Matthew McConaughey on rebooting a Hollywood career at 43

Matthew McConaughey stars in Mud. Picture: AP
Matthew McConaughey stars in Mud. Picture: AP
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THE Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Fool’s Gold, The Ghost of Girlfriends Past, Failure to Launch.

I feel slightly sullied even writing that list. I’m ashamed to say I’ve seen most of them. Rom-coms of such searing predictability even if you haven’t watched them you know the plot. But consider Killer Joe, Magic Mike, The Paperboy, Bernie and, now, Mud. These films are quite a different proposition. Gritty, quirky, unexpected, erm, good. How interesting then that the common denominator is Matthew McConaughey.

In this instance, interesting isn’t a euphemism, I really mean it. We all thought we knew what we got with McConaughey: pecs. No, that’s unfair. There was also Southern charm as unctuous as barbecue sauce, twinkling eyes, an irresistible smile set between perfectly symmetrical dimples. McConaughey’s been a safe pair of hands when it comes to cinematic romance of the frothy, undemanding variety. But something extraordinary has happened.

At the age of 43, the Texan beefcake has emerged after a stellar year in 2012 as one of Hollywood’s biggest, brightest, most interesting movie stars. Outcasts, killers, journalists with a penchant for rough sex, McConaughey has found his niche and in doing so has pulled off what he’s calling a ‘McConaissance’.

In a vest and tracky bottoms, sitting a stone’s throw from the soft, white sand of the Santa Monica beach, McConaughey looks wiry and lean. An ageing gymnast perhaps. Gone is the beefiness and instead he looks slight. Still, the eye pads have been removed, he hasn’t moisturised his biceps or chewed on a plug of tobacco (he wore eye pads and did those things in front of the journalist who stepped into the room an hour before me, and I feel a little cheated that I’ve been deprived of this, not least because it perfectly captures McConaughey’s approach to movie stardom, simultaneously vain and completely unselfconscious). What I do get, though, is McConaughey in full flow. He’s charming, intense (there’s a bit of table banging), he delivers sentences so long, several tides may have washed in and out on the nearby beach as they wend their way towards forming an answer. His Southern accent lilts, his eyes crinkle when he laughs.

In a few hours, although he doesn’t know it yet, he’ll be picking up the Best Supporting Actor gong at the Independent Spirit Awards for his role as Dallas in Magic Mike, hence the moisturiser, but for now he’s settled on a sofa, a pot of herbal tea on the table in front of him primed to talk about his fine new film, Mud. But first we’ve got to address what has happened in the last year. I genuinely want to know how he explains his astounding career resurgence.

“What I didn’t want to do revealed what I did want to do,” he says with a shrug. “I did have to stop and say you know what? That action film, that romantic comedy script, I like it, I feel like I could do it tomorrow. Nothing wrong with that, two good things, but hang on a second, there’s something I need to feel. I want to read something that makes me feel that I don’t know that I could do it tomorrow. I want to do something that 
I’m like ‘ooh, I don’t know what I’m going to do with that’. And I don’t want to be drawn to that thing because it’s eccentric. I’m not for eccentricity for eccentricity’s sake.”

For a year-and-a-half, McConaughey said no to projects. Eighteen months. It’s a long time, even if he knew there was an action movie or a rom-com waiting in the wings, and he assures me that he didn’t. As he puts it, “I let it all go. I free-formed it.” He acknowledges that he had some advantages, namely being financially secure. McConaughey lives just along the coast from where we sit, in Malibu, with his Brazilian-American wife, Camila Alves and their three children, Levi, Vida and Livingston. “I wasn’t worried I couldn’t pay the bills. I lost money in the best creative year of my working life.” He laughs. “But I didn’t have to say to Camilla ‘don’t take the kids out for something to eat’. That’s a practical thing and it’s a real thing.”

A movie star who references living on a budget. You’ve got to love him for that. And you’ve got to be impressed that he was willing to take the risk that he could do something different.

