Denzel Washington had already been nominated for Oscars three times, winning once, when he co-starred with Meg Ryan in Courage Under Fire (1996). Therefore, you would expect the young 25-year-old actor Matt Damon to understandably be intimidated by working with such an acting legend. But Damon ended up being so impressive in the war movie, it would become his breakthrough role.
On the film’s 20th anniversary in 2016, director Edward Zwick revealed to Yahoo that it was actually Washington that wound up feeling intimidated on set, because Damon made such an impression. “Denzel came to work and he hadn’t met [Matt]… They did this first scene together and after we finished Matt’s side of the close-up and turned the camera around to go to Denzel, he leaned over and whispered to me: ‘Man, I think I better raise my game – this kid is good!'”
“It was pretty obvious to all of us from the very beginning — at least to me – that [Matt] had something very special,” the director remarked.
Damon didn’t just impress Washington, but also Francis Ford Coppola – who cast him in John Grisham adaptation and thriller movie The Rainmaker on the strength of Courage Under Fire. Damon famously underwent dramatic weight loss for the role, so even though it was quite a small part, directors took notice of him.
In the same year as the release of The Rainmaker, Good Will Hunting was released – in which Damon co-wrote a juicy leading role for himself. In 1998, Spielberg cast him in the titular role of Private Ryan in his World War II movie – kickstarting a Hollywood trend of spending billions on rescuing Matt Damon.