Once more famous for his washboard abs and pretty boy looks than his acting chops, Matthew McConaughey has now morphed into one of our greatest actors; he’s an Oscar frontrunner for “Dallas Buyers Club.” Journalists jokingly call this transformation his McConaissance.
Last week, McConaughey appeared at the Free Talks Series at Lincoln Center to talk about his career. Here are highlights from the conversation:
On how he started as an actor and learned his craft.
In 1992 I went to the right bar and met the right guy. It was Don Phillips, he was down casting a film and five hours later, we got kicked out of said bar and he said “Have you ever done any acting before?” and I said, “I was in a Miller Light commercial” and that was that. It wasn’t really even a modeling job. He said, “There’s a film for script that I’m in town for casting this part and you might be right for.” I gave him my address and got the script the next morning at 9:30. The character had three lines, was in a few scenes, and I remember going back home and working on this character for two weeks. I came back and read it and got it. The role was David Wooderson for “Dazed and Confused,” which was my very first film.
When I went and read for that, it was obvious to Rick that I was not that guy. One, when I was in a fraternity, I had my jeans pressed, I had my shirt tucked, I shaved before going out to job interviews. But he said, “Ok, let’s read that kind of kicked back version of Wooderson” but said “But you’re not this guy.” I said, “No, but I know who he is.” And who the guy was for me, at that time, was who I had thought my brother was when I was 10 and he was 17. So I had a very romanticized view. My brother was seven feet tall in my eyes, his car was the fastest car, his Concord system was the best sound system in the world and he’s leaning against the smoker’s wall. At school, he was cooler than James Dean.
After about three weeks on that, with a lot of improvisation, I went back to school and came back out to LA and got a few roles. It was around “Boys on the Side” where I played a few very conservative roles. After a year and a half, I was auditioning a lot and would get one callback, two callbacks, three callbacks, and I never got the part. I remember feeling like I was too tight. Maybe I’m studying too much, I remember telling myself. Maybe I’m studying too much about the import of the line. You know what? I think I need to go back to doing what I did when I first started where I was just a guy and I improvised.
In about 1997, that same guy that I met at that bar said “Hey, I think it’s time for you to start working with somebody.” I was sort of fearful of it. Like going to go learn something and I had never learned what acting was. When I first started learning with this lady Penny in LA, I was a little rigid. If you study, study, study, you don’t take everything literally and learn what works for you and what doesn’t and went from there. I learned from her my rights as an actor. I learned from her that I may start off going “How am I this guy?” but then I will get to “How is that guy me?” It’s gotta go through me if I’m gonna portray the man.
One of the things that I’ve tried to do — and it’s harder with some more than others, but it’s my favorite performance and my favorite kind of films — is the impasse. So many times where I try to load the scene, I remember a movie, and I won’t say the name, where I saw it and was like “What is it?” cuz something was off. I was told, “It’s like you’re trying to hit a grand slam every single time. Some times you gotta hit, sometimes you gotta hit, sometimes you gotta take a ball.” It works when you go into a scene and have 16 different ways to tell the truth. When you’re stuck, sometimes you’re just trying to protect from telling a lie. It’s not near as fun. It’s all about connecting the dots and that’s all you can do.
The last two years, I tap into characters’ obsessions and then feverishly get drawn into those obsessions. I’m always looking for something to take literally, and I call them a launch pad line. Sometimes you catch it in the screen directions, sometimes it’s written in the character. In “Dazed and Confused,” there’s a line that says, “That’s what I love about those high school girls. I get older, they stay the same age.” That’s a line where you’re like, “Well who is this? That guy’s got a history.”
You’ve got Dallas in “Magic Mike” who is a launch pad character. There was stuff written in that script that I just wrote, wrote, wrote and it was so fun to go improvise. The character in “Wolf of Wall Street” … Terrence Winter wrote a line where I’m sitting there talking to Jordan Belfort at a lunch and it says the secret to this is strippers and cocaine. For a scientist, whose occupational vernacular has to be precise, and to the moment, it’s not as easy to just riff and rap. But I always try to find something in the characters as I go. I go, “What if they did that literally.” And then you do something that’s a real personal politic of that character. It blankets an entire performance. It also gives me something to fly with that I can always have in my pocket, if I have trouble with a scene. I can go, “I know that this man is about this. I know he needs this, throughout. Before this story started and after this story goes away, I know he needs this.” If I follow that, at least I know I can’t go wrong. I remember writing this down to myself: “Don’t act like one. Be one.” That’s always a pretty good one.
On being on a career roll with character parts in movies “Magic Mike” and now “ Dallas Buyers Club.” On why he wanted to play Ron Woodroof.
It came across my desk about six years ago. I immediately wanted to do it. I didn’t know about Ron Woodruff. I didn’t know about buyers clubs. I remember thinking that, one: this is an incredible story about this man’s life. I remember saying, “Even if this was fiction, this would be worth telling.” And the fact that it was not fiction, that it was based on his life, made it more important, and gave me a lot more, and I said that I have to do it.
