Matthew McConaughey – Discusses Resurrecting His Career with Dallas Buyer’s Club and True Dete
Updated: Jun 15, 2020
Matthew McConaughey discussing “Dallas Buyers Club.” Photo copyright 2014 Brad Balfour.
Discusses Resurrecting His Career with Dallas Buyer’s Club and True Detective
by Brad Balfour
What a year this has been for actor Matthew McConaughey. After a serious dry spell he’s enjoying a rebirth, finally getting his mojo back as noted in his award winning Dallas Buyer’s Club performance. This 44 year-old has stripped down to his core and rebuilt his career playing weightier roles than as the love interest for such fluff queens as Kate Hudson.
Thankfully Lincoln Center’s Film Society has given him a great forum for expressing the journey’s he been on. So in late February, 2014, a few weeks preceding the Oscars, McConaughey got about an hour to outline the changes he’s been through — including his nomination for a Best Actor Oscar (something he’s got a great shot at winning on March 2 on ABC).
Among his trials, McConaughey lost 50 pounds through an extreme low-calorie diet to play the HIV infected patient Ron Woodroof. This six-footer slimmed down from 185 pounds to 135 by eating two small meals a day and doing intense cardio workouts.
A longtime fitness fanatic — who has been photographed working out shirtless — found the extreme weight loss was grueling but manageable. And like McConaughey, co-star Jared Leto lost 30 pounds in four weeks through a month-long fast to look the part of a transsexual AIDs patient which also garnered him a Oscar nom.
First gaining notice for his breakout role in Richard Linklater’s coming of age comedy Dazed and Confused (1993), he went on to appear in slasher films (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation), legal thrillers (A Time to Kill), Steven Spielberg’s historical drama Amistad (1997), the science fiction drama Contact (1997), the comedy EDtv (1999) and the war film U-571 (2000).
In the next decade, he became known as a rom-com lover boy — witness star turns in The Wedding Planner (2001), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), Failure to Launch (2006), Fool’s Gold (2008) and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009).
But recent roles in films such as The Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie, Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Mud, Magic Mike and The Wolf of Wall Street have freed him from the date night ghetto and brought him into view as a more serious thespian — especially thanks to his work in both the biographical Dallas Buyer’s Club and as Rustin Cohle in the acclaimed 2014 HBO crime anthology series True Detective.
Matthew McConaughey discussing “Dallas Buyers Club.” Photo copyright 2014 Brad Balfour.
Who were the people that you learned things from along the way?
In 1992 I went to the right bar and met the right guy — Don Phillips. He was down casting a film. Five hours later, we got kicked out of said bar and he said, “Have you ever done any acting before?” I said, “I was in a Miller Light commercial” and that was that. It wasn’t even a modeling job. He said, “There’s a film script that I’m in town casting for, and you might be right for [this part].”
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 [Linklater, the director] that I was not that guy. When I was in a fraternity, I had my jeans pressed, I had my shirt tucked, I shaved before going out to job interviews. He said, “Okay, 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.”
The guy, 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’d lean against the smoker’s wall. At school, he was cooler than James Dean. It was a romanticized view of who he was.
But my first job, when I started to approach what I was doing — even though I didn’t really know what I was doing — was “Okay, I might not be this guy, but I know who this guy is or someone like this, whether that’s in real life or how I perceived him.”
I was on Dazed and Confused for three weeks. There was a lot of improvisation for the character, and I originally only had three lines. I remember having this feeling like you could throw a blindfold on me and I could be this guy Wooderson. I felt you could push me forward into a new situation and I can buy into it. I remember thinking, “What would they buy at the 7-11 with five dollars?” They know what they would buy and wear in any kind of situation.
At the beginning of your career, how did you think you were going to make it? How did you deal with all of those struggles?
I got very fortunate when I got started. I got very fortunate in getting the first roles that I went out for. I did Dazed and Confused between my junior and senior year of college. A week into that is when I first said, “Man, I love this. I’m getting paid $320 a day, people are patting me on the back at the end of the day, saying you’re good at this.”
That’s the first time I ever thought about it as a possible career. I knew I wanted to be in the storytelling business, but I didn’t even allow myself to dream about being an actor. I didn’t even watch films growing up. I didn’t have an idea in my head like, “I want to be a famous actor.” I didn’t know if I even knew enough to be able to think about that. I wasn’t thinking about it. I went back to school, graduated, and drove out west to what I thought was a production assistant job. I showed up out there with a few thousand dollars in my pocket, and the movie got pushed so I didn’t have that job.
The first audition I went on was for a film called Boys on the Side. After that audition, the next one was Angels in the Outfield. This is the place where I got very fortunate, lucky, whatever you want to call it. Angels in the Outfield was a Disney baseball film. They wanted to see me as an all-American guy who played in the outfield.
I put on my all-American cap and I went to see this guy on the Warner Brothers lot. I remember it was the afternoon. I walked in, and I was backlit by the sun on Warner Brothers studio on the couch. He was like, “Hey look at you! The all-American kid!” I was like, “Yes Sir.” “You ever play baseball?” I said, “12 years.” And he said, “You got the job!” I was out in Oakland playing baseball for 11 weeks. We threw a big party and I paid.
