In The Martian, Matt Damon plays an astronaut who is left behind on Mars. The entire world rallies around an effort to retrieve him and bring him safely back to Earth. Lately, we’d be just as happy to send Damon back.
The Oscar-winning actor’s career-long charm offensive came to a screeching halt this past week with two incredibly tone-deaf and woefully retrograde mini-scandals surrounding comments he’s made that were ill-advised at best—and bigoted at worst.
First was the ignorant dialogue about diversity in film on Project Greenlight. And now the most recent symptom of the most severe case of foot-in-mouth to plague an actor in years: an interview with The Guardian in which Damon posits that gay actors should stay in the closet if they want their careers to thrive.
Shut up, Matt Damon.
Damon was speaking with The Guardian’s Elizabeth Day to promote his work in Castaway 2: In Space! The conversation turned from his work in The Martian to his recent performance as Liberace’s lover in last year’s Behind the Candelabra, in which he was the latest in a long, long, long line of straight actors to earn praise for bravely playing a gay person and kissing other dudes on film—all while actual gay actors struggle to be cast in straight roles.
Inexplicably, Damon launches into a story about gay rumors that swirled around himself and Ben Affleck at the time of Good Will Hunting. (This was a long time ago, but I can’t imagine a universe in which those rumors were taken remotely seriously...a sentiment Day echoed. “Really?” she writes.)
“It’s just like any piece of gossip… and it put us in a weird position of having to answer, you know what I mean?” he said. “Which was then really deeply offensive. I don’t want to, like [imply] it’s some sort of disease—then it’s like I’m throwing my friends under the bus.”
Despite making no sense other than to suggest that being confused for gay was the most horrifying thing that could happen to a person, the mouth-diarrhea continued its river-like flow: “But at the time, I remember thinking and saying, Rupert Everett was openly gay and this guy—more handsome than anybody, a classically trained actor—it’s tough to make the argument that he didn’t take a hit for being out.”
Then comes the bit that’s been making the most headlines.
“I think it must be really hard for actors to be out publicly,” he continues. “But in terms of actors, I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you period. And sexuality is a huge part of that. Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play.”
Now we all know how the Hollywood media machine works. An actor sits down with an interviewer and they have a deep and sometimes intense conversation, during which said actor becomes introspective on a number of weighty topics.
It’s a treat for a reporter to chat with a celebrity who doesn’t regurgitate publicist-scripted talking points like one of those wind-up monkey toys with cymbals, like Hollywood’s version of a politician who aggravatingly steers every question back to the sanitized answer he had already pre-planned. Day acknowledges this in her piece: “It’s nice, talking to Damon. Unlike many actors, he answers questions with a reflective openness. There is a feeling that nothing is out of bounds.”
It explains how they perhaps traveled so far out of bounds that the line hinting at homophobia became but a speck in the rear-view mirror. It’s unfortunate that there isn’t greater context for what line of questioning led to Damon’s comments about the career prospects of openly gay actors. Perhaps if there was, what he said wouldn’t seem so jarring or upsetting.
Then again, perhaps maybe it still would.
The fact is that Matt Damon, named not that long ago by Forbes as Hollywood’s Most Bankable Actor, is a major industry player. That he’s so expertly branded himself as the genial Mr. Nice Guy despite his outsized success makes his statements all the more concerning. He is part of an establishment that, despite its progress in recent years, is still despicably inhospitable and unaccepting of the LGBT community. And he is supposed to be that establishment’s moral compass.
It’s an industry that has the power to influence public opinion and galvanize cultural change. The gay community is desperate to enlist it in its fight against institutionalized shaming of openly gay people and the dangerous repercussions it has not just on a micro, individual level—an ambitious actor who might hide his sexuality and true self to serve his career—but on the macro, cultural one: the impact on a demographic of young people whose rates of suicide, homelessness, and depression greatly outweigh their peers because of lingering prejudice against them.
The example that Damon uses about what happened to Rupert Everett after he came out is a great one, but one he is completely misusing. Everett’s career did, as Damon says, take a hit after he came out publicly. The My Best Friend’s Wedding star has said pretty much exactly that: “Coming out as a gay actor ruined my career in Hollywood.”
What Damon should be doing, however, is using Everett as a case study for why the way gay actors are treated in Hollywood needs to change. What a waste that Everett’s career didn’t take off the way it maybe deserved to, and only because some casting directors were worried that he wouldn’t be taken seriously as a straight character because of his sexuality.
The “can gay actors play straight?” debate is a demonic conversation that has been haunting the zeitgeist for years now, and will only be exorcised when the act of being openly gay is normalized. By arguing that gay actors should keep their sexuality secret, Damon is in essence turning homosexuality into some sort of event or curio that should matter when an actor is being considered for a role.
He might think that he’s speaking compassionately and in support of gay actors who deserve better access to better roles, but his advice on the matter will only serve to prolong a state of affairs in Hollywood that has been long dated.
And this is not to even mention his hypocrisy.
Damon is preaching about actors’ sexuality being none of the public’s business in the same interview in which he casually talks about his wife, kids, and fatherhood on several occasions. And I would like for someone to convincingly make the case that a straight actor who follows his advice—not talking about being straight—will see his or her career affected in any way by such secrecy about their heterosexuality. Or that their career would be harmed in any way by talking about their opposite-sex relationship or love life.
Simply, it’s a boneheaded philosophy—and unfortunately timed, considering that the controversial Guardian interview comes on the heels of another spate of bad press for the star.
Two weeks ago, the fourth season of Damon’s HBO reality series Project Greenlight premiered, and on it Damon is filmed making ignorant comments about diversity in film. The statements were all the more cringe-worthy as Damon essentially talked over a black female movie producer to make them.
The producer, Dear White People’s Effie Brown, was asking Damon and the room full of white filmmakers to consider the optics of hiring another white male to direct a film that whose only character of color was an abused black prostitute. Damon’s patronizing interruption in response to Brown’s concern wasn’t just rude—it exposed the problematic white privilege that continues to permeate Hollywood.
(He has since apologized.)
Together as a one-two punch, the Matt Damon Mansplains It All: Gays and Race Edition! tour has been so disappointing not only because the actor has otherwise—and for so long—fought the liberal good fight, seizing the opportunity and his celebrity status to raise awareness on causes near and dear, from anti-fracking to the wealth gap. It’s because he is truly so very good in The Martian.
He’s Oscar-nomination good in it. He very well could and should get one—if he’d just stop friggin’ talking.