Matthew McConaughey is on his knees, begging me to take him back. ‘I am nothing!’ he implores, his hands clasped, rocking back and forth. ‘My life is nothing without you! If you’ll take me back I can be something!’
He is halfway through explaining the DNA of the romcom to me. We’ve already done Boy Meets Girl and Boy Loses Girl. We've touched on one peculiarity of the romcoms McConaughey appeared in in the 2000s, which is Boy Strips For Girl – a scenario that tested the ingenuity of screenwriters in film after film (shower scene, surf scene, a change of shirt after a sweaty commute, change of T-shirt after it is splashed by passing truck, job as a submariner).
Now we’ve got to Man Chases After Girl, generally by motorbike (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) or moped (The Wedding Planner). We’re at the climax. The kisser. Crunch time.
‘The directors in those things always want the man to come crawling back on all fours,’ McConaughey says. ‘“I was nothing”, and so on and so forth… I was always like, what woman wants that guy? I’ve got to find a way to keep the balls on the guy. To walk back in with dignity and stand tall.’
He leaps to his feet with one bound, and starts pacing. ‘I don’t mind going, “I’m sorry I screwed up.” Say you want to give it another shot. I can do that. I can understand that. End it with a little bit of hope. But do we have to wrap it up with the guy completely emasculated going, “Take me back!” and we lived happily ever after and had eight kids. Who wants that guy?’ He upturns his palms to the heavens.
Nobody, I murmur, spellbound.
But this guy? The one in front of me? The 188lb of glorious, 44-year-old Texan, buff and tanned, who throws his whole body into stories, springing around the room, loosing long, cascading riffs peppered with sun-kissed mysticism [lmao damn sis...] (‘Keep on livin’), self-development bumper stickers (‘Find your frequency’), and other assorted personal hustle-and-jive? This guy? This guy is on fire. People have been noticing, too.
In the past few years McConaughey has been on an acting roll, cutting loose from the megabuck parts for a series of down-and-dirty roles – as a scuzzball defence attorney in The Lincoln Lawyer, a mangy drifter in Mud, a strip-club owner in Magic Mike, a psychopathic assassin for hire in Killer Joe, a booze-fuelled Mephistopheles in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and now a trash-talking Aids activist in Dallas Buyers Club – that have reminded everyone why they made such a big deal of him in the first place.
Having won the best actor Golden Globe for Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey is now the front runner for the Oscar. It was ‘le comeback de l’année’, France’s TF1 News said, or as GQ termed it, the ‘McConaissance.’
‘The Mer-con-nay-sonce,’ McConaughey says with a grin when I trip over the pronunciation, before slipping into the third person he sometimes uses to dramatise important points in his self-development. ‘I’m surprising people. “Jeez, you’re really emerging, McConaughey. I’m seeing you differently. Things you’re doing are sticking. You’re like wet shit,” as Ali Farka Touré would say. The African blues man. I asked him once, why don’t you play in the US and Europe more? “Because there I would be dried shit. Neither me nor my scent would stick with me,” he told me. “But here I am wet shit. Both me and my scent stick with me.” Evidently I’ve got some wet shit going on.’
The physicality of this image is entirely fitting. McConaughey is a physical actor and a physical talker, and comebacks are a physical business, as Mickey Rourke found out in The Wrestler – ‘this broken-down piece of meat’ the one thing an actor has left after everything has been stripped from him.
The star having fallen, his body must be offered up in fresh sacrifice. Playing a strip-club impresario in Magic Mike, McConaughey, dressed in leather chaps, savouring the waves of female lust buffeting the stage like a violin virtuoso, stunningly deconstructed his reputation as Shirtless Lust Object Number One – cinema’s one truly objectified male.
But the death blow to that image is delivered this month in Dallas Buyers Club, based on a real story, in which McConaughey plays a part-time rodeo cowboy and hard-partying sex fiend named Ron Woodroof, who, in 1985, was told he had contracted HIV and was given 30 days to live.
He subsequently scoured the globe looking for alternative therapies, becoming in the process an unlikely gay-rights crusader as he established a ‘buyers’ club’ to supply people with HIV and Aids with medications that were not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
‘He was sending pictures and I thought, wow,’ the film’s French-Canadian director, Jean-Marc Vallée, says. He adds that, on set, McConaughey’s insistence on silence while he got into character could be ‘hard to deal with. “Oh my God, man, relax, chill out.” But I get it. It’s Ron. He’s becoming Ron, even between takes. I’m not going to take it personally, I want to punch him but…’
The film was very much McConaughey’s baby. The script, by Melisa Wallack, was knocking around Hollywood for some 20 years, attracting the attention of first Brad Pitt then Ryan Gosling, and was turned down by studios 86 times before McConaughey’s advocacy secured the $6 million budget, which allowed for 28 days in which to make the film – a shoestring production.