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.
I had a film and I was playing this on-the-border Mexican drug lord. I thought, I’m not going to look too deep, I’m not even going to read the script. Obviously, I would read it right before I went on, but if I knew my man, I’d know exactly what he’d say. All I got to do is glance at it.
Well, I looked at it right before they said “action” and it was a page-and-a-half monologue — in Spanish. I knew I’d fail the troupe. I looked over and said, “Can you give me about 12 minutes?” [That was] not long enough to be inconsiderate, but maybe long enough to remember it. Anyway, I stammered through some Spanish. Then I was like, “Okay, that’s not the way to go. There’s a blend here. Got to do your due diligence and study, and then be able to go there on the day and relax and throw it all away.”
So the first auditions out there, I got. I played a few very conservative roles. There were places where I took chances, where I saw a little window of opportunity and hit it. I remember learning very early, “If you’ve got that window, you better hit it, because if you stop to even think about it, it closes.”
One of those was sitting with Joel Schumacher in a meeting for A Time to Kill. I was meeting him to play the role that Kiefer Sutherland played, the Klan member. And I had read the book. I went in with this plan, talking about that character, and I said, “Is so-and-so playing the character of Jake Brigance?” He goes, “No. Why? Who do you think should?” I was smoking cigarettes at the time and I remember going, “I think I should.” And he laughed and said, “Great! Great idea! It’s never going to happen.”
I planted some little seed. He called me three weeks later. He said, “We’re going to give you an audition on Mother’s Day. It’s way on the other side of town, because even if you do good, you’re not going to get the part.” I went and three weeks later I got the call from Schumacher, saying, “Do you want to play Jake Brigance?” And I was actually shooting Lone Star with John Sayles at the time. So about 1997, that same guy that I met at that bar said, “Hey, it’s time for you to start working with somebody.” I was sort of fearful of it — like going to 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. You study, study, study, you don’t take everything literally and learn what works for you and what doesn’t, and go 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 has to go through me if I’m going to portray the man.
What I try to find now is from the inside out, get the guy’s [inner] monologue. This is something that has really helped me in the last few years. Get the guy’s monologue, then I can get the guy’s dialogue — and it’s not about the words. Once I know all about the man I’m playing, then I do my job better, being in the moment and not anticipating. I love to write it out. I write a lot in scripts, more than I actually say. It loosens me up on the entrances and exits. I like watching a film and imagining what they were doing five years before and where they’re going after that. There’s always a prequel and a sequel and a follow-up, even if there’s nothing in the film.
I love when you catch somebody in a scene. I love entrances and exits. I love backloading about where a guy’s coming from, how he got here and where he’s going. I love to finish scenes. I like to have that understanding and let my imagination go, to give me a real good idea of what this guy’s been doing and what he’ll be doing for the next 50 [years]. The last two years, I tap into the character’s 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, “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. [As for] the character in The Wolf of Wall Street, Terrence Winter wrote a line where I’m sitting there talking to Jordan Belfort at a lunch and say “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 [think], “What if they did that literally?” 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 [rule].
I remember you were originally going to be a lawyer. Then you played a lot of lawyers, and your breakout role in A Time to Kill was a lawyer. You had never held a film together before and you were playing with these great actors: Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Sandra Bullock. How did you have the nerve to take over the screen when they were on it, just take your time and take the space?
For one thing, that was my first role where I had the lead. I was aware that people were talking about this as a major, big budget studio film. I remember Joel Schumacher, when I’d talk to him about my character, said very early on — it was a great thing to say to a young actor — “Hey, you’re Jake. You are Jake.” So I still went off on my musings about where I was and where he was going to be, and [Schumacher said] “No, you’re Jake. It’s that simple.” That was his direction the entire time. It was a great thing to tell me at the time — it took pressure off.
The other thing was, when we work with people who are good, we think they have a magic trick, but we always find out that they really don’t. The people that are good at what they do, they usually just do the simple stuff really [well]. And they’re easier to work with.
Right now you’ve been on a real roll, where directors want you for specific character parts. Magic Mike was a character part, [also] the little part in the Scorsese movie. And Dallas Buyer’s Club, especially, is tremendous character work. What made you want to play this part?
It came across my desk about six years ago. I immediately wanted to do it. I didn’t know about Ron Woodroof. I didn’t know about Buyer’s clubs. I remember thinking that this is an incredible story about this man’s life. Even if this was fiction, this would be worth telling. The fact that it was not fiction, that it was based on his life, made it more important, and said [to me] 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 [with] this guy’s life with a lot of lovers, when he was heterosexual. I thought that was interesting, from a heterosexual point of view. [Also], he was a son of a bitch the whole way through. He was a self-serving, self-preserving, businessman, a hustling son of a bitch. I was real happy that it never got sentimental.
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. Ron Woodroof would have had to return and tell everyone, “I’m sorry for my bigoted and homophobic ways.” The bow would’ve come out, and a version of “The Bourgeois Blues” would’ve started playing. 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.
