Matthew McConaughey on How 'White Boy Rick' Is a Study on Poverty in America

Ahead of the film's Sept. 7 premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, the actor spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the importance of family, visiting Rick Wershe Jr. in prison and what drew him to the role.

Set in Detroit in the 1980s, director Yann Demange’s TIFF entry White Boy Rick, the follow-up to his acclaimed 2014 feature debut, ’71, is based on the incredible true story of Rick Wershe Jr. (newcomer Richie Merritt), who became an undercover police informant and drug dealer before the age of 16 only to be forsaken by his law enforcement handlers and sentenced to life in prison (he was unexpectedly granted parole in 2017).

As the blue-collar family’s well-meaning but hapless patriarch, Rick Wershe Sr., Matthew McConaughey embraced the chance to play a flawed character who, he says, is “stuck in the middle of the American dream.”

Ahead of the film’s Sept. 7 premiere, McConaughey, 48, spoke to THR about the importance of family, visiting Rick Wershe Jr. in prison and the tragic cycle of poverty in America.

What about this project appealed to you?

The character of the father, Rick Wershe Sr., I’ve never played. One other thing I look for is things I haven’t done before. This role is my sad, sad country song. It’s an ill-equipped father not doing the greatest job at being a dad, not handling the situation very well at all. And I usually play characters that somehow, by hook or by crook, handle situations. And this was not that.

What does this movie have to say about families that are just struggling to get by?

It’s kind of a stark reminder that we see every day — that a two-parent home is usually a healthier home, that you can trace a lot of things back to [family dynamics]. Actually, my wife and I work with after-school kids who come from a lot of single-parent homes, and a lot of the trouble that these children are getting into from lack of support back home is very scientific. It’s also, some of these people, like the character I play, they’re born into it. Their hearts are in the right place, but they don’t have the means to succeed, and it can be cyclical.

Another strike against many people in these situations, and a central theme of the film, is injustice at the hands of the government.

So I also have this question: Is there a coincidence in Rick Wershe getting pardoned and released from jail with the making and release of this Hollywood movie on his life? Now is that a coincidence? Or is it not? And so what that makes me say is: How many other people [are] wrongly incarcerated?

Tell me about visiting Rick Wershe Jr. in prison.

I’ve been to visit him a couple of times and talked to him quite a few times. His forthrightness and honesty and frankness [was] my favorite thing that I got to see from him as a human. He also knows this: When he’s out, it’s not like he’s on even ground. He understands that what his jail sentence does is something that will track with him for life. And that’s one thing that a lot of people who get out of jail do not realize or are in denial about.