Just like Rust never sleeps, Matthew McConaughey is wide awake

Matthew McConaughey
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

Dad, what if there’s a tsunami?

Not long after the recent spate of earthquakes that rumbled through Los Angeles and the tsunami that struck the coast of Chile, Matthew McConaughey’s 5-year-old son, Levi, wanted to know what they would do should a giant wave hit the Pacific Coast. McConaughey, a man rarely without a plan, told him they would light out of their Malibu home quick, grabbing the dog and anything else alive, along with the valuables. “That means we get your Oscar, right?” Levi asked.

“My son ... he’s so protective,” McConaughey says, smiling.

It has been nearly three months since McConaughey won the Academy Award — and just about every other acting honor — for his lead turn in “Dallas Buyers Club,” and the 44-year-old actor has spent that time reading scripts (“Got more to read right now, as you would suppose,” he says, drawing out the vowels when he says “read,” as he likes to do when he’s adding emphasis to a word), meeting a lot of directors who, for obvious reasons, have taken a sudden interest in working with him and hanging with wife Camila Alves and their three kids.


“Livin’ without the g,” McConaughey says, taking a swig from a container of green tea he brought with him. “We’re still in the verb. Definitely. I just want to keep flyin’. Yeah. It’s all approach. It’s not a destination. It’s all in approach. Best I can figure, you know.”

If this sounds a little West Coast chill, it belies the pragmatic, wide-awake focus that McConaughey has applied to his career in recent years, leading to the remarkable run of roles that continued even after “Dallas Buyers Club,” with his tone-setting cameo in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” and his lead turn opposite Woody Harrelson in HBO’s metaphysical murder mystery, “True Detective.” The latter became the year’s most-discussed TV show, a program that seemed engineered to create obsessive behavior and vigilant viewing in the way it wove literary allusions and philosophical musings into its unsettling puzzle of a story.

McConaughey watched “True Detective” like the rest of its 11 million viewers — tuning into HBO on Sunday night, usually after a family dinner and putting the kids to bed. (He did miss one Sunday, thanks to the Oscars.) Sometimes he’d watch the episode again immediately after it ended. He always cued it up again on Monday, maybe even Tuesday. And sometimes for fun he’d investigate the crazy fan theories that exploded about the identity of the serial killer the show’s detectives were chasing.

“I pretty much went for the ride with it,” McConaughey says. “I had all eight episodes on DVD. But I wanted the pleasure of watching it and discovering again and — this was my favorite thing about it — finding out what the hell happened to those guys in the 17 years from when you first meet them.”

At the outset, “True Detective” toggled between 1995 and 2012, moving from the moment detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson) discover a dead woman, posed in a field wearing a crown of antlers, to the present day when the men are being interviewed about the case separately, supposedly because the files had been destroyed in a hurricane. Cohle is stoic and intense, not built for small talk, a man who doesn’t try to win an argument, mostly because he knows he’s right, so debate is pointless. “I consider myself a realist,” Cohle tells Hart shortly after meeting, “but in philosophical terms, I’m what’s called a pessimist.”

“To pull Cohle off, it’s not attitude,” McConaughey says. “Cynicism is a bit of an attitude. You can poke a hole in anything and rub your nose in it and say, ‘That sucks.’ This guy is just telling this flat truth. And the words were so damn good, I just had to trust them and believe every one of them and not add a lot of lagniappe, a lot of et cetera.”


The contrast between ’95 Cohle (wiry and pragmatic) and 2012 Cohle (wasted, pony-tailed, his brilliance intact, though he’s much more leisurely in revealing it) provided the show much of its dramatic tension, and the character’s nihilistic reveries (“If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then, brother, that person is a piece of ...”) won him a devoted following among pessimists and realists alike. McConaughey dug him too. (“I’d hate to be in that guy’s head, but he’s kinda right, you know?”)

“Casting Cohle, a lot of actors that got pitched to me were much more obviously cerebral, actors you’d expect to play chess players or scientists,” says “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto. To circumvent these preconceptions, Pizzolatto initially offered McConaughey the role of Hart, knowing full well he’d want to play Cohle instead. “Which he did,” Pizzolatto says. “And then nobody could really object to that.”

The 2012 interrogation scenes, during which Cohle goes through a case of Lone Star and then fashions an army of beer can men with the empties, comprised 17 different speeches and stories, a maze of monologues and Never Never Land trippiness that McConaughey calls “by far the biggest beast I’ve ever tackled.” It was all filmed, straight through, over a long day and a half.

“First day, I remember we got through 25 pages and there were two stories to go, and it was already way late,” McConaughey says. “And they said, ‘OK, I think we can call it.’ And I was sweatin’, deep into it. And I said, ‘No, no, no. We gotta stay here.’ And we finished those two off, and as soon as we did, we popped a Lone Star right there and said ‘cheers’ to that.”

As for those celebrated beer-can figures, McConaughey defers to the show’s production design team. He had to focus his attention elsewhere — which isn’t to say he’s not open to the pursuit of arts and crafts.

“I’m a great chime maker,” he says. “Wind chimes, man. That’s my thing.”


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