|With Willie Nelson in Surfer, Dude|
Dutifully, Morgan gushed, calling McConaughey the best actor on the planet. “Thank you,” the actor replied. Tumbleweed blew. Empires fell. Unabashed, Morgan tried again. “Can you quite believe where you’ve got to?”
“Yeah,” McConaughey replied flatly. “I believe it. One hundred per cent I believe it. I in no way feel this is a surreal moment. I’m very engaged in what’s happening. Extremely appreciative. Understand what the reasons are…”
This is not the way these things generally go. But then, the re-routing of McConaughay’s career is an extraordinary thing, and on the evidence of Dallas Buyers Club, it was a deliberate act of reinvention. He lost 47lbs to play Aids-sufferer Ron Woodruf. The transformation was extreme; an actor so often cast for his beauty became ratty and lean. But something else happened too. Deprived of his natural beauty, McConaughey’s talent became evident. Or as he told Graham Norton, another talkshow host in pursuit of a punchline: “It quickly became something more than the Matthew McConaughey got skinny film.”
It’s not just Dallas Buyers Club. The thin McConaughey also lights up True Detective (currently screening on Sky) alongside his frequent sidekick Woody Harrelson. He plays a nihilistic undercover cop, and there is talk of an Emmy nomination for that. Then there’s his turn as Leonardo DiCaprio’s amoral boss in Scorsese’s cartoonish Wolf Of Wall Street. Filmed when he was only halfway to featherweight, McConaughey squats beneath one of Christopher Walken’s old haircuts, identifying the keys to success as masturbation and drugs. “Tootski?” he suggests over lunch, before recommending a professional diet of “cocaine and hookers”.
This is not how we used to think of Matthew McConaughey. His career began when he was enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, and was cast in Richard Linklater’s 1993 slacker movie Dazed and Confused – a part he got after meeting the casting director in a margarita bar. He played a lawyer in Joel Schumacher’s 1996 Grisham adaptation A Time To Kill, and found himself on the cover of Vanity Fair – an early sign that his cheekbones would dictate his career. The film grossed $108m and for a time he was the toast of Hollywood. He was talked of as the heir to Paul Newman, though he told an interviewer that his other hero was the incredible Lou Ferrigno: “He turned into the Hulk twice a show, and he’d always throw those big air tanks.”
The first phase of his career ended with the failure of Linklater’s 1998 bankrobbing drama The Newton Boys, and Ron Howard’s 1999 comedy EdTV. Unabashed, he fine-tuned his ambitions, and became the go-to guy for romantic comedies (notably The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.) These films made money, but it took a brave critic to notice that McConaughey brought a level of playfulness to his characterisations that went beyond the requirements of the genre. One such was David Edelstein of New York magazine, who noted “a kind of wildness, a way of laughing at himself, a touch of gonzo”.
McConaughey doesn’t disparage his romcom period, talking instead of the difficulty of making something fresh from a predictable formula. But he clearly had broader ambitions. He launched his own fashion line j k livin, which supports a non-profit organisation offering after school fitness programmes in deprived areas. He also put money towards a pet project, Surfer, Dude, which can be viewed as the bridge between his pretty boy period and his current acclaim. True, it’s no masterpiece, being a stoner surf movie with faint philosophical ambitions, but you don’t have to be a Malibu shrink to view it as a McConaughey’s comic commentary on the business of celebrity. More importantly, it’s a lot of fun. McConaughey remains shirtless throughout, has a bleached mullet, and is managed by the even more sartorially extreme Woody Harrelson. In the end (spoiler alert) he finds peace tending goats with weed-dealin’ Willie Nelson, who exhales some Zen advice: “What goes down, gotta come up.”
And so it proved, after taking a break from acting to recalibrate his ambitions, McConaughey decided to concentrate on films he might like to watch himself. His performance in Exorcist director William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2012) changed his reputation, if not his bank balance. He was acclaimed for his roles in Bernie and The Paperboy, and brought a note of dangerous intensity to the coming of age drama, Mud, playing a hunted man who lives in a boat in a tree (“I shot a man, ah kill’t a man.”) And there was (unfounded) talk of an Oscar nomination for his role as a former stripper in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. There was an element of physical transformation here, too. "Celebrity trainer" Gunnar Petersen put him through what bodybuilding.com called a "2 week to 6-pack abs: Insane training" programme, to turn his already toned physique into prime beefcake. It involved a great many planks, squat presses and shouts of "Whoo-hoooh!"
Then comes Ron Woodruf, and once again, McConaughey finds himself cresting a wave, and being warned this week by Forbes magazine that he has the most to lose if his status as the Best Actor favourite isn’t converted into a gold-plated statuette.
Would he care? Possibly. For a laid-back dude with his own line in flip-flops, McConaughey does seem to take his work very seriously. But his future projects look intriguing, among them Gus Van Sant’s Sea of Trees, and Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar. And, while he can no longer claim to be an underrated actor, as a man, he still seems determined to write his own script. McConaughey’s foundation, and his clothing line, are named after the line he coined at the climax of his first film: “The older you get, the more rules they’re gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin’ man, l-i-v-i-n’” Dazed? Maybe sometimes. Confused? Not so much.