Squarely and surely, Matthew McConaughey punches actress Gina Gershon in the face. She’s read the script, she saw it coming. But Gershon still looks appropriately gobsmacked as the star of How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days grabs a piece of fried chicken off the dinner table, holds it to his groin and forces her to suck it. It’s hard to think of a more insane scene in a film.
“Thanks, man,” beams McConaughey. “I don’t think chicken has ever been used like that. I just remember saying to myself: ‘McConaughey. All the way. Right now. There ain’t no warming up into this thing. All the way. Right now.’ At the end of it, I was blacking out, I was seeing stars and stumbling. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was something.”
He’s right. It’s definitely something. In addition to that sequence of southern-fried madness, sleazy noir Killer Joe sees McConaughey give a startling performance as a sicko sheriff hired as a hitman by a trailer-trash family. They get the most traumatic chicken dinner imaginable. We get a brand new Matthew McConaughey. He used to be that guy in those romantic comedies with some girl and no shirt. Suddenly, after 20 years in Hollywood, he’s turned a corner. Now he’s the guy everyone wants to work with.
“It’s another chapter, man, for sure,” he nods. But what about all the rom-coms? “Killer Joe’s not a romantic comedy?” he asks quizzically, before cracking up. “No, no, absolutely not, man. I did have to say no to a lot of romantic comedies. I think Hollywood got a little bit like, ‘OK, he seriously doesn’t want to do any of those right now.’ And however the world works, something happened and the message got out.”
After The Exorcist director William Friedkin cast him as Killer Joe’s sheriff, Steven Soderbergh hired him in male-stripper drama Magic Mike (busting a move with Channing Tatum), Precious director Lee Daniels cast him in The Paperboy (the one where Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron) and Take Shelter director Jeff Nicols cast him in hotly anticipated indie drama Mud (about a hunted man hiding on an island). He didn’t audition for a single one. The phone just kept ringing with edgy roles in edgy films.
“The first time I read Killer Joe, I thought, ‘I don’t want anything to do with this. I feel sick to my stomach. I need to take a shower,’” he says. “I went back and read it again and suddenly it clicked. Oh, this is a riot, man. It was exactly what I was looking for. I was like, yeah, this acting thing, it’s a rodeo. All right, let’s go ride the bull. Let’s go shake some sh*t up. You can dig as deep as you want because it’s about reality, not morality. Let’s get it on. Let’s go fly.”
But really, this isn’t the new McConaughey. This is the old one, the one who looked like the hottest new actor in Hollywood after breaking out in gripping Nineties legal thriller A Time To Kill. He was meant to be the next big thing. And by the time he finished his audition for Titanic, he was tantalisingly close to starring in what would become the biggest film of all time.
“Thought I had it,” he remembers. “And then somebody along the way said that James Cameron said I did have it. It got out and I’ve had to answer this question for years: ‘Is it true you turned down Titanic?’ No! I tried to get it! And they’re like, ‘You got offered it, you turned it down.’ No, I never got offered it, I promise. If I got offered it, I need to find that agent.”
BACK TO THE START
To be fair, McConaughey couldn’t complain. He’d already had his share of happy accidents. He is one. Born in November 1969 in a small Texas town, he completed an unexpected trio of brothers between two parents who married each other three times. His dad, Big Jim McConaughey, was a gas-station owner who was drafted into the NFL by the Green Bay Packers in 1953. In spectacular style, he died of a heart attack during an early morning romantic liaison with his wife (“It was just the best way to go!” she once wrote).
It was in 1991 – while studying to be a lawyer, without ever really knowing why – that McConaughey picked up Og Mandino’s self-help book The Greatest Salesman In The World. After 100 or so pages, he switched his major from law to film. Then along came another lucky break. He introduced himself to a film producer in a Texas bar and won himself an audition for a coming-of-age drama called Dazed And Confused. It was an indie smash and McConaughey – whose acting experience so far peaked at a beer commercial – was tremendous, with writer/director Richard Linklater boosting his role from an initial three scenes to 300 lines.
One mis-hit (hilariously deranged as a psychotic cannibal in Return Of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and a couple of near-misses (Russell Crowe’s role in The Quick And The Dead, Antonio Banderas’s role in Sylvester Stallone actioner Assassins) led to A Time To Kill, when Val Kilmer turned down the lead and author John Grisham convinced Warner Bros that the Texan’s Dixie charm was the real deal.