McConaughey remained the prime orchestrator; revising the script, suggesting new scenes, giving notes to Vallée in the editing room. ‘He was the one challenging me on set, not just on storytelling and character but directing,’ Vallée says. ‘He can be as cocky as Ron can be, and as charming in order to get what he wants. “Texas is movement,” he kept saying to me. “Texas is movement.” He was moving constantly.
‘That’s what Ron was, that’s what he is, in a way. To see Matthew talk, to see him act, it’s movement. But I must say that behind the acting it was Matthew’s humanity that made the difference. This guy has something in the face, this energy, this way of talking that within 10 minutes has you caring for him. The first audience we screened it for I could feel it, I was in the room, 250 people. I could feel the crowd behind him. The acting is something but the guy – the guy has such visceral humanity.’
Emblazoned on the cover of Vanity Fair after his appearance in the all-star John Grisham fiesta A Time to Kill in 1996, McConaughey is suddenly ‘the new Paul Newman’, given choice roles in films with Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard.
Except those films are Amistad, Contact and EDtv – a run of bad luck at the box office that is finally reversed in 2001 when he appears opposite Jennifer Lopez in The Wedding Planner, a modest hit that is followed by a bigger one, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, opposite Kate Hudson.
The two click, and McConaughey’s fate is seemingly as locked as his gleaming abs in a series of films – Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold, Ghost of Girlfriends Past – the mere thought of which would have Ryan Gosling or Leonardo DiCaprio waking in a cold sweat.
But McConaughey seems almost entirely lacking the usual career anxiety, and accompanying skills of realpolitik, that propel such careers. To hear him say it, he has simply been following the sun – going where it’s warm. ‘I said, “Hey, do my good looks help me along? Absolutely. Does the fact that my body is considered good and we’re gonna have me up there in a shirtless scene help it along? Sure.”
'I didn’t ever go, “No, no, no.” I was like, “Yeah! I get that. That’s fun. What’s the big deal?” If you go deep with the romcom you sink the ship. There’s a buoyancy to the frequency of romcoms. To be light is critically always looked down upon – it’s willowy, it’s wispy, it’s nothing. You know what? It’s f***ing not easy to do and a lot of people don’t do it well. A lot of the work in those things is to stay buoyant. To say, “Hey, get offa my cloud, man! I’m dancing between the raindrops!”’
Like so much of what comes out of McConaughey’s mouth, you really feel that to get the most out of this riff you ought to be hearing it while sitting round a campfire on a Malibu beach, passing round a joint as dawn breaks. McConaughey is his own creature, attuned to his own personal wavelength – sunny but soulful, laidback but busy, busy, busy – somewhere between a film star, a Beat poet and a beach bum.
Arrested in 1999, when police knocked on his door to find him playing bongo drums naked, a bong on the table, he spent the night in jail but ended up leading his cellmates in a singalong and later had T-shirts printed that read what part of naked bongo playing don’t you understand?
In 2004 he bought himself an Airstream trailer – the first of many – and whenever the fishbowl got too much for him in La La Land he would hit the road, seeking out crummy motels, or else following the trail of his favourite bluesman out to Africa, backpacking up the Niger river, or hauling out to the Sahara to attend a music festival north of Timbuktu.
‘I have to check out so I can listen to myself,’ he says. ‘For the first 10 days it’s hell. Can’t stand my company, have to shake all the demons, all the excesses, the wanting to call a friend – “Aww, I’m alone, I’m so lonely” – and then you stick with it and what happens about day nine, always day nine, a little old thing goes off. “Well, guess what, man, you’re stuck with me. There’s nothing you can do so let’s figure out how to get along. Whatever it is I forgive you. Let’s work on this.” No matter who you’re in bed with you’re always sleeping with one person and that’s you.’
There is anger to McConaughey, too. It’s there in the romcoms, which belong at the feistier end of the genre. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days isn’t Hugh Grant hemming and hawing over the lyrics to a Partridge Family song; it’s McConaughey and Hudson vowing to make each other’s life a merry hell.
McConaughey was always on the lookout for ‘a place to grow a little bit of a fang and get away with it. There’s normally about one spot in each of those romantic comedies where you can go, “Nobody’s f***ing fooled…”’ The rage is there, too, in his Ron Woodroof, railing against the FDA, and the dying of the light, in Dallas Buyers Club. ‘In each scene what’s the main emotion?’ McConaughey says. ‘Rage. Rage, man. What emotion gets more stuff done than rage? Rage is the one that makes stuff happen.’
