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Matthew McConaughey is reflecting on his family’s immediate response to the Robb Elementary School mass shooting in the actor’s hometown of Uvalde, Texas, and how they supported the families of the 19 students and two teachers who died.
In a new interview with People magazine tied to their People of the Year issue, the actor and producer recalls the moment he and his wife Camila McConaughey learned about the shooting, how they approached returning to his hometown with their three children and how his relationship with those grieving the loss of the 21 victims changed the longer he was there.
“I was working in the studio all day. So I came out, and my phone had blown up. I checked the news,” he says, describing the “40 seconds after I found out the news.” “There was a message from Camila, so I called her right back. Being in shock, I was a little immobilized, and she said it before I could: ‘We’ve got to go.'”
The actor, who was named The Hollywood Reporter‘s philanthropist of the year in 2021, heavily credits his wife, who is a best-selling author as well as a fellow philanthropist and founder of online community Women of Today, with spurring their immediate response, which he says didn’t involve bringing their three children down with them because “it was going to be raw.”
“When we went to Uvalde, we both didn’t know where or how we would be needed most, but once we arrived it became clear that our connection was with the families — and especially Camila with the mothers,” he says. “She became a support system for them, and even now, long after we have left, she still maintains that support when needed. There was a connection there between her and the families that was different than what they needed from me.”
McConaughey notes that his first stop once in Uvalde was with congressman Rep. Tony Gonzales, before heading to Fairplex, “where the town was mourning and gathering.” It was there the actor says he was meeting with families “who had just found out — and this is over a day later — that it was confirmed one of their children had [died].” He describes those initial interactions as not yet mourning, but “pain, denial, shock.”
“In the first meetings, we said, ‘So what was your favorite thing about your kid? What’d they love to do?'” McConaughey says. “And each one would light up, and they’re smiling and then they’re laughing. They’d just come to life. And I realized that they weren’t mourning the death of their child as much as they were just trying to keep the life force within their [child’s] dreams, the memory of that person, alive.”
“[It was], ‘I just want their life to matter. I just want their loss to matter,'” he continues. “And after a few days of these conversations, it became clear we had more to do [and] were still on the journey.”
Following those informal meetings, McConaughey says the families asked if the couple could “spend some more time together” with them. “That’s when we said, ‘OK, we got more to do here,'” McConaughey says of his decision to return after that first meeting, which he chronicled on social media. “So we got my older brother [Rooster], his wife and kids and grabbed our kids and went back down.”
When they returned, McConaughey says he and his family would be asked to attend a funeral home viewing of one of the victims, and he felt like he “shouldn’t be in the eye line or in the space between them.”
The McConaugheys decision to bring their children to one viewing was not one taken lightly, with the producer noting it was ultimately at the request of the grieving family, and that move involved a serious conversation about how the couple would address death with their own children. It became a question, he says, of whether they were “ready to look life in the eye and understand that death is part of it.”
“I asked each one of them if they wanted to, and they said yes. We tried to prepare them. I don’t think it’s too early to expose them in this most natural way,” he says.
It was also a chance, he says he hoped, to help his children have not only “more respect for their own life” but also “more thanks and gratitude for the life they’ve got, for being able to go to school and come home safe from school another day. This is not how it always is for everybody forever.”
McConaughey says that while the return to his hometown amid a major national tragedy wasn’t ultimately plotted out moment-by-moment, he did know once meeting the grieving families that action over words was necessary.
“We didn’t have a plan of attack,” he says. “But after meeting those families, it became very clear they didn’t want to hear us say, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.'”
During and following his visit, McConaughey would share calls for action around legislation that could improve “gun responsibility” — a word choice he told People was about appealing to individuals on both sides of the gun rights debate.
Those efforts also included an essay detailing his efforts to meet with local legislators in Texas. While that attempt would be rebuffed, he would continue on in D.C., eventually speaking at the White House where his impassioned message would be credited with helping pass historic federal gun legislation, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.
“We weren’t organized, but we were armed with front line stories from the families. I had to remind myself many times, ‘Matthew, you ain’t got to be an expert on fricking gun control. You don’t have to sound like a lawyer who knows all the points and constitutional rights,'” he says of his visit to D.C.. “I was like, ‘No, remember you’re going there as a human, as a dad, as an American, as somebody who’s got kids that go to school and would hope this wouldn’t happen anymore but [knows] it will again’ . . . someone who’s going, ‘Come on, this can’t become status quo.'”
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