Interview: Matthew McConaughey, actor

AFTER a series of lame rom-coms, Matthew McConaughey is back on sparkling form. His personal life is looking pretty good too

AFTER a series of lame rom-coms, Matthew McConaughey is back on sparkling form. His personal life is looking pretty good too

It is after 5pm on the penultimate day of the Cannes film festival. Matthew McConaughey is reclining, aptly enough, in the movie stars’ lounge of the Martinez Hotel. Wearing dark trousers and a chocolate-coloured polo shirt, his sunglasses hanging off the V in its neck, he’s almost glowing with a nut-brown tan that seems to back up his profile on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) website, which claims his trademark is “habitually taking off his shirt”.

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When I arrive, his long legs are stretched out, his feet happily resting on the adjacent white sofa. The body language suggests satisfaction, and well it might. The Texan is in a good place right now: two competition films in Cannes and a further two on the way. Moreover, last weekend he married his Brazilian girlfriend, the model and TV presenter Camila Alves, with whom he has two children. He proposed to her on Christmas Day. “I did all the right stuff, man, and she said yes,” he beams.

After years of being the eligible bachelor, dating an assortment of co-stars (Ashley Judd, Sandra Bullock, Penélope Cruz), he fell head over heels for Alves when they met in 2006. From learning Portuguese to taking her on his favourite hikes, his proposal seemed inevitable. “Asking a woman to marry me – to want to do that, to find that woman and allow myself to love her that way and say, ‘I want to spend the rest of my life with you’,,that’s a rite of passage,” he muses.

Becoming a father – to son Levi, three, and daughter Vida, two – is another rite of passage, he says. “One thing I always knew I wanted to be, since I was eight years old, I knew I wanted to be a father,” he says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be. When I was 20 years old, I didn’t know what I wanted for a career. But I knew I wanted to be a father. It has been the thing that, since I was very young, I looked up to. The men I looked up to the most were fathers – men who raised good kids.”

At 42, McConaughey seems to be bathing in the bliss of parenthood, as if his life and work had no meaning until now. “They remind you of great things, man. You approach the world with more significance, because you’re carrying. I’m their king, their shepherd. I’ve got to pass down what I know that they don’t, but also make sure they grow up on their own time. You don’t want to rush them. Also, being delighted in who they are, just what they are, nothing else. Not how good they are at something. Just who they are.”

As he talks, McConaughey has moved and is now leaning in, elbows on knees, animated by the very thought of his charges. “I’m here, they’re back home, not in the south of France, but both of them are in my pocket … I’ve got two that need me.”

If this sounds insincere in print, it’s anything but. McConaughey is not PR-polished, but speaks from the heart, in that earnest Texan drawl of his. Polite, heartfelt and attentive, he seems the living embodiment of the good, ol’-fashioned Southern gentleman.

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If McConaughey is happy in his personal life, it has given him the chance to experiment in the workplace. Cannes audiences got to see him as a journalist in Lee Daniels’s follow-up to Precious, a steamy Southern noir called The Paperboy. He also played the title role in Jeff Nichols’s Mark Twain-inspired Mud, a tattoo-clad outcast with love on his mind. Before these reach our shores, he can be seen in the violent but stylish thriller Killer Joe, which opens the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Wednesday, and male stripper comedy Magic Mike. “I’d be remiss to not admit that ability, comfort, significance in my own home has something to do with the work I’m doing, the way I feel like flying – higher and further,” he says. “It gives you courage going out.”

From playing a ruthless assassin in Killer Joe to doing a ‘full monty’ in Magic Mike, you might say McConaughey has got his mojo back. He ponders this for a minute. “What is it with all this light in my life? In a way it does make it easier to go be [on screen] the absolute killer.”

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It’s certainly a turnaround from the 2000s, when he seemed to be coasting in a series of lame romantic comedies such as Fool’s Gold and Failure to Launch. He’s too polite to bite the hand that feeds, however. “I was good to them and they were good to me. Shoot, yeah. Some of those romantic comedies, they put food on my kids’ table. Trust me. Absolutely. And they’re quite fun to do. You’ve got to be in a whole different mind-frame for them.”

But there’s no question, this was not the McConaughey who arrived in Hollywood in the 1990s, playing the high-school grad in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused before breaking out as the crusading lawyer in the 1996 John Grisham adaptation A Time to Kill. There were attention-grabbing roles for Steven Spielberg in his slavery epic Amistad and alongside Jodie Foster in the thoughtful sci-fi Contact. But he became more known for losing out to Leonardo DiCaprio for Titanic when it seemed the part was his.

The Titanic incident typified his luck, the squandering of early promise. “My stock went down,” he shrugs. Was he dissatisfied? “I don’t know,” he sighs. “I was looking to shake things up. I was looking for self-determined, singularly willed, fringe characters that didn’t need to pander to convention or didn’t need to pander to even a plot in some ways. And there’s a singular mind and a goal that each one of the characters I’ve been playing lately has.”

