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Why Matthew McConaughey Is One Of the Bravest Actors Out There

Indiewire By Diana Drumm | Indiewire October 30, 2013 at 11:8AM

Matthew McConaughey is charismatic. It’s obvious and oft repeated, but true. The actor with a distinctly Texan twinkle in his eye and drawl from his grin manages to draw the audience to himself onscreen fairly consistently, whether he is at the film’s center or on its periphery. His career has seen some highs ("Amistad"), some lows ("Surfer, Dude"), and some up-for-debate rom-com bows ("How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days"), but McConaughey has persevered onto a recent string of risky, off-the-beaten-path roles and giving one of the bravest and not-so-coincidentally most critically acclaimed performances of the year in "Dallas Buyers Club" (opening this Friday).

Matthew McConaughey is charismatic. It's obvious and oft repeated, but true. The actor with a distinctly Texan twinkle in his eye and drawl from his grin manages to draw the audience to himself onscreen fairly consistently, whether he is at the film's center or on its periphery. His career has seen some highs ("Amistad"), some lows ("Surfer, Dude"), and some up-for-debate rom-com bows ("How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days"), but McConaughey has persevered onto a recent string of risky, off-the-beaten-path roles and giving one of the bravest and not-so-coincidentally most critically acclaimed performances of the year in "Dallas Buyers Club" (opening this Friday).

Over two decades ago (according to McConaughey's March interview on NPR), the 23 year-old University of Texas film student was out at a bar with his girlfriend at the time, getting a few free drinks off of a classmate who was bartending, and met casting director Don Phillips. Four hours later and after they closed down the bar, Phillips turned and asked McConaughey, "You ever acted before?" This exchange led to a script six hours later and an audition in which he nearly didn't get the part. According to his interview last year with the Chicago Tribune, with McConaughey's combed hair, ironed shirt and clean-shaven face, the director said, "You're not this guy." Not so easily disheartened, McConaughey pressed further, "No, but I know who this guy is," and went on to slouch into character convincingly enough to get role. The director was Richard Linklater, the "guy" was Dave Wooderson, and the film was "Dazed and Confused."

At the film's 20th anniversary NYFF screening earlier this month, Linklater corroborated this, saying his initial reaction to McConaughey was that he was "too good-looking" but after the actor "settled in," he saw that "Matthew was so perfect when he fell into that character" of the government employee still living out his high school glory days and preying on high school girls ("I get older, they stay the same age."). According to Linklater, McConaughey based his performance of Wooderson partially off of one of his older brothers and Jim Morrison, with the latter being the specific inspiration for the now-iconic "All right, all right, all right" line (which McConaughey recently quoted in his HFA acceptance speech last week).

During the same Q&A, co-star Parker Posey shared that on-set, McConaughey had a certain aura around him, enough of one that the film's makeup artist declared to Posey, "He's going to be a big star," and on first sight, she immediately asked Linklater if she could be in a scene with him (which is how Darla ended up at the Emporium pool hall and, with a little more back story, greeting Wooderson with a slap on the derriere). For a first film role and in a supporting part, McConaughey sure left his mark, receiving praise from critics and audiences alike. Through his off-the-charts likeability, McConaughey managed to carve a place for a very seedy character in the hearts of high school nostalgists everywhere and to begin to pave his own way into movies. 

Stuck a few years on the Hollywood sidelines (including a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role in Angels in the Outfield), McConaughey made a bigger name for himself in the late ‘90s with highlights including Joel Schumacher's legal thriller "A Time To Kill," Steven Spielberg's historical drama "Amistad" and Robert Zemeckis' sci-fi "Contact." In each of these roles, McConaughey exuded a rugged idealism which was neither naïve nor delusional but convincingly portrayed the character's conviction. This ability combined with his chiseled good (but not too pretty) looks and six-pack parlayed itself into a few higher-profile studio roles in would-be blockbusters and romantic comedies. Or as William Friedkin (who would later direct McConaughey in "Killer Joe") said in an interview with the A.V. Club, "If you're that good-lucking, they just want you to be that good-looking and make love convincingly to the leading lady." Unfortunately, these became his trademarks throughout the 2000's alongside gratuitous paparazzi snaps of him exercising while shirtless. (I'd like to blame this on a curse cast on him during a 2000 appearance in the "Sex and the City" episode "Escape from New York," but no one else is buying it.)

After the 2009 bomb "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," McConaughey decided to take a break from rom-coms (though never having officially "retired" from the genre) and looked towards smaller, riskier projects. Going back to his lawyerly roots, he played a defense attorney in Brad Furman's "The Lincoln Lawyer" and a district attorney in Richard Linklater's Bernie (their third film together after 1998's "The Newton Boys"). Having matured out of his heyday of young, earnest lawyers, a more tarnished McConaughey brought an admirable combination of pragmatism and dark wit to both roles that had not been showcased in previous performances. With the former being a surprise hit and the latter giving him some more critical cred (winning the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Supporting Actor, both marking his first-time nominations from those bodies), McConaughey decided to keep the momentum going on this "renaissance."