So while Leonardo DiCaprio became ‘King Of The World’, McConaughey made his own fantastic voyage. “I went to Peru after A Time To Kill,” he recalls. “I just grabbed a bag and left. I had a lot to think about. I went up and further in, until I was about as uncomfortable and unfamiliar with things as I could be.”
Wanderlust has always been in McConaughey’s blood. At the age of 19, he spent a year in Australia, went vegetarian for eight months, washed dishes and shovelled manure.
He’s travelled across Africa and South America, through places where no one spoke English, where no one’s seen The Wedding Planner. His advice? “Do it. Do it on your own. Go to places where they don’t speak English. And as soon as you have that first feeling of, ‘I need to go home’, make sure you stay. Don’t go home until you get to that great place of, ‘I could live here.’ As soon as you get that, it’s OK to go home. There’s no better way to get to know yourself.”
He returned to Hollywood with a string of bold films that should have been hits – all the same, it couldn’t stop his star from dimming. Sci-fi drama Contact with Jodie Foster, Steven Spielberg’s period epic Amistad, submarine thriller U-571. By now, Hollywood was starting to realise that McConaughey looked really good without his shirt.
To be fair, he tried to break out into action. He grew an eight-month beard and spent eight weeks wrestling cows on his ranch (“I’d try to get them in headlocks”) to prepare for a role battling dragons with Christian Bale in Reign Of Fire, and attempted to rebrand as the new Indiana Jones with Penelope Cruz in Sahara.
However, there was no denying it: he was sliding, slowly but surely, into rom-com hell. The Wedding Planner with J-Lo, How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days with Kate Hudson, Failure To Launch with Sarah Jessica Parker, Fool’s Gold with Hudson again, Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past with Jennifer Garner… Even the posters looked the same.
Now, after his last rom-com in 2009, the Mac is back with a different mission statement. So what happened? What jolted him out of it? McConaughey sits back and thinks. “I don’t know exactly what triggered it. I just know that I want to do something different. You know… The funny irony…” He stops and holds a hand up. “This is meant to be a joke, but there’s something to this. I was going to say, my children inspired me to do Killer Joe…”
At 42 years of age, McConaughey appears to have reached a point in his life where everything has settled down and added up. Gone are the days when the police would find the stark-naked ‘Bongos McConaughey’ banging drums in his house in the early hours of the morning. He married Brazilian model Camila Alves two weeks ago and, like any true gent would, “got tribal on it” with a soundtrack of Brazilian music to help her through the birth of their second child two and a half years ago.
He doesn’t play golf so much any more (“I played as a four handicap when I was 18 years old. I’m an 18 now”) and he’s not as good at surfing as they say (“People think I am because every time I go surfing, they take a picture of me”).
These days, it’s business time for the laid-back Texan. After scoring a great cameo next to Tom Cruise’s Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder, the career comeback started for real with his superb performance as a defence attorney caught in a deadly game in twisty legal thriller The Lincoln Lawyer. He only took his shirt off once in the whole film. And let’s not be shy about this. Since taking his top off in A Time To Kill, McConaughey has made 24 films and only managed to keep his shirt on seven times.
It’s an extraordinary achievement for the actor nicknamed “The Redneck Buddha” by his friend Lance Armstrong. And Matt Damon brought the house down with a genius impression of McConaughey on the Late Show With David Letterman (“Ah, Mister Sodder-bergh, today’s scene ah think’d be a good ah-pur-toonity for me to take mah shirt aaff...”).
Does the joke get old for McConaughey? “It doesn’t bother me,” shrugs McConaughey, with a smile. “I do like staying in shape. Hey, I was doing character work for the past eight years for Magic Mike.”
Good comeback. Steven Soderbergh’s comedy-drama – with former stripper Channing Tatum – finally gives McConaughey all the artistic justification he needs to pop the pecs. “It’s raw, man,” he laughs. “I get to play this lunatic guy, who’s a bit of a Jim Morrison, Malcolm McDowell in Clockwork Orange kind of guy. He’s ready to revolutionise the male revue world. In his mind, he’s an absolute deity.”
So presumably the shirt is coming off? And the rest? “I had to,” he laughs. “I couldn’t do this film and not do that. Channing’s such a damn good hip-hop dancer, I knew I wasn’t going to challenge him at dancing. This was different, though, man. This was more than taking off my shirt.”
Exactly how raw are we talking? “You’ll see, man. I’ve got an exceptional thong.”
Killer Joe is at cinemas nationwide from 29 June
(Image: Rex Features)