Matt Damon on Mars and microfinancing

Paul McNamara, CNBC California Bureau Chief
Matt Damon on making movies
Matt Damon on making movies

You're 140 million miles away from Earth, alone, and no one can get to you for four years. What would you do?

Matt Damon said he'd just start crying. That might not make for a great sci-fi movie though, so he took on the role of fictional astronaut Mark Watney, originally based on the best-selling e-book by Andy Weir.

"The Martian," from Twentieth Century Fox, cost $109 million to produce and is projected to take in $40 million at the domestic box office when it opens this weekend. That's despite a few gaffes by Damon on the promotional tour, where he had to clarify comments he made in interviews.

It hasn't seemed to bother critics or fans. According to movie site Fandango, advanced sales are outpacing 2013 sci-fi epic "Gravity," and the film has a 94 percent approval rating on While "The Martian" is a big budget Hollywood movie, that's not exactly what attracted Damon to the film.

"It's a big Hollywood movie that's not a superhero movie or a franchise movie. It's just a good old fashioned movie," said Damon on why he's grateful to be involved.

In the shifting dynamic of Hollywood today, there isn't much room on the studio slate for those $20 million to $30 million movies, films the Oscar-winning Damon says used to be his bread and butter. Even so, Damon sees a lot of hope in the shift to the small screen. As a producer and actor, he thinks the most exciting part is that great storytelling has migrated to television. And Damon isn't opposed to making the jump to the small screen, saying he would absolutely work on a limited TV series, calling the work being done recently on TV "incredible."

With "The Martian," Damon and director Ridley Scott are hoping to capture that optimism and pride Americans took in the space program in its heyday. Damon and the rest of the team worked closely with NASA throughout the moviemaking process to make sure the science was right and that many of the things the astronauts in the movie endured were realistic.

Damon came away with a deep appreciation for the space agency. "The work they're doing is really necessary," said Damon. He hopes this movie will get people excited about space travel again, whether it's by NASA or the private companies like Space X, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

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One of the causes much closer to home than the Red Planet is Damon's charity Co-founded in 2009 with civil engineer Gary White, provides water and sanitation programs for impoverished communities around the world.

The nonprofit organization, which has a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, brings micro-financing tools to tackle the problem of unsafe drinking water and sanitation systems. According to the World Health Organization, more than 2.4 billion people have inadequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation services. Damon said the idea was the brainchild of White, who saw people around the world spending large parts of their day on the hunt for water.

The plan is simple: Lend people money to put in simple, clean water systems in their homes, and that will free them up to be more productive. "It's not an income generating loan," said Damon, "but it's an income enhancing loan because you're buying this time back that you had spent collecting water and now you have a water tap in your house and now you have the time to work and pay the loan back. So it's just one little tiny more hurdle to clear ... and then common sense will tell you that it works." And the loans are, in fact, paid back. says there is a 99 percent global repayment rate.

"The Martian" opens nationwide on Friday.