10. SPC Ilario
Courage Under Fire (1996)
Damon had a small supporting role in the 1996 drama Courage Under Fire as Specialist Ilario, a Desert Storm medic turned heroin addict who took part in a tragic event that Denzel’s Washington’s Lt. Col. Nathan Serling is investigating, Rashomon-style. But despite his limited screen time, Damon makes an indelible impression and not just for his natural acting style and bedrock glimmer of star power. Physically, he is almost unrecognizable.
In between the filming of the flashback scenes in combat and the present-day interviews with Washington, Damon took it upon himself to shed 40 pounds by undergoing a strict diet and exercise regimen, to the point that his health became severely compromised. Damon was put under medical supervision for several months after the shoot and for another year and a half took medication to correct the stress put on his adrenal gland. On Inside the Actor’s Studio, Damon said that he considered giving up acting after making Courage Under Fire because he nearly killed himself to play his part, and then after the film premiered, hardly anyone in the media mentioned him or his performance. Luckily Damon’s extreme measures did not go unnoticed by all, as Francis Ford Coppola picked Damon to star in The Rainmaker shortly after seeing the film, and Stephen Spielberg was so impressed by his performance that he would go on to cast him as his titular paratrooper in Saving Private Ryan.
Damon’s Moment: In his final scene with Washington, Damon’s character tells him the truth about what happened. His gaunt face awash with sadness and regret, Damon hurts to look at as much as his story hurts to hear. And as excessive as the young actor’s commitment to method may have been for an auxiliary role, his account is a pivotal turning point in the film, and his delivery of it a masterclass. –Leah Pickett