He may regret passing on James Cameron's Avatar, but Matt Damon generally knows how to take advantage of a good opportunity. Case in point: 25 years ago, the novice actor landed a minor supporting role in director Edward Zwick's acclaimed military drama, Courage Under Fire, and made a major impression on his more experienced co-star, Denzel Washington. Damon and Washington only share the screen briefly in the film, which opened in theaters on July 12, 1996. Still, it was enough time for the Oscar-winning Glory star to recognize that the young actor opposite him was destined for big things.
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in 2016, Zwick remembered how Damon made his scene partner sit up and take notice. "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!'"
Watch our full Director's Reel interview with Edward Zwick below or needle drop to 1:46 to hear about Courage Under Fire
Critics and audiences were similarly wowed by Damon, who had made his big-screen debut in 1988's Mystic Pizza and had been working steadily with small roles in films like School Ties, Geronimo: An American Legend and Glory Daze. But the then-25-year-old actor was still looking for that elusive breakthrough part, and Courage Under Fire packed the right amount of dramatic firepower. In the film, Damon plays Specialist Andrew Ilario, an army medic who served alongside Captain Karen Emma Walden (Meg Ryan) in the Gulf War. Walden died following an enemy encounter, and has been nominated for the Medal of Honor — the first female soldier to receive that honor.
That nomination is suddenly imperiled by charges from some of Walden's fellow soldiers that she may have been derelict in her duty. Enter Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling (Washington), a Gulf War veteran who is assigned to investigate the Rashomon-like case. Ilario emerges as one of Walden's main defenders, despite the physical and mental scars he still carries from his wartime experience.
Damon underwent an extreme physical transformation to play the part of a gaunt, haunted war veteran. In a 2016 Reddit AMA, the Jason Bourne star called it his "most physically challenging" role due to the intense weight loss regimen he embarked on. "I weighed 139 pounds in that movie, and that is not a natural weight for me and not a happy weight for me even when I was 25," Damon revealed at the time. "I had to run about 13 miles a day which wasn't even the hard part. The hard part was the diet, all I ate was chicken breast. It's not like I had a chef or anything, I just made it up and did what I thought I had to do. I just made it up and that was incredibly challenging."
But that effort was definitely appreciated by Washington and Zwick. "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. Critics also took notice of Damon despite his limited screentime: the Washington Post and the New York Times cited his performance as "impressive" and "memorable."
But the best possible review came from legendary director, Francis Ford Coppola, who awarded Damon the lead role in his 1997 adaptation of John Grisham's blockbuster book, The Rainmaker, after seeing his Courage Under Fire performance. That same year, the actor co-wrote and starred alongside his real-life friend, Ben Affleck, in the drama Good Will Hunting... and the rest is Hollywood history.
Released in December of 1997, Good Will Hunting became a box office sensation and scored multiple Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. On Oscar night, Damon and Affleck took home the latter prize, catapulting them to the top of the industry's A-list. And Damon has remained there ever since as he continually alternates star-driven blockbusters like the Bourne franchise and The Martian with standout dramatic performances in challenging fare like The Talented Mr. Ripley and the upcoming Stillwater.
In a 1997 interview with Vanity Fair, Damon candidly reflected on how Courage Under Fire paved the way for the career he'd always wanted. "It was a business decision," he said at the time. "I thought, Nobody will take this role, because it's too small. I was sick of reading scripts that [School Ties star] Chris O'Donnell had passed on, and I was looking for something to set me apart: 'Look what I'll do, I'll kill myself!’ Directors took note of it." While he hasn't acted opposite Washington since Courage Under Fire, you can bet that when they meet onscreen again, they'll find new ways to raise each other's game.
Courage Under Fire is currently streaming on Starz, Hulu and Prime Video
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment