Matthew McConaughey likes to turn things over in his mind. And since we’ve just uncorked a good bottle of Pinot Noir at a corner table in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons bar (“We’ll give that just a little air and we’re good,” he says in that musical Texas drawl of his) and McConaughey has shed his coat and rolled up his sleeves, the time seems as good as any to talk about the reasons behind the ongoing reinvention of his acting career or, as the 44-year-old actor once labeled it, the McConaissance.
The fruits of this revival have been readily apparent to moviegoers the last couple of years through a run of acclaimed, distinctive films, including “The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Magic Mike,” “Bernie,” “Killer Joe,” “The Paperboy,” “Mud” and, most recently, “Dallas Buyers Club,” in which McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a hell-raising, homophobic Texas good old boy who, after discovering he is HIV positive in 1986, sets up a ring to sell non-FDA-approved drugs to other AIDS patients.
The movie opened earlier this month to strong reviews, particularly for McConaughey and Jared Leto, who plays Woodroof’s troubled transgender business partner. Both actors are firmly entrenched as Oscar contenders.
To play Woodroof, McConaughey famously dropped 47 pounds, going from 182 to 135.2, a necessary physical transformation that had the added benefit of making the actor much sharper “upstairs.”
“The weight loss put me in the position to do exactly what Ron would be doing — investigating, researching,” McConaughey says. “I became a scientist in my process. It was like, ‘I’m going to spend a lot of time with you, McConaughey, so we’d better get along.’”
Such interior conversations are not uncommon for McConaughey, which is why, one glass into our conversation, he’s able to start laying out a set of … well, to call them rules might be too binding. Let’s just label them suggested guidelines, applicable to anyone looking to chart a new course midstream and, in McConaughey’s words, “unbrand.”
Make it feel like the first time. McConaughey had been enjoying a lucrative career playing what he calls “Saturday characters” in a string of commercial romantic comedies. Audiences liked them. McConaughey had fun making them. But he began wondering why he wasn’t approaching his career with the same adventurous spirit he applied to the rest of his life. He doesn’t think he became complacent. It just began to dawn on him that he was limiting himself.
“I thought, there’s got to be more to acting where I can go, ‘Whoa! First time!’ ” McConaughey says. “Go have some first-time experiences. Be excited. Be scared. Be ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with this, but I’ve got to try.’ Because, gee, my only regret would be not to put a little more rubber on the road.”
Just say no — to everything. “I hunkered down with my wife and my agent and said, ‘I’m going to make a strong move. I’m going to go in the shadows for a while,’” McConaughey remembers. “And I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t know how long it was going to take, and that was kind of scary because, what if there isn’t anything on the other side, you know?”
Wait for the boomerang to come back to you. McConaughey is, by nature, a restless sort, born under, as Lee Marvin once sang in “Paint Your Wagon,” a wanderin’ star. If too many Saturdays go by without something concrete on the calendar, his head will implode. Fortunately, his self-imposed work stoppage coincided with the birth of his first child, son Levi, providing some structure to his days. Then, long after the scripts stopped coming, director William Friedkin called out of the blue, offering him a part as a creepy, crazy cop and hit man in “Killer Joe.” Then Steven Soderbergh wanted a meeting for “Magic Mike.” Richard Linklater, who put McConaughey on the map two decades ago in “Dazed and Confused” (“All right, all right, all right!”), asked if he’d like to hit the baseball around, leading to a reunion on “Bernie.”
“I spaced them out but they’re all coming back to back, and I’m telling my wife, ‘I need more reset time,’” McConaughey says. “And she asks, ‘You want to do all of them?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well then, grab them, buddy.’ She challenged me on that. And I did them.”
Know when to act decisively. McConaughey came across “Dallas Buyers Club” around the same time as those other movies, but, like others before him, despaired that it would never find funding. With his credibility re-established, he decided to pick a start date, begin losing the weight and “will it” into existence. Part of the financing fell out three months before the start date, well after McConaughey had forsaken rib-eye steaks and Texas barbecue. Even a week before filming was to begin a year ago in Louisiana, they didn’t have the complete $4.9-million budget. Director Jean-Marc Vallée called McConaughey, telling him, “I’ll show up if you will.”
“And, you know, part of it was, ‘Just show up, and, somewhere in there, they’ll keep up with us and make it happen,’” McConaughey says, flashing a Cheshire cat grin. “If we had listened to people, maybe it doesn’t get made because everyone kept telling us, ‘It just isn’t the right time.’ Well, sometimes, you’ve got to pick your spot and say, ‘Now. Now is the time.’”
Don’t look at your bank statement. “It’s funny,” McConaughey says, finishing the last of the wine. “My favorite year of work in my life is the first time in my career I’ve ever lost money. It’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s great!’ And you know what? I was in the red.” He throws his head back and laughs. “How’s that work?”