Lionsgate "Killer Joe"

Keeping on this darker, more serious, winding-with-risks road, McConaughey signed on to play a detective/contract killer in William Friedkin's "Killer Joe," based on the first play of Tracy Letts ("August: Osage County"). Remember, this is the same actor who sang a "You're So Vain" duet with Kate Hudson and talked about why brown M&Ms were his favorite with Jennifer Lopez. How did he wind up in a NC-17 crime thriller involving an infamously unsavory chicken wing scene? In an interview with Movieline, Friedkin explained that he had seen McConaughey on a television talk show and saw the real McConaughey, "not this guy in the romcoms." Recognizing that McConaughey "had the right accent" and "could charm the mustard off a hotdog" (there's that charisma again), Friedkin sent him the script, which the actor originally tossed aside. After thinking it over, McConaughey "saw the humor in it as well as the danger," and as Friedkin continued to share, "he decided to take control of his own career and challenge himself with this." This challenge paid off as McConaughey won his first Saturn Award (also his first award for a leading role) and was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead.

With a hat trick of critical triumphs in 2011, McConaughey kept on going with more unconventional roles in 2012 with Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy," Jeff Nichols' "Mud" and Steven Soderbergh's second-to-last feature film "Magic Mike." In "The Paperboy," McConaughey played both against and with type as an idealistic reporter who's also a closeted homosexual. Premiering at Cannes, "The Paperboy" didn't fare too well with critics (with a "Rotten" on Rotten Tomatoes and a "C" average on Criticwire), but McConaughey escaped the reviews relatively unscathed, with co-stars Zac Efron and John Cusack receiving most of the vitriol. Also premiering at Cannes that year, "Mud" was hailed by critics (with Certified Fresh 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, a B+ average on Criticwire and Godfrey Cheshire calling it "The Best Southern Film in Years") with specific praise for McConaughey's performance as the titular Mud, an on-the-run murderer hiding out on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River and a role which had been written by Nichols with McConaughey in mind from the very beginning back in the ‘90s (after the writer-director saw him in John Sayles' "Lone Star").

"Magic Mike."

Not hitting the festival circuit, "Magic Mike" was the smash hit of that summer, grossing over $167 million worldwide off of a $7 million budget. Coincidentally enough (considering the curse proposed above), the fact that during its opening weekend its audience was 73% female led Warner Bros. President of Domestic Distribution to compare its success to that of the "Sex and the City" movie. On a fun trivia note, it took only ten minutes of Soderbergh pitching the film over the phone for McConaughey to laughingly accept the role of Dallas (who he called "a man of action"), the former exotic dancer turned strip club owner with sights on a strip club empire. 

The role became the first of McConaughey's to receive serious (and semi-serious) Oscar buzz and though he did not receive a nomination, he did win Best Supporting Male at the Independent Spirit Awards and Best Supporting Actor a second year in a row from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. Although many critics focused on his Academy Awards snub, it should also be noted that the MTV Movie Awards overlooked him for Best Shirtless Performance, in favor of his co-star Channing Tatum, leaving us to ponder whether awards actually mean anything anymore.

While on the topic of awards, 2013 marks Matthew McConaughey's latest and, dare we write, greatest role yet. As a culmination of a long career buildup (see above, if you scrolled down/over), McConaughey has reached the pinnacle of his indie rebirth with his bravest and riskiest role yet in Jean-Marc Vallée's "Dallas Buyers Club." As Ron Woodroof, McConaughey plays a bigoted, drinking, drug-abusing, fucking without condoms, borderline criminal, Texan electrician/bookie/bull rider/"drug" dealer who contracts H.I.V. that later develops into AIDS. Having lost 47 pounds for the part of Woodroof, McConaughey is barely recognizable at first sight onscreen. Then you begin to notice the distinct, though now much rougher and rawer, swagger and charisma punching out of his skeletal frame.

"Dallas Buyers Club"

Funnily enough, when asked at a TIFF roundtable about whether Woodroof could be a continuation of Dave Wooderson ("Dazed and Confused") after a bit of a discussion about his weight fluctuations for roles over the years, McConaughey laughingly said, "Wooderson and Woodroof? Oh that's what got you, the ‘Wood' part. I never put that together. No, I don't think so…" and continued, "That's a much larger change than going from 210 to 135 [lbs.], from Wooderson to Woodroof, no… I think Wooderson is doing just fine wherever he is." So no, our favorite ‘70s creeper did not catch a terminal STD, or at least not AIDS, and you can catch a glimpse of an updated, Linklater-approved Wooderson in this 2012 Butch Walker and the Black Widows music video.

