Matt Damon brings roughneck America to Cannes with Stillwater

CANNES, FRANCE – Matt Damon said last Friday he had immersed himself for weeks in Oklahoma with oil rig workers for his role as a disoriented American who travels to France to help his jailed daughter in a new film loosely inspired by the real-life Amanda Knox case.

The US actor said at this year’s Cannes Film Festival he spent time driving around and living with the so-called roughnecks in the Republican state to grasp his character’s mindset in Stillwater.

“Being invited into their homes, into a backyard barbecue, a guitar comes out and they start singing church songs. It’s a very specific place... and very different to where I grew up,” Damon told a news conference after Stillwater held its red carpet premiere at the world’s biggest cinema festival.

“It was really eye-opening for me.” 

He also went to great lengths to get his character’s look right, getting the workers’ advice on clothes, eating the same food they do and working out to bulk up.

Damon said: “They’d go, ‘No, it’s this type of blue jean, because they have fire retardant on them. And it’s this shirt, not that’. It’s almost like a uniform.”

He put on weight for the role “because they’re very big guys. The stuff they’re picking up is heavy. I’m in shape, but lifting the things they lift, I’d go, Oh my god”.

In the film, which was screened out of the festival’s main competition, Damon plays oil worker Bill Baker, who travels to Marseille to visit his estranged student daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) in prison.

She is serving time for the murder of her roommate, echoing the story of US student Knox and her then-boyfriend who were convicted and later acquitted of killing British student Meredith Kercher at a flat in Perugia, Italy in 2007.

The film explores the struggles faced by Baker in a foreign country, as he tries to overcome cultural and language barriers to help Allison, when a new lead comes to light.

Oscar-winning director Tom McCarthy of Spotlight fame said he was working on the film against the backdrop of former US President Donald Trump’s administration, which also influenced his approach to Baker’s character and how he is viewed overseas.

McCarthy said the real-life Knox story kicked off the idea.

“I was pretty fascinated by the Amanda Knox case. It really just served as inspiration. I started to think about the relatonship with the father, I had just had a daughter,” McCarthy said.

Damon, who has four daughters, said having children of his own had also helped him relate to Baker, who is struggling to repair his broken relationship with his daughter.

“Since I’ve had kids I feel like everything is a lot more available in my job, emotionally speaking,” he said.

On one visit to Marseille, his character forges a new bond with a French child, eight-year-old Maya, played by first-timer Lilou Siauvaud, and her mother.

“I realised straight away I was working with the Meryl Streep of nine-year-olds,” Damon said. - REUTERS/AFP