WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - In a crisp, light blue button-down and jeans, looking more attractive and surprisingly younger in person than on screen, he extends his hand and smiles warmly.
"Hi, I'm Matt. Do you want juice or anything?" he asks before settling into a chair to eyeball his already cold oatmeal.
It's all so ... normal. Despite the penthouse suite setting, the publicists and staff flitting beyond the study doors, and the fact that the warmly smiling young man is Hollywood mega-star Matt Damon, ready to discuss his latest film, The Bourne Supremacy, things seem relaxed, casual, almost familiar.
And suddenly, it's easy to understand why Damon has been cast in the almost 30 roles he's played in the last decade alone: The 33-year-old actor has a kind of non-threatening appeal that puts those in contact with him - even journalists - at ease, a boy-next-door type if ever there was one.
He's used that boyish appeal to great advantage in film, whether as a troubled but brilliant young janitor in Good Will Hunting, a young cowboy in search for life's meaning in All The Pretty Horses, or as a young, waifish psychopath in The Talented Mr. Ripley - all divergent characters that share a deceptively simple trait: Each is young, and each looks just like everyone else.
Until recently, that is. As expert assassin Jason Bourne in The Bourne Supremacy (sequel to 2002's The Bourne Identity, based on author Robert Ludlum's spy trilogy), which opens Friday, Damon is larger than life. Dangerous. Rugged. And his hard, muscular physicality is nothing of the slight-bodied Tom Ripley character of days past, leaving one to wonder: Is Hollywood allowing baby-faced Damon to make the transition from boy to man?
"What drew me to the role was that the character was older than I was and there were a lot of challenges for me to be believable as this character," Damon says, taking a drag from the cigarette he's been nursing.
"It was the first chance I had to play a guy who was a grown man. Most of the roles I've had were guys trying to find themselves, in their mid-20s, like Ripley or Will Hunting. They were guys in search of their identity, whereas this one was about a guy who had had an identity, but has lost it and is trying to find it again."
In the films, Bourne is a trained U.S. assassin who suffers from amnesia after a particularly harrowing mission and loses all memory of his life. The CIA, thinking Bourne has snapped and turned against it, makes him its No. 1 target. In the first film, Bourne uncovers who he is while running away from a danger he doesn't understand. In the second installment, Bourne is drawn out of hiding to finally put an end to his former life.
Damon, who speaks in low, earnest tones, explains that he originally tried to talk himself out of the role after it was offered by Bourne Identity director Doug Liman.
"I thought that because I look young that it would be a big challenge to get an audience to accept me as credibly having worked professionally for a certain number of years," Damon says.
To overcome this handicap, Damon and Liman decided that months of intense physical training, including weapons and martial arts instruction, would add to his credibility as Bourne. With six months to get in top form, Damon was paired with celebrity trainer Mike Torchia, who put him through rigorous training to transform him into a believable assassin.
"Matt basically wanted to be able to perform the stunts. He loved getting into the training and being pushed harder and harder. He told me that from the training, he was actually becoming like Jason Bourne," says Torchia, 47, a former professional body-builder who trained Kevin Spacey for his acclaimed role in American Beauty.
"He was driven like the character he played in the movie, and Matt was awesome in the fight scenes," adds Torchia, whose workouts Damon continued to follow for the sequel. "People now can look at him as a man, instead of the boy he's always been portrayed to be."
Audiences seemed to buy it. The Bourne Identity opened in 2002 with moderate success, becoming Universal Pictures' highest-grossing domestic release of the year. But the film really took off through word of mouth and was the premier DVD/video rental last year.
Of course, Damon was a full-blown celebrity long before the film, having burst onto the movie-star circuit with his portrayal of lawyer Rudy Baylor in Francis Ford Coppola's The Rainmaker (1997). And there was that Oscar he and buddy Ben Affleck won in 1998 for their screenplay Good Will Hunting, in which Damon played the title role and also received an Oscar nomination for best actor.
He has worked steadily in the past several years, and while always within the parameters of youthful characters, he says he's tried to reinvent himself with each role.
"My goal always, if there is any kind of overarching strategy, is to not do the same kind of thing, to try to keep as different as possible in terms of genres," says Damon.
His films are often successes, and he is sought after by top directors, such as Stephen Spielberg, for whom he played Private James Ryan in Saving Private Ryan, and Robert Redford, with whom Damon worked in The Legend of Bagger Vance. (Other film credits include Rounders, Finding Forrester, Ocean's Eleven, The Majestic, Stuck On You, and many more.) But of course, there are failures, as well.
"The word on The Bourne Identity was that it was going to bomb, and that would have been three," he says, referring to his critical failures in The Legend of Bagger Vance and All The Pretty Horses. "That was going to be it for me. And then Bourne Identity opened, and suddenly," he laughs, "I got 30 movie offers!"
