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‘I’m not working it,’ he says

Times Staff Writer

Between meetings and incoming texts on his BlackBerry one rainy afternoon in Venice, Matthew McConaughey tucked a discreet plug of tobacco behind his lower lip and said of himself: “When I was a late teenager, early 20s, just getting into this, I was like, ‘OK, to be something other than oneself is real acting or better acting.’ Then I went, ‘Wait a minute.’ As I started to study it and learn and to get to know it more, I was like, ‘Real acting for me is more of a quest to be more of myself in a character, to give up more of who I am, how I feel inside.’

“I’ve always said, ‘Keep the same heart, McConaughey. You can change your mind for a character, but always keep your same heart.’ Meaning, change your mind if you’re a lieutenant in the Navy. . . . Change your mind if you’re a lawyer. Change your mind if you’re a surfer, change your mind if you’re a treasure hunter. The last two are Saturday characters, a lieutenant and a lawyer is a Monday-morning character.”

For the record, this was the Wednesday before last, during that week of steady rain. McConaughey was sitting in a van whose interior was tricked out with love beads and which said, on the door of the cab, “LP Ranch, Angus Cattle, Mertzon, Texas.” On this miserable day, McConaughey was beefcake all bundled up, though his chiseled face -- the perfectly formed jawline frosted with the outcroppings of a beard -- stood out beneath the watch cap pulled down to his blue eyes.

McConaughey calls the van Cosmo; he bought it a more than a decade ago. Cosmo had just come to pick him up at a post-production facility off the spruced-up Venice commercial strip of Abbot Kinney, where McConaughey gave some notes on visual effects for his new movie, “Surfer Dude,” which he’s also producing.

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The movie, for McConaughey, is a labor of love -- shot over a month last summer in Malibu on a budget of $6 million, he said. In it, McConaughey plays a surfer whose sponsorship gets bought out by a guy who wants to put his surfers in reality shows and digitize their images. McConaughey’s character, Steve Addington, just wants the waves -- to be out there “naturale.” So he quits and finds himself in Malibu waiting out a bummer summer.

“It’s a surfer flick about a guy who loves waves and he’s stuck with ankle-slappers for a year,” McConaughey said, as the van took him the short distance back from Abbot Kinney to the Venice offices of j.k. livin, McConaughey’s production company. “This script was just a flat-out comedy, Robb got ahold of it, worked it into having something that had sort of, you know, some very fun, quirky messages. It’s a very green movie.”

Robb is S.R. Bindler, the film’s first-time feature writer/director, an old Texas friend whom McConaughey said he met in high school art class. Much about McConaughey’s Hollywood operation feels, at first blush, like the HBO series “Entourage” by way of Austin. Gus Gustawes, McConaughey’s longtime manager, and Gustawes’ brother Mark, head of production for j.k. livin, are friends from McConaughey’s University of Texas days.

They all work out of a spacious, loft-like space steps from the Venice boardwalk, having just relocated from land-locked Beverly Hills. “I have no ‘yes’ people around me,” McConaughey said. “I can turn my back and everything’s A-OK. There’s not gonna be any lyin’, cheatin’, stealin’ going on. There’s not going to be any dishonesty.”

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Rounding out the team, in an advisory role, is the powerful Creative Artist Agency partner Bryan Lourd. Lourd, presumably, is the one who gets the movie star his healthy quote to co-star in movies such as “Fool’s Gold,” a light-hearted adventure flick with Kate Hudson that will open Friday.

Asked what his fee is these days, McConaughey said only, “I can afford this van.”

Back in the ‘Dazed’

It was after the “Surfer Dude” meeting, when the van brought him back to a lot near j.k. livin, that McConaughey had agreed to talk about all things that aren’t “Surfer Dude.” Here was not a celebrity interview conducted over linens in a hotel dining room, the standard bargain, but something more McConaughey. For the whole van setting reminded you of his very first movie part, in Richard Linklater’s affecting 1993 high school comedy “Dazed and Confused.”

