The McCon-aissance is old news. The question is, what do we call the phase he’s in now? The one in which he not only out-Gekkos Gordon Gekko (The Wolf of Wall Street) but turns in one of the most transformative performances in memory (Dallas Buyers Club)? The Pax-McConaughey? We’re going with the McConaugh-reign. Long may it last!
So there I was in this little village on the Niger River. Matthew McConaughey is talking about a trip he took a few years ago, one of the walkabouts he is fond of going on whenever the Hollywood air gets too rarefied. Word had gotten out that there was a strong white man, a bor. So I’m lying there outside, stretchin’, when I hear these young male voices, and it sounded like they were talking shit, he says. He asked his guide to translate: They saying they are champion of the village wrestlers, and they want to wrestle Strong White Man, he says, transitioning into a sort of Tarzan accent. And all of a sudden, the volume of the crowd comes up, like, two decibels. And I look up, and there’s a huge guy wearing, like, a burlap sack. He looks at me, and he points to his chest. McConaughey points to his famous pecs, peeking out of his white V-neck like a pair of toasted dinner rolls. Then he points at me. Then he points over there to a sandpit. McConaughey points at the window of his Airstream trailer, which is parked at Sony studios. And my heart is going babababababababa. But my brain is going, You have to, dude. So I go and get in the sandpit. I’m barefoot, no shirt; he’s barefoot, no shirt. I don’t know the rules, but I am about to find out.
McConaughey is known as many things—a movie star, a notorious public erciser famous for shirtless stretchin’, a genius (according to his friend Woody Harrelson)—but what he considers himself to be first and foremost is a storyteller. And when he tells a story, he puts his entire body into it. Right now he’s twisting his hips and punching his fists as he gives the play-by-play of the ensuing fight, and he has that wild look in his eye. You know the one. The look he has deployed in countless films, the one that stops you from asking questions such as: Do I really believe that this man is a small-town lawyer/a dragon slayer/in love with this crazy person after the shit she’s pulled?
Later I will hear other variations of the Africa story. (Did he tell you the one where the villagers wake him up in the night and demand he fight? asks Mark Gustawes, his University of Texas at Austin frat brother and good friend.) But it’s not the veracity of the tale that matters; it’s the truth, man.
As he finishes telling it, McConaughey is crouched in a wrestling stance, breathing heavily. I’m just breathing, covered in sweat, blood running down my chin, things coming out of my beard. The crowd is going crazy. He asked a bystander: Did I win?
McConaughey lowers his voice back into his Tarzan accent. It is not about whether you win or lose, he says. It is whether you accept the challenge.
McConaughey pauses to let the power of the words resonate. He is an avid collector of bits of wisdom like this. I got 821 of them, he says, nodding toward a slim laptop containing aphorisms, bumper stickers, truths, and rhymes, many of which he has come up with himself. Lately he has been writing bits of rap songs. Rollin’ through yellow lights on my skateboard,he speak-sings. Kiss the fire and walk away whistlin’.
He sits back in the Airstream trailer, where he will spend the night because he has an early call on the set of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. And because it’s good for a man to have a night to himself once in a while, to take a step back and take note of his feelings. How we doing, McConaughey? he’ll ask himself. How’s your health? How’s your family? Are you the man that you want to be? Personal evolution is a big concern for McConaughey, who just turned 44. As you get older, you’re supposed to get better, he explains. There should be an ascension.
McConaughey doesn’t look like he has had work done, but like many people who have been famous for a long time, he looks somehow expensive. As does the Airstream, one of three McConaughey carts around to various sets. I call this one the Smithsonian, he says. The interior reads as Controlled Hippie—there’s a keg, but the refrigerator is full of juices from a cleanse he’s on. On the door, someone has welded McConaughey’s best-known aphorism, Just keep livin’. The line belongs to Wooderson, the long-graduated Lothario he played in 1993’sDazed and Confused, and it’s become a motto for McConaughey, inspiring the names of both his foundation (J.K. Livin) and his clothing line (JKL), whose tagline is yet another McConaugheyism: Find your frequency.
That’s a goooood one, he drawls. You get that, don’t you? We all have a frequency, where things are clicking. He closes his eyes, snapping his fingers like a Beat poet. I can adapt better. I’m catching more green lights. You know what I mean?
