If you’ve seen The Bourne Supremacy, the sequel to Matt Damon’s first turn as an all-out action-man, there’s one scene you probably remember. While his girlfriend rifles through his diaries looking for clues about his CIA-wetwork past, Jason Bourne, still battling flashbacks, is working out his frustrations with a run along the beach that quickly turns into an all-out sprint. It’s a dash that would shame Tom Cruise – a sweat-soaked, arm-flexing reminder that Bourne is twice as fast as James Bond and several times the ass-kicker.
“Yeah, Matt could probably do that in real life,” says Jason Walsh, Damon’s long-time trainer and no stranger to cardio himself. “When we were in Tenerife, training for the new Bourne, we did a lot of running up some pretty damn steep hills – a lot of the cyclists train for mountain climbing around there, and we were running up the same hills they cycle. Matt is a surprisingly good runner.”
And now he’s back. This summer sees the release of Jason Bourne, which sees the amnesiac assassin still searching for answers about his past, and hunted again by the government agents. It’s easy to forget how the first Bourne movies fundamentally reinvented the spy flick, ramping the grittiness up to 11 (and forcing Bond and Mission: Impossible to do the same or look cartoonish by comparison) – especially since this is Damon’s first appearance in the franchise in nearly a decade after he sat out 2012’s The Bourne Legacy, which featured Jeremy Renner as rogue agent Aaron Cross. For a while, it looked like Damon was out for good – but fans of the franchise didn’t see it that way.
“Every airport I’m in, or every time I’m walking down the street and somebody stops me, that’s the first question – ‘When are you going to do another one of those Bourne movies?’” says Damon. “I don’t mind being followed around by Jason Bourne. I like Jason Bourne.”
Besides, he can handle it. After adding more action roles to his Bourne movies, he’s looking enviably unlike a man in his mid-40s. A large part of that, of course, is down to Walsh.
“Matt and I have trained together for a while,” says Walsh, who’s also trained aspiring American footballers for the NFL Combine, a week-long test of their physical attributes. “In The Martian he was a scientist but he was also an astronaut, and they have rigorous training, so he had to look like he was ready to withstand the pressures of space travel. He was in great shape for that movie – we got him super-strong.”
When Damon was ready to return to Bourne shape, time was short. “Matt worked on two movies [before Jason Bourne], so we had one or two weeks, tops, between the movies,” Walsh says. “It was difficult to make sure it didn’t detract from his other roles. My main goal was just to keep him healthy, because those roles were pretty physical, and… well, I don’t know a lot of actors who work as hard as Matt does. So my primary focus was to make sure he was resilient and strong, to make it through them without getting injured, so we could get to Bourne and really ramp things up.”
And ramp it up they did. “For the first Bourne movie I was 29 and I thought that was hard work getting into shape,” Damon told the BBC in an interview. “Now I’m 45 and it’s just brutal. We shot this bare-knuckle fighting scene on my 45th birthday and it was a lot of work to get there. I was on a very strict diet and spent a lot of time in the gym just making myself miserable.”
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The new Bourne is an older, wiser man, certainly, but he hasn’t lost a step on the new generation of secret agents – the 21st-century Bond included. While Daniel Craig’s first shirt-off scene as Bond was a beachfront homage to Ursula Andress in Dr No, Damon’s, as a bare-knuckle brawler, owes more to Tyler Durden by way of Rambo III. “We’ve worked a lot on keeping his flexibility and mobility – the last thing you want to do is lose them when you’re doing strength training, because you’ll get injured a lot faster,” says Walsh. “Matt’s a multi-million-dollar actor, and if he gets hurt because of training… it’s a lot of pressure. People don’t think about that, they think, ‘Oh, you get to train Matt Damon!’ but these things have to be carefully thought out and implemented.”
It isn’t just about size or strength, says Walsh. “We do a lot of strength training, but I want people to move well, and then I want them to get strong. So we reinforce those movement patterns, and then solidify that with strength training. And then we can exploit the body to do things and make it look the way we want it to look. If you’re strong, you can do anything you want and you don’t have to worry about getting injured.”
With Damon’s safety in mind, Walsh doesn’t do all the classic strength-builders. “I probably wouldn’t pick doing deadlifts from the floor, for instance – because even though you can do them for years without a problem, you can get the same results without the risk through other moves. Pull-ups, for instance, will make your back look great with less risk – I’ve seen Matt do them with 70lb [32kg] of added weight around his waist.” And the results are no less impressive. “At one point, he got so damn strong and lean and light he could do 30 full-length pull-ups. We’re talking about a guy who probably couldn’t do one real pull-up when I first met him.”
Not surprisingly for a film about a man on the run, there’s also a lot of legwork. “Yeah, much to [Matt’s] dismay he had to do lots of single-leg stuff, lots of pushing heavy sleds and Bulgarian split squats,” says Walsh. They also used the Versaclimber, Walsh’s preferred conditioning equipment. The climbing simulator with the sliding hand-and-foot pegs isn’t as fashionable as a ski-erg or curved treadmill but it provides a full-body workout that – according to rehab therapists – mimics natural human movement with almost no risk of injury.
“It works all the major muscle groups at once, and burns a lot of calories compared with the bike or running,” says Walsh, whose spinning-style Versaclimber class, Rise Nation, is already popular in the US and likely to hit the UK this year. “It puts a lot more demand on the metabolic systems – I use them for full-body sprints, racing 100 feet [30.5m] for time, which you’ll always feel. But it’s also the only cardio equipment I’ll use for rehab, because it has zero joint impact. Even when I wasn’t working with him, Matt would do Rise Nation classes.”
Although Damon’s upcoming roles take him away from action – The Great Wall, a historical mystery, will be followed by comedy-dramas from the Coen brothers and Alexander Payne – both series director Paul Greengrass and Damon himself have already dropped hints about more Bournes. “Maybe for the next one Jason Bourne will be fat and happy and old,” Damon told the BBC – but don’t bet on it. Whatever happens, the combo of Damon, Greengrass and Bourne’s all-new body means the 2016 instalment will be one to remember.
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Jason Bourne is in cinemas nationwide now