McConaughey was a UT student at the time, discovered by casting director Don Phillips in an Austin hotel bar. First-timers don’t usually arrive on screen so fully formed. McConaughey was David Wooderson, a noxiously sweet cad, with his porn-star mustache and Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes T-shirt, trolling for underage girls in his 1970 Chevy, wooing them on a Saturday night in his pot-addled Texas sing-song.

“You heard about the party being busted, right?” Wooderson says unsolicited to a teen-age redhead, arm hanging casually out the window. “Not to worry, there’s a new fiesta in the making as we speak. It’s out at the moon tower, full kegs, everybody’s gonna be there, you all are going to go.”

That guy trails McConaughey like vapors. The movie star is 38 now, slicker and harder. His image may be more Malibu than small-town Texas, all sun-kissed and toned and topless. But then he talks and you can hear clear to his small-town Uvalde roots.

“He’s still around there,” McConaughey said, when asked where he thought Wooderson would be today. “He has a . . . maybe a late-night, midnight DJ, he plays his own tracks, you know, and he’s his own DJ. And maybe he’s got a couple kids.

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“Rick and I -- Linklater and I were talking about where’s Wooderson today,” McConaughey said, before pausing.

Box-office beefcake

In the 15 years since Wooderson, McConaughey has resolved into a Hollywood hunk starring in bankable romantic comedies that have furthered his image as simpleton beefcake. Such is McConaughey’s durability in these formula, money-making ventures that he hasn’t had to bother changing his accent, despite playing a slick New York ad man (“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”) or a San Francisco pediatrician (“The Wedding Planner”). “Failure to Launch” (where he played opposite Sarah Jessica Parker) ended up grossing more than $100 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo, continued proof that McConaughey can move tickets as a ladies’ man.

“He’s very shrewd about himself,” said Scott Rudin, who produced “Failure to Launch.” In the movie, Parker plays a kind of life/relationship coach hired by McConaughey’s parents to get their son to grow up and move out, finally. Of course, the two fall in love.

Rudin found McConaughey very instinctual about what audiences wanted to see him do, the situations in which his character would work best. “He’s very unsentimental about it,” Rudin said. “It’s not calculating, it’s knowing.”

“Failure to Launch” was a battle-of-wits comedy, but the power dynamic was tipped toward Parker’s character. McConaughey’s comedies are typically about the female leads. In this way, he’s become a throwback to the old studio-system days in Hollywood, when actors like Tyrone Power, Melvyn Douglas or Ray Milland functioned as handsome, credible support for their leading ladies, said Jeanine Basinger, chairwoman of the Film Studies program at Wesleyan University, whose latest book, “The Star Machine,” examines how stars were manufactured.

“He’s been willing to surrender himself to image, and most movie stars of today are trying not to do that,” she said of McConaughey.

“We’re in a phase where the romantic comedy is more about the women being able to choose and be in charge. He fits with the time where a sort of good-looking, mindless-appearing actor works in a lot of comedies,” Basinger said.

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Indeed, it is difficult to come up with anyone who compares in this micro-category. Keanu Reeves, say, is equated with “The Matrix” movies, while Hugh Grant lazes through the role as sheepish Brit. McConaughey, by contrast, is all-American, even wholesome.

“We’re talkin’ M&Ms;, baby, you know?” McConaughey said, referring to a piece of safe, romantic business in “The Wedding Planner” in which his character throws out all but the brown M&Ms.; “And let’s dance, you know, and hey, at the end, hop on the moped, you go get the girl. Well, in ‘How to Lose a Guy,’ you get on a motorcycle, catch the girl in the taxi. ‘Failure to Launch’ you have to get tied up and held prisoner to then, OK, you go get the girl.”

If McConaughey has reservations about all this, he didn’t betray them. Nor does he see his ouevre as one-dimensional, or “Fool’s Gold” as just another comedy.

“Fool’s Gold” reunites McConaughey with Hudson, his costar in 2003’s “How to Lose a Guy.” McConaughey plays Finn, a high-seas, lower-IQ treasure hunter.

