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Matthew McConaughey Named Philanthropist of the Year: “I Want This to Be a Legacy”

The Oscar winner, whose foundation has raised $7.7 million for Texas storm relief, opens up about how gratitude will transform your life and the latest on his looming governor race decision that’s coming "shortly."

The Texas high school teacher was standing in her driveway when she suddenly collapsed and died of heart disease. It was January 2019, and the death of Rebecca Pfleger was a devastating loss to her students at Sam Houston High School, where for eight years she had helped at-risk kids as a partner with Matthew McConaughey’s just keep livin Foundation.

“It was terrible,” recalls Shannon Rotenberg, jk livin’s executive director. “And Matthew was like, ‘I got to see the kids. I got to talk to the kids.’ A week later, he was on a plane to Dallas.”

The Oscar winner and voice star of Sing 2 sat on the floor with a circle of teens and went to work — not the acclaimed acting work McConaughey is known for worldwide but his other, increasingly visible and transformative work that seems to provoke even more passion from the 52-year-old Texan who hardly lacks passion for anything.

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“They just got a slap in the face, a reminder that life’s not permanent,” McConaughey says. So he gave the teens not mere sympathy but a framework to turn their grief from helpless loss into something more empowering.

“It’s not constructive to say something isn’t fair and shouldn’t have happened,” he says. “As hard as it is to lose somebody, it can really galvanize people and make us question what’s important in our lives. We can really concentrate on what we’re thankful to that teacher for. What was special about them? And can we double down on what that was [in order] to be a better son or a better daughter?”

It was a moment that reflected not just McConaughey’s personal dedication to his charitable foundation but also the origin of its title, inspired by the actor’s loss of his father in 1992.

“I thought my dad was invincible,” McConaughey says. “I miss him all the time. But I also maintained my relationship with him, spiritually. I say to the kids: If you want to talk to your teacher and they’re no longer here, do it anyway — say it out loud. Do it for as long as you want to. Keep the spirit alive of that person. That’s how you pay the ultimate respect. Show in your own life what they taught you. That’s how they’re always alive, that’s how you ‘just keep living.’ Make what they taught you immortal.”

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The actor as the DJ for his We’re Texas live-streamed storm relief benefit concert in March. Courtesy Of Subject

McConaughey and his wife, Camila, started actively running jk livin in 2008 and have expanded it to 40 Title I schools (schools that get special federal funds because at least 40 percent of their students come from low-income families) in 14 cities. The program focusing on fitness, mental health, teamwork and community service boasts a rather stunning success rate: Nearly 100 percent of its 3,000 participants per year graduate in schools where the typical dropout rate can be as high as 50 percent. Plus, there are similarly meteoric increases in students’ grades, confidence and exercise rates.

McConaughey also has become a philanthropic titan by regularly wrangling other benefit events, both annual and impromptu — such as his virtual We’re Texas concert in March that raised $7.7 million for victims of the devastating winter storm Uri, with the actor working his Rolodex to bring in talent ranging from Post Malone to Kelly Clarkson to Miranda Lambert.

While charitable efforts are commonplace in Hollywood (and the industry is, arguably, seldom given enough credit for such), what makes McConaughey so unique is the extreme extent to which the actor lives and breathes and engages so frequently and intensely in trying to help others with both his official organization and his spontaneous leaps into action.

“If I email him anything about the foundation, or I need him to do something, he’s like: ‘What do you need? Who do I call?’ ” Rotenberg says. “Just last week, somebody dropped out for a benefit, and he picked up the phone and called Kenny Chesney and was like, ‘We need you.’ “

Often sounding like a motivational speaker at the top of his game, McConaughey discusses in depth how he’s built his foundation from the ground up, his attitudes toward giving, life and, sure, that whole running-for-Texas-governor speculation.

So walk me through the very first moment you had that spark of this idea for your foundation.

I’d been looking for ways to give back. How can I be of service? There’s a different gala every weekend. Everyone’s got a cause, a foundation. I remember I said, “I want to prevent before cure,” all right? So that led me to youth — get them young before there’s a real problem where they can make their own self-reliant choices and better healthy choices for themselves. I settled on high school kids because it’s the last bridge before you cross into adulthood. So then the question was: Which high schoolers need help the most? That’s when we settled on Title I lower-income schools, a lot of single-parent homes. There’s a real need here. We started in Los Angeles with a couple of schools, with physical fitness goals — two hours after school, twice a week.

We were going to schools where kids didn’t have a lot of room or incentive to exercise. We offered them a place to set some goals. You’d have someone come to class and say, “I have trouble running a quarter of a mile, but I want to get on the soccer team next year.” All right, that’s your goal! We’re going to help you get in shape. There was also a nutritional aspect — eating well can cost a lot of money, so let’s show how instead of spending $35 on five burgers, you can take that into the supermarket and get a healthier meal for the same price that your family can cook together.