McConaughey’s upbringing was loving but a little fierce around the edges, instilling resiliency above all else. The youngest of three boys growing up in Uvalde, Texas, he was a surprise baby, his pipe-supply salesman father, Big Jim, in his 40s when he was born, his brothers already in their teens. His mother, Kay, a kindergarten teacher, had a rule: if it’s daylight, you get outside. Don’t watch TV. Don’t go to the movies. Even if it’s raining, it’s sunny. Is the rain going to hurt you? Get out there.
‘It was a do it, do it, do it lifestyle,’ he says. Every night, they would have dinner together and tell stories. ‘A great family of bullshitters,’ he says. ‘Oh yeah. Great stories that still get rehashed every Christmas when we get together and someone puts a new tweak on ’em, just to make ’em interesting and goad the others. It’s entertainment. That’s how we entertained ourselves and how we still entertain ourselves.’
Some of the stories told in the McConaughey household weren’t so entertaining at the time although he can laugh about them now. His parents were married, divorced, remarried, divorced and married again, without any of the children finding out about it until their father died of a heart attack in 1992; they were told their mother was ‘on vacation’.
Was Big Jim trying to protect his kids from the truth? ‘Or they knew that one day they’d get back together and it was a case of “Hey, just don’t bring it up in the interim, and we’ll get back together and if we don’t we’ll have to tell them but for now…”’ he says. ‘Theirs was some fierce love. They were not just flirting. They communicated and loved like this, man’ – he drives a fist into his palm – ‘it was hardcore. Talk about the drama. Talk about passion. Brrrr.’
It reminds me of the streak of misplaced gallantry to Mud, the title character in Jeff Nichols’s 2012 film, which Nichols wrote specifically with McConaughey in mind: a sun-kissed drifter on the bayou whose stories are never an inch from bullshit, and whose love for his long-lost honey (Reese Witherspoon) turns out to be his downfall.
In his own romantic life, McConaughey has taken some time to settle, dating a string of fellow stars – Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd and Penélope Cruz – before falling for Camila Alves, a Brazilian model whom he met in an LA bar in 2006. He describes himself as ‘very single’ when they met, ‘meaning I was going about my business,’ he says with a knowing man-to-man intentness to his gaze.
It was a year and a half before they were dating exclusively, but ‘all of a sudden I looked up and was like, this is the only woman I’ve wanted to go out with every single night since I met her, and that’s a pretty good sign. You know what I mean?’ Now his wife, Camila has borne him three children – Levi, five, Vida, four, and Livingston, one – and it was from this domestic stability, strangely, that the fruits of his recent resurgence were sown.
‘Being a father is the one thing I always knew I wanted to be,’ he says. ‘Looking around at my own life, I said to myself, “Man, what I’m doing in my own life is more interesting than my work.” I was like, “That’s OK. Better be that way than the other way around. At least you’re getting something out of life. You’re going to work and you’re enjoying it. You’re finding ways to get challenged, McConaughey.” You do the work, it pays the bills, but boy my life was vital. The way I’m loving, the way I’m expressing my anger, either I’m mad as hell or I’m laughing harder at that joke than anyone else does.
'I was like, OK. Is there a way my career can catch up with the vitality of my own life? So I said, wait for some roles that move my floor. That shake me up a little bit. And make me go — oh, oooh, aaah.’ He wiggles his backside in his chair, as if getting the almightiest back-rub, and maybe a little something else on the side. ‘I don’t know what to do with that… That’s tasty… OK yeah…’
McConaughey has just finished shooting the new Christopher Nolan sci-fi spectacular, Interstellar, about which he is sworn to secrecy, but once the awards season is over has no plans, besides getting on the road again as soon as he can. Isn’t it more difficult with a family in tow?
‘I’ll tell you, I’m very fortunate here,’ he says. ‘When I go to work, the family comes with me. We all just say, this is part of the adventure. When we were on the Mississippi river for Mud, we decided we were all going to stay in the trailer on the Mississippi – a two-month vacation. Talk about Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. No toys, no electricity, this is going to be great, we got to do this now…
‘Hey, we’re going to Brazil for 11 days to see Camila’s family – guess what, let’s make a rule: everyone can only take a carry-on backpack. All five of us in one room. Oh jeez, but once we do it it’s going to be fun. You know what? There’ll be more stories to tell.’
Dancing Rust Cohle thanks you for your time