When Clint Eastwood takes on a project, the film world takes notice. The Hollywood legend's latest, in particular, has drawn people's attention as it features Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, a role for which he had been preparing for some years for another film, the adaptation of Mandela's book The Long Walk to Freedom. Freeman brings that research to his long-time collaborator Eastwood's new film, Invictus. It is the third film the pair have made together, following the legendary Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby.
This film is an adaptation of John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy, about how the newly elected President Mandela sees the forthcoming 1995 Rugby World Cup as a catalyst for uniting a nation divided by the scars of apartheid. With so many black South Africans seeing their national team, The Springboks, as a symbol for the old regime, Mandela enlists the help of the team captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to inspire their countrymen with a good run in the tournament. "I would have made this movie whether it was revolving around a rugby game or a game of Monopoly!" says Eastwood. "I just had such admiration for [Mandela]. I knew Morgan was perfect for the part because he had been approved by Nelson Mandela. There was no question he would be involved and I think he captures the man perfectly." Freeman has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the part, while Damon received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance. Damon's casting brought with it a special perk - a meeting with the man otherwise known as Madiba. "I got to meet Mr Mandela when we were in South Africa," Damon says. "They said: 'Bring your family along,' which was just so special for us. My children are too young to realise who he is now, but they'll grow up learning about him and one day they'll be able to look back on the picture we had with him and know they had met him. It was a great honour."
Making a movie about real-life events can be rich in rewards but also fraught with pitfalls. On one hand there are tremendous performances such as Jamie Foxx's in Ray or Michael Sheen's Tony Blair; on the other hand, there are near career-ending failures such as Kevin Spacey's Bobby Darin (in Beyond the Sea). For Damon, there was also a physical dilemma to overcome. "Francois is 6ft 4in," says the actor. "I'm not short - I'm about 5ft 10in- but obviously there is a difference. I went to Clint and said: 'How are we going to get around this?' and he just said: 'Let me worry about that.' We did different set-ups and various tricks to make me look taller. I mean, we couldn't make me look 6ft 4in, but hopefully it's not a question that will come up in the audience's minds."
Similarly, bringing any sport to the big screen - especially one that is largely unfamiliar to an American audience - can be a logistical and artistic nightmare, but Eastwood, who has directed more than 30 features in his career, made sure he had experts on hand. "I didn't really know too much about the game, but I talked to a lot of people who did," Eastwood recalls. "We had a coach at the University of California who helped me a lot, and once we got to South Africa, both Francois and Chester (Williams, a member of the 1995 squad) to get an idea of what the games were like." There was also the challenge of recreating matches that had really happened, replacing rugby players with actors. "We actually hired rugby players to play almost all of the on-field parts," he says. "Chester was the coach and what he kept saying was: 'Let's play proper rugby!' so my job and my crew's job was to work on the fly and stay out of the way."
Although they share similar traits as actors (best known for action films, but with a willingness to vary their roles), Eastwood and Damon are at very different points on the career spectrum. Eastwood has, in the opinion of many, had a dream run. Undertaking an acting apprenticeship in the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, he went on to redefine the western genre with the Dollars trilogy, create a cinema icon in the 1970s with Dirty Harry, and act in such award-winning films as In the Line of Fire, Unforgiven and Gran Torino. Along the way, he has welcomed variation in his choices, trying out comedy (Any Which Way But Loose), romantic dramas (The Bridges of Madison County) and even a musical (Paint Your Wagon). That's all without mentioning his other career as a director, which has brought him two Best Director Oscars. As Eastwood confirms, he shows no sign of slowing down despite having reached the grand old age of 78. "No one's told me to go yet, so as long as there are still films that interest me and challenge me, I'll keep making them." As for his acting career, are there any roles that he is particularly proud of? "That's for other people to decide," he replies. "Once you make the film it's done. It's for the audiences to judge what role is their favourite, or what role is better than the other one."
While Damon is hardly at the beginning of his career, he would certainly envy the longevity of his director, another he can add to his list of well-known collaborators (which includes Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh and Anthony Minghella). His role as Pienaar has earned him nominations for a Golden Globe and an Oscar, but does this kind of recognition really matter to an actor? "Oh, more than anything!" Damon jokes. "No, it's a great indicator as to how you're doing, for sure. If the movies you are making get nominated for these huge awards, you know you're doing a good job.
"I was just saying at the press conference today that I was told by an executive that a nomination for these movies can be the difference between a movie making money or not, because there's normally five movies nominated for Best Picture (10 this year), and some people may only watch that many movies in an entire year - that nomination can be the difference between them going to see your movie and going to see someone else's. So from that financial perspective it's a huge thing, but for an actor," he pauses, "it's fantastic but it's only a 'congratulations'. It's the movie that's the reward."
The financial benefits of a good run at awards season remain to be seen, as the film has yet to open in many international territories. However, it was a modest success at the American box office, debuting at No 3 just behind the fellow sport-themed Oscar nominee The Blind Side. Critically, the movie has been treated well, with special praise reserved for Freeman's performance as Mandela. Whether the film's stars are triumphant at the Oscar ceremony on March 7 or not, it is surely another example of Damon's diversity as an actor and yet another positive chapter of Eastwood's career, one of the most illustrious that Tinseltown has produced.