Ripley--Believe It or Not

Still, she shouldn't expect to weasel any info out of the tight-lipped 29-year-old actor about his current flame, Winona Ryder. Damon may look like a well-scrubbed teenager underneath the Sundance baseball cap he's wearing, but he's wised up since his last Oprah Winfrey Show appearance, when he seemed to be dumping Minnie Driver on national TV. He's won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar (for Good Will Hunting); he's been in hits (Saving Private Ryan) and disappointments (Rounders); and he's seen his face splashed across supermarket scandal sheets. Taking an early-morning drag off a Camel Light before the taping, Damon says of the whole experience, "It's been like stepping off a cliff."

The same could be said of his decision to play Ripley. Ever since he and his Bean Town buddy Ben Affleck bounded on stage to accept their Academy Awards looking as shocked as a couple of tuxedoed Horatio Algers on the receiving end of a 10,000-volt cattle prod, Damon's been generally perceived both on and off screen as an aw-shucks golden boy. But Ripley is a different and darker breed of cat. After all, his character is a cold-blooded killer...and a cold-blooded killer who also happens to be gay.

This isn't exactly a radical revision of the criminally quicksilver character that Highsmith chronicled through her five cult Ripley novels. In fact, a homoerotic subtext courses through the pages of The Talented Mr. Ripley...but it was a subtext (Highsmith wrote the novel more than 40 years ago). Still, in Minghella's adaptation, he beefs up a bit character named Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport) and introduces him as Ripley's love interest. It's a change that in some ways actually makes Minghella's Ripley more layered than the novel. But it also makes it a lot harder to skirt what may be the film's stickiest selling point. Even the two studios releasing the film seem to see Ripley's homosexuality as more of a marketing concern than the fact that he's a murderer.

"I remember reading the book and thinking, Wow, she says so much through the back door," says Ripley's Philip Seymour Hoffman. "But Anthony, because of the time we live in, can say things in a more overt way." Hoffman, who because of his recent role as a drag queen in Flawless knows firsthand the challenge Damon faces, adds: "It's really not anything Matt can worry about. He's an actor and he's playing a character. And if he's going to do that, he's got to do it fully. And if he does it fully, then hopefully he'll convince people. And if he convinces people, then that's just good work." Adds Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth), whose character Meredith is another rival for Ripley's affections: "Whenever you make a film it's a risk, but I think Ripley's a part to swing a cat in...there are so many hidden pockets in the character. If I were Matt I would have relished it."

Still, Damon says he doesn't see his Ripley character solely in terms of his sexuality. He just views him as an outsider who's so uncomfortable in his own skin and desperate to be loved for who he is that he becomes overwhelmed by amorality. Most of all, though, Damon fears that potential audiences will rush to judgment about Ripley before they even see the film. "From the moment the decision was made to make this movie we knew this time was going to come," he says. "If it's phrased in a really reductive way — a 'fag serial killer' — then Ripley can't be the audience. He's one of them.... But everyone's felt like an outsider before.... I have hundreds of episodes from high school I'd love to replay—but a lot cooler. I was short—like 5 foot 2 until my junior year, so my sophomore year was terrifying."

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