Lately, Matthew McConaughey has been catching a lot of green lights. Two years ago, he began a career overhaul that transformed him from what we once thought he would always be—Hollywood’s Leading Man: Southern EditionTM, a reliable cog in the rom-com machine. And now, the Dude Who Was Arrested Playing Naked Congas That Time is producing and starring in a prestige TV project (HBO’s True Detective), starring in a film based on the works of a theoretical physicist (Interstellar), and with Dallas Buyers Club, being mentioned in the same breath as Oscar.
It’s pretty wild, isn’t it? he says mildly, popping open a yellowish juice.
Whether or not he’s nominated, he’s managed to upset the conventional wisdom. Matthew is a divisive figure in Hollywood, says True Detective co-star Woody Harrelson. I have found myself defending him to people who don’t really know him, who for some reason feel very antagonistically toward him. He’s a good guy, he’s great-looking, has a perfect body, his career’s through the roof, he says. People resented that, and the way they justified it is, He has never done a movie of substance. Harrelson laughs. They can’t say that anymore.
McConaughey says he had no frequency of his conception until recently. Now I get it, he says. Outdoors, shirtless on the beach, does a lot of rom-coms, girlfriend loves him, good-looking. It’s like he rolls out of bed and shows up and makes it look easy.
And it kind of has been easy. He’s the guy who moves to L.A., goes to his first audition, gets it, says Richard Linklater, who directed him in Dazed. He’s like a gifted athlete: Boom, you’re in the major leagues.
But a few years ago—about the time Ghosts of Girlfriends Past came out, in which the then 39-year-old deploys his considerable talents to persuade the chick from Party of Five to embrace love—McConaughey checked in with himself and decided it was time for a change. He doesn’t want to denigrate the movies that made him rich and famous. I was enjoying myself, he says. My relationship with acting was fine. But like in any relationship, you need to shake things up. It didn’t mean what we’d been doing was less than. I just wanted a charge. Like, Let’s throw a spark into this. There is a note on a crumpled piece of paper on the table here in his Airstream, something he scribbled down and only recently pulled out of some old pants, that speaks to his dissatisfaction. I wish, it says, I enjoyed watching my movies as much as I enjoyed making them.
He decided to go in the shadows for a while, saying no to things that wouldn’t evolve him as an actor. I got much more selfish, he says. I’m a fan of the word selfish. Self. Ish, he repeats, drawing it out. When I say I have gotten a lot more self-ish, I mean I am less concerned with what people think of me. I’m not worried about how I’m perceived. Selfish has always gotten a bad rap. You should do for you. I wanted new experiences.
After a hiatus, McConaughey returned as a strip-club owner in Magic Mike, gamely passing the torch to the next generation of beefcake while showing he could still work a thong with the best of them. And this year, he seemed to emerge as a wholly different actor. His subtle performance as a lovelorn drifter in Mud proved he could be watchable even when he wasn’tgetting the girl. And then there’s Dallas Buyers Club.
To play the part of Ron Woodroof, a trash-talkin’, homo-hatin’ electrician who became an unlikely AIDS activist after being diagnosed with the disease, he had to whittle his famous figure down to 135 pounds. Get. Relative, McConaughey says, citing the aphorism from his catalog that helped this process. Needed to lose a lot of weight to be responsible to the character. So how’d I get relative? I was saying to myself, Well, it’s not like you are in a concentration camp. You’re eating, but you’re not starving. So eff you, McConaughey. I gotrelative.
Losing weight or becoming otherwise unattractive for a role is a tried-and-true method for actors who want to be taken seriously. But McConaughey embodies Woodroof so thoroughly, even Woodroof’s family was spooked. And the bazillions of people who still love the Dazedversion of him will be heartened to know that he’s not totally gone. The McConaughey who will appear in the upcoming Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street—an unctuous, smarmily handsome stockbroker who teaches Leonardo DiCaprio the tricks of the trade—isn’t exactly divorced from the image that made him famous.
Of course I still play the congas naked, he says. I just close the windows.
These days, when McConaughey checks in with McConaughey, what does McConaughey say? I’m feeling very fulfilled. I’m in the clay in my career, he says, his hands kneading the table. And I’m in the clay in my personal life. (Last year, McConaughey married Camila Alves, his longtime partner and the mother of his three children.) I’m turned on. I’m interested in things. Not to mention, he’s able to enjoy watching his own movies. I saw Dallas Buyers Club,he says. I liked it. I liked that guy. I didn’t catch you acting, McConaughey, he said to himself afterward. I forgot that was you, McConaughey.
But it’s an evolvement. It’s a process. It’s not finished and wrapped yet.