“I don’t work any harder now than I did then,” insists Matthew McConaughey as we sit down at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows in Santa Monica to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast and discuss life since “The McConaissance,” his remarkable career reboot. The 48-year-old, one of the most popular movie stars of the past 25 years, an Oscar-winning actor and now the subject of best supporting actor Oscar buzz for his portrayal of a deeply flawed father in Yann Demange‘s drama White Boy Rick, continues, “I had just as many scribbles and dibbles and options and things written on my scripts and pages tagged and feathered and bent then, in those rom-coms, as I do now. It’s just a different kind of work and a different place to dig in.”
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McConaughey, one of three children born to a working-class couple in Uvalde, Texas, grew up expecting to have a career in law, and eventually went off to the University of Texas at Austin to pursue one. But conversations with a friend who was attending film school, and his fortuitous discovery of a book that promoted pursuing one’s true passion, led him to change course. “It felt like some sort of divine intervention for me,” he says, “and it gave me the courage and ownership to ask myself, ‘What is it you want to do?’ So I said, ‘I want to go into the storytelling business and try to tell stories — behind the camera.'” At the time, McConaughey had no interest in acting — but that changed at film school. As he explains, “I felt like I was communicating even better in front of the camera than behind it.”
McConaughey quickly began landing his first paid acting gigs. His big break came one night during the summer between his junior and senior years, when he struck up a conversation at a hotel bar with one Don Phillips, who was in town casting Richard Linklater‘s film Dazed and Confused, and was invited to audition the next morning. McConaughey won the part of Wooderson, a high school graduate who still hangs around the school trying to pick up younger girls; was dispatched before the cameras and improvised — for reasons he explains during our conversation — what has since become his catchphrase: “Alright, alright, alright.” He was on his way. Just five days later he learned that his father had died of a heart attack, and he adopted another folksy catchphrase which has deeper meaning to him than is initially apparent, and which has been his guiding philosophy ever since: “Just keep livin’.”
Soon after Dazed and Confused, McConaughey moved to Los Angeles, where, within a week, he signed with the William Morris Agency and was sent on two auditions through which he landed small parts in Angels in the Outfield (1994) and Boys on the Side (1995). Then, while working on John Sayles‘ Lone Star (1996), he was invited to audition for Joel Schumacher‘s A Time to Kill (1996), a film about a Southern lawyer defending a black man who killed the two white rednecks who murdered his daughter. McConaughey was being considered for the part of one of the rednecks, but promoted himself for the part of the lawyer and was quietly screen-tested for it. Against all odds, he was given the part, and the film turned him into a full-fledged movie star.
Suddenly, McConaughey was in high-demand. He was considered for the male lead in Titanic. (“I went and auditioned for that. I wanted that. I auditioned with Kate Winslet. Had a good audition. Walked away from there pretty confident that I had it. I didn’t get it. I never got offered that.”) He turned down L.A. Confidential. (“I did turn down L.A. Confidential. I think it was the Guy Pearce role. And that’s a movie I really, really liked.”) And he met with Steven Spielberg about a role in Saving Private Ryan. But rather than taking on the sort of movie-star roles people expected from him, McConaughey accepted supporting parts in films by filmmakers he admired — Spielberg’s Amistad and Robert Zemeckis‘ Contact, both released in 1997 — before teaming with Ron Howard on the prescient EdTV (1999) and Jonathan Mostow on U-571 (2000). Many questioned these moves at the time.
Then came the rom-com era. It all started in 2001 with Adam Shankman‘s The Wedding Planner, in which McConaughey starred opposite Jennifer Lopez. “It was fun, it was great pay and I learned that, you know what, these are not the type of movies to dig deep [within one’s own experience],” he reflects. “They were ‘Saturday characters.’ I remember saying, ‘I’m gonna give myself another Saturday!'” And so he did, four over the next eight years — How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days with Kate Hudson (2003), Failure to Launch with Sarah Jessica Parker (2006), Fool’s Gold with Hudson again (2008) and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past with Jennifer Garner (2009). McConaughey, who was a bachelor through that period, says of the films, “They were fun. The pay was great. I was looking forward to them. I enjoyed going to work.” He adds, “I was also living on a beach and going out without my shirt on, just like I did before I was famous. I was living a romantic comedy.”
