Matt Damon was thrilled when Steven Soderbergh called eight years ago asking him to play a tubby oddball with a self-destructive talent for spinning colossal lies in “The Informant!” At the time, Damon feared he had used up the good will from his one certified Hollywood grand slam, “Good Will Hunting,” a commercial hit that earned him a best-actor Academy Award nomination and an Oscar for the screenplay he wrote with buddy Ben Affleck.
“Ocean’s Eleven,” the first installment in Soderbergh’s heist trilogy featuring George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Damon, had not yet come out.
And Damon was mired in his fourth round of reshoots for a long-delayed action thriller that showed all the signs of another turkey – the last thing he needed after his string of duds “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” “All the Pretty Horses” and the animated adventure “Titan A.E.”
“I was about as cold as you can be in Hollywood,” says Damon, 38. “I get this call from the hottest director in Hollywood and also a guy I’ve worked with and had a really good experience with.
“He calls me out of the blue and says, ‘I have something for us to work on, and it’s this incredible story with this incredible character.’ ”
Soderbergh saw Damon – who previously earned good notices as a master deceiver in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” – as the ideal choice to play Mark Whitacre, an executive who became an FBI whistle-blower in the 1990s to expose a price-fixing scheme at corporate giant Archer Daniels Midland.
Whitacre went undercover for two and a half years, wearing wires to build a case about his company’s collusion with competitors.
Through it all, Whitacre also gradually revealed his own embezzlement, the amounts of money involved absurdly rising as one lie was uncovered and he made up a fresh one to take its place.
While federal officials secured convictions against two other top Archer Daniels Midland executives, Whitacre wound up doing nine years in prison in the very scheme he helped expose.
It’s a surprising turn for Damon, who transforms to his core to capture Whitacre’s manic, nervous self-delusion. He packed on 30 pounds for the role, and his boyish good looks are concealed beneath stiff hair, thick moustache and corny Midwestern suit and tie.
This is Damon as a pudgy, awkward, obfuscating little man – a complete turnabout from that action thriller everyone thought was going to bomb.
Instead, “The Bourne Identity” established Damon’s amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne as an operative to rival James Bond.
(Damon insists Bourne could kick Bond’s butt. Which Bond? “I could take Roger Moore,” he says.)
The franchise turned into a trilogy with “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” the character so successful that it has become Damon’s career-defining role.
The team behind “The Informant!,” which opens in theaters today, figures that can only help their film when audiences see Damon’s Whitacre, almost an anti-Bourne figure.
“It couldn’t be better timing for us. The shock of seeing him and saying to yourself, ‘That’s the guy that plays Jason Bourne’ is really I think a value added to the whole experience,” says Soderbergh.
“He just commits so completely and is so fearless about it, and the transformation is so complete. I looked at it absolutely as Arthur Miller on acid, that there was a sort of Willy Loman aspect to this whole thing, except it was just so weird.”
Adds Scott Bakula, who co-stars as Whitacre’s chief FBI contact: “I hope it shows people that he’s hysterically funny, but just proves what a great character actor he is. In his generation, if you look around the landscape, I don’t know who else does what he does.”
“The Informant!” is based on Kurt Eichenwald’s book, a serious account of Whitacre’s story. As a straight drama, Soderbergh felt it would rehash Russell Crowe’s whistle-blower tale “The Insider.”
So the filmmakers centered on the incredulity factor of Whitacre’s story and how he managed to string along his FBI handlers with one fib after another.
Damon figures the absurdist approach makes “The Informant!” an easier sell to audiences weary of hearing about corporate greed and corruption amid the economic meltdown.
“It’s a comedy,” he says, “so I think people enjoy it more and will be in a position to listen to what the movie’s saying because it’s more lighthearted.”
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