Hudson is his wife and fellow adventurer (the actress did not respond to an interview request for this article). Hers is easily the more evolved character. When the movie opens she’s filing for divorce. “You married a guy for the sex, and then expected him to be smart,” says her lawyer.

In the van McConaughey laughed, hearing that line read back to him as proof of the character’s supposed inferiority. “Dude, Finn’s a -- look at his name, Finn, from ‘Huck-le-ber-ry Finn,’ ” he said, hitting the syllables. “He’s an 8-year-old for the rest of his life. . . . Get the gold, get the girl. He’s a scallywag, he’s not a pirate, but I bet you he’s a smuggler, you know what I mean? Not a bad guy, heart o’ gold. Man, but you don’t know if he’s going to show up or not anywhere. And he doesn’t know.”

No Cruise, but in control

In the middle of this month, McConaughey will go to Boston to begin shooting “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” another comedy, this one costarring Jennifer Garner.

For a movie star with a quote in the millions, McConaughey over his career has never been a superhero. He’s never saved the world, solved a murder, grieved a wife or died onscreen. He did set a black man free as a Mississippi defense lawyer in 1995’s “A Time to Kill,” Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of the John Grisham novel about the ugly remnants of the Jim Crow South.

The movie represented McConaughey’s second huge break, the one that was supposed to take him into Tom Cruise territory. But then came McConaughey in “Amistad,” and “Contact,” and “U-571,” and by the end of this run it was easy to wonder where the joy of Wooderson had gone.

Which is why it seems, finally, that McConaughey’s career has been put right, in profitable but harmless projects like “Fool’s Gold.”

The movie recalls nothing so much as Burt Reynolds’ blithe joy rides through the 1970s and ‘80s in those “Smokey and the Bandit” movies. Here, then, is an even funnier resolution to the where’s Wooderson question: What if, instead of becoming a DJ, that guy made it out to Hollywood, where he became king of the PG-13 rom-coms, beloved by the masses for his salty authenticity and that unapologetic body. What if Wooderson were crowned, finally, People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive?

People like this idea. A popular video on YouTube has Matt Damon doing his McConaughey impression on “The Late Show With David Letterman.” Stephen Colbert has twice used “McConaughey” as his word of the night on “The Colbert Report.”

“With this cover you have made him a target for our nation’s hottest bachelorettes,” Colbert scolded People in 2005, after McConaughey scored the Sexiest Man title. “But don’t do it, Matthew! If you ever entered a committed, loving relationship, who else on People magazine’s list of sexiest bachelors are women supposed to turn to? Zach Braff?”

“I’m not working it,” McConaughey said, asked how much of this image he exploits.

There is, for instance, the matter of his abs and chest -- often unadorned for all the world to see, on screen and off. It is remarkable, in fact, how many people now associate McConaughey with his shirtless self, like Groucho with his cigar.

McConaughey deemed it the paparazzi-fueled result of his having spent three straight summers on a beach -- in Malibu, in Australia, and then Malibu again. “What I’m not gonna do is see someone on the beach taking pictures, and go, oh, well I’m not gonna go on the beach anymore,” he said.

A family affair

During the interview, McConaughey got a call from his girlfriend, 24-year-old Brazilian model Camila Alves; the couple recently announced that she is pregnant.

“Saw her across the room at a restaurant,” McConaughey said when they’d hung up. “Invited her over, got the ingredients for a good margarita and made her a great one, and we talked Spanish and Portuguese for the first 25 minutes.”

That was nearly two years ago. On his website ( www.matthewmcconaughey.com, McConaughey posted a journal entry announcing the pregnancy, describing himself as “stoked and wowed by this gift of creation and this miracle of God.”

The website is a window into the duality of his persona, of how much the two have coalesced. It opens to an image of a glamorized McConaughey in the glare of paparazzi before dissolving to Wooderson, standing there posed with a pool cue. Behind him is the trailer McConaughey is currently living out of before moving into a Malibu house. A reggae song plays, by a band called Mishka, whose first album McConaughey’s company is releasing.

A link gives you two options: You can enter “easy,” or “real easy.”

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paul.brownfield@latimes.com


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