His success is hardly a surprise, says Hollywood director Walter Hill, who cast Damon in one of his first big-screen roles as an Army officer in Geronimo: An American Legend (1993).
"He always had a way of making it seem fresh and real, and that's the greatest skill of all," says Hill. "And he's got a terrific face. Terrific in the sense, not that he's just a good-looking guy, but beyond that, you can read the emotions."
Then 22 years old, Damon won the part after a general casting call. "I just felt that emotionally and intellectually, he was right for the role, in addition to his talent," says Hill. Damon impressed Hill and his team so much that they ultimately expanded his role in the movie. "We built it up, because we thought that he helped carry the movie and was the best window into the story, and it was very much a tribute to his talent."
But even after Geronimo, Damon did not see immediate success.
"Courage Under Fire was a big break, because Coppola saw that and that played a big role in getting me The Rainmaker," says Damon. "Then everything changed ... once I got the lead in a Coppola movie, we got the green light on Good Will Hunting. So very quickly, everything started rolling for us," he says, referring to co-star Affleck.
Damon is now in the envied position of being a sought-after actor; he chooses his roles. But does he ever get bored with a project, or regret his decisions?
He shakes his head at the question. "I know exactly why I've taken every job, so I've never had the feeling of 'Why did I do this?' " he says with certainty. "There's always a specific set of things I'm looking for before I take a movie - screenplay, director and role. I've done a lot of situations where it's got two of those things, and if it's got all three, like Ripley, which had a great director, screenplay, and a once-in-a-lifetime role, that is an ideal situation."
The critics, of course, don't always agree, but Damon tries to take the long view.
"There are plenty of movies that do really well or are critically acclaimed that personally weren't for me, and then there are movies that critics pan that don't do well that I'm not involved in, and you think - God, these guys totally missed it! The best way to judge a movie is 10 years later, with a cold eye, because then you can see if the movie still works."
And what of his own work does Damon think will stand the test of time?
"Ripley felt good to me," he says, finally finished with his cigarette. "I'd have to go back and watch it again, but I really got panned in that movie by most people." He was, however, nominated for a Golden Globe award for his performance in the film. "But if you look back at some of the great movies in history, or look at what won an Oscar or what didn't, they usually miss the best stuff."
While The Bourne Identity did not garner Damon any personal award nominations, it has ushered him into a new light as a super-intelligent action hero. The film grossed $121,468,960 domestically, and box-office hopes are even higher for The Bourne Supremacy, directed by Paul Greengrass.
As far as a third Bourne movie, Damon says that no plans are being made.
"It's not even in discussion. Seeing the end of this movie, I don't know where to go from there. But then again," he adds, "I didn't know where to go at the end of the last one."
Of course, the studio will have to wait should they want to pursue a third Bourne film, as Damon's calendar is booked. Later this year, he reprises his role as con man Linus Caldwell in George Clooney's Ocean's Twelve, followed by roles in The Brothers Grimm (with Heath Ledger) and the political thriller Syriana.
When he's not acting, Damon works with childhood friend Affleck on their brainchild, Project Greenlight, which gives aspiring filmmakers the chance to turn their screenplays into motion pictures. He's also been spending time with his latest girlfriend, 28-year-old Luciana Barroso, a Miami interior designer with a young daughter.
As the talented Matt Damon matures both on and off screen, he will no doubt test his reputation for being extremely, well ... nice. It's virtually impossible to find a negative word about his personal character; on the contrary, his colleagues seem to make a point about how "normal," "down-to-earth" and "friendly" he is; an all-around great guy, in the opinion of many.
But whether his success stems more from talent or temperament, Hollywood is now Damon's oyster. And as he makes the crossover to more mature roles from his teen-heartthrob days, he is keeping his options open for the future.
"The great part about this life, and the part that's been everything I've wanted and hoped for, is working on projects that I like with directors that I like," says Damon, leaning forward in his seat, blue eyes fixed intently.
But having proven himself as a writer, actor and producer, he has a new goal. "Where I'd like to go eventually is into directing, at least once, to see if I have any talent for telling a story."
"Which I may not," he adds hastily.
But for Matt Damon, that just wouldn't be normal.
Full name: Matthew Paige Damon
Born: Oct. 8, 1970, Cambridge, Mass.
Parents: Kent Damon and Nancy Carlsson-Paige (divorced)
Siblings: One older brother, Kyle, a sculptor
First film role: Mystic Pizza, 1988 (spoke one line)
Education: Harvard (dropped out 12 credits shy of graduation)
Awards: Oscar and Golden Globe for best screenplay with Good Will Hunting.
Best friend: Ben Affleck
Famous girlfriends: Minnie Driver, Winona Ryder, Penelope Cruz, Eva Mendes
Achievements: Lost 40 pounds for role in Courage Under Fire; started bowling league in Berlin during filming of The Bourne Supremacy
What's next: Ocean's Twelve (sequel to Ocean's Eleven), The Brothers Grimm and political thriller Syriana