Life on Mars

Matt Damon on playing the greatest botanist on the planet in The Martian.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Matt Damon: "We didn't name the dog."
Matt Damon: "We didn't name the dog." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Matt Damon, BAFTA nominee and Golden Globe winner for Best Comedy or Musical winner The Martian, which is based on Andy Weir's book, spoke with me about civilisation, shaving on Mars, Tom Hanks in Robert Zemeckis's Cast Away and Robert Redford in JC Chandor's All Is Lost. We were at the Twentieth Century Fox 21 Club tea with Ridley Scott, star Jessica Chastain and screenwriter Drew Goddard, who told me he put David Bowie's haunting Starman into the script. The ensemble cast includes Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie with Matt Damon as astronaut/botanist Mark Watney and Jessica Chastain as Melissa Lewis, the Commander in charge of NASA's mission to Mars.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon)
Mark Watney (Matt Damon)

The charm and lure of The Martian is that Damon gives Watney the positive outlook in the face of disaster we all wish we had. Separation anxiety is the emotional fuel and Watney just like any good fairy-tale character shows us how to conquer it under the most extreme circumstance. There is some American pioneer spirit that is irresistible and humorous - we want him to succeed growing Mars potatoes, simply for a comment on his remaining ketchup - as though Ridley Scott and Damon were taunting us to desire more gloom and doom.

The glowing optimism against all odds works because Watney has a reason for surviving that is bigger than himself. He is the 'Starman' who can teach future generations something about how to operate on yourself with a stapler, Alien-style. "Luckily, I'm a botanist." he says, and later when he knows some more about Mars, "I am the greatest botanist on the planet." Like Robinson Crusoe, he is making lists; unlike him, boundaries and fences are not a priority.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I'd like to start with the question of shaving. It's very interesting when your character decides to shave. It reminded me of Robert Redford in All Is Lost. Did you see that?

Lee Daniels' Precious screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher chats to Matt Damon at 21 Club
Lee Daniels' Precious screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher chats to Matt Damon at 21 Club Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Matt Damon: Yeah, of course.

AKT: Do you see a similarity? Is it preparing for something new or the end? What is the idea of shaving in The Martian?

MD: We had all these discussions about when he'd have a beard and when he wouldn't. And we just broke it down to kind of like before the last journey we thought, he would have let himself go. He's been there for a long time. But the shaving that he does at the very end is kind of this acknowledgment that he is going to rejoin …

AKT: … Humanity?

MD: Humanity, yeah. Civilisation, basically. And he is going to see his comrades again. And he is making a very feeble attempt to look presentable.

AKT: Not too feeble. Did you re-read Robinson Crusoe?

MD: Yes. The first time I met him [Ridley Scott], he said he'd always wanted to do Robinson Crusoe. And this was his opportunity to do it. So, yeah, that was something we were thinking about the whole time.

Matt Damon on Mark Watney at work: "He is behaving under the expectation that he is being observed."
Matt Damon on Mark Watney at work: "He is behaving under the expectation that he is being observed."

AKT: Did you read it before?

MD: As a kid.

AKT: One thing that is very different from Robinson Crusoe, I noticed, is that you make no fences. Robinson Crusoe is all about making fences and constructing boundaries to shield himself from the "aliens" out there. This is about planting - very different.

MD: That's one different perspective. The other one is, if you're marooned on a desert island, you're having a totally different existential crisis than my character is. If you're marooned on a desert island, if you're, say Tom Hanks in Cast Away, you're wondering if the world is ever going to know about your plight, right? If you die, no one will ever know what happened to you.

Whereas my character is operating under the assumption that everything he is doing is being recorded, and he is actually helping future generations understand what it's like to exist on Mars and to exist by yourself on Mars. So he actually has a scientific purpose which kind of gives his life meaning.

The Martian US poster
The Martian US poster

AKT: It doesn't even have to be a scientific purpose, I felt. The chance of future communication is already purpose in a way.

MD: He is behaving under the expectation that he is being observed. Even though that feed isn't going directly back to earth and people aren't seeing him in real time, he is behaving under the expectation that a future mission will come and collect all this footage and analyse it and see him. It kind of gives his life a different kind of meaning.

AKT: There are pictures of a dog, the same dog or several dogs on Watney's board [where others have photos of family members].

MD: Oh, for that you'd have to ask Ridley.

AKT: You never discussed the dog?

MD: No. We didn't name the dog. We didn't go that deep into a backstory.

Read what Jessica Chastain had to say about outfitting an astronaut, spacesuit versus sweatpants and loving the soundtrack.

Coming up - Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard on The Martian.

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