“This film has a really wonderful message to put out,” Damon said. “And it’s a completely nonpartisan one. It’s an incredibly uplifting movie. I think it’s a good thing to release now, when there’s not a lot of good news, particularly for the holidays.”

Clint Eastwood’s newest film, “Invictus,” features two real-life figures: a renowned head of state and a prominent athlete. And it focuses on an internationally popular sport. Yet the film, which opens Friday, doesn’t really concentrate on South African president Nelson Mandela or captain of the South African rugby team Francois Pienaar, or even the rugged sport of rugby. It’s much more a story of a country in need of healing, and how it came together under the influence of those two men and that sport.

Set in the early- and mid-1990s, it tells of how Mandela (Morgan Freeman) fired up Pienaar (Matt Damon) to get his team to try for the World Cup, with hopes that victory would bring unity to the divided population of South Africa.

Damon, who says he’s been socially conscious since his days as a student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin – where he remembers wearing a “Free Nelson Mandela” ribbon in the late-1980s – believes that while actors always react to material that’s presented to them, he reacts more strongly to things that have social value.

“This film has a really wonderful message to put out,” he said. “And it’s a completely nonpartisan one. It’s an incredibly uplifting movie. I think it’s a good thing to release now, when there’s not a lot of good news, particularly for the holidays.”

Damon was ready to go as soon as he heard about the mash-up of sports and politics. But then he saw a photo of the strapping Pienaar, and there was some doubt.

“I told Clint that the guy is huge, that I’m only 5’ 10” and he’s about 6 inches taller than me,” he said, laughing. “But Clint just said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that.’ ”

Damon took his director’s advice, concentrating instead on physical training and working hard on a South African accent.

“I had six months to get ready to try to pull off this illusion of being the captain of the South African rugby team,” he said. “There were the more obvious physical things I had to do to try to pull off that magic trick, like lifting weights. I was in the gym every day, and Francois came there with me a few times. He also talked me through the team’s training regimen. But there was also just talking to him philosophically about certain things. I needed to get across his leadership and integrity in the role.”

Rugby hasn’t yet managed to cross over to American audiences in the way that it’s popular around the rest of the world. Damon admitted that he knew very little about the sport before taking the role.

“But to help explain it to an American audience, the game is enough like football in the sense that it’s a battle for field position and you score by running into what looks a lot like an end zone and putting the ball down,” he said.

Asked if he’s played any rugby since finishing the film, he laughed, obviously remembering some of the bumps he took on the field, and said, “Hell, no!”

The Patriot Ledger