The McConaissance isn't over yet. In an in-depth conversation, the actor discusses his Golden Globe victory for Dallas Buyers Club, the riveting HBO series True Detective, and more.
What a year. It began with Mud, a fascinating, Huckleberry Finn-like bildungsroman where he played a mystic, continued with Dallas Buyers Club, portraying a renegade asshole-turned-crusader dying of AIDS, and was followed by a scene-stealing role in The Wolf of Wall Street as the chest-thumping, cocaine-snorting mentor of Leonardo DiCaprio’s shady stockbroker.
Matthew McConaughey has transformed into one of the most exciting character actors around—a versatile artist who can play an aging stripper with a thong up his ass in Magic Mike one year, and an AIDS victim the next. Gone are the days of Sahara and Fool’s Gold, the days when people branded him a “himbo.” McConaughey is on a roll, ladies and gentlemen, and from the looks of it, isn’t stopping anytime soon.
His latest project is the HBO drama True Detective. Nic Pizzolatto’s riveting potboiler of a miniseries, told in flashback, centers on Det. Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Det. Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), as they track a serial killer on the loose in Louisiana over 17 years. We called it “a new crime classic.” McConaughey shot the show four weeks after Dallas Buyers Club, and turns in another award-worthy performance as a melancholy agnostic who drowns his sorrows in booze and crime solving.
The day after McConaughey took home a Golden Globe for his performance in The Dallas Buyers Club, besting the likes of Robert Redford and Tom Hanks, we spoke to him about receiving the honor, his new HBO series, and his remarkable career about-face.
Congratulations on the big win last night! How did it feel to take home a Golden Globe?
Thank you very much! It felt wonderful. I want to say it felt “surreal,” but it felt very real. I wasn’t expecting it. Here’s what’s odd. You’re sitting there and you don’t expect it, but then it comes into your mind, “Wait, what if I do win? What do I say?” Then I caught myself like, “Wait, don’t coup de grâce it! If you’re preparing yourself to win an award you haven’t won, you’re not going to win it, so I thought I’d just ride this thing. I actually thought Redford or Chiwetel would win it, and then they said “Matt…,” and I had to go in my head like, “Chi-we-tel…,” “Ro-bert…,” I-dris…,” “Tom…,” and then I realized I got it. It felt really good, man. What we did, and I keep going back to this underdog tale that we told, we had so much to gain. I’m up there representing this guy’s story that nobody wanted to make, and we got it made. This time of year is obviously a celebration time—a bonus time—and I’ve never really been around with my work during awards season, but for something like this, it makes it very easy to do it with my head held high.
I gotta ask you what you did last night to celebrate.
We partied! I took that Globe with me everywhere—my right arm got a workout. We went to the Focus party, who distributed Dallas Buyers Club, then we dropped by and saw some friends over at the HBO party—because I’m in True Detective—and then we went to my agency’s party, which is CAA. Then my wife and I snuck home, I got to the fridge and cooked up a big meal, got out a bottle of wine, and we sat back and watched True Detective at about 3 am in the morning. And then slept ‘til noon.
I remember you told me you cooked the most epic burger after wrapping on Dallas Buyers Club that took you 45 minutes to prepare, and included three different types of cheese. How did this celebratory meal compare to that?
Yeah! Well, I’ll tell you what: I made another cheeseburger. I sure did.
You gave a shout-out to the JKL [Just Keep Livin’] mantra in your speech, and when I spoke to Richard Linklater last year for Dazed and Confused’s 20th anniversary, he told me you improvised that during the 50-yard line scene in the film, and that it had to do with your father who passed away while filming.
A very grateful thing happened: my father was alive long enough for me to start on my very first job in what became my career. He moved on six days into shooting, and hell, I didn’t know it was going to be my career back then, but there’s a lot of grace in it, in retrospect. I went home for a few days and my family told me to get back to work, so I got back. I was trying to deal with his moving on. I was grieving, but I was trying to deal with how I was going to keep him relevant and vital in my life. Obviously, physically, he’s moved on and will no longer be with me, but spiritually, the things he’s taught me, the things that give me energy and incentive to be the best man I can be, I can keep those things alive. So I thought, “What he’s about is just keep livin’, and if I keep that alive in my own life, then that keeps him alive. It became a daily testament to keeping him alive.
How did it end up in Dazed and Confused?
I was walking around under the bleachers before that 50-yard-line scene, and then I went to Rick and I said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about where my spirit’s at now that my father’s moved on, and I said, ‘I think you gotta just keep livin’, man…” So, when we got to filming the scene, the big question with Randall “Pink” Floyd was: “Do I sign the drugs paper or do I not?” And we were just playing around improvising and it just came out of my mouth: “Whatever you do Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd, you gotta just keep livin’, man.” It became an all-purpose compass for me in my own life.
So last night you won a Golden Globe, and this morning you learned that True Detective got 2.3 million viewers.
I heard it was the most-watched debut since 2010? How cool is that!
You had some night, man.
[Laughs] Right? Thank you! That is a nice night!
There’s a great line in True Detective that your character says that I think applies to your career about-face. He says, “I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming.” And Hollywood tries to program actors to fit certain roles, certain niches, and you denied it.
