Like a sequel to Monuments Men, Matt Damon's advice these past couple of weeks has been something no one has asked for. The actor has become the patron saint of straight, white mansplaining thanks to a mystifying segment on his show Project Greenlight and a promotional tour for The Martian where he clumsily talked himself into casual homophobia.
"Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play," he told the Guardian. "I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you period."
Those words sparked a furor. Matt Damon was telling gay actors to stay in the closet, internet commenters decided. "Shut Up Matt Damon," the Daily Beast commanded; "Matt Damon has more Damonsplaining to do," the Washington Post mused; "Matt Damon Needs to Listen to Critics Instead of Shutting Them Down," Mic advised.
But Damon insisted his remarks were taken out of context.
"I was just trying to say actors are more effective when they're a mystery. Right?" Damon told Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show. "And somebody picked it up and said I said gay actors should get back in the closet. Which is like — I mean, it's stupid, but it is painful when things get said that you don't believe."
Damon's defense — "Someone twisted my words to hurt me" —was the perfect non-apology, the mark of someone who genuinely believes he didn't say anything wrong. It also reinforced the worst things people had already thought of him.
What Matt Damon said about gay actors
Matt Damon is all over the place because of his upcoming movie The Martian. It's based on a best-selling novel, it's getting great reviews, and it's out in theaters Friday. What's a little more difficult to explain is how we got to the point where Damon — who is neither gay nor playing a gay character in a movie — is talking about career opportunities for LGBTQ actors.
The segue from The Martian to LGBTQ acting roles in Hollywood in that Guardian piece hinges on Damon's portrayal of Scott Thorson in the HBO film Behind the Candelabra. The Guardian asked whether it was harder for actors to be openly gay in Hollywood, and Damon responded by explaining that he and Ben Affleck were, according to Damon, thought to be a couple in some circles.
"When Ben and I first came on the scene there were rumors that we were gay because it was two guys who wrote a script together," Damon said, adding:
I know. It’s just like any piece of gossip … and it put us in a weird position of having to answer, you know what I mean? Which was then really deeply offensive. I don’t want to, like [imply] it’s some sort of disease — then it’s like I’m throwing my friends under the bus. But at the time, I remember thinking and saying, Rupert Everett was openly gay and this guy — more handsome than anybody, a classically trained actor — it’s tough to make the argument that he didn’t take a hit for being out.
Damon's answer is a little meandering. But giving him the benefit of the doubt, he means there's an implicit homophobia when you clarify to tabloids that you're not gay. ("… it put us in a weird position of having to answer, you know what I mean. Which was then really deeply offensive.") Of course, Damon didn't have to address those rumors of him and Affleck being couple, or he could have told tabloids that it doesn't matter whom he and Affleck are sleeping with. But Damon explains that he also felt like he had to clarify it because of Rupert Everett's experience.
Everett is an actor who appeared in a bevy of movies beginning in the mid-'80s, culminating in 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding. His career slowly dropped off after that. Everett attributed it to coming out. He said in 2009:
It's not that advisable to be honest. It's not very easy. And, honestly, I would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out. …The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business.
What Everett and Damon said isn't necessarily wrong. There were certainly eras when actors coming out was considered controversial. When Ellen DeGeneres came out in a 1997 episode of her show, major advertisers like JCPenney and Chrysler did not buy airtime during that episode, and Wendy's refrained from advertising on her show altogether, ABC reported. The private lives of actresses like Jody Foster (before she came out) and Queen Latifah have been picked over by tabloids.
But there's a problem with Damon's one-man case study. It's that coming out wasn't the only reason Everett floundered in Hollywood. The Film Experience's Nathaniel Rogers explains:
[M]ost people who have any knowledge of the ins and outs of his career and lived through the 80s and early 90s know that there were several other factors in why his career never went super nova (including the super mundane/common reason of being "difficult") and he was often his own worst enemy.
And this is where the quote everyone has been picking apart comes in. Damon takes what he thinks he knows about Everett's career (and lack of one) and then says that staying in the closet is probably a good idea for gay actors and actresses:
But in terms of actors, I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you period. And sexuality is a huge part of that. Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play.
Matt Damon isn't a bigot. He's just ignorant.
Even though Damon holds dangerous beliefs (that Jason Bourne could defeat Batman in a fight), he isn't an evil man. I just don't think he's fully realized what he said, how it applies to gay people, and how it's being interpreted. And his reaction to DeGeneres seems more in response to the think pieces ("Shut Up Matt Damon") than the journalist who he thinks misquoted him at the Guardian.
Damon isn't a nefarious man. He's just exhibiting a stripe of cultural blindness.
