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In order to play an Oklahoma oil worker in Tom McCarthy’s latest thriller, Stillwater, Matt Damon ventured deep into the roughneck community to try to understand his character. He traveled to Oklahoma with McCarthy in the divisive aftermath of the 2016 presidential election when pundits and political observers urged people to try to get to know those with different views. Now, after another election, and with a different president in office, both Damon and McCarthy still see value in connecting with people from different backgrounds.
“Every time I do one of those research trips, I come away feeling like what binds us is so much greater than what divides us, and it was kind of at the height of political divisions in this country, two years ago, when we went down there and we just had the best time,” Damon told The Hollywood Reporter at Stillwater‘s New York premiere on Monday night, later adding that he feels lucky that due to his profession he’s able to engage in such in-depth observation and, as he puts it, “parachute into somebody else’s life.”
“Just having that kind of access and watching people live helps me understand why people make the decisions they make and it helps me play the character I’m playing,” Damon said. “And I feel like if more of us could do that, we wouldn’t believe the media as much when they tell us how different we all are.”
McCarthy concurred, noting that he was able to bond with the Oklahoma roughnecks despite being a New York filmmaker, even spending time with one of them the weekend before the star-studded red-carpet event on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“Boy did we have fun,” McCarthy said of his time in Oklahoma. “What it really speaks to is how similar we all are. And, unfortunately, I think politics divide us and that’s a shame because there’s so much to celebrate and be proud of in this country, and we spend too much time pointing fingers.”
Earlier, McCarthy noted that it was powerful to be able to connect in such a divisive time.
“Dropping into Oklahoma in 2016, 2017, at the height of this country’s frenzy in some ways, it was incredibly reassuring and hopeful because the people of Oklahoma were wonderful: They were generous, they were warm,” McCarthy said.
The writer-director and his star didn’t just find friendship. That trip, they both indicated, was crucial for Damon to be able to embody his character.
“Everything I do in this movie came from them. All the detail, all the physical detail came 100 percent from those guys,” Damon said.
McCarthy added, “Everything came from that trip in many ways, in terms of the basis of his character and the world. This movie only works if when we go to Marseille with Bill Baker you 100 percent believe this is a roughneck from Oklahoma who in some ways is outmatched and overmatched in this particular situation.”
In the Focus Features film, in theaters Friday, Damon’s Bill Baker travels to France to visit, and ultimately try to exonerate, his estranged daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin) in prison for a murder she claims she didn’t commit. During his time in an unfamiliar country, Bill develops a relationship with an actress (Camille Cottin) and her daughter.
While Damon and McCarthy spent time in Oklahoma, Breslin learned more about her character’s surroundings.
“I spent some time in the prison talking with the guards and walking through what my day-to-day life would be like,” Breslin told THR. “And researching other cases of people who had been wrongfully accused and been incarcerated was helpful.”
[The rest of this story contains mild spoilers from Stillwater.]
By the end of the film, Bill and Allison’s relationship has gone through some changes due to various developments, leading viewers to wonder what the future holds for their family.
“I want audiences to leave the theater talking about that,” McCarthy said. “I feel like if they do that, I’ve done my job. I think of it less as a redemption movie and more as a liberation story — liberating from our past, our pain, our anguish, our mistakes, but still having to live with them. There’s consequences to actions. You see in that last scene, such subtle, beautiful acting by Matt and Abby, two characters just grappling with that. They see the world differently, and the question is how do they move forward. And I think that’s a question all Americans are more or less asking themselves right now.”
Breslin says the final scene features a mix of optimism and changed perspectives for both Allison and Bill.
“There’s hope for a new beginning but things have already changed and they just see more of themselves in each other than they had previously,” she said.
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