There’s also the program’s gratitude circle, inspired by what your own family would do after dinner when you were growing up, which seems to be a signature element.

It’s the halo over all of this: Let’s gather kids in a circle and say something grateful. This was very awkward at the beginning. The kids did not take to it. One kid mumbled, “I’m thankful for the just keep livin Foundation,” and the next eight kids said the same thing. It’s not cool to be thankful for things in high school.

So I said, “I’m thankful that I woke up this morning next to my wife and got a big wet kiss!” The kids started to hoot and holler. It told them you can be thankful for fun things in life. So all of a sudden it was like, “I’m thankful it’s going to be Halloween.” It gave them permission to start having fun and led to a sense of trust. Then they started sharing serious things: “My grandmother got out of hospital,” and, “My dad got a job.”

I get [the] best compliment I’ve ever gotten when I ask them, “What’s your favorite thing about the gratitude circle?” They say: “I’m hearing my peers say ‘thank you’ for things in their lives that I have but I’ve always took for granted.” Yes! Now we’re cooking with gas. I believe that gratitude is a reciprocal process where the more we’re grateful for in life, the more we’ll create to be thankful for.

Also, there’s the community service aspect — which we didn’t have at the beginning. When I was in high school, would I have given up my Saturday to clean a beach or a highway? No. But we offered it to them, and there was 100 percent attendance. They loved it. It gave them ownership of the program because they weren’t just on the receiving end, it wasn’t just a free ride. For most of them, that’s their favorite part.

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McConaughey accompanied just keep livin Foundation kids to a Texas Rangers game in 2016. Courtesy of Subject

Studies have proved that making an effort to feel gratitude improves mental health. But I could also imagine a cynical reaction where somebody goes, “These kids have real-world problems and that’s a Hollywood new-age idea — does that really help?” How would you react to that?

Number one, we don’t have room for cynics. Cynics can get everyone to giggle at a joke at a party, but after that, they’re not that useful. Cynicism is one of the primary diseases of growing older — you better watch out, because it’ll get ya. Gratitude doesn’t fit into one socioeconomic ladder or another. We all have different things to be grateful for. We are not teaching, “Oh just be happy you’re alive!” We’re not a Hallmark card. We’re not teaching, “My dad can’t pay the rent, but I’m so happy.”

We’re teaching these kids to deal and to use gratitude as a constructive coping mechanism when you’re feeling down, lost, depressed, hurt. It can at least help you get back up. There’s great value in that. There’s great value in new friendships and support groups. You’re building strength. You’re building community.

So we’re not blind to our position or to an injustice or blind to whatever form of poverty we may be in. It’s a tool. You want to get cynical and start looking at the negative instead of the positive? See how much that pays you back. We’re not saying this solves the problem, but it does help you keep looking at the things that you do have and that you can build upon and hopefully make compounding assets out of them to create more in your life to be thankful for and to give your life more meaning.

You helped seed the foundation by selling an exclusive photo of your first child. Other times, you get companies that hire you as a spokesperson to help support it. So you’re effectively leveraging the financial perks of celebrityhood into your causes.

I pick my spots. I go, “All right, do you want to play? We can play together, but this is what I want your time and your money to feed.” With the photo, it was a fun idea to kick-start this thing. People magazine offered a pretty penny to have exclusive photos of us and our first child. Someone’s getting the picture anyway. Do we want it to be the paparazzi parked out front who gets it for free? Or do we want to do an exclusive, burst their bubble, and get the foundation off its feet? Let’s outhustle the hustle here.

How else do you fund all this?

We have our big MJ&M fundraiser that me, [Texas coaching great Mack Brown and recording artist Jack Ingram] host each year, and we split it 30/30/30. We do really well, and it brings in a nice tithe. And when I get an endorsement deal, or a speaking engagement, I’ll be like, ‘Boom, here’s $30,000, or $150,000’ — I’m feeding cuts of it into the foundation throughout the year. That’s stuff you call soft money — I didn’t know that money was coming in, but I put those kind of residuals into the foundation. And then I do some things that are directly for the foundation.

Stars often have charitable work or their own foundations. What was important to you about being different from that cliche, for lack of a better term?

I know what you’re talking about, but I never thought about what this is not going to be. I was never being “anti.” It was never, “I don’t want to be like so-and-so.” Me and Camila wanted to be in this thing. I was always going to be hands-on. It’s something I knew needed to be on my proverbial Monday-morning desk for the rest of my life. Not something where I have my “real” work and then every month somebody reminds me, “How’s that thing at the foundation?” It’s always a forethought, never an afterthought. I want this to be a legacy.

What’s been the most personally meaningful moment for you doing this so far?