“In that wild way life works,” he says, smiling, “Billy Friedkin called about Killer Joe, Steven Soderbergh called about Magic Mike. Rick [Richard Linklater] handed me the script for Bernie when we were on our way back from hitting baseballs. Lee Daniels called about The Paperboy. I didn’t find out about these projects and go chasing them. They came to me.”

It was a similar story with Mud. The third feature written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter), McConaughey plays Mud, the titular drifter, who turns up on an island in the Mississippi, sleeping in a boat up a tree, with a chipped front tooth, a lucky shirt and a pocketful of cigarette stubs. On the run, he’s trying to find his way back to Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the love of his life while avoiding some gangsters who’re trying to find their way to him. The emotional heart of the movie though beats through two young boys (Jacob Lofland and Tye Sheridan) who discover Mud and find in him everything teenage boys trying to work out how to be grown-up in the world could want.

It’s a film full of interesting performances, not just McConaughey’s. “It is, isn’t it?” he says, eyebrows launching up, leaning forward, genuinely enthusiastic. “It’s a special little film. Not little film, it didn’t feel little,” he corrects himself. It doesn’t look little either. Mud, in fact, is like a film from another era – a proper American indie, a coming-of-age story set against a background of a community struggling for survival. “It’s rich,” McConaughey says, evidently proud. “But there’s an innocence about it. I just feel like it’s pulled me back 20 years. Somehow it feels like the 80s – maybe it’s Stand By Me, maybe it’s the John Hughes films.”

Nichols wrote the part of Mud for McConaughey. He said that he had written so many “quiet southern men” he wanted to create one who talked. More than that, he wanted him “to move and constantly be in motion and have this personal belief system based on superstition that he built from the ground up. I wanted him to constantly be saying crazy things and doing crazy things.” Mud is a romantic, but there’s an edge to him too, he’s got a strained relationship with the truth and at times he’s properly sinister. McConaughey is a perfect fit. Did he ask Nichols why he chose him?

“I’ve probably asked him,” he says, then screws up his face. “I don’t know if I have asked him. I don’t know why. I will say this, and I’ve said it before, Mud is an aristocrat of the heart. He’s chivalrous about the heart, to the extent that he’s not of this world. If he did come back down to earth, if he got logical and conscious about what he’s doing, he’d die.

“It’s arguable that if he ever he really got Juniper it wouldn’t work. D.O.A man, until she was off again. There’s an obsession with that, a purity to it, I loved locking in to. It made me go back, I went back to a place, not a place you learn later in life about love which is about competition, tit for tat, attitude. There’s none of that with this guy. He doesn’t even use this,” he throws his arms up and points to his head. “It’s not happening above the shoulders. It’s selflessness across the board.”

So it’s lack of ego then. That’s what McConaughey brings to the part. I believe him. I mean who can argue with a man who, with such glee, has taken a wrecking ball to the effigy of his slick, rom-com persona. In Magic Mike, he was the sleazy stripper, in Mud he’s the ultimate romantic, but far from the white-toothed poster boy with his tie slung over his shoulder. Both characters are romantic heroes, but with certain aspects blown out of proportion, as if by a fairground mirror – lasciviousness with one, romantic idealism with the other. But it’s not just character traits McConaughey has messed with. Even his trademark looks have taken a pounding. For his role as a man living with Aids in the upcoming Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey lost 56lbs following a diet which largely consisted of Diet Coke and egg whites.

If the actor has proved anything, it’s that when it comes to characters that don’t quite fit in, he is, or at least he should be, Hollywood’s go to guy.

“These guys are on the fringes,” he says. “They’ve all been somewhat outcast. They’ve all got their individual obsessions and lives where they’ve created their own laws and their own politics. And they have real things to fight for – Mud fighting for the love of his life and the purity of his own heart, Dallas is a capitalist, for Joe it was about order, the absence of chaos. Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club is all about self-survival, whatever it takes to keep himself alive. There’s a great freedom that comes from that for me. There are no chains on any of these characters, they’re not bound by anything unless it’s self-made.” He smiles.

