It's hard to get a moment with a major movie star. They're tightly scheduled and you have to go from 0 to 60 once you're in front of them, recorder on. Nevertheless the stars themselves usually seem relaxed enough through their long promotional efforts for Oscar films as the world's slowest seated wedding line commences with one journalist after another sitting down with them one by one for a quick conversation. I'm sure our faces all blur together forming one lumpy mecha-journalist for the star. Their faces, on the other hand, remain individualized and imprinted in each of ours from frequent exposure and mythology.
The first thing I notice about Matthew McConaughey in person, apart from the inevitable "how much weight has he gained back?" instant check, is his eyes. They're blue, sure, but the darkest blue I've seen up close and more than a little intense. They're so inky blue, in fact that they look dangerous and unfamiliar despite years of movie appearances. (I hadn't yet seen True Detective in which they reappear). The voice counterbalances them surprisingly well, instantly familiar and Texas friendly.
I sat down with McConaughey last year as his Oscar buzz was building for Dallas Buyers Club (he was on a weekend break from filming Interstellar when we spoke). I was surprised to hear that despite his busy schedule he's been getting the weekends off which he says he needs though he was sacrificing some to support his now Oscar nominated film "Which I am happy to do!" he added, quickly. I had planned to stay off the topic of weight loss (he lost 47 lbs for the role), which has been discussed too often for an award-winning performance that is most impressive for its emotional content, but I made the mistake of leading with it. And it's a topic he kept drifting back to. But then, why shouldn't he? His body has hardly been easy to separate from his acting, either, whether he's playing hunky romcom leads, male strippers, pumped up dragon slayers, or, as recently, an emaciated AIDS patient or an eerily stiff and sinewy police detective.
Nathaniel R: Did you ever think 'this is crazy, what I'm doing' with the physical prep for this role. I mean, they can put Brad Pitt's head on an old man baby now...
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: [Laughter] No, no, no. Not really, I really didn't. Look, I consulted the right people about doing this in the healthiest way possible. I was in tune with how I was feeling the whole time. My body can handle a lot more than maybe some people give their own body credit for. I mean I gave myself three months to do it. I didn't do it in a month. I set a course. 3.5 pounds per week... Controlled meals, controlled lifestyle, pretty hermetic, you know? I didn't live as I do now.
But that was for a couple of reasons. One, I wasn't out in the sunshine because I needed to get pale. Two, I wasn't going to go meet somebody at my favorite restaurant. I wasn't going to put myself under the temptation of that, so I had a very controlled life. It was very monkish.
This level of commitment, in terms of performance though, isn't new for you. You can see it as early as like Reign of Fire where you're just 'full throttle', and certainly Magic Mike last year.
The 'I will throw everything I have into this part!' approach. Not every actor does that.
Well, there are certain things where it's useful. There are certain times where an actor can do it to over choreograph an idea where it's not really necessary. This was clearly necessary -- it would've taken you out of the movie if you meet me like this and find out I have HIV and you're like, 'I've met people with HIV and...' You know? It wouldn't work.
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: Reign of Fire was a whole other fun thing but that was all from the imaginary dragon slayer future. And if anyone disagreed with anything I was doing there, I could always just go, "You know any dragon slayers?" and no one answered yes so I was always safe with that one, right? [Laughter]
Here's the deal: it's really part of the fun. We get one day a year where we can dress up and be what we want to be. Halloween. It's a costume. Well, the next thing is when you get to go perform and play and be someone else. [Referring back to his body and the weight loss] I got six months to get into this. I have six months to get into construction, into the architecture of this character. Guess what? That's the most important thing I can do right now.
I enjoy that. And that's my job? I get paid to do it?
There's a privilege and excitement in jumping off. I'm always looking for ways to quiet down the rest of the world around me so I can get a singular focus. I have a family that supports that, so doing this, and setting up those rules like 'I'm not gonna meet you out, but you can come over, and what am I eating, well I'm eating my regular meal' Just accepting that lifestyle gave me more places to focus. Losing the weight sort of became like the thing that's the construct which which I was getting into the focus.
Working without a net, though. Is there anything that scares you as an actor? That you think that you would have more trouble with?
Well look, I don't do all my stunts. There are certain foolish things where it's like [Weighing the options] 'bang for a buck? risk/reward?' It's like, no, not necessary. Does it inform my performance that much if I do that? Well if it does, then let's figure out a way to do it but if it doesn't then I get it, that's not where I need to have my battle.
[Laughing, suddenly remembering something]
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: I just ran into my buddy Woody in the hallway, and he was like, 'Man, I'm so happy for you! This Dallas Buyers Club I'm hearing a lot about it -- I'm so happy for you because this is really one of these ones you don't want it to go straight to video. [As if he's looking at his body] For all that to be straight to video, no way!'
Nathaniel: You've been taking a lot of risks and interesting parts lately.
MCCONAUGHEY: Something I've learned in the last two years that's really been quite helpful and I'm enjoying it is I'm trying to seek out experiences, trying to seek out something I can do with the process. Not the result -- we'll see. Man, if I'm thinking about that result I'm going to miss something right in front of me. So let's just make sure I do my best to look around me and go, 'I think the director can be excellent, the people, we can make an excellent movie. The script is good enough and with all these pieces in place? Alright, Check you later. Diving in!'
No guarantee that it doesn't go straight to video and would that be like [whispering] "fuck"? It'd probably pinch me a little bit, but I guarantee that no part of me would say, well, I'm not doing that again. Regardless of the result, I had a creative ball.
Since we've been talking about your weight loss, I have to know what you make of the media's fascination with your body? Because it didn't start here and you've used it a lot in your work. One of my readers, when I told them I'd be interviewing you, said "Ask him, 'if it's integral to the script, would you keep your shirt on?'"
Nathaniel: Is that something that you think about? I mean Magic Mike plays on that expectation and persona
[Here he crosses his arms behind his head and leans back, settling in to the question... or maybe just the couch]
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: Yeah, burst that bubble and take it up another notch, for sure. Go all the way through with it, you know? I don't know. It's not something I really think about. I'm not that much of a voyeur of my own -- or the perception of me.
But you're aware of it, I take it, because it's a play on that.
Oh, sure. But Magic Mike, that was a part and partial thing. That was not like 'This would be a good part because it'll be a play on that. This was a great idea. Oh and guess what? It will also probably do that too, and great!
Love that movie.
It was a good one, man. Maybe we'll make another one of those!