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The door to the hotel conference room swings open, and there's Matt Damon, sitting dead centre in a brown leather wing chair. He's chewing gum and scrolling on his phone. His hair is short and freshly cut, and his biceps bulge from his tight black polo shirt like Popeye's after a hit of spinach. Sitting opposite him is like hanging out with an energy-efficient generator – it's a compact package, but it emits a powerful heat. Not until he grins, however, do you fully appreciate why Damon, 44, is a movie star. His is a grin for the ages, a can-do, all-American, where-you-wanna-be smile. It's so engaging, I almost reach for $12.50 to see him do it again.

He needs that grin these days. Since we met at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, Damon has stuck his foot in his mouth and struggled to pull it out not once, but twice: first when discussing the issue of racial diversity in the film business on his HBO series Project Greenlight; and then in an interview published in The Guardian, where he said actors should keep their sexuality a mystery – which some interpreted as a suggestion that gay actors would be better off going back into the closet. To me, the latter is a twisted rendering of what Damon was trying to say, and the former a far more serious gaffe. (Ellen DeGeneres, the patron saint of Yep I'm Gay, seems to agree; she talked him through a mea culpa on her show.) Taken together, however, Damon's blunders suggest a tone-deafness that he should work on.

Perhaps he's no good at damage control because he hasn't had to do much of it. Unlike his high-profile pals Brad, George and Ben (that's Pitt, Clooney and Affleck, obviously), Damon has avoided the hot seat, and the paparazzi and public have left him alone. "I don't think there's any defending against it when it's a full-on assault," he said to me, presciently. "To have people staking you out all the time, to be constantly followed by paparazzi, that's horrible. I think I got very lucky that I fell in love with a civilian."

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That would be his wife of 10 years, Luciana Barroso, an Argentine whom Damon met in Miami when she was bartending and he was acting in the dreadful Stuck on You (a rare career misstep). A tattoo of her name, Lucy, in curling script, is visible on Damon's right bicep just below his sleeve. He got it two years ago, after she woke one morning and announced they were getting matching tattoos, "apropos of nothing," he says, with that grin. A tattoo artist friend came to their house in Los Angeles's posh Pacific Palisades and did it. ("Lucy" was a bonus tattoo. Damon won't say what the matching one is, only that it's "personal.")

Tabloids are sold "based on sex and scandal," he continues, so his narrative – married, with three daughters together and one from Barroso's previous relationship, "happy and kind of quiet" – hasn't been interesting until now. "I also think we got really lucky with the emergence of reality TV," Damon says. "The people on those shows don't have a marketable skill, they just want to be famous. So it's a match made in heaven. I'm grateful that whole cottage industry came out of nowhere, because it took a lot of the pressure off of us."

Maybe that's his trouble: Damon clearly wants to have honest, unprocessed conversations. But a long time has passed, and a lot of privilege has come his way, since he grew up with a single mother in a six-family home in Cambridge, Mass. Perhaps he's taking his popularity for granted. Not many actors can make us root for killers (Tom Ripley, Jason Bourne) and thieves (the Ocean's Eleven franchise) the way he can. And no one else has headlined two movies where large groups of people risk their lives to bring him home: first Saving Private Ryan, and now The Martian, the guaranteed-blockbuster-space-drama opening Friday. You have to be pretty affable to pull that off.

The Martian is Saving Private Ryan crossed with Cast Away (with potatoes subbing in for Wilson), and until this week, it seemed guaranteed to cement Damon's status as the new Tom Hanks, Hollywood's most likeable guy. In the film, his botanist/astronaut character is stranded on Mars. While his crew, NASA and the whole damn world fight for him, he … makes a video blog. This allows Damon to charm the camera – that is, us – and to remain capable and upbeat no matter what flies his way. Again, it's hard to think of another actor who could so credibly not go insane.

"Movies like Touching the Void do a really good job of exploring existential desperation and dread," Damon says. "This one isn't that. It's optimistic and hopeful."

Which brings me to why I think Damon will survive his current bout of self-inflicted tsuris: He really is likeable. He's a master at sending himself up, whether it's in the Sarah Silverman video I'm F*cking Matt Damon, or playing a dark-side version of himself on Don Cheadle's spin-doctor series House of Lies. "Don and I were having dinner, and we got in our cups in the kitchen," Damon recalls. "We started joking about how far we could push the issues of celebrity and racism and philanthropy to create the most wretched, vile human being."

Damon's own charity, Water.org, is a good idea (who could object to giving people clean water?), and he speaks candidly about what he calls "the paternalism of Western aid."

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"You have to focus on things that are sustainable and scalable," he says. "We've made mistakes like everybody. But with our microfinance model, we've reached over three million people. That's way more than we would have reached just digging wells."

And though he hasn't articulated it well of late, Damon does seem to realize how lucky he is. "I felt much better turning 40 than I did turning 30," he says. "At 30, I was optimistic, but my life was completely dominated by my career. From Good Will Hunting [which won him a best-screenplay Oscar] until Lucy and I got married, I was going job to job, living out of a duffel bag. I hadn't met the woman I was going to marry, I didn't know if I would have kids, or what my life would be like. Those bigger questions have been answered now. I feel like I'm in the gear I'm supposed to be in, and I just want to keep it going."

Family life is "a deepening of everything, an expansion of emotion that's immediate and profound," he goes on. "Twenty years ago I'd have to tie myself in knots to get to a place emotionally. There would be a whole long preparation. Everything's more available to me now. The emotions are much closer to the surface. The well is a lot deeper."

The most moving moment in The Martian happened when Damon tapped that well accidentally. Director Ridley Scott and Damon had chosen a place for his character, Mark, to crack, but when they got to the scene, it didn't feel right. "We asked ourselves, 'Are we ducking it?'" Damon says. "But we didn't push it."

During a later scene, though, when the hero hears his crew on a headset, Damon choked up so suddenly he could hardly speak. "They were being the opposite of emotional," Damon says. "They were going down a checklist. But it hit me that I hadn't heard another voice for years, and I just broke down. I wasn't expecting to. Twenty years ago, it never would have happened. I would have been trying to control everything too much." Now it's Damon's favourite moment in the film. "Because it's completely honest," he says. "There was no manipulation. It's something that's real. Sometimes it comes to you that way."

Sometimes it gets you into trouble, too. Despite his history of best intentions, Damon's currently in a bad PR patch. He has no choice but to ride it out, and try to fix it. "I decided a long time ago that trying to micromanage some image of myself was an utter waste of time, and a real waste of energy," he said to me, precontroversy. "And would make me sad, probably." He laughed at that. I suspect he's laughing less now.

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