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A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The American Cinematheque Award set to be presented to Matthew McConaughey on Oct. 21 is a final bit of punctuation on a triumphant year for the 44-year-old actor. In March, he claimed an Oscar for his performance as a Texas good old boy who refuses to accept an AIDS diagnosis quietly in Dallas Buyers Club. Then, in July, he was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of an existential truth-seeker on HBO’s True Detective. Those back-to-back accomplishments alone merit his latest award, which since its creation in 1986 has been given annually to a filmmaker “committed to making a significant contribution to the art of the motion picture.” But it also is fair to say that only a few years ago, while there was no denying McConaughey’s star status, his golden-boy screen persona lacked the gravitas that has earned him his recent laurels.
In 2008, McConaughey, who had been working steadily since his film debut in pal Richard Linklater‘s Dazed and Confused in 1993, knew it was time to change. He was being offered $15 million to star in a big-screen remake of Magnum, P.I., but he took a deep breath and said no.
“It wasn’t about saying no to a studio feature,” the actor tells THR. “Magnum was good, but the right things weren’t scaring me about it. I thought, ‘I don’t know what I want, but I’m going to say no to these things now.’ ” And so, instead of opting for the next big action movie or glossy rom-com, McConaughey took 18 months off, and slowly but surely a series of career-redefining indie features came his way: among them, Brad Furman‘s The Lincoln Lawyer, William Friedkin‘s Killer Joe, Lee Daniels‘ The Paperboy and Steven Soderbergh‘s Magic Mike, all culminating in a one-two punch of Jean-Marc Vallee‘s Dallas Buyers Club — in which he lost 47 pounds to transform himself completely into a dying AIDS patient — and Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street, with his gleeful bit as a commanding master of the universe.
“Sometimes the target draws the arrow,” says McConaughey, who even when not playing True Detective‘s Rust Cohle can’t help but speak in metaphor. “Taking a year and a half off and saying no to things in some form or fashion made me a new good idea. That’s as much science as I can put around it. That’s what I know.”
It also has made him an even bigger leading man because he next headlines Christopher Nolan‘s Interstellar, which opens Nov. 5, as an astronaut attempting to save the human race.
“Matthew McConaughey is the epitome of what a Hollywood star should be,” says American Cinematheque chairman Rick Nicita of the decision to recognize him now. “An adventurous, joyous and ever-growing talent combined with matinee-idol looks and an unshakable sense of who he is and what he stands for.”
Says McConaughey, “I’m getting more personal experience out of the work I’m doing.”
Taking a look back, McConaughey shared some of his memories of the key films in his career:
Dazed and Confused (1993): “I was scheduled to work for three days. [Director] Richard Linklater kept inviting me back for what turned into three weeks’ work. And the cast just freely let me integrate my character [of David Wooderson] into each scene. I was getting paid a SAG day rate, which was three hundred and something dollars, and I remember having so much fun on the set that I questioned if that kind of pay was even legal.”
A Time to Kill (1996): “[Director] Joel Schumacher kept reminding me how simple the process was. He would not let me complicate it. His constant reminder was, ‘You are Jake Brigance; it’s that simple,’ which were very wise words for a young actor who was a first-time ‘lead’ in this big studio film.”
Contact (1997): “I learned discipline working in a Robert Zemeckis film. Robert was choreographing some major camera movies. I, as an actor, had to learn the art of timing my performance with certain camera moves that we had rehearsed. Before that, I had always moved freely without considering the measures of a choreographed camera. To do that, and remain relaxed, was a great discipline to learn.”
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003): “I remember the repartee between Kate [Hudson] and me. The back and forth between the guy and the gal in romantic comedies sets the rhythm and has to maintain a certain buoyancy to fit the meter — as well as the audience being ‘in’ on jokes that either her or my character are not ‘in’ on. That is where the audience’s interactive experience with romantic comedy lives, and I thought HTLG worked well in that respect.”
Magic Mike (2012): “What director Steven Soderbergh said to me in our first phone conversation about my character, Dallas, was, ‘I mean, he’s pretty connected to UFOs.’ Well, that just blew the lid off any legalities, regulations or compromises I might have ever related to Dallas. There was no roof, the character became a song to me, and I heard his voice naturally very quickly.”
Dallas Buyers Club (2013) “We got it made, and made so well in my opinion. Eight days before the first day of production, I received a call from [director] Jean-Marc Vallee telling me that the understood financing had fallen through, and we had to make it for $4.9 million instead of the expected $8 million. He said to me, ‘but I’ll be there in eight days to start shooting if you will.’ That kind of blind will, among so many people involved in the project, is what got it made.”
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