You have watched (and co-starred alongside) him in numerous films over the years; can you pick your favourite Matt Damon performance?

Ben: What I find most admirable in Matt as an actor is his absolute adherence to realism. He never pushes too hard; his acting is always so unpretentious and un-showy that it’s difficult to find a false note ever in any of his performances.

For instance, take The Good Shepherd (the 2006 spy drama directed by Robert De Niro). I’ve always felt it was one of the most exquisite performances I’ve ever seen an actor turn in. You have to be keenly watching to observe the internal life that’s present in his portrayal. I’ve known Matt my whole life, and I know everything about him, more or less. But on-screen, I was witnessing a person I didn’t know at all; I believed in it 100% . It was so fascinating to me, that I called him after the film and asked about the character.

Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro in ‘Air’

Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro in ‘Air’

The same goes for the Tom McCarthy film he did (2021 crime drama Stillwater); his transformation into that role was so subtle, yet three-dimensionally realised. It was a letter-perfect encapsulation and interpretation of a person that came across as completely real to us (the audience) watching. To the point that I would recognise that character if I met him in real life… but the Matt I know is so different from that!

He never succumbs to the tendency to indicate or point to his talent. There are sophisticated ways of doing that which aren’t too obvious. It’s easy to make audiences notice; look at how impressive this is, you know? But Matt has an absolute lack of vanity that is astonishing. There isn’t anyone I consider really wise — and I respect — who doesn’t have real humility. Matt has both the grace of real genius and humility in spades, which is so beautiful. I love that about him.

Matt: Okay, wow. I’m... speechless. It just took him 42 years to say that! 

Ben: ... I only just found out.

Ben, you really should consider making a Matt Damon biopic someday...

Ben(laughing): No, let me tell you, a Matt Damon biopic would nowhere be close to as interesting as the movies he acts in.

Matt(shaking his head): A biopic on my life? It wouldn’t be interesting at all.. sigh.

Now that we have established that you two really are life-long best friends, did this bromance also translate to the sets of ‘Air’? Is it as fun for you guys to collaborate professionally as it is to hang out off-screen?

Matt: Absolutely. This really was the best working experience I’ve ever had. It was so fun that I mourned it when it ended.

Ben: Do relationships really change while working together? I always assumed that whatever equation two people have off-screen translates to the same on set as well.

Matt: Yeah, I agree. In fact, the director’s actual personality is on display when they direct. The job is so stressful… almost a pressure test of sorts; at some point, they have to come out as the person they really are to the actors and technicians. 

Ben: See, I’m confident as a director, and that I have made movies which were good. But for Air, we had some extremely top-shelf talent. So I was aware that it would be meaningful to demonstrate to the cast members that they could trust in both of us to include their ideas, and make it a collaborative effort. And thankfully, Matt is so well-respected and admired by his peers. That made my job a thousand times easier. 

Air will premiere on Prime Video in India on May 12 

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