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Though Matt Damon ’92 did not finish his undergraduate degree, he left Harvard with something perhaps more valuable: the first act of the movie that skyrocketed him to fame, Good Will Hunting.

“I left with this document under my arm—this first 40 pages of a screenplay,” said Damon, who received the 2013 Arts Medal yesterday at the kick-off event of the University’s Arts First celebration. “He [professor Anthony Kubiak] gave me a straight A and wrote on the script, ‘Don’t give up on this. Wherever this goes, it’s going somewhere. Stick with this.’”

In a sometimes funny, sometimes poignant on-stage conversation with famed actor and master of ceremonies John Lithgow ’67, Ar.D. ’05, Damon talked about his career in Hollywood and reminisced about his Cambridge roots, including his days at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School and his undergraduate years. Lithgow, co-founder of Arts First, now in its twenty-first year, fittingly broke the conversation into two parts: pre-Good Will Hunting and post-Good Will Hunting

From the time he was a small child, Damon recalled, he knew he’d be an actor. The day a small fire broke out in his home, he ran to put on his fireman costume, grabbing a hose that “wasn’t attached to anything.” As a pre-teen he began acting in the local theater, but it was under the tutelage of Rindge and Latin theater teacher Gerry Speca that Damon honed his craft. In a high-school production of the play The Visit, Damon was cast alongside his childhood friend, Good Will Hunting co-writer Ben Affleck. Damon joked that because of his vast seniority—he was two years older—he got the role of Affleck’s father.

“Ben and Casey Affleck and I, as well as a number of other people from that program, just came out with a real love of theater and acting,” Damon said. “We had a world-class teacher and we were just lucky that we stumbled into this man at this point in his career.”

Although Damon, a former Lowell House resident, admitted that at first his dream was to attend Columbia, once he was accepted by Harvard and walked around the campus as a potential student, he knew it was the better choice. As an undergraduate, he said, he took every class he could with the late, longtime American Repertory Theater (ART) resident director David Wheeler ’47, and was an understudy for several productions at the ART.

As a final assignment for Anthony Kubiak’s playwriting class, Damon was asked to write a one-act play. Instead he turned in the first act of a movie about a troubled janitor who was actually a genius, inspired in part by his own experiences growing up in a middle-class neighborhood near Cambridge’s Central Square. “You get that townie thing and it bonds you together,” he said. “Ben’s dad was a janitor in the Yard and his girlfriend was a janitor in my dorm, so I was sensitive to kids making a mess. All of that was in the soup of Good Will Hunting.”

Damon then spoke about his acting career post-Good Will Hunting: from his role as a bespectacled serial killer in The Talented Mr. Ripley to that of sleek CIA assassin Jason Bourne and whistleblower Mark Whitacre in The Informant, a role for which he gained 40 pounds. Damon said he feels lucky he hasn’t been typecast. When choosing parts in films, he said, his decision is “85 percent” based on the director.

The audience also watched a trailer for the upcoming HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, in which Damon plays Scott Thorson, Liberace’s lover. Later this summer, he will star in Elysium, a cerebral, sci-fi action film set in a future where the super-rich live in luxury aboard an orbital space station as everyone else fights for survival on a depleted planet.

Damon also discussed his philanthropic causes, including water.org, the nonprofit he co-founded to provide clean water in hundreds of communities in Africa, South Asia, and Central America.

After formally receiving the Arts Medal from President Drew Faust, Damon took the podium at Sanders Theater and said that, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, it was very good to be home. “I’m really proud to have come from here,” he declared. “Of all the accolades or movies, when anybody says my name, they say the name of this University, too, and that means a lot to me. I’ve always tried to live my life in a way that deserved the description of being a Harvard person.”