Matt Damon Talks 'Pretty Horses'

ByNancy Chandross

Jan. 2, 2000 -- Critics, step aside. Matt Damon has already ridden off into the sunset, proud of his work in All the Pretty Horses.

His stint as a cattle rancher is not receiving the rave reviews he or Miramax might have hoped for during this hyped up Oscar nominating season. But that’s not putting a damper on Damon’s horse riding experience.

“This is the thing I’m most proud of, the best thing I’ve ever done. And maybe no one will agree with me, [but] it’s the first time in my life that I don’t care, and I really want to feel that way again,” Damon says.

This is the latest in a string of lead roles for the Oscar winner, who last appeared in The Legend of Bagger Vance, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Much of his comfort on the set of Horses, which he filmed directly after Ripley, was created by the spontaneous directing style of fellow actor and Oscar-winning writer Billy Bob Thornton.

He brings Cormac McCarthy’s best-selling novel to the screen eight years after the screenplay was first fleshed out. Considering the popularity of the original text, this was a daunting task, but not for Thornton who had one basic goal for the set: have fun.

“So if I go up and pinch someone on the ass right [before filming] it takes you enough off guard to where you never settle into a heaviness, and in terms of the set, we just have a fun time,” said Thornton who showed off his free-wheeling attitude by showing up for interviews wearing a Metallica t-shirt and a rosary around his neck.

Horsing Around on the Set

The story finds Damon as Texas cowboy John Grady Cole who gets tossed around a bit. His dream career is cut short when his mom sells the family cattle ranch in Texas. In need of a job, he enlists his best friend, played by Henry Thomas, to head to Mexico in search of the ideal ranch to call home.

The adventure leads to much more than cattle wrangling — there are skirmishes with the locals, a bit of jail time, and, for Damon, an affair with the boss’s daughter, played by Spanish actress Penelope Cruz who is now working with Tom Cruise in Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky.

While the horseback riding and Texas accent were new territory for Damon, there was little room for dry runs. Some may say practice makes perfect, but not Thornton. “We don’t rehearse, we don’t even do camera rehearsals, I’ve never understood rehearsals and I never will,” said Thornton who prefers to get the cameras rolling on the first take while keeping his cast off guard.

“You’re always trying to get the most natural performance you can out of people, actors can become very self conscious,” said Thornton.

Especially during a love scene. Thornton did his best to keep Damon and Cruz comfortable when hitting the sheets on the set.

“Billy Bob dressed as a hunter that day,” explains Cruz who started the game of dress up. “I gave him a hunter outfit with a plastic gun and a hat and glasses, like Charlies Angels glasses. So in case there was some kind of tension on the set he jumped into bed with us, dressed as a hunter,” said Cruz.

Lookin’ Good

Even potential technical glitches were risked for the sake of the acting, which proved to be a liberating experience for Damon, “Billy would say, ‘if it’s out of focus it’s out of focus in my movie because that [scene] was it.’ It’s a level of trust that was just amazing, it was really an amazing experience.”

Of course, they had the benefit of the New Mexico landscape which makes it pretty tough to get an ugly shot. “All we had to do is walk out there in terms of the big vistas, it’s there,” said Thornton who insisted on using the same production crew he teamed up with for Slingblade. Studio exec’s questioned his choice, out of concern the crew was more used to low budget productions, but he insisted the landscape would add no unmanageable challenge. ”The easy stuff is going out and capturing a lightning storm, my grandmother probably has 8 mm film of great lightning storms,” joked Thornton.

Joking aside, he was determined to use the landscape to convey the emotions and challenges facing Damon’s character. “Not only are the people in his life disappearing from him, but the land is too. In this movie, I think the land was sacred in that way.”

So are the beliefs of Damon’s character who lives by a strict code of honor, and remains optimistic even after wrongly doing time, and losing his home.

“I wish I was that good a person,” says Damon. “Despite everything he goes through.It’s kind of a choice to go on or not once you see everything that life can do, you have to either keep trying, or give up. And the fact that he’s going to keep trying is really admirable.”

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