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 my immediate response was: “That’s not my job to make him sympathetic.” I’m glad I felt this way. I said, “That’s a real guy. He’s not playing it out to you, that’s who he is.”
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 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.”
What I didn’t know — and that we pulled it off is kind of a coup — is how entertaining it is. I thought what a challenge this could be, to pull off the truth and the heart, but also the blasphemous humor. That was an original way to deal with this subject matter.
In my experience of watching the first act with people, 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.
Ron comes home after the dinner with Eve, and he masturbates. That could have been tears rolling down his face, “I can’t have sex with anybody.” He’s looking at pictures of hot women and then he sees the other picture and he’s like, “dammit.” And then he sees the lady in the clinic. She has AIDS, so they go in the bathroom and hook up. That was a very touchy scene.
We were listening to tapes of Ron Woodroof. There was this woman in the background, and the way he talked to her, you know they were hooking up. I went to Jean-Marc and I was like, “He had HIV, but he was still having sex.” And we were like, “Oooh. We can’t put that in the movie. That’s really touchy. Two people with HIV, I don’t know how we’d do that.”
One time I show up to work and Jean-Marc is like, “I think you’ll go back in the bathroom.” And we shot it. If you look at the scene, it’s a little bit life-affirming. It’s sad, but it cuts outside to the staff listening to the sounds and it’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie. The director did a lot of things with scenes that could have been very heavy-handed. The humor showed the humanity. That was a lot of Jean-Marc.
You lost almost 50 pounds for that movie. Would you ever do that again, gain or lose a lot of weight for a movie?
Sure. If the role is right for it. This is my responsibility as an actor. This is not an eccentric, affected choice. It was something I needed to do.
How do you get into the head space of someone in a true story with heavy subject matter, and then be able to go home and wrap at the end of the day?
You said “the end” — I said the cheetah grew wings and flew over the purple sea and landed on the elephant. There’s a certain relaxation to that and it’s a nice reset at the end of the day. But I like having that one check-out at the end of the day. I don’t like, in the middle of the day, an hour between setups to go back to the trailer. I do not like that.
I don’t like going back and introducing myself to the real world, hearing a phone ring. I like to go to work in the morning and 12 hours later let someone tell [me] it’s a wrap. And then have a glass of wine and fade out, head back home and see the family.
This being somewhat biographical, I had so much to digest. I had 16 hours of tapes and transcripts. I had his family open to me, I had his diary. I had so much that I could do. Things that [make] most actors go, “Wow. Look at all this.” I’m going to dive into this and have so much fun creating backstories, things that I was getting from his diaries.
Then you start reading between the lines. I remember you could actually hear what he said on his tapes. This was a guy talking to a guy who was going to write his story. So he was already soliciting, whether he knew it or not. He was a salesman. You go, “What are the things in between?”
I would hear different speech patterns popping up. This guy’s got a seventh grade education and he became this expert. He would speak like a medical scientist and expert, then he’d slip off into some conspiracy, then he’d come back and you wouldn’t know what he was talking about. It was all right angles.
There’s a lot to read between the lines — everything from what his dreams and aspirations were, to wandering and trying to figure out what he could do with his life. He was a small town kind of guy, and this was before he had HIV.
That would fade out every week, until Thursday, Friday, Saturday. The longhand would go until he was high, late at night. Scribbling, doodling, he talked about people he hooked up with.
His diary gave me the monologue. That was my secret. I had that in my pocket. There were certain places I went where imagination served. I’d try to do four or five versions of each scene, because I knew we weren’t going to have time in the day to talk about them [or] say, “Hey, what if we tried this?”
I just tried to go in as loaded as possible and have enough where I could go, “Keep running the camera, don’t even yell cut.” That word “method” is misused, because people throw it around in an odd way. I was seeing it from the inside out, so I was never objective.
But at the same time, I was talking to Jean-Marc continually about my understanding of a scene, but I was talking to him as Ron Woodroof. That was relaxing, because Ron gets to the point real quick. He doesn’t mince words. So our communication was hard core and nothing to do with manners and graces, which at least made our communication clear.
This is the most authentic person I’ve seen in a film. I want to congratulate you and the script. Where do you go to say, “I’m going to push myself there”?
In [the Lee Daniels-directed] Paperboy, you see him bloody and beat by two black guys. Ward was the guy with all the secrets. I always figured he was really into those S&M clubs down in Miami. It’s a place he went because he could get away with it and not be exposed. This night, in that film, he goes back down that dark road. I remember Lee was like, “So you’re probably handcuffed in front and you’re lying there bloody…”
I was like, “No. The hands are handcuffed to the ankles and he’s been bent over like he’s took it the worst way. It was ugly. And think about this guy. He liked it. He needed that pain.” I remember Lee going, “You are not…” And I said, “Oh yeah.” So that was in context with who the guy was. I’m not trying to push something for eccentricity’s sake. I’ve seen it done before, and I’m like, “Well, that was eccentricity for eccentricity’s sake. For what, to get shock value?”