It can't be stated enough that Damon isn't wrong about Hollywood. Hollywood is still a place where it's hard to find acting jobs if you're an older woman (who isn't Meryl Streep) or a person of color. Hollywood has also perpetuated this weird mechanism where it's rewarded — almost fetishized — straight actors playing gay (the same with beautiful women playing ugly). Damon certainly benefited from this with Behind the Candelabra.
Damon is living his life in the industry on the easiest possible setting. He's a good-looking, talented actor-writer with a best friend who's also a good-looking, talented actor-writer-director. Unlike Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain, he won't have to sweat losing roles to 24-year-olds. Unlike Idris Elba, he will never be considered too "street" to play James Bond, nor will he, like Taraji P. Henson ever be on a television show that no one wanted to be on. And unlike Matt Bomer, Ellen Page, Luke Evans, Neil Patrick Harris, and other LGBTQ actors and actresses, he doesn't know exactly what it's like to live part of his life in secret or be judged for a role based on whom he sleeps with.
Matt Damon is not a supersoldier. Nor is he an astronaut. He has never owned a zoo. He's probably bad at rugby. These are not mysteries. Yet Damon's lack of experience in these fields has no bearing on him playing these roles. The question then becomes: If we can believe Matt Damon is book-smart enough to be an astronaut (even though he famously dropped out of Harvard), why does he believe that sexuality has some kind of bearing on the roles gay actors get?
"We all know that actors are in the business of pretending," Rogers points out. "The rules are only different for gay actors if we insist that they are. And we only insist they are when we let systemic ignorance and double standards guide us."
Damon, no doubt, feels there's homophobia in Hollywood. And to be clear, he thinks this is terrible. But he's reinforcing said homophobia by stating that everyone should be a "mystery" (the default setting of that mystery is straight) rather than pointing out that this idea is pure bullshit. And that he can play Liberace's lover with the same enthusiasm that Ellen Page can play Michael Cera's teenage dream in Juno or Matt Bomer can play a straight South Florida stripper (twice).
I'm also not entirely sure if Damon understands what living this "mystery" is totally like.
Ellen Page was on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert promoting her new movie Freeheld on Tuesday night, and explained how painful living in the closet was for her. "I was sad, it is toxic, and I wish that no one would have to live that way," she told Colbert.
This actually began with Matt Damon explaining "diversity" to a black woman
Damon becoming an avatar of dislike didn't happen overnight. Last month, during an episode of his HBO reality series Project Greenlight, Damon was part of an embarrassing exchange about race and diversity with a successful black producer named Effie Brown. Brown talks about the need for diversity behind the camera and how a director of color might be more sensitive to how nonwhite characters are portrayed on screen. Damon interrupted her, saying, "You do [diversity] in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show."
Matt Damon speaking over the only black person in the room so he can explain diversity to her is SO WHITE it hurts pic.twitter.com/iaQStYZ0ij— Glen Coco (@MrPooni) September 14, 2015
Matt Damon is the perfect villain
In July, my colleague Max Fisher wrote about the dentist who killed Cecil the lion and the internet mob that came after him. In that piece, he hit on something that resonates with Damon's flub.
"[Mob justice and the terrorizing of that dentist] is not primarily about punishing the crime or the criminal, but rather about indulging the outrage of the mob," Fisher wrote.
Granted, Damon did not kill a lion, but he, like the dentist, has become a villain who indulges our outrage.
In the days that followed that episode of Project Greenlight, Damon was cast as a "mansplainer" and as leading "a master class in white-splaining" — a grinning, grabby symbol of our larger frustrations about discrimination and sexism in this country. Hating Matt Damon is infinitely easier than fixing the broken thinking he espouses. Ergo, there's a human desire to partake in the outrage by sharing articles explaining that Matt Damon is so wrong (he is so wrong), and websites (Vox included) get clicks from people who are mad at Damon, people wanting him to shut up, or people wanting to show how they get "it" but Damon doesn't.
Damon was already on thin ice when his profile in the Guardian was ostensibly being edited and readied for publishing. How did the drama surrounding his casual racism factor into how much of his commentary on LGBTQ actors made the final cut? A savvy editor, like the one who edited the Guardian piece, would have figured out a way to get those tidbits in and let the outrage machine gobble them up.
I'm not entirely sure that everyone has given Damon's comments on gay actors a generous enough benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he doesn't deserve it — maybe he really is the jerk we saw in his interaction with Effie Brown. Everyone has their own interpretation of what Damon stands for. But those feelings, particularly that anger, are ultimately more about us — our political and social beliefs, our rage, our frustrations, our rush to prove our own values — than about what Damon said.