It’s a jun­gle out there

Fam­ily takes pri­or­ity over fame for fa­ther- of- four Matt Da­mon, writes Jonathon Mo­ran

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - Movies -

MATT Da­mon is un­like most Hol­ly­wood celebri­ties.

It’s clear the minute he walks into the room, sip­ping on a cap­puc­cino, that he’s re­laxed, friendly and up for a chat – a re­fresh­ing change from the heavy- handed PR- driven celebrity cam­paigns Eguide of­ten en­coun­ters when a film is re­leased.

‘‘ This will be eas­ier then,’’ Da­mon laughs when I tell him I en­joyed his lat­est film,

We Bought A Zoo.

While Da­mon, 41, is one of Hol­ly­wood’s top earn­ers at about $ 10 mil­lion a film and an Academy Award win­ner who has starred in more than 50 movies, he still sees act­ing as a job.

His real de­vo­tion is his fam­ily – wife Lu­ciana Bar­rosso and their four chil­dren. That was part of the at­trac­tion to

We Bought A Zoo, a com­par­a­tively sim­ple fam­ily drama to the big US block­busters like

Happy Feet 2 ( also star­ring Da­mon), Tower Heist and The Ad­ven­tures of Tin Tin, also open­ing on Box­ing Day.

Di­rected by Cameron Crowe, it’s based on the real- life story of Brit Ben­jamin Mee, who used his life sav­ings to buy a di­lap­i­dated pri­vate zoo af­ter the death of his wife.

Mee and his two chil­dren strug­gle to ad­just to their new life in the zoo, car­ing for more than 200 ex­otic an­i­mals.

‘‘ There are a lot of an­i­mals in it, but for me it’s about those re­la­tion­ships be­tween me and the kids, me and my de­ceased wife, my brother and then even­tu­ally the peo­ple at the zoo,’’ Da­mon says. ‘‘ Those hu­man re­la­tion­ships are what re­ally got me.’’

It’s rare for Hol­ly­wood to tell such sto­ries, he says.

‘‘ I don’t know why that is, maybe be­cause they are hard to write be­liev­ably.’’

Crowe’s adap­ta­tion dif­fers in that it is based in the US. We Bought A Zoo also stars Scar­lett Jo­hans­son, Elle Fan­ning, and Thomas Haden Church.

The real Ben­jamin Mee and his chil­dren, Dy­lan and Rosie, make cameos in the film.

Da­mon says that pre­par­ing for the role was easy, as he drew from his own life ex­pe­ri­ence as a fa­ther to Is­abella, 5, Gia Zavala, 3, and Stella, 1, and step­dad to 13- year- old Alexia.

‘‘ For me, this is about what would hap­pen if I lost my part­ner and you’ve got these plans where you are go­ing to raise your kids and what life’s go­ing to bring for you, and to sud­denly have to do all of that with­out them, that re­ally struck a chord for me,’’ he says.

‘‘ The idea of try­ing to raise your kids with­out your part­ner just re­ally got to me. I re­ally saw the story as a love af­fair be­tween me and my wife, so it was re­ally im­por­tant to hold on to her and to keep her alive to my char­ac­ter through­out the movie.’’

Father­hood isn’t al­ways easy, but it’s Da­mon’s great­est joy.

His de­scrip­tion of fam­ily life is very much as you’d ex­pect from most fam­i­lies. When not work­ing, his days are filled with the same ev­ery­day chores that con­sume all our lives.

To hear a huge star like Da­mon speak­ing about such mun­dane things as mak­ing school lunches and drop­ping the kids at dance classes is un­usual.

‘‘ A lot of it is the dot­ting the i’s and cross­ing your t’s, the daily stuff,’’ he says.

‘‘ It starts at 6.30 in the morn­ing and it’s like get the break­fast and get the clothes on.

‘‘ The 13- year- old is very dif­fer­ent be­cause the in­ter­ac­tion is very dif­fer­ent. She is play­ing Cold­play on the pi­ano, so I can go and sit with her and lis­ten to her play and sing the songs with her.

