Matthew McConaughey has just cracked open his second Corona when the man wearing Mardi Gras beads and a Village People policeman's cap approaches his car.
"Do you know Duane?" the inebriated-looking man asks with suspicion, poking his head inside the window and gesturing to the house the car happens to be parked in front of. "Because I'm just giving you a word to the wise. He's hypersensitive about security and things like that. He'll have his people come and shake you down."
It's 9:30 on a Tuesday night, and McConaughey is sitting in the back of a black SUV with crime novelist Michael Connelly. They're high above the lights of Los Angeles on a twisty and noiseless street in Laurel Canyon, nursing beers and reflecting on the actor's role as on-the-make attorney Mickey Haller in the adaptation of Connelly's "The Lincoln Lawyer."
Parked down the street from Connelly's onetime residence — which served as inspiration for Haller's home — they discuss the building's remove from the city and how it symbolizes Haller's status as a legal-system outsider. Neither of them know Duane.
"You like Mardi Gras?" Connelly deadpans to the 50-ish interloper, who has emerged from a home nearby to offer his unsolicited warning. The man begins an enthusiastic affirmative answer, and Connelly further defuses a fraught situation, saying he used to live up the street, and downshifts to small talk about Beverly D'Angelo, who lives here too. Growing excited, the stranger responds with a semi-coherent story about how D'Angelo has been engaged in a rivalry with actress Carrie Fisher over a role. Then he walks away.
"Well, daa-yam," McConaughey says in his trademark Texas drawl, laughing as he turns to Connelly. "You could have written a whole novel right there. The Croatian gangsters come, Mickey Haller sorts it all out. Beverly D'Angelo is saved."
It's a scene that wouldn't be out of place in McConaughey's new legal thriller, where Haller, a small-time lawyer who instead of an office works from a Lincoln Town Car, offering backseat banter and attitude to clients and antagonists alike. Brad Furman's Los Angeles-shot and -set film, which opens Friday, examines what happens when Haller is called upon to defend Louis Roulet, scion of a wealthy Beverly Hills family who's accused of attempted rape and attempted murder (Ryan Phillippe). It's less a victim tale than a chess match; Roulet is not as innocent as he appears, and Haller soon finds himself in a legal and moral quagmire.
But if McConaughey's rakish playfulness is evident as he talks about the movie, the part — his first dramatic role after five years of romantic comedies — also has him in a philosophical mood. "With a romantic comedy, the goal is not to hit too hard. It's a jab. It's a spar," McConaughey says. "This is like a Frazier-Ali fight. Ali could have his best day and still lose. This is basic survival."
It's also the actor's first role as a lawyer since his turn as Jake Brigance in "A Time To Kill" vaulted him to stardom 15 years ago, and McConaughey says the job of conflicted counselor suits him.
"I always thought I was going to do criminal defense law for a living," he says. "It's actually close to the job of an actor or an artist. The defense attorney is a storyteller. He has to weave the web of reasonable doubt, tell the story that could" — he puts his hands together and snakes them through the air — "have happened like this, or could have happened like that."
As McConaughey has his driver take him and Connelly to the author's former home, the actor pulling Coronas from a cooler next to his seat and offering bottles and limes to his ride mates, he says the experience of shooting across the city was an education. "We'd go to neighborhoods I'd never been to, that many people in L.A. have never seen, areas where you can feel a sense of desperation. Mothers and kids are walking in the park in the same square footage as the guys from the gang," he says.
Furman explained in a separate interview that he included neighborhoods such as Inglewood and Echo Park because "we're so used to seeing Hollywood in movies but not used to seeing other places." The director, who replaced Tommy Lee Jones when Jones left the film over apparent creative differences, said that he thinks that McConaughey, after a string of lighter parts, here "gets back to his early signature roles like 'Dazed and Confused' and 'Lone Star' where he was like Marlon Brando; he was roughneck but he was cool."
Connelly has written more than two dozen bestsellers, nearly all of them crime fiction and most of them set in Los Angeles. But "Lincoln Lawyer," which features his best-known character after Det. Harry Bosch (not yet seen on screen), marks only his second book ever to be filmed. (The Clint Eastwood-directed "Blood Work" came out in 2002.) He is poised to win a long legal battle with Paramount over rights to the Bosch character.
A former Times reporter who now lives in Tampa, Fla., the novelist had little input on "Blood Work," which proved to be a critical and commercial disappointment. He was more involved this time, meeting with McConaughey before production and coming to the set to talk to Furman, who directed from a script by John Romano. Months before McConaughey was even cast, Connelly recalls watching the actor on-screen as Rick Peck — best friend and agent to Ben Stiller's Tugg Speedman in 2008's "Tropic Thunder" — and telling his wife he thought McConaughey would make a good Mickey Haller.
"Really? I didn't know that was my audition tape," McConaughey says.
"This story requires constant momentum," Connelly replies. "Things are always in motion. And Matthew looks like he's in motion even when he's standing still."
McConaughey nods his head in agreement. "Momentum and hunger are baseline components of that character. He's always running to something … even if he's not sure where he's going."
The 41-year-old has just flown in from a press stop in Toronto and, though he lives with his girlfriend, Brazilian TV personality Camila Alves, and their two young children in Malibu, he's staying at the Four Seasons this night ahead of press appearances the following morning.
"Movement is something I instinctually really like. Even if you're standing still," he says. "It's part of what gets me turned on. I have some sense of movement in every relationship — to my work, to my life, to my own happiness." He turns reflective, his voice taking on a certain musicality. "Sitting still does not mean you're not moving. Sometimes you go backward. In youth you go and head butt certain things, and you stop and you bang 'em and you bang 'em and you bang 'em. As you get older you realize — just dance on around it. Slide on by. Dance between the raindrops."
But when asked what specific hurdles he's learned to sidestep, the actor chooses to keep it abstract. "I love sports, spatial sense, athleticism," he answers. "You bob and you weave, and you dance and you move and you roll and you come out the other side dry as a bone."
Raised in Longview, Texas, McConaughey spent many years as a favorite of the celebrity media. He was a poster child for the bachelor life, palling around — sometimes shirtless — both solo and with other celebrity players such as Jake Gyllenhaal. That changed several years ago when he got together with Alves. But McConaughey says that family life hasn't affected him that deeply. "For me it was a bit of a myth where people go 'You have kids and your life screeches to a halt,'" he says. "You just recalibrate certain things."
McConaughey took two years off for his family after "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," a romantic comedy that performed decently at the box office but was panned by critics, and now wants to delve more into dramas like "Lawyer" and the movies of his early career.
"I'm more inspired by what I get to do an as actor than I've ever been," McConaughey says. (At one point, he even began signing some of his work-related e-mails with the acronym "DSTT," a reference to "Don't Sweat the Technique," a hip-hop song used in the movie.) "I'm more excited to act than I've ever been." He's trying to develop several passion projects, including "The Dallas Buyer's Club" a 1980s drama about an AIDS patient that many stars have tried to get off the ground.
As the car wends its way down Laurel Canyon and across Sunset Boulevard, the conversation turns to "Lincoln Lawyer" themes. "I like promoting it because there's something to engage with and talk about. It's life and death," McConaughey says.
As for his desire for more dramatic roles, McConaughey takes an Eastern approach. "I think it comes down to that Confucius line: Change the things you can," he says. "Don't worry about the things you can't."