Matthew McConaughey on ‘Dallas Buyers Club’: ‘Damn Right This Is a Great Time in My Career’

Cover story: Actor segues next to Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar'

Variety Matthew McConaughey
Williams + Hirakawa

It may not be to most actors’ tastes, but Matthew McConaughey is sounding oddly happy about his smaller paydays.

“For the first time in my career, I lost money! No joke!” the actor says.

Then again, McConaughey has reason to smile; his choice to reject big mainstream movies, ultimately in favor of gritty roles in independent films, represents a dramatic career shift –— and has garnered widespread recognition — for the 44-year-old Texas-born father of three.

His performance in “Dallas Buyers Club,” as the real-life Ron Woodroof, a homophobic good ol’ boy who became a health crusader after being diagnosed with AIDS, smuggling life-saving drugs into the U.S. for himself and fellow patients, has earned him top honors at the Golden Globes and SAG awards, and brought him his first Oscar nomination.

It is one of several complicated characters that McConaughey has boldly portrayed recently — from the hard-edged drifter in “Mud” and the thong-wearing stripper in “Magic Mike” to the lonely hitman in “Killer Joe.”

And now he’s taken that newfound acting potency to the smallscreen as a cop dealing with personal demons in the new HBO series “True Detective.” Hollywood is already buzzing that before the year is out, McConaughey could walk away with an Oscar and an Emmy sitting side by side on his mantle.

This sudden acclaim comes after more than a decade in which the actor’s talents had not been taken as seriously as his good looks. His biggest hits came in the form of romantic comedies, beginning with 2001’s “The Wedding Planner” and two years later in “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” Christine Peters, who produced “How to Lose a Guy,” says McConaughey was the obvious choice to headline that film. “We needed sexy, hot, charming, intelligent — really, how many guys are there out there like that?” she notes. “He’s a true Southern gentleman.”

McConaughey has great affection for the romantic-comedy genre, noting that it’s difficult to keep such roles looking breezy. “It is a hard challenge to make it work, to tell a story you’ve seen time and time again that you know what the ending is going to be,” he says. “You have to stay light, you have to keep it moving. You drop anchor in one of those movies, and the whole thing sinks.”

One actor who has been with McConaughey on his career-winding journey is Woody Harrelson; the pair played brothers in the 1999 comedy “EdTV” and now co-star on “True Detective.” Harrelson recalls first meeting McConaughey at a CAA event.

“He had recently come out in ‘A Time to Kill’ and was the next big thing,” Harrelson recalls. “He was very nice. And funny. I asked if he wanted a shot of tequila. He declined, as it was noon and he had a lot to do that day.

“Then he relented.”

While McConaughey didn’t set out to pursue darker, smaller projects, he says he did make a conscious choice a few years ago to take a break. “I went to my wife and my agent and said, ‘I’m going to stop for a bit,’” he recalls. “I’m going to sit back in the shadows. I’m getting into my 40s, a great time for a man. I’ve started a family. I want to take time to laugh and love and enjoy these adventures.”

Time and again, he credits his wife, Brazilian model Camila Alves McConaughey, for her support. The two, who met in 2006, have three young children together, and McConaughey says she is a partner in every sense. “We’re a team. I know it’s not easy on her, though she does it with aplomb,” he says.

McConaughey explains he had no timetable for his self-imposed hiatus. “I just knew I was going to hold out for a while and things would dry out. I didn’t know how long they would dry out for, and that was scary,” he admits. “I would get sent things and the paychecks were great, and I would say no.

“Then, they quit sending them altogether,” he says. “And then … nothing. So the message got through.”

But dropping out of sight may have been the best thing for his career. “All of a sudden, I became a good idea for people like William Friedkin and Steven Soderbergh — people who hadn’t called before, who maybe wouldn’t have seen me as a good idea three years before.”