‘‘ With the other ones, it is like 9.15am rolls around – we’ve got the two younger ones in school – so it’s just my wife and me and the baby and it’s, ‘ Let’s go get a cup of cof­fee’.

‘‘ The first time we ex­hale is then. At the end of ev­ery day, when Luc and I fi­nally sit down, it’s like, ‘ OK, we made it through to­day’.’’

Jug­gling a busy act­ing ca­reer with keep­ing fam­ily life ‘‘ nor­mal’’ doesn’t al­ways work out as planned.

All too of­ten we hear about celebrity break- ups and their kids go­ing off the rails, but Da­mon and his brood seem to man­age nor­mal re­ally well. They’re gen­er­ally not has­sled by pa­parazzi.

‘‘ I pay a whole group of peo­ple to keep it nor­mal for me,’’ he jokes.

‘‘[ Ge­orge] Clooney said that once. I love it and it’s my job and I’m very se­ri­ous about it, but that’s where it stops.

‘‘ The re­la­tion­ships that mat­ter most in your life, there has to be a bal­ance, the power dy­namic has to be bal­anced, and what that means is you’ve got to com­pro­mise.

‘‘ To be a movie star or a di­rec­tor or what­ever, there is an im­bal­ance of power.

‘‘ If you ask for a cof­fee, some­body brings you a cof­fee and I think the key is just not fool­ing your­self into think­ing that is ac­tu­ally the way the world works be­cause then you re­ally won’t be able to have any real re­la­tion­ships.’’

On the topic of fame, Da­mon’s ap­proach is also re­fresh­ingly hon­est.

Again, be­ing an ac­tor is some­thing he’s grate­ful for, but he’s not let­ting any of the suc­cess go to his head.

‘‘ You have to have a steady group of fam­ily and friends who are pre­pared at all times to tell you to go f--- your­self. I think if you have that then you are fine.’’

For We Bought A Zoo, the fam­ily moved to Cal­i­for­nia from their New York base.

But to travel abroad would be a big de­ci­sion and not one Da­mon or his fam­ily would take lightly.

‘‘ I am very par­tic­u­lar about the movies I take now,’’ he says.

‘‘ My wife says, ‘ You can’t do this half way, we are all go­ing. When you come home from work, I want you to be happy be­cause life is like be­ing in a cir­cus a lit­tle bit.’’

It means Da­mon is un­likely to make a movie in Aus­tralia any time soon, although he’d love to.

He re­cently spoke about his close friend­ship with Heath Ledger, who died of a drug over­dose at his New York apart­ment in Jan­uary 2008 at the age of 28.

‘‘ His light was just too bright for this place,’’ he said of Ledger, with whom he be­came close friends while work­ing on the film, The Broth­ers Grimm. ‘‘ It’s not some­thing I’ll ever get over.’’

Da­mon, of course, is fa­mous for films in­clud­ing Bourne Iden­tity, Ocean’s Eleven and The De­parted. He won an Os­car for 1997’ s Good Will

Hunt­ing with best mate Ben Af­fleck. The pair rarely get to see each other any more, but they are still close, send­ing each other the oc­ca­sional email, and will work to­gether on a film next year.

‘‘ We are fi­nally realising the only way we can hang out is if we get jobs to­gether,’’ Da­mon says. ‘‘ He’s at the same stage I’m at in terms of child rear­ing. He’s got two young ones and an­other on the way.

’’ We haven’t hung out in a long time. At this point, it is the oc­ca­sional email to each other.’’ WE BOUGHT A ZOO Opens Vil­lage Cine­mas Box­ing Day

DOWN TO EARTH: Thomas Haden Church, Scar­lett Jo­hans­son, Pa­trick Fugit, Matt Da­mon, Colin Ford, Elle Fan­ning and Mag­gie El­iz­a­beth Jones in We Bought a Zoo ( above); and with wife Lu­ciana Bar­roso ( right).

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