Working with a Chinese cast was a great experience, says Matt Damon, on The Great Wall
A CIA officer. An assassin. An astronaut. Even a conjoined twin. These are just some of the roles that Matt Damon has essayed in his career so far. Considered to be one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, Damon has never shied away from playing a challenging role. So, it comes as no surprise that he was the star of Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, a US-China co-production. We catch up with the actor on what it was like shooting the film, working with a Chinese cast and playing a European mercenary in the film. Excerpts:
What is the concept of the movie?
It is like a historical fantasy, set in 1100 AD, where I play a mercenary, along with Pedro Pascal (who plays Pero Tovar) and we stumble upon the Great Wall. But the wall is in fact built to keep these mythical Chinese monsters that attack every 60 years, out of Northern China. It reminds me of those ‘creature features’ that I used to watch as a kid.
Mark Watney in The Martian and now, a mercenary warrior in The Great Wall...
I have been really chasing Zhang Yimou for a long time and hoping that there would be a role available for me in one of his movies. One day, I suddenly get this call that there was this project that was available. I met him, and looked at the drawings of the movie and heard everything that he wanted to do with the film. The scale of it is so huge and I just didn’t want to pass up the chance to paint down that big canvas into reality.
About your character, William Garin...
William Garin, in the beginning, is a mercenary. He is a soldier for hire and will fight for anybody as long as you pay him. He is very cynical and believes that fighting is a natural condition in life. He doesn’t believe in fighting for flags but will fight for whosoever pays him the most. The story follows William from being a person who will fight for anybody, to someone who has introduced to the culture of a place as well as an army that believes in sacrificing for the greater good. This changes him.
Tell us about these mythical creatures, called Tao Tieh.
They are the beasts of greed so they devour everything in their path and are in search of more. In
our story, the wall has been constructed in a desperate attempt to keep them from gaining access to the population in Northern China, to a point which they can spread all over the world and annihilate everyone on Earth. Also, in our story, the army that Lin Mae fights for is called ‘The Nameless Order’, and they are a secretive army that lives in order to protect the wall and fight with courage. Some people in ‘The Nameless Order’ live and die and never fight the Tao Tieh, whereas some will prepare their whole lives and then fight to the death.
The movie is heavily based on the ancient Chinese monsters. How would you describe the movie to someone who has no knowledge about them?
It is really the biggest movie I have ever been in, the sheer scale of it is so epic and massive. Zhang Yimou was the best person to work with, as he really is the master of making such a huge spectacle. He is great at choreographing large groups of people, as he has done in the Olympics and in a lot of these live performances. But in this case, he was doing it live so we could capture it on camera. But then there was this whole other element of CGI with these monsters. So he was staging battles that were incredibly intricate and the fighters weren’t even there! I think he was challenged and did a beautiful job.
What was it like working with the lead actress Jing Tian who plays Lin Mae?
I wasn’t familiar with her work before I met her for this movie. She was just such a hard working girl. That is what struck me the most about her. She moved to LA, and studied English and worked hard on that. English and Mandarin are so different that to learn one of those languages is extremely hard, especially as an adult. Moreover, getting the pronunciation right is challenging as well. She is wonderful in the movie and convincing as this fierce general raised in the army. Also, it was a physically active role, with a lot of high-octane scenes. So, it became a 24-hour job — from what she ate to how she trained as well as lingual challenges. I am happy with how her character turned out.
And William’s relationship with Lin Mae?
He doesn’t really know what to make of Lin Mae. She is a really powerful female general, which is not something he has seen before and he instantly has this respect for her as he starts to see how she fights and how she leads. This whole army is run in a way that blows his mind, and she is at the centre of that. He has real professional regard for her, that ultimately builds into a friendship.
Was it tough to work with a Chinese cast and crew?
It was great. First of all, to be able to work with Zhang Yimou is a chance of a lifetime and a real privilege and that’s why everybody showed up. The cast and crew were really there for him. There were a lot of actors who I hadn’t seen before, and it was just great to become familiar with their work. Acting opposite them was a fantastic experience. Then, there are ones like Andy Lau who is well-known all over the world! When we did The Departed, which is a remake of one of Andy’s movies, I actually played Andy’s character in the movie! So, that was fun and we bonded talking about that.
How did it feel to work in China?
It was certainly great to come here and shoot the movie for six months. Even my family came with me so it was a great experience. Also, looking at the way the movie business is going, China is such an important market so I think we would be making a lot of movies here. There would be more such co-productions and more such stories that appeal to everyone around the world.
The Great Wall premieres April 29, at 1 pm and 9 pm on Sony PIX.