Hollywood can definitely try to program people to fit certain things. There’s another force, though, that happens—especially in today’s media: you can get programmed to fit into something when it’s not your intention. For a while, the headline on me was that I was the good lookin’ shirtless guy livin’ the life on the beach, getting high. Like I just roll out of bed and just kind of go do-the-do. Well, shit! That was the brand, and the movies that I was doing didn’t really do anything to dissuade people from that, but I wasn’t really concerned with it. I wasn’t trying to re-brand with my new choices, but I was conscious about trying to un-brand. I wasn’t getting offered certain scripts—not necessarily because I couldn’t do them, I could have done them five years ago—but it was because of that perception of me. The healthiest career that I appreciate the most comes with actors that have some level of anonymity. Tom Hanks has had such a wonderful career because he fits right into “the everyman,” and you can’t pigeonhole him as one thing.
As far as that perception of you goes, did you think the “bongos incident” had a lot to do with that? It really seemed to get blown out of proportion.
Yeah, that was one that was easy to take and run. The bongo thing and then the shirtless thing were two Page Six daily things that almost became a larger identity than some work I was doing.
You’d peppered good indie films into your resume before—Lone Star, Frailty, etc.—but people didn’t seem to focus on those at all, just the romantic comedies.
It was easy to say, “Take the bongos and the shirtless thing and combine it with romantic comedies.” Now, people say those are easy. They’re not easy. The challenge is trying to make them look easy. I enjoyed doing those. But the bongo thing in ’99, when something like that happens, I’ve got a good enough sense of humor to have a wink and a chuckle with it. So that happens, and if anything, that event was perceived more like I opened up and had a good weekend at the box office! You know? I didn’t want to say, “Oh, I don’t want to be seen this way,” I just thought, “I’m gonna do some stuff that turns me on, and if it floats, it floats.”
Let’s get to True Detective. It’s a fantastic series. Has a little Twin Peaks in it.
I just thought the writing was on fire. I read the first two episodes and it just sang as original. They came to me for the role of Marty, and I said, “This guy, Rust Cohle, I know how his head works. I’ve never done this before, and that’s what I should be doing.” So they cast me as Rust, and then we went to Woody. And with [director] Cary Fukunaga, I was a big fan of Sin Nombre. And there’s no real or perceived taboo about going from film to TV like there was 15 years ago, so I didn’t have any hesitation about that. I just thought, “Give me quality.”
You’ve never played someone like Cohle before—a hardened cynic that seems nothing like the person that people perceive you to be.
There’s a large part of me that understands Cohle quite a bit. I have my own large amount of prophetic dialogue, and I love philosophizing. I’m not agnostic like Cohle is, and I’ll con myself to get through the day with a bit of a chuckle, but Rust Cohle doesn’t con himself. What an incredible constitution this guy has. And I enjoy playing a character that keeps to himself. I’ve been enjoying this outsider characters that live on the fringes—these antiheroes—where the rules are their own and nobody else’s. I have some of that in myself.
Part of the reason the show works is that you and Woody work so well together. I know you guys have been friends for a while. Do you remember the first time you were like, “Heck, I really like this guy.”
We got together to work on EDtv in 1996, and I’m upstairs talking with Ron Howard because we’re in pre-production. I’m looking out the window to the street. I know Woody Harrelson got the role of playing my brother, Ray. So I’m looking out the window and I see this guy riding up. He’s got a 10-speed bike, biker shorts on, a helmet, the gloves, a biker top, and the bike shoes. You hear him coming up the wooden stairs—creak, crack—and he’s carrying his bike up, and he’s sweating. He comes in and goes, “Hey!” and starts talking to Ron, and about five minutes into the conversation, they begin talking about the character’s wardrobe, and Woody goes, “I didn’t ride over here just to ride over here! This is Ray! This is what I think Ray would wear.” And I remember laughing out loud and thinking, “Is this guy serious?” And he was! That didn’t end up being his wardrobe, but I remember thinking, “This guy is classic, man.” And every time you hang out with Woody, the clock turns back a couple of decades. You always come away feeling younger.
I also wanted to ask you about the chest-thumping scene in The Wolf of Wall Street. That scene is brilliant. How did it come about?
That’s something that I do on my own.
Yeah. I do that before scenes if I need to relax. It gives me a nonverbal baseline for the scene. If I have my congas around, I’ll play those, but when I’m on set I don’t have those with me, so I’ll play my chest. It helps lower my voice, relax me, and it gets me out of my head and into the rhythm of a scene. So I was doing that before every take, and we finished take five, and I’m happy, Marty’s happy, and Leo holds up his hand and goes, “Hold up a second, Marty… can we do one more take?” And then he turns to me and goes, “What is that you’re doing before each take?” And I told him what I just told you, and he says, “Why don’t you put that in a scene?”
We’d talked about your “McConaissance,” and you credited your family as part of the reason for it happening. There’s a line in True Detective that reminded me of what you said: “Past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing.”
Absolutely. Being a father is the one thing I knew I was going to be in life. I knew I was going to be a father when I was 8 years old. What I told you before is, “The more secure a man is at home, the higher and farther he can fly outside of it.” I think that’s very true. When you have children, and have a family, a very beautiful, natural law comes into your life. You have people now who you need to shepherd and guide through life that won’t be okay if you’re not there for them. There’s something very freeing about that. But I’ve definitely become more selfish. I’m a big fan of the word “selfish,” as an attribute. The old, “Put the oxygen mask on the plane on yourself before anyone else because you’re no good to them if you ain’t breathing.” So I’ve become a little more selfish. But at the same time, when you get a family, that’s number one. If I’m on the stage last night getting an award for an achievement in my career, and I find out there’s an emergency with my children, there’s no question—you walk out. That’s a freeing thing to know that when you’re with them, or when you’re not with them, they’re a priority. And the kids remind you that this thing we do, acting, is play. It’s make-believe. So, it reminds you to once in a while throw logic out the window.