Midcareer leap for McConaughey
At a certain point in the past decade — after the Jennifer Lopez movie and before the Jennifer Garner one, sometime between the two with Kate Hudson — Matthew McConaughey became a genre unto himself. For a while, it seemed, the makers of American romantic comedies were in the grips of repetition compulsion.
Not only did many of his movies (The Wedding Planner, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Failure to Launch) have barely distinguishable posters and plots, McConaughey also served a constant function in them: usually playing an upwardly mobile urban professional, he was a tanned emblem of a fantasy of modern masculinity, roguish but secretly sensitive, indecisive but (when push came to shove) true.
By way of contrast, consider a few of McConaughey’s roles from this year alone. In Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, he struts away with the movie as an aging beefcake-dancer-turned-sleazy-MC-owner of a Tampa strip club. In William Friedkin’s Texas noir Killer Joe, he has the title role of a sociopathic, Stetson-wearing cop and part-time hit man with a baroquely sadistic streak and a dead-eye stare behind his aviator shades. In Lee Daniels’s sweaty Southern Gothic melodrama The Paperboy, he goes even further against the grain, playing a closeted gay reporter with a taste for rough sex and a raging death wish. All his recent characters are defined by more varied and interesting predicaments than an inability to commit, and for an actor whose filmography had come to resemble one interminable in-flight movie, this unfolding chapter counts as a major reinvention.
The difference between then and now is so pronounced that McConaughey acknowledged he had been hard-pressed to explain what happened. As he tells it, there was no epiphany. But there was a point a few years ago when he realised that the scripts coming his way, mostly romantic comedies and a few action adventures, were invariably “kind of boring.” The turning point was last year’s well-received thriller, The Lincoln Lawyer, his first film after a two-year absence from movie screens. The part of a glib, swaggering lawyer was not a huge stretch, but he attacked it with relish, and it must have signalled a readiness for new challenges.
McConaughey, 42, takes evident delight in tarnishing his golden-boy halo. There is no clearer example of this than the perverse Killer Joe, based on an early work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts. McConaughey admitted he was put off on a first read, but a discussion with Friedkin helped him see the pitch-black humour. The new, improved McConaughey does not exactly come out of nowhere though. He showed a knack for macabre material in Bill Paxton’s psychological drama, Frailty (2001). And McConaughey’s first significant role — as a skirt-chasing slacker in Dazed and Confused — remains the best encapsulation of everything distinctive about him: his lothario charm and showboat flair, the lazy drawl and sneaky dead-on timing, the sly capacity for both self-infatuation and self-parody.
Most of those qualities are on view in Magic Mike, in which McConaughey plays the utterly absurd Dallas with an impressively straight face. “He’s this poet-capitalist-warlord-messiah of the male revue world,” McConaughey said, “None of that’s funny until you say ‘of the male revue world.’ ” McConaughey said that it had already been suggested to him that playing a stripper is something of a joke at his own expense, given his reputation for baring his chest on screen and off. “I’m not a daily reader of Page, whatever, Six,” he said. “Hell, I didn’t know until two years after it started that there was a phenomenon about me being shirtless.”
Friedkin said that careful role selection is all the more important for someone of McConaughey’s looks and stature. “I know how little they value the acting of a great-looking guy in Hollywood,” Friedkin said. “They don’t want you to act, they just want you to show up and convincingly make love to the leading lady. A guy like Matthew has to take charge of his own career, because the studios will cast him in the same part every time out.”
McConaughey is well aware that there is a perception that he was coasting in those interchangeable romcoms; he maintains it was harder work than people think. “I’ve done romantic comedies that were more difficult than Killer Joe,” he said. “The work is to keep them buoyant. If you dig deep, you try to go to the reality and to the humanity, it’s a 12-minute movie.”
To listen to McConaughey reflect on the dissatisfactions of studio filmmaking is to hear how some common viewer frustrations — the stitched-together feel of the films, their blatant reliance on formulas — are experienced by those in front of the camera. He acted out a typical direction on one of his studio movies: “You just told her, ‘No, I don’t love you anymore,’ you turn from her and we’re going to track in and we’re going to get that moment and, cue, now. That’s nerve-racking.” It was a relief to go from that kind of assembly-line production to a world of filmmakers — from Friedkin to Soderbergh to Daniels — who valued spontaneity and were more interested in “the flow of the scene,” he said.
McConaughey said he was determined to keep his slate of films interesting, though that doesn’t mean indies only. He next stars with Woody Harrelson in True Detective, a new HBO series, and has what sounds like an award-baiting lead role in The Dallas Buyers’ Club, based on the true story of an HIV-positive man in the 1980s who turned to underground pharmacies.