Matthew McConaughey has gone from pec-flexing laughing stock to Oscar favourite in a few not-so-easy steps. Hamish MacBain meets an actor at the peak of his powers
It’s minutes after the London premiere of Dallas Buyers Club, and the film’s two stars are fielding questions from the audience on stage at the Curzon Mayfair. On the right sits Jared Leto: hat over shoulder-length hair, overcoat, trainers; a picture of nonchalant bohemian cool.
He still seems a bit shell-shocked by his involvement in this film – already, his performance as transgender Aids victim Rayon has won a staggering 30 awards – and the questions about losing all that weight and about remaining in character as “her” for the duration of shooting. It’s no surprise to learn Leto is, in fact, yet to see the film in full, feeling that it is “better to just let go for a while”.
In stark contrast, on the left, Matthew McConaughey is dressed to the nines in shiny grey Dolce & Gabbana: confidence, intense pride and passion emanating from his every pore, every inch a man who knows that this year is to be the year of his life.
Matthew McConaughey has seen the finished film. Because Dallas Buyers Club is very much his film. “Hell yeah I’ve seen it!” he tells me later on. “I was heavily invested in the making of this thing: I was working months and months with Jean-Marc [Vallée, the director] and the writers on the script, and I was Skyping every night for two months leading up to it. So I had a very clear image in my head of what I thought the film could be.”
Fielding questions from the audience, he talks at speed about how it’s taken 20 years to get this film to screen, about how funding fell through at the 11th hour, about the below-budget conditions (“There are more lights in this room than on set!”), about his character Ron Woodroof’s diaries, about his own personal experiences with HIV. It’s an intense half an hour, but you can tell the 44-year-old actor is relishing it. “All the Q&As, I’m finding very interesting,” he says after, “because everyone’s having a personal reaction. We’ve had some where there’ve been tears. We’ve had some where it’s a younger group saying, ‘We had no idea that’s what it was like at the inception of HIV.’ So the film’s translating. It’s feeling pretty effective, which makes Q&As and premieres a hell of a lot more fun.”
The next day, when I meet McConaughey at his hotel in London and ask him how he rates his chances in the Best Actor category at the Oscars in two weeks’ time he is – of course – professionally diplomatic. He will say he’s going in with “head high and heart high about it. I’m not going, ‘[modest voice] No, no, no…’ I put more than a sweat on this thing.” But this is as brazen as he will get.
So I’m going to have to come right out and say it. He has to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. He just has to.
BUYING INTO DALLAS
McConaughey is correct when he describes this year’s Oscar contenders as being “a pretty doggone strong representation of a bunch of smaller films that were hard to get made”. In terms of the other nominees in the Best Actor category, Christian Bale’s physical transformation in American Hustle is striking, while the despair portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave is truly heartbreaking. Bruce Dern’s turn in Nebraska is touching and enchanting, and Leo’s antics in The Wolf Of Wall Street are shockingly debauched and laugh-out-loud funny.
But as Dallas Buyers Club’s Ron Woodroof, McConaughey manages to be all of the above, all at once. Particularly impressive on the latter two counts, given that his character is, on one level, a bigoted redneck who uses other people’s suffering for his own financial gain. Or, to put it in the succinct words of the man playing him on screen, “a self-serving son-of-a-bitch bastard”.
“Ron was never the saint carrying the white flag to Washington DC saying, ‘I’m going to be the crusader,’” McConaughey says. “Yet people are seeing the humanity coming out of this guy, and enjoying the fact that they’re going, ‘I couldn’t stand him, but jeez, I’m rooting for him.’ People are getting that it’s really not a ‘message movie’.”
In fact, this is one of the film’s greatest strengths. As bleak as it gets, it is often laugh-out-loud funny. For all the seriousness of its subject matter, this is a film that never forgets to be entertaining. “And that’s coming from who this guy was,” McConaughey notes.
“If this had been a studio movie, there would have been more pressure in act three to give Ron ‘a moment’: ‘Oh my God, I’m sorry!’ And you would have gone: ‘Bullsh*t! Nooo!’ So we were conscious to say: you stick to him being the self-serving son-of-a-bitch, the humanity will come out. You have to trust it, because if Ron had a change of heart and became a different guy it would have been bullsh*t.”
Talking of studios, aside from the weight loss of both McConaughey and Leto, much of the talk about Dallas Buyers Club has centred on how difficult it was to actually get made. Yet now, having been produced for a total cost of $5m – or “$4.9m”, as McConaughey corrects – it has, at the time of writing, already recouped almost four times that, despite not yet having opened in all territories. Thus one simple question persists: with star and director power of this kind, and such a great story, why are films like this – and, indeed, many of the most acclaimed projects of the past 12 months – still so difficult to get financed?