It was Friedkin who pursued him for “Killer Joe,” the story of a brutal contract killer who falls for the sister of a man who hires him. McConaughey initially balked at the script, based on the play by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts. “I wanted to take a shower with a steel brush after I first read it,” he recalls. “Then, a woman I worked with told me how funny she found it. So I went back and re-read it, and realized the potential.” He was also drawn to the offbeat romance in the film. “I like an odd love story,” he says. “I cried when they took King Kong away from Jessica Lange. I was like, ‘They can make it, man!’ ”

He followed “Killer Joe” with supporting roles in other indies — “Bernie” (2011) and “The Paperboy” (2012) to go along with “Mud” and “Magic Mike,” the latter of which won him an Independent Spirit Award for supporting actor. “It wasn’t a conscious choice to go indie,” he notes. “It was just that my head was down, looking for great characters. And those are harder to find in the big movies. And when you have a role like that in a studio film, they aren’t coming to me. They’re talking to George Clooney.”

McConaughey’s chance to realize his dream project came second-hand. Woodroof’s story had been floating around Hollywood for 20 years, with actors from Brad Pitt to Harrelson attached at times. Producer Robbie Brenner, who had been involved with the film since 2001, says that when the rights reverted back to writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack in 2009, “They gifted the script to me and said, ‘Go with God; make the movie.’ ”

The first person to whom Brenner gave the screenplay was McConaughey.

“I said, ‘He’s Ron Woodroof,’” recounts Brenner. This was before the actor’s surge of indie work, but Brenner says she was a longtime fan. “He’s so great in ‘A Time to Kill,’ ” the producer says of McConaughey’s first leading role, in the 1996 film based on John Grisham’s bestselling novel. “Yes, he chose to take a lighter path after that, but I think there’s something very deep behind the eyes, and he’s incredibly charismatic and likable. And, of course, he’s from Texas.”

But when director Jean-Marc Vallee was approached about helming the movie, he needed some convincing. “I read the script and said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t see Matthew McConaughey. This is so not him,’ ” Vallee concedes. “Robbie said to give him a chance and just meet with him.” The two had a three-hour sit-down in a hotel in New York, where Vallee was instantly impressed. “The way he spoke about the character, I could tell this was a man who wanted to go somewhere else in his life and professional career, and accept new challenges. It was a leap of faith, but I said OK.”

Vallee’s biggest concern was that the “handsome, 185-pound man” he saw would be able to physically transform. Says McConaughey, “He kept saying, ‘How will you lose the weight? Look at you!’ I just said, ‘Don’t worry about me, I’ll get there. I haven’t thought out how. Just trust me, I will.’  ”

Though many people assume that he just starved himself to shed more than 40 pounds for the role, McConaughey says the key was time. “I ate well,” he explains. “Just very small amounts. Five ounces of fish, twice a day. Cup of vegetables, twice a day. The secret is, I gave myself four months.” During that time, he also immersed himself in Woodroof’s past, meeting with his family and studying his diaries, which were given to him by Woodroof’s sister and daughter. “It was such an insight into this boyish mind, these small town wanderings,” McConaughey reveals. “It was my secret weapon.”

Still, the weight loss was jarring, even to those who knew him. While prepping for “Dallas,” McConaughey shot a small but scene-stealing part in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” as a coked up mentor to Leonardo DiCaprio’s stockbroker. “I showed up and had already lost like 25 pounds,” he laughs. “Marty was like, ‘Stop, I need you to stop!’ ”

Brenner recalls showing up to the first day on the set of “Dallas Buyers Club,” having not seen McConaughey in some time. She was getting out of her car when she spotted the actor walking by. “I was scared when I saw him,” she admits. “I couldn’t believe it was Matthew. And it’s not just the weight. It was the physicality and the look, and how he truly became Ron. It made me shudder.”

The film began shooting in November 2012 for a breakneck 28 days. Because of time constraints, it shot in natural light and actors were afforded few takes. But the cast seemed to thrive under the conditions. Says Vallee: “I quickly realized this guy (McConaughey) is on a mission to have fun and show the world how much he loves to be an actor and be at the service of his art form. He went crazy. I had to trust him, because he took me out of my comfort zone like no one else. He was constantly moving, giving these amazing takes — shots that would go on for more than a minute.”

Asked if it was a difficult shoot, McConaughey says, “I’ve got a saying: When faced with the inevitable, get relative. The inevitable was, I’m going to do this. I’ve got support from my family that insulates me. I surrounded myself with everything I needed to go on this adventure. And the focus was exciting. I said to myself, ‘We’re taking a trip, McConaughey. This is a story you want to tell. Those adventures you talk about — you’re on one now.’ ”

The thesp says his weight loss might have been harder on those around him than on himself. “I went from being cranky to hyper aware,” he says. “That clarity is hard on other people, because my bullshit meter was zero. I was like, ‘Speak up. No adjectives or adverbs. Just nouns and verbs. Speak!’”

