Matt Damon: ‘Hold On To Your Humanity’
When Matt Damon was 5 or 6, a fire broke out in the family home. While his older brother grabbed water from the kitchen, the boy that would become one of America’s favorite actors disappeared, rushing back only some time later — after the fire had been put out, in fact—in red galoshes, a bathrobe, and a fireman’s helmet, to extinguish it with a fake hose.
Damon told the story at the awards ceremony for the 20th annual Harvard Arts Medal Thursday afternoon to show how his mother came to predict his career path early, and also, he said, “how useful actors are in emergencies.”
But in a week when Boston and Cambridge are feeling bruised — and hometown proud — the return of a native son as admired for his good and generous nature as for his accomplishments felt quite useful indeed.
The Arts Medal was established in 1995 to honor a Harvard or Radcliffe alum or faculty member who has “achieved distinction in the arts and who has made a special contribution to the good of the arts, to the public good in relation to the arts, or to education, broadly defined.” Previous winners include Pete Seeger, John Updike, Mira Nair, Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Redman, and Tommy Lee Jones. Every year the ceremony kicks off the massive Arts First festival showcasing Harvard arts, and every year John Lithgow, the driving force behind the award and festival, hosts a conversation with the winner.
“It’s just the happiest day of my year,” Lithgow said.
This year, he was proud to introduce “a bona fide film superstar, a serious actor, and a popular entertainer,” as well as “a producer with a deep social conscience” and “a philanthropist who has committed his life to highlighting and solving all kinds of global problems that most of us are barely aware of.” But also, Lithgow said, “he is a child of Boston, and the fact that he’s here at this particular moment in Boston’s history makes his visit this year particularly poignant.”
Well known to the crowd of students, Harvard administration and special guests (including his mother) packed into the stately Sanders Theater, Damon received a rapturous welcome, taking the stage in a suit and open collar. Fresh-faced but a bit gray at the temples, he appeared serious yet approachable in hip dark-rimmed glasses, and he and Lithgow kept the customary on-stage interview and question-and-answer session light.
Damon talked about growing up in Central Square, a neighborhood he likened to Southie, home of his title character in “Good Will Hunting,” in that it was home to blue-collar workers and middle-class families, “multiracial,” and, sandwiched between the dual Ivory towers of Harvard and MIT, a pocket of “townies.”
He boasted about the education he received at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, and especially from “world-class” drama teacher Gerry Speca, who taught and directed Damon and pals Ben and Casey Affleck. (In a production of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, Damon, a junior, played father to Ben Affleck, a freshman. Both were “four-foot-eleven” at the time, he said.)
“The kids from Cambridge were just lucky,” he said, to have some of the “most remarkable teachers.”
Although he grew up just one T stop away, Damon didn’t think he’d go to Harvard, and it wasn’t until he got accepted that he took a walk around the campus not as a townie but “as someone who could potentially go here,” he said.
Once there, he took every course he could with legendary theater professor and director David Wheeler, and, as he started getting more and more movie roles (which ended up keeping him from actually graduating), a playwriting class with Anthony Kubiak. For his final project, instead of writing a one-act play as assigned, he handed in one act of what would eventually become “Good Will Hunting,” win him an Oscar, and place him squarely on the international radar.
“I think I failed,” Damon told Kubiak. But he got an A and some advice: “Don’t give up on this. It’s going somewhere.”
In a lively tribute, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust described Damon, quoting director Gus Van Sant, as “a local kid risen to become a global star, an everyman who is also exceptional, a person we all relate to even as we aspire to emulate him.” And also, she added, someone “for whom helping people is more that just a cinematic aspiration” (pretend fire-extinguishing notwithstanding, perhaps).
Damon had been so gracious and self-effacing and good-natured throughout the program, expertly deferring questions, for example, about which film roles he may regret taking, that as the ceremony wound down it seemed that he wouldn’t touch on the unpleasant topic that seemed to lurk in the event’s shadows. But accepting his honor, he started, “It’s really great to be home, and particularly right now it’s good to be back in Boston. I went to school where the youngest bomber went to school, and … I’m certainly still in shock trying to figure out what this all means.”
“It’s nice, selfishly, to be able to come back this week and be able to look around my old stomping ground, my old neighborhood, and touch base with old friends.”
Lowering his voice, he said, “I’d just like to tell you that I’m really proud to have come from here. In all the accolades for the movies, all that stuff, whenever anybody says my name, they say the name of this university too, and that means a lot to me. I’ve always tried to live my life in a way that honored that and deserved that description.”
So to all of you undergraduates and graduate students who are gonna go off and be the influencers in the world … as I’m sure you all know by now, you are going to be making a lot of the decisions for the world — I just urge you to hold on to that feeling of what we’re really about here…
“Please just all hold on to your humanity as you go out into the world. ”
Arts First, a four-day celebration of cultural offerings at Harvard, features more than 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Highlights include “Parties on the Plaza” Thursday through Saturday nights, a Dancefest Saturday afternoon featuring the work of 27 different troupes ranging from ballet to Bhangra, an a capella interpretation of Alicia Keys, Sam Cooke, OutKast, and Michael Jackson, a celebration of 50 years of filmmaking at the Carpenter Center, theater performances, pottery demonstrations, and a showcase of performances by Harvard Medical Students, and a 12-cello ensemble.