Here’s a recent one: I got a 17-minute video on my birthday from all the teachers from 40 schools saying thanks for starting this. To hear them say, “I just want to let you know how much value this brings to my life as a teacher.” I knew we were doing a lot of good work, but I didn’t realize until that video what we had done for teachers, too.

The emphasis on exercise is interesting because it feels like in the past decade or so, at least from what you read in the headlines, is that despite skyrocketing childhood obesity rates, you hear more about promoting body acceptance in teens and less about promoting exercise. Has that element received any pushback at all?

Not that I’m aware or that I would condone. We’re not trying to say, “Look like a supermodel, look like a bodybuilder.” It’s down to: What’s your goal? “Well, my sister and I got one prom dress, she’s a year older than me and I got to lose 3 to 4 pounds to fit because that’s the only dress we got.” OK, let’s lose it. And even if they just want to have more fun, we’re going to help you do that, too. So it’s based on their own personal goal, and it also has the added benefits.

And you know what a lot of people say is the most important part about our program? That for the first time, they have a safe place to go after school. I was like, “What?!” I didn’t even think of that; it went over my head, and it’s so basic. We hear the stories where kids can’t go outside because their neighborhoods are so dangerous. So what do they do? Well, you watch TV and eat junk food. It’s just a domino effect of unhealthy things.

You also rushed into helping with the Texas winter storm with your concert — I was alone without power or heat for five days in Austin and know firsthand how awful that was for residents. How did that come about?

It’s on the front page, and you have immediate ideas. By day two, you realize: “This is not something the state of Texas has an emergency switch to flip to fix this.” So there’s a need there, but it has to happen quick. It’s like when Katrina happened — I was living in Malibu, drinking a Corona, barefoot at the beach, and I’m not sure what I could do, but I’m going. You have to figure out how to best help almost while you’re doing it because it has to happen so fast — something is going to steal the front page from [winter storm] Uri any minute because of course it will. You have to move quick with people. So tie your shoes, get out the door and let’s go. So Camila and I jumped on it. We reached out to people: Let’s put a show together. It’s not going to be a Jerry Lewis telethon, but we need to raise spirits and raise some funds. It’s also very important to show the way money is going to help — cause, effect. You have to see the science behind the empathy. Let’s make sure everybody sees where it’s helping and sees it in the immediate, the midterm and the long-term. And nobody said, “No.”

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Left: McConaughey comforted kids from Sam Houston High School after the loss of their teacher in 2019: “You make what they taught immortal,” says the actor. Right: Volunteers unloaded relief donations from Meals on Wheels (secured through funds raised from the We’re Texas benefit concert), after winter storm Uri. Courtesy of Subject (2)

I heard you even managed the concert’s song list and set design.

I was helping produce the show. I had an idea of how the run-of-show should feel. How are we doing this with COVID? How do we make this feel engaging? I said, “I’m going to be a DJ and hand it off to the acts; let’s light this like a badass concert, and as much as we can feel like you’re in the audience, the better.” We didn’t want it to feel pretaped — “Oh, didn’t they shoot this a month ago?” It was hard, but we had fun.

What’s frustrating is that the power plant winterization that’s necessary to prevent that tragedy from recurring hasn’t happened. So it could happen again in a few months.

Hopefully it doesn’t, and that’s what they were betting on before.

Which brings up the Texas leadership question. Part of your brand is that you’re such a straight shooter. But over the past six months, your approach to the “Will he or won’t he run for governor?” question has been really coy and noncommittal. I’m not asking what you’re doing, but I wonder: Are you that indecisive? Do you really still not know what your decision is? The deadline to declare is Dec. 13.

It’s a whole new thing. I prepare for everything. I’m a big preparer. I am not until I am — OK? Is this something I’ve been thinking about for 20 years, and I know what I want to do, but I’m just holding on to my answer? No. It’s a new embassy of leadership that I have really been doing my diligence to study, to look into, to question what it is, what would it be for me. Not the question of, “Hey, do you think I could win?” No. Let’s talk about what Texas politics is. Talk about a policy statement.

I’m a storyteller. I’m a CEO. But being CEO of a state? Am I best equipped for the people in the state, and for my family and myself? There’s great sacrifice that comes with a decision. That’s what I’ve been doing, and there’s no tease to it. There’s me doing my diligence, and I will let you know shortly.

Beto O’Rourke just entered the race. What was your reaction to that?

I’ve been talking to you. I missed the news. I figured he would.

Finally, how do you balance all of this, including the philanthropic work you do?

My family understands because we usually do it together, and more and more we’re incorporating our children [the couple has three kids, ages 13, 12 and 9] and saying, “Hey, don’t just watch what Mom and Dad are doing from the outside, get your butt in the ring, we need you to handle this.” Outside of that, my friends, the people I work with, as soon as I say, “I’ve got to go,” they get it. It’s not a “want” when Shannon calls and says, “This is a code red.” There’s a need. If anything, the rest of my world says, “How can I help?”

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.