Perhaps the highest praise comes from Harrelson. “There was no one else to play that part,” he notes. “His performance was a true wealth of brilliant, subtle choices. It’s almost unfortunate so much focus has been on him losing weight. This is an actor completely inside the character. He couldn’t make a wrong turn he was so authentic.”

Born in Uvalde, Texas, McConaughey, who was raised middle-class along with his two older brothers in Longview, didn’t grow up expecting to be an actor. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father owned an oil pipe supply business. Matthew had planned on becoming a lawyer — a profession he would end up playing out onscreen in the films “A Time to Kill,” “Amistad” and “The Lincoln Lawyer.”

In his sophomore year of college, mere days before he had to pick a major, he discovered Og Mandino’s philosophical tome “The Greatest Salesman in the World.” After devouring the book, a 10-step reaffirmation program, he realized he wanted to spend his life telling stories. He called his father to tell him he wanted to go to film school. After a long pause, his dad simply said, “Well, don’t half-ass it.”

McConaughey enrolled at the U. of Texas at Austin, thinking he’d become a filmmaker. But he kept getting acting jobs; when he met “Dazed and Confused” casting director Don Phillips, he asked about working as a production assistant on the pic. He ended up being cast in the tiny but iconic role of David Wooderson.

He soon moved to Los Angeles to take a job as a PA on a Coen Brothers film. The movie got pushed, and while McConaughey was crashing on Phillips’ couch, he was sent out for the 1995 drama “Boys on the Side.” That film and the 1994 family fantasy baseball pic “Angels in the Outfield” were his first Hollywood auditions.

He became an “overnight” star when director Joel Schumacher hired him for the lead role in “A Time to Kill.” The little-known actor found himself heading a cast that included Sandra Bullock and Kevin Spacey. He got through the media maelstrom by concentrating on the work, but admits he wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of attention. “My life was turned upside down,” he says. “I went from being told ‘no’ 100 times a day to being told I could have anything I wanted.”

Knowing that fame could be fleeting, he took supporting roles with great directors, including Steven Spielberg (“Amistad”) and Robert Zemeckis (“Contact”).

McConaughey is continuing to work on challenging roles with the best directors in the business. He’s just signed on to play a suicidal man who discovers a different path in director Gus Van Sant’s “Sea of Trees.”  And he will be seen this November in Christopher Nolan’s top-secret sci-fi epic “Interstellar.” While he can’t divulge anything about the plot, McConaughey does say: “Here’s what I can tell you,” before slipping into the third person. “It’s the most ambitious thing he’s ever done. And he’s done some ambitious stuff.”

McConaughey had run into Nolan over the years, but it was at an event about two years ago he says the director first praised his work. “He came up to me and said, ‘“Mud.” I love that movie,’ ” McConaughey recalls. He was later asked to fly to Los Angeles to meet with Nolan. “I sat down with him for about 2½ hours at his house,” he recalls. “Not one word came up about “Interstellar.” I walked out not sure what to think. I mean, he’s not a guy who takes general meetings.” Clearly Nolan liked what he saw; McConaughey was offered the role.

Nolan may be tight-lipped about the film’s plot, but he has nothing but praise for the pic’s star. “Matthew works from the inside out,” he says. “He approaches a character from a deep human understanding, refusing to take shortcuts to an emotional connection with the audience — all while never losing sight of the demands of the overall narrative.”

“Interstellar” might break McConaughey’s streak of independent films, but he does point out that Nolan, who began his career with small pics like “Following” and “Memento,” still brings an indie sensibility to big-budget movies. “There’s no fucking around on set,” the actor notes. “He’s a great problem solver. In that way, he’s very indie. Here’s a guy who could have whatever budget he wants — and we finished shooting early.”

For now, McConaughey is simply enjoying his current, most personal role.

“For the next two months, I’m playing the character of Matthew McConaughey, an actor proud of the films he’s been in,” he says, before again opting for the third person. “And if any of those films or his performances are in awards shows, he’s going to go, heart high and head up, and look them all in the eye and say, ‘Damn right this is a great time in my career.’ That’s the role I’m in now. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for.”