Matt Damon has had a rough time in the press lately, and it’s consistently been brought on by his own statements. In his documentary series about the film industry, Project Greenlight, Damon lectured a black filmmaker about diversity, for which he later apologized. And in an interview meant to promote his new movie The Martian, Damon suggested that gay actors should not be public about their sexuality, saying: “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.”
It would follow that gay actors shouldn’t come out, that telling the world about their sexuality runs counter to the goals of an effective actor. What’s strangest of all is that this line of thinking comes after Damon, in the same interview, describes how painful it was to be considered Ben Affleck’s lover in the 1990s and briefly describes his family happiness. If Damon really believed actors ought to reveal nothing about their personal lives, even this would seem too much; that he’s giving gay people unsolicited advice, which he doesn’t follow, about how to live their lives seems like an unforced error at best.
Damon has already suggested, in a follow-up interview with Ellen DeGeneres, that his remarks were taken out of context and sensationalized by online media. This is the frustrating sort of remark that’s not, strictly speaking, provable—the full context of what Damon said is known only to himself and his interviewer—but which manages to entirely sidestep clarifying his beliefs. The Matt Damon the public has now seen twice in recent weeks is a person whose openness about his beliefs is a double-edged sword. It’s admirable Damon is so unguarded about speaking freely (most actors on his level likely wouldn’t have a documentary series at all), but he seems to bristle whenever he runs up against anything that challenges his beliefs. His “apology” for the Project Greenlight incident is a classic sorry-if-you-were-offended non-apology, going so far as to congratulate himself: “My comments were part of a much broader conversation about diversity in Hollywood and the fundamental nature of Project Greenlight which did not make the show. I am sorry that they offended some people, but, at the very least, I am happy that they started a conversation about diversity in Hollywood.” And his defense of his recent comments is, more or less, that we should trust him that he’s not homophobic.
But no one was seriously alleging Damon was a homophobe in the first place. Damon, a star who came to prominence a generation ago, is used to being able to control the message; the free-for-all of the web has now seemed to shock him twice in recent memory. The criticism of Damon’s comments on actors hiding their sexuality wasn’t that it was monstrous; it was simply the observation that a straight actor can “keep his private life private” while walking red carpets with his spouse, which a gay actor simply cannot. There are people out there who know more about the experiences of gay people than does Damon, and when they reacted to Damon’s comments, he simply kept talking over them, louder.
It’s a strategy that feels taken from another era of star-making, and one that’s gone from making him look less-than-enlightened to raising real questions about why he cares this much about why actors should keep their private lives private. In his clarification of his remarks, Damon reiterated to Ellen DeGeneres how painful it was to be mistaken for gay in the 1990s. If this is informing his current crusade, maybe it’s time he moved on.