The best acting usually draws on personal experience, and Matt Damon felt right at home playing Mitch, a shell-shocked everyman struggling to shield his daughter from the fallout of a deadly virus, in Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” due Friday.
Granted, the “Bourne Identity” star has never lived through the kind of outbreak depicted in Soderbergh’s unsettling new thriller, which takes an idea touched on in the duo’s last big-screen collaboration — “The Informant!” (2009), in which Damon’s character professes a fear of germs — and makes it the basis of a painstakingly realistic disaster movie.
Still, the Cambridge, Mass., native is familiar with the everyday concerns of a parent, whether or not those fears are justified.
“Now that I have children, I’m probably more protective than I’ve ever been,” says Damon, 40, who celebrated the birth of his third daughter, Stella Zavala, last October.
“My wife’s nickname for me is ‘Red Alert.’ I sometimes check just to see if the kids are still breathing. I think I have a tendency to be a bit overprotective without being a helicopter parent.”
The beauty of working with Soderbergh, Damon says, is most evident in those moments where the actor is taken out of his comfort zone. Five minutes into “Contagion,” Mitch’s wife is pronounced dead, the victim of a brutally
efficient new disease.
Worried that Mitch’s pain would fail to resonate with audiences so early in the story, Damon agonized over how to take the news. At a loss, he asked Soderbergh for ideas.
“Steven says, ‘The slump?’ Well, everybody knows the slump,” Damon says, referring to that moment, so common to disaster movies, when an actor is visibly overwhelmed by tragedy. Yet neither the director nor his star chose to take the conventional route.
“Steven had a guy on set who delivers this kind of news to people. The guy said in cases where death is unexpected, it’s too much for people to handle. They can’t process the news, so the doctors have to be completely specific. They have to tell you, ‘She did die,’ and they expect you not to get it, to act like it never happened.
So he played it that way. “I got up that morning freaking out about how to do this scene, but that’s what it’s like working with [Steven]. I wound up getting this [approach] that was really interesting, I’ve never seen it done that way, and now I totally believe that’s the way it should be done. And doctors say that’s how it really goes down a lot of the time.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Running time 1 hour 46 minutes