Thursday, June 13, 2024

Matthew Maher as Nike shoe designer Peter Moore in “Air.” (Photo: Amazon Studios)

The latest directorial effort from Ben Affleck, “Air,” an underdog story of sorts about Nike’s pursuit of Michael Jordan as the face of its basketball shoe line, has a lot of Cambridge baked into it. There’s Ben and star and Cambridge Rindge and Latin School buddy Matt Damon, who also attended Harvard; some mention of budding NBA star and CRLS baller Patrick Ewing as well as his coach, Mike Jarvis; and something that might pass under your radar – the involvement of character actor Matthew Maher, who in recent years has inched more and more toward the spotlight.

In “Air,” Maher plays Peter Moore, the shoe designer who came up with the Air Jordan concept and that neat hanging-in-the-sky-about-to-slam-it-home logo. It’s a pivotal role, as one of the keys to getting Jordan to sign with Nike was a presentation by the recruitment team played by Damon and Jason Bateman of a shoe that embodied his Royal Airness-to-be.

Maher, a prolific actor with some 60 screen credits, talked Friday by phone and Zoom.

Like Affleck and Damon, Maher grew up in Cambridge and graduated from CRLS. The parents of the three knew each other from Harvard, and bonded over politics in the 1960s, he said.

It was at CRLS – where he was also friends with city councillor Marc McGovern – that Maher first tried acting.

Matthew Maher, left, with fellow CRLS alum Matt Damon in “Air.” (Photo: Amazon Studios)

The theater scene at CRLS was cool, “a place I wanted to be,” Maher said. “It wasn’t nerdy, it’s where many of popular kids were.” But he was keenly aware that a cleft palate and slight speech impediment made him different from the Afflecks and Damons of the school’s drama scene, and would face different challenges. “I wanted to be an actor in high school,” Maher said, “but to me being an actor was to try to be like them. And they were gorgeous, really charming guys. Even back then, they were stars, and I had no idea how to do or be that. I had no idea to how to harness that kind of charm and self-confidence, because I didn’t have it.”

Maher went to the University of California, Santa Cruz, studying English but participating in theater productions. His teacher there was matter-of-fact: “You just have deal with the fact that you have a speech impediment, you have a cleft palate and you are different,” Maher recalled. That teacher was encouraging, and a major influence – though Maher did say that there were productions he felt he didn’t get cast in because he wasn’t in the “the bright circle of successful beautiful people.”

After college he landed in New York working off-Broadway productions, as well as taking small parts in several Kevin Smith projects – the first being “Dogma,” starring Damon and Affleck. His first meaty film role was in the lo-fi production “Vulgar” (2000), about a man who performs as a birthday party clown to deal with the trauma of being gang-raped earlier in his life. The film was directed by and starred Smith regular Bryan Johnson as well as other Smithies such as “Clerks” (1994) star Brian O’Halloran and Ethan Suplee.

Maher’s ubiquity as an actor has come later in life, due in part to the pandemic and the increased prevalence of streaming series. He had a leading part in “Funny Pages,” a small, very funny, indie coming-of-age satire that he feared was never going to see the light of day; filming began in 2017, when there were issues with funding, and then Covid happened. “I had invested so much in it,” Maher said of the film by Owen Kline, son of Kevin and Phoebe Cates. Then the pandemic lifted and the crew was able to get its final reshoots. Maher received strong reviews when it screened in 2022 alongside his roles in two series: “Outer Range” with Josh Brolin (creator Brian Watkins wrote the part of Deputy Matt specifically for Maher), and the gay pirate comedy “Our Flag Means Death.” This year, the Apple TV+ prestige dramedy, “Hello Tomorrow!” on which Maher is a series regular arrived alongside “Air.”

Affleck offered the part of Nike’s Moore directly to Maher, which came as a surprise. It was an esteemed crew, with Oscar winners beyond Damon and Affleck: cinematographer Robert Richardson and actor Viola Davis, playing Jordan’s mother by demand of Jordan himself. Stil, the set was “very comfortable and relaxed,” Maher said.

In researching the part of Moore, who died a year ago at 78, Maher discovered “a true artist, who had to make art that everybody loved” – but a man he looked nothing like. Moore didn’t have a beard, Maher said, “but Affleck decided to let me be as I was.”

Maher has two young children: one pre-pandemic 3½-year-old, and another who’s just notching 8 months. He’s spent time in Los Angeles, but now calls Brooklyn, New York, home and keeps Cambridge ties – his mother, who taught at Wheaton College, and stepmother still live in Cambridge.