The power of the pitch
“It’s the simple thing of the oneliner,” McConaughey sighs. “Every script is pitched to investors with a oneliner. ‘Period-piece Aids drama with bigoted hero.’ They go, ‘I don’t know how to sell it. I don’t know why people would want to go see it.’ When I read it, I always thought it was hilarious and had a huge amount of heart. There was nothing in it that made me go, ‘I don’t know how people, the populace, are going to get this, and get this guy.’ I said I think we can trust people. But I understand why people pass on it.”
Does the stress and challenge of getting something like this to screen add to its appeal?
“Yeah, for sure. Knowing it’s you against the world is empowering. And a lot of bravery and courage comes from that. So people can come to the table and go, ‘Oh we love it,’ and you go, ‘Thank you. I accept that, but don’t come up and go, ‘I always wanted to [make this]…’ No, you didn’t! No one wanted to for 20 years, but we got the right group together that didn’t flinch, that said we were going to make it by hook or by crook. And here we are.”
ANTIHERO OF the HOUR
As you’ll doubtless be aware, Ron Woodroof and Dallas Buyers Club represent the apex of what people are still annoyingly referring to as the ‘McConnaisance’: this being the ludicrously strong succession of films that – in stark contrast to the romantic comedies that filled the first 10 years of his 21st century – have seen McConaughey take on the role of morally complex, dysfunctional antihero. It started with The Lincoln Lawyer, and progressed through Killer Joe, Magic Mike, The Paperboy, Bernie and last year’s excellent Mud. There’s a thread here. You wonder what it was that made him go out and seek these roles. Was there a particular turning point?
“The specific point was saying no to things that I was doing. I’d made a choice to say, ‘I wanna change gears, I want to re-calibrate my relationship with my career, I wanna do something that scares me a bit. I wanna do something…
I don’t know what it’ll be, but not that right now. That’s enough of that.’ So I said no. And for about six months, no more offers came in. Then there was about a year where nothing came in.”
Did he – as the rest of us would if we gave two fingers to our bosses but then went months without working – sh*t himself?
“Well, I knew I had enough money to pay my rent. I was getting a little antsy, not working, but I had told myself, and hunkered down with my agent and wife and told them I didn’t know how long it was going to be dry. In retrospect, there’s a certain amount of anonymity I gathered by not doing anything. By not seeing
me in another romantic comedy, it became, ‘Where is he?’ ‘I don’t know, he’s down in Texas somewhere, in the shadows.’ Actually, I had my agent going, ‘No no, let the industry know, I wanna work!’ But they all came to me. I didn’t go after those roles. And some of those films, it could’ve been, we made ’em and they go straight to DVD. They didn’t. They came out and they all had their little impact. So I got very fortunate in that sense, too. At some point I became a good idea.”
Fortunate, perhaps, but now that they are all successes, you can’t help but think the Matthew McConaughey of 2014, on top of the world, might like to forget the very idea of Failure To Launch et al. So would he go back and change them? “No I wouldn’t dare change it. I’m not arrogant enough to sit here and tell you, ‘Oh, I wish I wouldn’t’ve…’ No! I did ’em, and I did ’em to the best of my abilities. As far as romantic comedies go, I think some of ’em are pretty good. I look at ’em, and I go, ‘That’s not a bad run.’”
“Some people,” he concludes, “just don’t like romantic comedies.”
The next film following on from the low-budget Oscar cert couldn’t really be any more of a polar opposite: it’s the lead in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar. “This movie, more than any other I’ve ever been a part of, when I go see it, it’s gonna be fresh information,” McConaughey enthuses. “But I know that what [Nolan’s] putting together is the most ambitious film he’s ever approached.”
That arrives in November. But before then, in a very ‘now’ move, this Oscar-nominated actor will be next appearing on television in True Detective. Really, if you wanted any further proof that the much-talked-about TV revolution is still going, the fact that there’s an eight-part HBO crime drama starring him and Woody Harrelson is it. “You could argue that some of the better dramas have been on TV for a while now,” McConaughey says. “And that taboo of going from film to TV is kind of erased. Fifteen years ago it was there.
It was considered more of a demotive move. But now the barrier’s definitely been broken, and for good reason. HBO’s been putting out fully identified series for a while now. I think it could attract any calibre of actor. And I think it’ll continue to.”
He’s right. And in slipping seamlessly from low-budget indie award-magnet, to gritty long-form crime drama, to the first post-Batman Nolan film, 2014 is already shaping up impeccably for Matthew McConaughey.
But the best thing of all is, you somehow feel this is only the beginning for him.
Dallas Buyers Club is at cinemas nationwide now. True Detective starts on Sky Atlantic HD on 22 February
(Images: Rex/Sky/Entertainment One/Universal)