I love the original sort of anarchic way that it dealt with a very dramatic and heartfelt subject. HIV, not only in ’86, but this guy’s life with a lot of lovers, when he was heterosexual. I thought that was interesting, from a heterosexual point of view. Two: he was a son of a bitch the whole way through. He was a self-serving, self-preserving, business man, a hustling son of a bitch. I was real happy that it never got sentimental. I thought what a challenge this could be, to pull off the truth and the heart, but also the blasphemous humor. Because this was a real guy on the page.
That was an original way to deal with this subject matter. I remember early on, saying, “You know what? If this had been a larger budget film, if this had been a Hollywood studio film, they would have re-written act three, and Ron Woodruff would have had to return and tell everyone: ‘I’m sorry for my bigoted and homophobic ways. What have I become.’”
He was not that guy. He was just not that guy. And I remember saying, “You know what? If you keep him the son of a bitch, the humanity will reveal itself. If you keep him the business man, the crusader will reveal itself.” There were many times I heard, “This guy’s not sympathetic.” I remember, I’m glad I felt this way, but I remember my immediate response was: “That’s not my job to make him sympathetic.” Empathetic … He’s a real guy. I said, “That’s a real guy. He’s not playing it out to you, that’s who he is.” If you don’t like who he is and his politics, when you first meet him, you go, “I know people like that. They don’t even know better.”
There was ignorance at that time, and there’s a lot of people still that way. I just saw him as a real human. I just remember saying, “Hang your hat on the humanity of this guy, not the morality, the reality and the humanity of this guy and stick to it. Trust that that humanity will come out.”
So I don’t have the best relationship to sentimentality. Sometimes I like it and it’s got its place. Other times I think it’s foolish. It was a way to deal with a very dramatic and heartfelt subject matter, with a really original, anarchic, guy. We knew that it was something of importance, something that would be good medicine for you to go see. What I didn’t know, and that we pulled it off is kind of a coup, is how entertaining it is. In my experience of watching it with people, the first act, because of the subject matter, they’re a little afraid to laugh. You’re like, “I can’t laugh in this movie right now.” Then people start to loosen up, because you can laugh, and it’s a really good example of how humor reveals such humanity.
On losing 50 pounds for the role, and if he would do it again.
Sure, if the role is right for it. This is my responsibility as an actor. This is not an eccentric effected choice. It was something I needed to do, for the right role. It was definitely part of the adventure that I had.
On his approach to playing the television character Detective Rustin “Rust” Cohle in HBO’s “True Detective,” and how it’s different from playing a movie character.
They sent me all the screeners before, and I was like, “No. I want to do this how everyone else does it.” So I’ve only seen week five. I’m with y’all on this thing. I made it and I read the script, and I’m not even sure how it turns out. The huge thing with that was, it was a finite piece of work. It was eight episodes. I looked at it as a 450-page script. We shot for six months. The big challenge that I saw was, “Can I be really patient.” Because we had a 450-page script and most film scripts are 20 Act 1, turn to Act 2 which is 32. And this is like page 150. The 1995 Cohle, I made some choices to keep him that stoic guy that he is. I had a couple times where I’m like, “Is this really boring? Because I’ve been doing the same thing for five weeks.” And I started to feel like, in certain scenes, maybe we needed to spice it up. No, no, no. Wait. Crash is coming. 2012 Cohle is coming. If you hold your line here, the dynamic show, because the characters are so different 17 years later.
So a lot of it, for me, was patience. Really mapping that thing out and understanding right where I was and understanding the basic three stages of Cohle, the ’95, 2002, and 2012. And then really defining those from themselves. After a while, I felt comfortable about where to go. My gate changed, my speech patterns, everything else. But it made me be patient, because after five weeks, I’m like, “Is this guy going to be really boring?” 2012 Cohle is wild. He’s falling prey to his own release at that time. The crash is going to be fun and wild, because he’s in deep, doing whatever it takes, almost on a death wish. The ’95 Cohle was something that I really had to have patience with, because there was just so much more of it. And in a film, it would be the first 15 pages, 20 pages.
When he realized he was in the business not for the result, but because he enjoyed the process.
The actual making of a film, the day-to-day construction of a film has always been my favorite thing. I like making a film much more than I like watching them. I do. Even the ones I’m in. I really love the coming together with a whole bunch of people, having an idea on paper, and everyone’s an expert at what they do. You have ideas and you let them go and see what they can become. I love the making. That’s when I’m happiest, when I’m making them.
A lot of these films I’ve been doing are independent films, so you don’t have a guarantee they are going to have a wide release. They aren’t going to have any studio’s money behind them, they’re using character driven films that can be more experimental. They’re indies because no studios wanted to make them, because they didn’t see an all access advantage for them. They didn’t know how to sell them. And all of them emerged, in their own way.
“Mud” … I love that movie. They knew how to sell “Magic Mike.” A lot of these, you don’t know what it’s going to be and they have to be word of mouth. They come out in a few theaters and they keep chugging alone. “Bernie” kept chugging along. “Mud” kept chugging along.
So choosing the experience and saying, “This has got to be really filling me up.” If it’s not, I’m looking at it the wrong way.