Matt Damon's Physical Evolution - Rolling Stone
Home Movies Movie Lists

Matt Damon’s Physical Evolution

From ‘Elysium’ to ‘Courage Under Fire,’ the actor drastically changes his appearance for his memorable roles

Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting and Elysium

Miramax/Getty Images; Kimberley French/Columbia Pictures

When you think of actors who totally morph themselves for their different roles, it's easy to first think of famed Method actors like Robert De Niro and Daniel Day Lewis, but what about Matt Damon? In Damon's lengthy career, he's shed enough weight for roles to actually become sickly and emaciated, and bulked up to be street-fight-ready in this summer's Elysium. Whether he's well-coiffed and spray-tanned or accurately portraying a South African champion athlete, Damon convincingly commits to every role, changing his body, his physical training, his accent and even his complexion. Take a look back at Matt Damon's greatest physical transformations, from Elysium to Courage Under Fire.

By Catherine Fuentes

Matt Damon in Courage Under Fire

Everett Collection

‘Courage Under Fire’

In a reverse DeNiro, Damon famously shed 40 pounds through strict diet and exercise to show the anguish of his character Specialist Ilario, a soldier traumatized by the effects of war, now addicted to heroin. While this role took a toll on Damon's health – he had to take medication for a year and a half afterward to correct the stress put on his adrenal gland – he considered it a great career move, as it allowed for him to show his commitment to acting. It paid off. Director Francis Ford Coppola was so impressed by Damon's Method acting that he offered him the lead role in 1997's The Rainmaker, considered to be a breakout role for the star.

Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting

Miramax/Getty Images

‘Good Will Hunting’

When you think of Good Will Hunting, it's easy to first think of Matt Damon winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar with his best friend and co-star Ben Affleck. But his role as Will Hunting, a genius who chooses to work as an M.I.T. janitor while hanging around with his friends from South Boston, is impossible to overlook. The role, which earned Damon a Best Actor Oscars nod, may have been less Method than some of his previous. He was working on a script he wrote, playing up a more familiar Southie accent, and working with childhood pals. While he didn't need to undergo much physical change for the role, Damon skillfully portrayed the insecure, arrogant Will Hunting, a savant mathematician constantly struggling with his own identity.

Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley

Paramount/Everett Collection

‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’

When playing Tom Ripley, a human chameleon highly skilled at impersonating others, Matt Damon had to become as close to a forgettable blank slate as possible. For an actor who's proven his ability to totally transform for a role, playing a sociopath with the ability to quickly and fully adapt to a new persona was some form of meta-Method acting. The impish floppy hair and nerdy glasses were the most noticeable parts of Tom Ripley's slight, pale frame (Damon's body had to be covered in makeup head to toe in order to appear pasty for this role), which proved to be an excellent means of assuming another identity. The average person wouldn't look twice at Tom Ripley, making it easier for him to take over a friend's glamorous life.

Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses

Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

‘All the Pretty Horses’

In 2000, Matt Damon played John Grady Cole in  All the Pretty Horses, directed by Billy Bob Thornton and based on Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name. The movie wasn't very well received, and Damon later went on to better portrayals of cowboys, but it was an opportunity for Damon to morph into a real period role. The horseback riding and Texas accent were new to Damon, and Thornton famously eschewed on-set rehearsals, favoring a more natural one-take approach. While the movie was critically panned, Damon praised the organic approach to filmmaking and publicly expressed his pride in the film.

Matt Damon in The Good Shephard

James Devaney/WireImage

‘The Good Shepherd’

Though The Good Shepherd was a movie about the Central Intelligence Agency, it steered away from being a fast-paced spy thriller. Damon played spy-catcher Edward Wilson in a role which was highly mysterious without being reduced to basic spy movie clichés. "[Matt Damon's] implosive quiet evokes Al Pacino in The Godfather II," Peter Travers wrote of the role, skillfully directed by another famed Method actor, Robert De Niro.

Matt Damon in Invictus

Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros

‘Invictus’

To convincingly play the role of François Pienaar, captain of the Springboks, South Africa's rugby team, Damon had to look the part of a champion athlete. The actor was committed to Pienaar's account of the 1995 World Cup, which was held in South Africa and helped to unite the country following the dismantling of apartheid. In addition to learning a South African accent, Matt Damon learned how to play rugby on top of his heavy training for the role. Portraying Pienaar earned Damon an Academy Award nomination and helped show his chameleonic versatility. The one thing he couldn't do: match Pienaar's 6'3" height.

Matt Damon in 30 Rock

Ali Goldstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

’30 Rock’

It's no surprise that Damon was at the top of Tina Fey's 30 Rock guest star wish list, and it's also not a surprise that he was equally excited by the prospect of appearing on the hit show. For an actor who has both literally and figuratively flexed his dramatic muscles, appearing on 30 Rock as Liz Lemon's love interest – the pilot Carol Burnett – was a fun project. He almost exclusively wore a pilot's uniform, even when palling around with Jack Donaghy and poking fun at Sully Sullenberger, so the only marked change for the actor was seamlessly picking up 30 Rock's witty banter.

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra

Claudette Barius/HBO

‘Behind the Candelabra’

When playing Liberace's lover Scott Thorson in this summer's Behind the Candelabra, Damon had to be Speedo-ready. The role of Thorson required the actor to tap into his inner chameleon, morphing from cornfed farm boy to a spray-tanned, plastic surgery-riddled pill addict. We all knew Damon could do All-American, but seeing him embrace the role of Liberace's kept lover was a brave and successful role for the dramatic actor. Damon gamely wore rhinestone Speedos and prosthetics that turned his face into a shell of what he once was. It seems like he had a lot of fun on Steven Soderbergh's film, but the role also shows the lengths he will go to portray a famed character.

Matt Damon in Elysium

Kimberley French/Columbia Pictures

‘Elysium’

Damon plays ripped factory slave Max De Costa in this summer's Elysium. He approached his role in the dystopian sci-fi thriller by building more raw muscle, transforming his Behind the Candelabra frame to be ready to fight an army of droids. He also shaved his head and covered his body in tattoos that seem like they've always been there. Director Neill Blomkamp was so specific about how he wanted Matt Damon's body to look that he found a picture of a man with rock-hard abs, taped Damon's face to it and sent him to a trainer for four-hour-a-day workouts, as Damon explained to Variety. The result: Damon looking awesomely badass, a far stretch from any of his previous roles.

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.