Mr. Personality: Actor Matt Damon gets a key to the city

Actor, producer, writer, director… this list of film credentials earned Matt Damon the title of “Renaissance Man” this weekend at the 2002 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. While visiting the festival, Damon participated in a brief question and answer panel at the Las Olas Riverfront Theater.

Behind this visit was a motive. It was not a shameless plug for a movie or a crafty publicity stunt, but a humanitarian act. Lisa Maniscalco, a University of Miami graduate, worked with Matt Damon on the Francis Ford Coppola film The Rainmaker. In the film, a man is diagnosed with leukemia and his insurance company refuses to serve him. Matt Damon plays the role of the lawyer defending this man. Unfortunately, Maniscalco now lives that movie. She was diagnosed with myelogenous leukemia and her insurance company has dropped her. All of the proceeds from Matt Damon’s appearance are going towards her medical costs.

Damon appeared on the red carpet as scheduled, rolling up in a black SUV. Fans clamored along the edge of the carpet awaiting autographs. The press was climbing over one another to get a word with him. The director of the festival practiced product placement by loading him up with lots of FLIFF paraphernalia and a fake Rolex (as a joke). The Mayor of Fort Lauderdale then presented him with the key to the city.

Inside a packed theater, film students, giddy girls, moms, and film addicts awaited his appearance. After a brief period of time he came out and a montage of clips from his films (Good Will Hunting, Rounders, etc) was shown. The vice president of the film festival sat with Damon to supervise the interview. After a few throwaway questions asked by giggly girls, quality questions were asked. They revolved around his career origins, his relationship with Ben [Affleck], as well as “Project Greenlight,” a contest/show that the two set up for aspiring screenplay writers.

When discussing “Project Greenlight” he mentioned the radio advertising that he and best friend/co-worker of 22 years, Affleck, did for the contest to display just how hard it was to get into the industry. After winning Oscars for Good Will Hunting they called every production studio that they had previously worked with and pitched the idea of Good Will Hunting without revealing their identity.

“They all hung up on us. They said, ‘Listen, you guys sound really nice, but we don’t take unsolicited material.’ We asked, ‘Well who do we call then?’ They said, ‘Well you need an agent.’ So we called our own agent and pitched the idea to them too and they also said, ‘We don’t take unsolicited material. You need a lawyer.’ So we called our lawyer and they said, ‘We don’t know who you are, you’re going to have to get an agent to get a lawyer…but if we’ve heard of you…’ We asked, ‘So we need a publicist?’ Then we called our publicist, and the whole time we’re pitching Good Will Hunting saying, ‘We think this could really work. We think it could win an Oscar and that Robin Williams would be great in it.’ And the whole thing was to illustrate how silly it is, and how hard it is to break in.”

Despite the noble cause, there was a lot of unprofessional ass-kissing. Besides the excessive “key to the city,” many questions began with introductions like, “You are such a huge inspiration,”, “I think you’re the best actor in the world,” and “Thank you so much for coming.” One wonders about the final impression a talented actor is left with when they visit Florida and have to answer a question like, “I was just wondering if when you were in high school and junior high were girls all over you like they are now?”

His answer: “I wish I could say yes. Ben and I were two of the geekier kids you’d ever see. We were really into drama. Go look at the kids in your school that are into drama. Would you ever give them to time of day?”

However, an interesting topic that Damon discussed with enthusiasm was the expansion of shooting locations outside of Hollywood. He replied that prospective cities play the largest factor in the equation. “Boston has the worst reputation of anybody. Bonnie and Clyde was shot there in 1976 or something like that. They had this one shot they wanted and there was an air-conditioner in one of the windows. It was a time period piece, so they wanted it out of there. They went to the owners and asked them and they said, ‘No, it’s summertime.’ So they offered them $100 and said they were going to be there for the next three days – they really need this shot. The owner agreed. The next day the film comes back and there’s an air conditioner in every single window. Boston got a really bad rep.”

As far as the future is concerned, Damon recently did a cameo in Kevin Smith’s new film, Jersey Girl, starring Affleck. Also in the works is a movie by the Farley Brothers (Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin). “It’s about adjoined twins with Greg Kinnear. He’s older than me, but the rational is that I have 90 percent of the liver so he’s aging faster. Again, it’s a comedy.”

Damon came across as someone who strives to be an average guy and does not carry the superstar demeanor. He entertained the audience and took the praise he received with humble appreciativeness. The oddest question of night came from a woman in the front row, “You inspire me, and I’m a screenwriter, and you’ve inspired me to write. I think I may have some sort of blood disorder, and I was wondering if I might talk to you for a moment after the show?” Damon’s response, “I’m not a doctor.” Perhaps Florida should pay more attention to the advice of its guest speakers.

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Kira L. Wisniewski can be reached at