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After Solitude, Controversies Bring 'Martian' Matt Damon Back To Earth

Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, the stranded astronaut at the heart of <em>The Martian</em>.
Aidan Monaghan
Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, the stranded astronaut at the heart of The Martian.

It's a classic story: A man stranded in a remote, forbidding land, left to scrabble a hard existence while he waits for help that might never come. Think of Robinson Crusoe, Tom Hanks and his beloved volleyball Wilson in Castaway-- even Gilligan's Island,for that matter.

Now, add another to that list: Mark Watney, an astronaut marooned on Mars in the new film The Martian. The movie is directed by Sir Ridley Scott, adapted from Andy Weir's best-selling novel, and filled with A-list stars like Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Mostly, though, the movie consists of Matt Damon, who plays Watney — talking to himself and his computer, while tackling obstacles like growing potatoes in human fertilizer.

"It felt like a bit of a risk, and it was unlike anything I'd done before," Damon tells NPR's Scott Simon. "But that was also something that was exciting about it. And then when Ridley came on the project, you know, that made my decision really easy. All that risk is kind of mitigated by having a master director at the helm."

Interview Highlights

On the solitude of Mark Watney

There was one scene that — you know, it's the scene where he finally cracks. That just kind of happened, and it was because Ridley, being clever — there's a scene where I'm taking off in this Mars ascent vehicle in the hopes of rendezvousing with my crew.

They weren't there; they'd shot and left a couple weeks earlier. But Ridley had the audio of their scene and I had an earpiece in my ear, and quite unexpectedly, I started to hear the voices of my crewmates who had come back to get me. And it just kind of overwhelmed me in this moment.

You know, A., it's the first time this guy's heard a voice because he's been doing everything by typing for almost two years. And, B., that his friends had made the sacrifice and taken this enormous risk to come back to get him. It just really was overwhelming. And it was just one of those things that happened and I wasn't expecting it to happen, and that was a moment that he just created out of thin air.

On two recent controversial remarks of his: one, in which he appeared to lecture a black producer about diversity in his filmmaking competition show, Project Greenlight; and another, in which he appeared to suggest that homosexual actors should not be public about their sexuality

Well, it's hard in this day and age. I mean, they're separate things. On the Greenlight thing, that was in the first episode. We had to cut some things for length, and I hadn't seen it before the final thing aired. And I looked at the quote, and I went, 'It did look like I said that we needn't have more diversity behind the camera.' So I understand why people were pissed off about that; I would've been too.

The bummer for me was that that's not what I believe at all. That was a comment in reference to the fact that our competition that we had had, that we opened to the public, had only 2 percent people of color respond to the competition. So we were sitting there with a very nondiverse group of finalists that we had to choose from. So it was really frustrating, and we blew it on the competition this year. I mean, we have to do better and recruit in other places like YouTube. ... One of the main problems is people don't feel like traditional avenues are open to them. And we didn't take that into account.

The other comment ... it's tricky because, like ... there was a headline that said I said gay actors should go back into the closet, or something like that. I would never say that, and I never did say that. But, because somebody puts that in a headline as clickbait, it gets picked up and run with by other people.

It's like, a lot of people who aren't real journalists, they're bloggers — they're either misinformed or lazy or incompetent, or just fishing for clicks. And so they put this stuff up there that they either know is not true, or they haven't bothered to do a 30-second Google search to confirm the veracity of it.

On playing characters stranded on another planet

It's my own little niche market. I'm writing another one now. It's all about Saturn [laughs].

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff