Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and Francois Pienaar(Matt Damon) © Warner Bros & Spyglass
The poster © Warner Bros & Spyglass

If I hadn’t seen him in other movies, after seeing Invictus I would swear Matt Damon was a South African rugby player!

Starring in Clint Eastwood’s rousing drama, he portrays Francois Pienaar, the captain of the Springboks, South Africa’s underdog rugby team who make an unlikely run to the 1995 World Cup Championship match, with the encouragement of newly elected President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman).

At the press junket for the movie, Damon spoke of the challenges of playing a real life sport’s hero.

What was it like portraying Francois Pienaar?

Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) © Warner Bros & Spyglass

Well, the first thing that I did when I read the script was call Clint, and I said, ‘I can’t believe this happened.’ He said, ‘I couldn’t either but this is true.’ I immediately looked up Francois online, and I said, ‘Clint, this guy is huge. We’ve never met, but I’m five ten.’ He started laughing. He goes, ‘Oh, hell. Don’t worry about that.’ He said, ‘You go worry about everything else.’ I said, ‘All right, I’ll worry about everything else and you worry about the fact that I need to grow six inches.’

What was it like the first time you met Francois?

I got to South Africa and the very first day Francois invited me over to his house for a gourmet dinner that he was cooking. He invited me to meet his wife and two boys, and Morgan and I went. I just remember that I rang the doorbell and he opened the door and I looked up at him, and the first thing that I ever said to Francois Pienaar in my life was, ‘I look much bigger on film!’ He laughed and laughed and gave me a big hug. He took me into his house and that was it, we were off and running.

He was just an invaluable resource for me the whole time. I was constantly asking questions, everything from, ‘What color is your mouthpiece,’ to, ‘What’s your philosophy on captaincy and on leading a team and life in general?’ He was just incredibly available and an incredibly articulate guy.

How hard was it to nail the accent?

Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) © Warner Bros & Spyglass

Yeah. Well, Francois’s accent has changed quite a bit because he went and played in England for so many years and all of his closest friends, his wife, everybody says, ‘You know his accent has changed quite a bit?’ Listening to any existing interviews of that day you can hear how it’s changed, but there was a good key to that because me and Tim [Monich], the dialect coach, talked a lot about that.

A lot of people, when they do a South African accent, really overdo it and end up making somebody sound like Frankenstein. It’s actually quite a beautiful accent and we talked about smoothing it out, because Francois speaks quite smoothly so we borrowed some of that so that it’s subtle.

Were you in better condition going into this movie than you had been in past films?

Oh, I was in better shape for this movie, yeah. I was in the gym everyday, and Francois came to the gym with me a few times, too. This is his life and I don’t want to embarrass him. If Jason Bourne gets a little flabby that’s on me. But this is the fictionalization of someone’s actual life. I didn’t want to let him down. It wasn’t going to be for any lack of effort, which really was what that team was famous for actually.

They were known for going the extra mile and for knowing themselves well enough to say, ‘Okay. We might not be the most talented team but we’re going to be the fittest.’ That’s the great thing about a great team, when every single person commits to something and sublimates their own personality for the greater good of the whole team.

That’s basically a metaphor for the whole country (of South Africa).

Can you talk about the experience of working with Clint Eastwood?

Director Clint Eastwood, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) © Warner Bros & Spyglass

It’s an incredible [experience]. Both Morgan and I, between us having been on probably a hundred different film sets, it doesn’t get any better than the way that Clint runs it, he allows things to happen. Clint says, ‘Look, I hire the best people that I can and I put them in a position to do their best work and I get out of the way and take credit for all their stuff.’

We’ve been entrusted to do our jobs. Then he’ll come over occasionally and give a little bit of direction, but it’s not a lot of chatter. Clint’s favorite saying, after you do a take he goes, ‘Well, let’s move on and let’s not f-ck this up by thinking about it too much.’ You hear it everyday on a set with him.

Can you talk about why this is an important film?

The film is telling a story that if we listen to the better angels of our nature they’re up there creating good solutions to serious problems. It’s just incredibly uplifting, and from the moment I read it I was excited about just being a part of the ensemble. I think it’s a good thing to put out there, particularly now when there’s not a lot of good news, especially for the holidays.

Have you played rugby since wrapping on the film?

Hell, no!


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.