Receiving a 30-days-left-to-live prognosis, Woodroof does not take the news sitting down, literally bursting in and out of hospital rooms (or at least to great dramatic effect onscreen). In the film and in real life, he fought like hell, researching all he could about H.I.V. and AIDS and finding means outside the medical establishment for survival (or as McConaughey reflected, "A guy with a seventh grade education and he became a damn scientist of H.I.V. He studied that and knew more than a lot of the doctors did and did his own research."). Inadvertently, he helped many people along the way by dealing healthier, FDA-unapproved medicine through the legal loophole of a buyers club (hence "Dallas Buyers Club"). In the film, Woodroof befriends Rayon, an A.I.D.S.-infected homosexual transvestite (played by Jared Leto in a transformative performance), a relationship that does not deviate from Woodroof's stock character as McConaughey clarifies that its progression is "on a business sense first, and then on a more human level where they give a damn about each other."

The role of Woodroof is remarkable not only in that his story dealt with contracting H.I.V. from a staunch heterosexual, let alone bigoted, point of view during the earlier days of the AIDS epidemic (the film starts with the news Rock Hudson's death), but also that the character never feels some sort of grandiose epiphany to change his ways (an obligatory Hollywood trope) or a greater character arch beyond self-preservation, remaining a real down-right jerk until the end. Identifying these two elements as what drew him to the role, McConaughey explained with the latter that there was never "that third act turn of ‘woe be my ways,' ‘I'm sorry,' ‘I need to be the white knight and do good now,' " and that such a turn "would have been false, it would have been bullshit."

In approaching this character's story, McConaughey (a co-producer on the film) said, "Stay with the anarchy of this guy. Stay with the bigoted bastard. Stay with the guy's who is out for self-preservation. Stay with the guy as a businessman. The guy wants to be Scarface, man" and that then through this man's humanity and without shoving a saint-faced turnaround down the audience's throat, "the cause, and the crusader, and the activist will be revealed." Comparing the role to one of his all-time favorite films "Hud," McConaughey continued to share, "Whether you like him or not, you respect him at the end of the story because you're like, ‘I can't believe somebody has the courage to be that much of an ass and can still sleep at night' … This is a character who, like him or not, you're like, ‘Well, that's just who he is.' And if you can go ‘that's who he is,' then you get the human. And if you've got the human, he can be a bastard, a homophobe, a bigot, whatever."

Tuning into Woodroof's driving force of rage, McConaughey gives a commanding, sometimes chilling, warts-and-all performance, fully encapsulating the really awful, politically incorrect elements of the guy while also shedding a light on his deeper core. Rather than assuming an attitude or blending together a few key characteristics, McConaughey became Woodroof, an undeniably unique and heavily flawed character. As an actor, McConaughey stuck to his gut in following the basic crux of this man's story to the end. In another's hands, Woodroof most likely would have been intolerable, let alone unlikable, and/or fallen into the trappings of self-righteousness. Instead, McConaughey and his unique combination of earnestness and charisma enabled this performance to bring forth an unadulterated conviction that rises beyond the character flaws. In so doing, the character strikes the audience to their own most human core, that of self-preservation and survival, turning it into an admirable quality and the character into a true anti-hero.

In the role of Ron Woodroof, Matthew McConaughey took on the bravest role of his career, with the challenge being due to more than just character complexities. Dallas Buyers Club tackles issues ranging from H.I.V. and AIDS to homosexuality to big corporations to the medical establishment, with McConaughey as the de facto face of the project. A small independent film years in the making (after a few team changes, director Jean-Marc Vallée joined in 2010 and filming started in 2012), it was shot in New Orleans over the course of 6 weeks with an estimated $4 million budget. In 2012, the production became international news due to tabloids picking up images of a very gaunt McConaughey. With that, anticipation began to build and Oscar buzz began to swirl even before the film hit the editing room. This combined with McConaughey's recent upswing meant that "Dallas Buyers Club" could either cement him as a serious dramatic actor in an echelon he had yet to reach or leave him in the dust of a few smaller, low-profile (outside of the film world) successes. 

The risk has already begun to reap a few rewards with McConaughey winning a Hollywood Award for Best Actor and a pending nomination for the Gotham Award for Best Actor. It's not even Halloween and many have begun to declare McConaughey a frontrunner in the Best Actor Oscar race, including our own Peter Knegt. Whether or not McConaughey wins the bald-headed golden statue, his performance has earned a spot amongst film's bravest performances and this role will go down in history as a career-defining one for the actor.

McConaughey himself looks at this three-year upswing simply as "a really healthy time in my career." After being pigeonholed in the system for a decade, he took his work in his own hands and changed course towards more fulfilling roles -- "I'm enjoying and loving acting more than I ever have and I'm getting an experience from my work." With Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" being released next month (Nov. 15th) and Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" lined up for 2014, it looks like McConaughey is on track for even more success both commercially and critically along with his probably Oscar nomination.

This article is related to: Interviews, Awards, Academy Awards, Spirit Awards, Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey, Matthew McConaughey