His titular character in Killer Joe most certainly fits this bill. A ruthless former NYPD detective, he’s a psychopathic hitman hired by Emile Hirsch’s white-trash bozo to bump off his own mother in a hare-brained scam to collect her life insurance. Directed by William Friedkin, the man behind such 1970s classics as The Exorcist and The French Connection, it’s based on a 1993 play by Tracy Letts. The humour is… let’s call it ripe. Dark, twisted and violent, it’s a shocking, electrically charged piece. “First read, man, I didn’t get it,” the actor admits. “I was appalled by it. I thought it was gross. I put it down and said, ‘I don’t want to be a part of that world.’”

One particularly unforgettable scene sees Joe force Gina Gershon’s character to fellate a piece of fried chicken. “When you get the schedule, that’s the scene you look forward to – like, ‘What day is that?’” he smirks. “But I felt such ownership of the character by that point that I didn’t think much about it, aside from saying, ‘I’ve got to do it.’ No easing into it either. This is one take, baby.”

Talking of which, his other new release, Magic Mike, sees him play Dallas, the owner of a male strip joint. Co-starring Channing Tatum, the film is reputedly based on Tatum’s early experiences working as a stripper in a nightclub. McConaughey had no hesitation in committing to a strip scene himself. “I was like, ‘If I don’t want to give that a shot, I’m going to regret that for the rest of my life. I’ve got to do that.’ I ain’t never done that before. But this is full-on performance.”

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So was he nervous? “Hell, yeah. But then when you do it, it’s like a drug – I want to do it again. When you did it, it was great. Dude, let me tell you. I think the dudes are going to love it. It’s a wild lark. It’s a great story about a guy who’s in this very seedy world, looking to go on to the next stage of his life.”

So what did his good lady think of this? “She’s wonderful, man, she’s got a great sense of humour. And so she was all for it. She was like, ‘Go for it.’” She even paid a surprise visit to the set. “I didn’t know she was there. She was frickin’ there. She showed up.”

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Of course, it was not the first time McConaughey had been caught naked. In 1999, he was famously arrested in Austin, Texas, during the early hours, after a neighbour filed a noise complaint. Texas police discovered him enjoying a nude bongo session, and he and a friend were hauled off on a series of dubious charges including resisting arrest and possession of marijuana, after “a faint odour” was detected. The charges were ultimately dropped, McConaughey even getting a T-shirt printed that read: “What Part of Naked Bongo-Playing Don’t You Understand?”

He recently joined British band The Cult on stage at the hip Austin SXSW festival, playing bongos – as if to remind us that he still has a sense of humour about the incident. “I’ve done it since too,” he says. “Oh yeah, bro, I love playing drums naked. Who doesn’t like comfort and music?” He points out he was reared in the country, where he would frequently walk around without a shirt or shoes on. “My mom didn’t even put a bathing suit on us in the country club until we were nine.”

One of three sons born to Mary, a nursery teacher, and James, who had a brief career playing pro football with the Green Bay Packers before moving into the oil business, McConaughey speaks fondly of his childhood. “[There was] a lot of love in our family. That was the one thing. You’d get in trouble in our family and you’d hear, ‘I don’t like you right now but I love you.’ It didn’t matter, even if you were in trouble, you knew you were loved. And that was a big thing.”

While his parents endured a stormy relationship, divorcing twice and marrying three times, McConaughey does not seem unduly traumatised. Blessed with good looks – he was voted most handsome in his high school yearbook – he was the sort to drift through life without a care in the world. “I was very good at getting away with stuff. But I did get caught a few times. The last thing you’d want to do in my family was lie. ‘Don’t lie to Mom and Dad, because if you got caught, you’d get in more trouble for the lie rather than the deed.’”

After spending a gap year in Warnervale, Australia, when he was 18, McConaughey decided to choose drama over studying law at the University of Texas, which left him “fretting” about telling his parents. “I was raised on, ‘You go get a nine-to-five job, earn your pay and work your way up.’ I called and said, ‘Dad, I want to go to film school.’ There was a four-second pause. All of a sudden he goes, ‘Is that what you wanna do?’ I said, ‘Yes, Sur.’ He said, ‘Don’t half-ass it.’ That was it, he was behind me 100 per cent. He would’ve loved what I do. All the McConaugheys are hams, but he was the biggest.”

His father died in 1992 of a heart attack, just as McConaughey was filming (and feeling) Dazed and Confused. It meant his father never saw him succeed as an actor. As he struggled to come to terms with the loss, he developed a personal mantra – just keep livin’ – a phrase he has stuck by ever since, between his love for surfing, swimming and cycling (he’s good friends with pro cyclist Lance Armstrong), not to mention launching his own range of beachwear and running an indie record label called j.k.livin’, it’s a wonder he ever has time to step before a camera.

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He has even started working as a producer, with the 2008 film Surfer, Dude. Now he’s writing his first feature, a live action fairy tale “that’s the right story to tell at the right time”. As this hints, McConaughey is still an innocent at heart. “I think the core of innocence is healthy for anyone,” he says, attributing it to becoming a parent.

“Kids will remind you that, even though you’ve gone down a road 100 times, it’s brand new for them – and that’s healthy.” Now there’s some good, ol’-fashioned Southern wisdom for you.

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Killer Joe opens the Edinburgh International Film Festival Wednesday, and goes on general release on 29 June. Magic Mike is released on 11 July