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The Real Reason Matt Damon Agreed To Star In The Great Wall

Following a December 2016 debut in China, Matt Damon's newest film, The Great Wall, was released on western shores in February 2017. According to one charitable Time magazine review, the movie was "not terrible." Ever since the the film took a pre-release beating for perceived whitewashing, speculation has been swirling over just why Damon signed up for the film, an ambitious Chinese-American co-production featuring an alternative-history in which massive monsters roam the world beyond China's Great Wall. Now that the movie is out in both nations, his decision to star in the unusual film is causing some to wonder if this acting gig was more trouble than it was worth. After all, American audiences have been avoiding it, and critics in both countries have been tearing it apart. So what possessed Damon to pull his hair back and pick up a bow? Well, here are few reasons that might explain why the Massachusetts-born actor went looking for work overseas.

Working with a legendary director

Sometimes it's not what a movie is about, but who you get to work with that draws an actor toward an unexpected project. In this case, Matt Damon wanted to work with Zhang Yimou, the auteur who directed Hero, the Jet Li film that became one of the most acclaimed martial arts films of modern times. (Western audiences might also recognize Zhang for directing House of Flying Daggers, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.) The pair had wanted to collaborate for some time, and they'd almost had the opportunity with the 2011 film The Flowers of War, only the part Damon was eyeing ultimately went to Christian Bale.

"He's one of my favorite directors," Damon said recently, after all the work building The Great Wall was done. "He works almost exclusively in China, so I didn't know if I would ever get a chance to work with him. So when this opportunity came up, I just jumped on it."

Conquering China

Matt Damon may be one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but the world is pretty big, too. Americans aren't the only ones who watch movies, and The Great Wall presented Damon an opportunity to star in a Chinese-made film that was specially designed for Chinese audiences. Working in a film of this scale could've given Damon the chance to gain major ground in this massive Asian nation, which also happens to be the second-biggest moviegoing market in the world. Making the deal even sweeter, The Great Wall is a uniquely structured co-production that wanted to appeal to both Chinese and American audiences, instead of marketing toward one and taking box office from the other as a bonus. Despite how well-known Damon is around the world (and especially in the United States) for his work in the Bourne franchise and The Martian, China's movie market is only growing, so why not shore up that portfolio?

Starring in a record-setting production

Another reason Damon might want to sign up for a project like The Great Wall involves lofty concepts like "making history" and "breaking new ground." In other words, the actor probably wanted to join something truly epic in scope. Costing $150 million to produce and taking seven years to make, The Great Wall was sort of an expensive trial balloon to see if future US-China blockbuster collaborations could be feasible. Behind-the-scenes, filmmakers wondered if perhaps this film might change the way things are done going forward. So who would want pass up the opportunity to be the face of something so unprecedented, something that promises a river of fame and fortune if it works? Regardless of how the box office numbers play out, Damon certainly seemed pleased with the experience, calling it "the biggest movie that I've ever been a part of" and "the thrill of a lifetime."

Working with familiar faces (and new friends)

As The Great Wall took a staggering seven years to make, it should come as no surprise that there was a bit of turnover when it came to the cast and crew. Fortunately, the final configuration was a pretty good fit for everyone involved—especially Matt Damon—as they all wanted to work together. It also helps when you've already got friends on the project. As it turns out, Damon had a lot of positive experience under his belt with Tony Gilroy, co-writer of the The Great Wall's screenplay. Though the two industry professionals have had differences in the past, they've been the sort of creative issues than can make a working relationship stronger, honed over years of teamwork on the Bourne movies.

Of course, The Great Wall was also an opportunity for Damon to meet new faces. While they hadn't worked together before, Damon had a lot of fun with the international cast, kicking off an absolute bromance with co-star Pedro Pascal. And it seems the admiration is mutual. Pascal calls Damon his "favorite person," while Damon joked his family practically "adopted" the charismatic Chilean-born actor. So if nothing else, The Great Wall is building some (hopefully) lifelong friendships.

Living life on Chinese time

Sure, being part of something historic is cool. And trying to get your piece of the box office pie is completely understandable. But at the end of the day, maybe Matt Damon just wanted to spend some time in Asia. After all, who wouldn't want to live in China for a little while?

As production took place almost entirely on the Chinese mainland, Damon and his family had to relocate during filming. "We lived there for half a year, which is a significant move for my kids," the actor said at the film's Hollywood premiere, adding, "They still talk about it, and they want to go back." But while his family was with him for only six months, Damon spent years going in and out of the country in the lead-up to shooting. One particular region he visited was Qingdao, a port city with a growing tourism industry, and Damon still remembers the place fondly. "I have a feeling that Qingdao is going to be calling a lot of us back over the next few years," he said. "It's pretty incredible."