Matt Damon's Invictus Casting Forced Clint Eastwood To Get Creative

The life of former South African President Nelson Mandela is too large to fit into a single film. As such, if one is going to feature films to construct a full biography, Mandela's story can be pieced together from multiple high-profile movies released over the years. The 1987 HBO TV movie "Mandela" starred Danny Glover in the title role, though the piece of media is difficult to track down. The 1997 TV movie "Mandela and de Klerk" was about the political relationship between the new president (Sidney Poitier) and the ousted one (Michael Caine). The 2007 film "Goodbye Bafana" featured the relationship Mandela (Dennis Haysbert) had with his prison guard, James Gregory (Jospeh Fiennes). The 2009 film "Endgame" is explicitly about the final days of apartheid in South Africa, and it focuses on the lawyers and politicians present at the end of the racist institution. The 2011 film "Winnie Mandela" recounts the end of apartheid from the perspective of Mandela's wife (Jennifer Hudson). The 2013 film "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" was a more conventional biopic with Idris Elba as the leader. 

The most "Hollywood" film about Mandela, however, is easily Clint Eastwood's 2009 biographical film "Invictus," wherein Morgan Freeman played the president, and Matt Damon played Francois Pienaar, a famed South African rugby player. "Invictus" wasn't about the life of Mandela, nor the broad scope of apartheid, but the national pride that would be achieved by the South African rugby team, the Springboks, winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Mandela felt that a globally visible win in a popular sport could strengthen the resolve of its citizens. Eastwood told the story in a gentle, personable, intimate fashion. 

Eastwood did face a particular challenge when he cast Damon, however: Damon is 5-foot-10. Pienaar is 6-foot-3. A problem of five inches. 

5-foot-10 vs. 6-foot-3

In a 2009 interview with critic Emmanuel Levy, Clint Eastwood talked about how making Matt Damon seem as enormous as a world-famous rugby player was going to be something of a problem. Francois Pienaar was noted for his size, and while Damon was game to work out and make his body look like that of a professional rugby player's, his height was going to be noticed. Many of Damon's costars were actual rugby players who towered over him and made him look like, well, a Hollywood actor. Eastwood pointed out that the camera can do wonders: 

"Matt may not be the same height as Francois, but he has the same tenacity and power. He also worked out very hard and got himself in terrific shape for the film. And, by structuring setups and camera angles, you can make a person look the way you need them to look."

Solutions for height differences can include something as simple as standing on a box, to a low camera angle, making a person appear larger. More complicated techniques were used in the silent era, wherein sets on the Universal Studios backlot were constructed in two sizes. A slightly larger set was used for the women, making them seem tinier and more vulnerable, while slightly smaller sets were constructed to make the male actors seem larger and more heroic. Or sometimes a filmmaker can just lie. (One may remember the 5-foot-7 Tom Cruise measuring a few inches taller in a mugshot in "Vanilla Sky.")

Potential injuries

Clint Eastwood's challenges went further than making an actor appear taller. He was also concerned with the authenticity of actors appearing as professional players. According to Eastwood, there had to be a great deal of training to get the non-pros into fighting shape; "Invictus" would not be a convincing drama if the sporting events didn't look real. They practiced and practiced and practiced (with actual Springbok Chester Williams) until they could convincingly look like they were actually playing rugby: 

"When you're an amateur depicting a professional, you have a lot of practicing to do to appear as skilled as these men were. All of the actors who hadn't played rugby before had a lot of catching up to do. At the same time, we didn't want our cast to get hurt out there playing with the pros, so we were kind of crossing our fingers the whole time."

Large athletes crashing into one another — oh my, is rugby a rough game — typically isn't the greatest way to keep a well-paid Hollywood star out of danger. The crossed fingers seem to have worked, however, as Damon and all the other actors escaped injury. 

"Invictus" is a gentle but rousing sports movie, looking at the career of Nelson Mandela through a smaller, but significant political victory. Its ambitions are modest, but handily met. Both Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman were nominated for Academy Awards, though both lost (to Christoph Waltz and Jeff Bridges, respectively). "Invictus" can be rented online.