People living in the middle of the country – sometimes dismissed as “flyover states” – often feel like they don’t get the proper attention or respect from those in major cities and on the coasts, especially the entertainment industry.
So the oilfield workers that award-winning actor and writer Matt Damon met were suspicious when he came to Oklahoma to research the character he plays in the upcoming film “Stillwater.” And Damon says he didn’t blame them.
“They wanted to be sure we weren’t going to make fun of them,” he told the News Press.
But while spending time with them to develop his character Bill Baker and understand roughneck culture, Damon says he grew to like and respect the men working in the oil patch.
Damon said he respects how hard they work and appreciated the way they invited him into their homes and lives.
They’re good guys, he said. Their politics are different than his, but he understands why.
“They work in the oil business, of course they voted for Trump,” he said.
Some entertainment media has made much of what they present as Damon’s newfound understanding of MAGA culture and what Variety called “red-state identity politics.”
But Damon says he doesn’t understand their emphasis on that.
The movie is ultimately about relationships.
His portrayal of Bill is filled with empathy for a character he sees as acting out of love and trying to do what he can to make things right.
“Stillwater,” which opens in theaters Friday is sometimes presented as a thriller but Damon said he considers it a drama with some elements of a thriller.
It’s loosely based on the notorious case of Amanda Knox, an American student who was accused of her roommate’s murder while living in Italy.
“Stillwater” changes the specifics a bit and moves the setting to Marseilles, France.
Damon sees Bill Baker as a guy who went to work in the oilfield straight out of high school, making good money and going off track with drugs and alcohol, as sometimes happens. He got in trouble with the law and did time in jail.
The name “Stillwater” is about more than a point on the map, it ties into the saying about still waters running deep and the way Bill handles himself, not giving much away.
But he carries some heavy emotional baggage and has a lot going on under the surface of his stoic exterior, Damon said. Bill was an absent father and he carries a lot of guilt, blaming himself for what happened to his imprisoned daughter, played by Abigail Breslin.
When he shows a flash of anger, you see a hint of the potential for violence that got him into trouble, Damon said.
He focused on getting Bill’s physicality right, from the stiff, fire-retardant jeans he says change the way you walk, to the plaid shirt, facial hair and ball cap he saw so often on the guys he met.
He also worked on his body, to get what he calls the “country strong” look of a guy who doesn’t have a six-pack but is strong from working hard and lifting heavy things.
Damon has credited a couple of guys he met in Oklahoma with helping him get the details that make Bill believable, from his accent down to the smallest touches.
Audiences in Oklahoma will be impressed with the way he nails the order at Sonic Drive-In when Bill stops to pick up dinner: Footlong cheese coney with onions, large tots and a large cherry limeade.
How did he know what to get? Damon called Kenny Baker, a drilling superintendent from Marlow, and asked what his go-to order is.
Damon said he spent a fair amount of time filming in Texas early in his career. So when there was a scene that called for Bill to talk about going to the theater, he thought he knew how he should say it.
But there was some disagreement on the set.
What did he do? He called Kenny and asked how he would say the word.
Baker vindicated Damon by saying definitively that he would pronounce it “the-A-ter.”
It’s those little touches that for Oklahomans will make Damon’s Bill Baker seem like a guy you might know.
Damon’s performance is very quiet and subtle, but writer and director Tom McCarthy has said he believes it is some of the actor’s best work.
Oscar buzz is developing and Damon was brought almost to tears after receiving a five-minute standing ovation when the film screened in Cannes.
During his interview with the News Press, Damon mentioned that his friend and technical advisor on all things Oklahoma Kenny Baker is in New York for the film premiere.
When all is said and done, the movie did more than put Damon in the running for acting awards, it gave him the opportunity to learn and to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
And that’s the best thing about what he does for a living, Damon said.