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Interview: ...Departed... Stars Talk About Harvard Instead of Movie Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio Fail to Engage in Unfocused Interview

By Nivair H. Gabriel
ARTS EDITOR

The stars of “The Departed,” an upcoming cop/mob movie set in Boston featuring Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, recently gave a teleconference interview, but alas, MIT’s reporter was not given a chance to ask questions. While I sat on a muted line (after waiting on hold for 40 minutes), a Harvard undergrad had a cheerful five-minute back-and-forth with one-time Harvard student Damon about dormitory sizes, how many friends of hers once lived near Damon’s brother, and when Damon and DiCaprio could come visit and party. I’m sure the other waiting reporters were thrilled. This Arts Editor, though, saw it as a great opportunity to enhance her listening skills. What follows is a rough transcript of the most interesting questions, and Damon and DiCaprio’s responses.

Q: Leo, you’ve worked with Martin Scorsese previously. Does he still find new ways to challenge you as an actor?

Leonardo DiCaprio: Certainly. This is our third film together now. I think anyone — not just me — getting the opportunity to work with him really brings their A game. There’s such a respect level for him, the films that he’s done in the past, and his knowledge of cinema. Almost everyone that works with him really looks at him as a mentor, I believe.

Does he still surprise me? Constantly, constantly. We certainly, as we’ve done more and more films together, have gotten a much clearer plan of attack before the film actually starts. But the actors that he usually hires … keep you on your toes. That was certainly the case with Jack Nicholson, for example. I know Matt and I both felt extremely petrified as our characters, walking on to the set and not knowing what was going to happen next.

Q: So you both are pretty much veterans of the award season buzz. You’ve been in movies that have won a lot of Oscars and have been nominated for a lot of Oscars. How do you feel about that, particularly in the context of The Departed?

Matt Damon: It always cracks me up when they talk about Oscar buzz and stuff like that. We have a joke that there’s Oscar buzz on this conversation that we’re having right now. There’s Oscar buzz over just about anything and generally, that’s the marketing machines behind all the movies just all talking to each other. It’s definitely, I can say, speaking for myself and at the risk of speaking for Leo, not something that we set out to do, ever. If you’re going for this kind of result-oriented approach, you’re in deep shit. We just try to make the right choices. It’s hard enough to just try to keep your career, kind of keep the drive alive and keep your career on track.

Q: Hi, guys! How are you?

MD: Great. ... Was that your question?

Q: No — I wondered if you’d seen the Hong Kong film [that “The Departed” was based on], and if so, what were your impressions?

MD: Being from Boston, I can tell you that it’s unlike every other city in the country. So the story, the kind of hook, which is a policeman who is really undercover for the mob and a guy in the mob who is really undercover for the police, came from the Hong Kong movie and a lot of the plot follows. The film itself and everything that kind of fills it out, the background and the cultural aspects of Boston and the relationships and the Irish mob and even Nicholson being an FBI informant, all of that stuff came from [screenwriter William] Monahan’s script and from Marty [Scorsese].

LD: Certainly the structure of the story is extremely similar. Scorsese has done films in this genre before. He’s done — for lack of a better word — gangster films and he’s done them extremely, extremely well. But I know that this was a departure for him. He’s dealing with the Irish mob underworld. He’s dealing with the police department moles, information and disinformation. It was a much different sort of theme for him to do in that respect.

Q: What kind of preparation did you do for your roles?

MD: Leo was at a distinct disadvantage from me and Mark [Wahlberg] [sic], because we grew up here and he didn’t. I think Boston accents are the hardest to do, and they have been the most screwed up, even by great actors. I told Leo that when we first got here. He had a mountain of work to do that Mark and I got to skip, but he actually pulled it off in the end.

Working with the Massachusetts state troopers was also very interesting — the extent of my involvement with them before this was getting pulled over on the Mass Pike a couple of times. We had this technical advisor named Tom Duffy, who is a retired major — he had just retired from the state police.

You remember that movie “The Hard Way,” with Michael J. Fox? I was kind of like Michael J. Fox, like (mimics childlike, annoying voice) “Hey guys, can I get a gun?” And they were like, “Shut up, no.” That was kind of what I did. So I got to go on a drug raid of a crack house and listen on a wire and put on a bulletproof vest, but they didn’t give me a gun, luckily for all of us. It was just more about understanding that culture and those guys, so that I could kind of render a faithful and believable portrait of one of them.

LD: Both Matt and Mark were very supportive. I spent a lot of time with a guy from Southie, and I learned that the neighborhood is really a microcosm of storytelling. Everybody knows everyone’s business. It’s unbelievable; I’ve never quite been in a city like that. The stories that are on the cobblestones of those streets are amazing.

For me as an actor, meeting the real people was really, really important. I knew I had to take a trip to Boston and meet some of the people on the police department, and also meet some of the characters who knew the real stories behind what went on in that mob underworld. Once the accent was down, I got a lot more comfortable with it.

MD: Leo did something that was very smart: he learned by immersion. He took the accent home with him. Just doing it with a dialogue coach can make it so much harder to be consistent. And he did get the accent down, even before we started shooting, so he was totally facile and able to respond in character.

Q: Leo, during your time in Boston, did you become a Red Sox fan?

LD: I’ve given up on professional sports since the Lakers dismantled. But I loved being in Boston; it really is like walking around a museum, to follow the Red Line and see the Americana behind every building. I’d like to go back, because you do these films and people always ask about the locations, what it was like to be there, and you have to explain to them that you were working. The short moments that I had [in Boston] were pretty memorable, though.

Q: This movie has been hailed as Jack Nicholson’s return to drama after years of comedy. Did he still pull funny pranks on the set?

MD: Nothing he didn’t do on screen. The first day I worked with him, Marty [Scorsese] called me. I had been off for a week while Leo had been doing scenes with Jack [Nicholson]. And Marty called me on a Sunday night and he goes, “Hello Matt, it’s Marty, your director. Listen, a little thing about tomorrow, Jack is going to do the movie theater scene and Jack had an idea and I think it’s good, and it’s his process and I think we should indulge it.” And I was like “What, Marty? What is it?” “Jack is going to show up with a giant dildo, he’s going to show up with a giant dildo and that’s what we’re going to do. So okay?” And I went, “Alright, yes, I’ll see you at seven in the morning.”

So I go to work and there was Nicholson in this trenchcoat and hat, with this giant dildo, and he just looked at me and he said, “I just thought the whole thing would be better if I had the dildo on.”

Q: My sister demanded I say hi to you, Leo.

LD: Tell her I say what’s up.

MD: Leo told me that he didn’t want to talk to her before.

Q: No, no — my roommate’s girlfriend says hi to you, Matt.

MD: Whatever, dude. Whatever.

Ah yes, so charming — but I’m going to tell you what I really think: “The Departed” is probably just another derivative flick, an uninspiring and phoned-in attempt to please the Academy. The embarrassingly gauche plot — cop disguised as mobster meets mobster disguised as cop? Yeah, I thought of that when I was in fourth grade, too — isn’t even original. Hollywood, either bereft of fresh ideas or unwilling to take chances on them, lifted it from a movie that’s already achieved success in Hong Kong. None of the roles seemed challenging at all for the actors; the character descriptions were so dull they weren’t worth the 35 pages of press kit that contained them. Maybe I could have wrested an exciting story out of Matt or Leo if I’d been permitted a minute of airtime with them, but frankly, I doubt it.

So if it doesn’t matter to the studios one way or another — and they made it pretty clear that it doesn’t — I’m going to get back to my aerospace engineering homework, a task that doesn’t need to resort to waving giant sexual toys to make itself interesting.