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Matt Damon Talks Turning Down ‘Avatar’, Almost Directing ‘Manchester By The Sea’ & Diversity In His Films At Engaging Cannes Masterclass

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Matt Damon has his audience in stitches during his Cannes Film Festival masterclass today.

The actor, here premiering Stillwater, discussed how he had turned down the lead role in mega-blockbuster Avatar, despite James Cameron offering him a chunk of the film’s profits (it would go on to gross $2.8BN globally).

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“I was offered a little movie called Avatar, James Cameron offered me 10% of it,” he recalled. “I will go down in history… you will never meet an actor who turned down more money.”

Damon said he couldn’t do the movie because he was shooting the Jason Bourne movies and took the “moral” decision not leave that franchise in the lurch. Cameron instead cast the then relatively under-the-radar Sam Worthington, who is onboard for the sequels but presumably didn’t get 10% of the original’s profits.

He also recounted the first time he shared that story with regular collaborator John Krasinski. He remembered Krasinski rising from the table in total shock before saying, “Nothing would be different in your life if you had done Avatar, except you and me would be having this conversation in space.”

When someone in the audience pointed out that Cameron is well underway on his sequels to the movie, Damon joked, “There’s sequels? Oh my god.”

The actor also talked about how he has never directed, despite coming close on several occasions. He said he was supposed to direct Promised Land, which Gus Van Sant eventually helmed, and at one point was set to helm eventual Oscar-winner Manchester By The Sea. After reading Kenneth Lonergan’s script, however, he said, “Kenny, you have to direct this, this is you.”

Damon was also set to star in the movie but it ended up clashing with The Martian. “The only person I would ever give the role to was Casey [Affleck],” he said on finding his replacement, adding that they were told they would never get funding with Affleck in the lead role, but eventually producer Kimberly Steward gave them the financing. “She risked her brand new company on it,” he added.

The actor also responded to a question about how he deals with fame. “The media gave up on me because I was so boring. What sells magazines is sex and scandal. Everybody knows I’m married and a dad, and relatively free of scandal, it’s not worth their money to sit outside my house. They also know I’ll wait them out,” he said.

He compared his profile to Ocean’s 11 co-star Brad Pitt, recalling a time the pair went to the Monaco Grand Prix to promote the movie with George Clooney. “It was absolute madness. I got arm-barred by security and I had to say, ‘I’m with Brad!’ It was one of the most messed up things I’ve ever seen… but Brad’s pulse didn’t go above 50. It was like he was going grocery shopping. I held onto my wife.”

He also discussed trying to inject diversity into the projects he produces, recalling how he was “shocked” by an Annenberg study that highlighted the lack of representation in the film business, so added an inclusion rider to his projects. “We want our business to reflect the country that we live in. The rider is enough to make people stop and think.”

Damon took the time to express his joy at being back in Cannes, which saw him visibly well up during the standing ovation that followed the Stillwater premiere, “It was such a relief to be in a room with a thousand strangers who are part of a community because we love the same thing. I’ve never felt that so strongly, having been denied it for 18 months, I was really overwhelmed by all of us being able to gather here again.”

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