“I mean take Dallas, if you’re running a strip club there’s not a big, hardcore governance structure. There’s not a school you have to go to for that.” He laughs. The other thing is, he says, the movies he’s been in recently have been “pretty good”.

“There’s no guarantee. I could’ve done the same work and...” he shakes his head. “With a studio movie, whether the public likes it or not you know it’s going to get out there, you’re going to get to the table. With an independent, you’re trying to get the money up until the day that you shoot. Then you make it and now you’ve got to go pedal it. And people are saying how do you sell this? So then you get something like Bernie, starting off in 150 theatres, but it just kept on going, kept on going. You catch fire with Magic Mike because a studio sees that and goes male stripper movie, all these guys in it, Soderbergh directing it, ‘yup, we know how to sell that’. It makes $100-and-whatever million and you made the movie for $7m – that’s just one of those perfect scenarios, creatively and business-wise.”

When McConaughey speaks it’s as though he’s letting you eavesdrop into his internal monologue, the pros, the cons, the optimism, the world weariness. Suddenly, his 20 years in Hollywood are very clear – he’s under no illusions about the vagaries of his business.

And yet, still he’s learned something new.

“I’ll tell you this and this is something I’ve learned and I think part of learning it was naming it,” he pauses for effect. “Process, process, process. I didn’t know this but I’ve always loved the process. I love the making. I love having all this stuff and knowing that for the next four months this is what I’m going to working with. This is numero one.”

He runs through the conversation, his mental checklist to work out if all’s well with him.

“Family? Yep, we good? Camila? We’re all with? Good. Phone ringing, but that’s second, whoever is on there is second because right now this project is going to bed with me, I’m getting the pages laminated and I’m taking it in the shower with me, I’m going to the library, I’m recording stuff and taking it to the gym. And it’s so much fun. And these are characters and stories that if I had another year to work on them I could keep going, keep going, keep going.

“The process is the part I really enjoy. Like now, I’m going to the Independent Spirit Awards today and I’m nominated for Magic Mike and Killer Joe. It’s fantastic but if I don’t win my qualitative sense of what I did is not going to go up or down one millimetre. If I win something it’ll be really cool, yeah I love to win, I got a trophy that’s great, but it’s not got anything to do with my sense of enjoyment from making them, or my reason for making them. I’ve got that enrichment from the 
making already.”

He says that if someone was to ask him for advice about the movie business, his answer as to how to approach it has changed as a result of his recent experiences.

“My answer now would be you’d better only do it if you can know that you love the process and you can be poor in 20 years, because if you’re doing it for the outcome you’re going to be frustrated, you’re going to be mad and you’re not going to enjoy doing it.” When he says this, it really does sound as though he’s speaking from experience. It’s clear that although he says he’d never say never to another rom-com, his time as Hollywood heart-throb wasn’t exactly easy. And now, with a part in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and newly confirmed as Christopher Nolan’s leading man in the eagerly anticipated Intersteller, McConaughey’s 18 months of saying no seem to have been very, very worthwhile, even if he did have to come up with ways to keep himself busy.

“I had to work out how not to go stir crazy,” he says. “I love the structure of work. I’m happiest when I’m working. My wife knows that, my kids even know that. But I had a family to turn to to say what’s my work now? Cool, let’s be dad. That’s one big thing to spend more time on. But then creatively, personally, I know I still need my own thing.”

So what did he do? He wrote more, he says. And he went back to his diaries from the last 30 years and started to dictate them. Some were funny, he says, and some revealed things that he didn’t expect.

“I think the overall surprise is how many things that I wrote 30 years ago, that I today not only say or write, but are actually in my being,” he says. “I had a lot of goals that I’d written that I’d completely forgotten about and almost every one of them has been achieved. I remember when I wrote them down thinking, you need to hang this on the fridge, but I didn’t. But now I look at them and think, I did that.”

He leans back, puts his arms above his head and smiles.

• Mud (12A) is on general release this weekend