But, unbeknownst to McConaughey, he had also undermined the idea that he was a credible actor. His awakening came when an agent showed him a multi-page photospread in People of him running shirtless on the beach, and he realized that it had “become a thing” for others. “I did become conscious of it,” he acknowledges. “It looked like that’s what I was doing 24/7. So I was like, ‘I’m not gonna feed that.'” He was also increasingly serious with his girlfriend (now his wife), Camila Alves, who was pregnant with their first child. “My life was becoming very vital and exciting and dreams were coming true and things were new and scary and wow,” he says. “Then I looked at my career and I was like, ‘Eh, doesn’t seem as exciting, doesn’t seem as fresh, doesn’t seem as dangerous. I feel like I’m loving harder and laughing harder and crying harder in real life than I’m getting to do in my work. And I remember saying, ‘Hey, well, if it’s gotta be one way or the other, McConaughey, at least it’s that way, ’cause the other way around we’ve got work to do on the real-life side.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s okay, but let’s take a pause here and see what we’ve got to do to try to get some work that is gonna rival the excitement I had in my life at that time.'”
Thus began a period of 18 months of deliberately turning down romantic comedies and action-comedies — the only films he was being offered at the time. “I didn’t rebrand, I unbranded,” McConaughey explains, noting that he also shut down his production company and music label in order to fully focus on his acting career, and moved back to Texas. When he did eventually return to the big screen in 2011, it was in a carefully chosen rapid succession of unexpected parts and projects in which he shined: Brad Furman‘s The Lincoln Lawyer, Linklater’s Bernie and William Friedkin‘s Killer Joe in 2011; Lee Daniels‘ The Paperboy, Jeff Nichols‘ Mud and Steven Soderbergh‘s Magic Mike in 2012; and Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street and Jean-Marc Vallee‘s Dallas Buyers Club in 2013. This remarkable reinvention and resurgence — which quickly came to be dubbed ‘The McConnaissance’ — was capped with his best actor Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club, a $4.7 million indie for which he lost 47 pounds to play a man dying of AIDS. His Oscar recognition came on March 2, 2014, the same week that the final episode aired of the first installment of HBO’s groundbreaking limited series True Detective, for which he would go on to receive a best actor in a drama series Emmy nomination.
The years since have been a bit more hit-and-miss for McConaughey. He gave complex and moving performances in Christopher Nolan‘s Interstellar (2014), playing a father for the first time, and Stephen Gaghan‘s Gold (2016), putting on 45 pounds, dentures and a bald cap — but the second film underperformed at the box office. He also starred in two out-and-out flops, Gus Van Sant‘s The Sea of Trees (2015) and Gary Ross‘ The Free State of Jones (2016). And, presumably for a hefty paycheck, he appeared in a few widely parodied Lincoln car commercials. But, just as people were beginning to rumble about a McConaicrash, along came White Boy Rick, Demange’s follow-up to the critically hailed 2014 indie ’71.
White Boy Rick, which is based on a true story, is far from a perfect film, but it features some of McConaughey’s best work since the peak of the McConaissance. He plays the patriarch of a single-parent family in 1980s Detroit, a well-meaning family man who, while trying to stay above the poverty line, both contributes to and is victimized by the epidemic of guns and drugs. “This is my sad country song of a role,” McConaughey says. “I weeped for the guy.” The part — which he admits “did really scare me” — is actually a supporting one; the film’s title refers not to his character, Rick Wershe, Sr., but to Rick Wershe, Jr., who is played by Richie Merritt, a novice actor who was a 15-year-old high school student in Baltimore when he was discovered in his principal’s office and deemed right for the part. “I’ve never had a role that so much intertwined who I was needing to be offscreen with this young man … with who I needed to be onscreen,” McConaughey says. “It was a wonderful, human part. It was a real guy. I understood the heart of the guy. I weeped for the guy.”