For a while, it was hard to take Matthew McConaughey seriously.
He was the breezy himbo coasting by on his southern charm and thousand-watt grin; the man candy opposite Jennifer Lopez and Kate Hudson; the guy busted for playing the bongos in the buff. Sure, he was prone to occasional flashes of brilliance, e.g. as a tattooed, balls-to-the-wall dragon hunter in Reign of Fire, or a muted soothsayer in Frailty. But for the most part, he was riffing off his own All right, all right, all right persona.
That was then.
Over the past few years, the photogenic, oft-shirtless star of epic duds like Fool’s Gold and Surfer, Dude has undergone a stunning transformation into one of the most exciting and unpredictable character actors in Tinseltown. Film writers have dubbed it the McConaissance, and right now, the 43-year-old Texan is firing on all cylinders. Last year, he turned in several wildly disparate performances in a coterie of acclaimed indie films, ranging from a deranged murderer who makes poor Gina Gershon fellate a fried chicken drumstick in Killer Joe to an over-the-hill male stripper with a pair of ass-less leather chaps and a dream in Magic Mike. The latter turn earned him an Independent Spirit Award and many felt warranted an Oscar nod.
This year should, if there’s any justice, earn him a trip to the Kodak. He’s wowed audiences as the enigmatic spiritual guide to a confused teen boy (think Magwitch) in Mud, and dropped 47 pounds to portray Ron Woodroof, a bigoted asshole-cum-HIV positive AIDS crusader in Dallas Buyers Club. The gritty film is based on a true story, and directed by Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.).
Dallas Buyer’s Club opens with a bang.
“At a rodeo, in a stall, in a three-way,” says McConaughey with a chuckle. “That’s who the guy was!”
The year is 1986 and Woodroof (McConaughey), a Dallas party animal, contracts HIV from his reckless heterosexual encounters. He’s given just 30 days to live. Since the only FDA approved drug to combat AIDS is AZT, and it’s on short supply, Woodroof begins procuring it illegally. But it doesn’t work. So, hospitalized and on the brink of death, he travels to Mexico to smuggle non-FDA approved anti-viral medications to the U.S. And the drugs work. For the first time in a month, the color returns to Woodroof’s face. Sensing a business opportunity, he recruits an HIV-positive transsexual, Rayon (Jared Leto), to help him peddle his meds among the LGBT community of Dallas.
When we’re first introduced to Woodroof, he’s a homophobic asshole. Every other word out of his mouth is “fag.” It’s a tough character to crack.
“I felt like his blasphemy, bigotry, and racism—all that stuff—we couldn’t push it too far,” says McConaughey. “We very much wanted to keep it real, though. This guy was a sonofabitch. He’s a two-bit electrician/bull rider/redneck with a second grade education who miraculously becomes a scientist, and one of the most educated people at the time about AIDS.” He adds, “He does become more understanding, and compassionate—but he had to become an outcast to do so. That was my approach: keep this guy a crusader and a sonofabitch, and the truth and humanity will emerge.”
With his T-cell count up, Woodroof travels all over the world smuggling illegal anti-viral medications into the U.S., and begins attracting a dedicated clientele. Soon, he forms the titular “Dallas Buyers Club”—a Columbia House-like subscription service where people would spend $400 a month for these alternative HIV treatments, which proved far more effective than the FDA approved AZT being doled out by the hospitals.
Back in 1986, McConaughey was a 16-year-old sophomore living in Longview, Texas—less than two hours by car from Woodroof’s stomping grounds of Dallas. He remembers how confused and scared people were by the onset of AIDS.
“When HIV came out, nobody really had the right answers: It’s a gay disease, it’s from monkeys, that guy’s gay so don’t shake his hand or look him in the eye,” he says. “It wasn’t until Magic Johnson that it entered the national spotlight, and guys didn’t want to play ball with him on the same court. It’s easy to say to those people now, ‘Oh, you bigots!’ but at that time, nobody was really sure about how HIV was transmitted. I remember people saying it could be transmitted through perspiration. So, ignorance fueled the paranoia.”
In order to play the gaunt Woodroof, McConaughey went from 182 pounds to 135, subsisting on what he calls “a controlled diet.” Each day, he’d consume 15 ounces of protein, three cups of vegetables, a half of a yam, and “always, always, always a glass of red wine,” he says with a chuckle. “I just like it.”
Despite the dramatic weight loss, McConaughey felt energized.
“Whatever power and energy I lost from the neck-down, I got that much more from the neck-up,” he says. “I was incredibly turned on, and very sharp.”
Impressive physical transformation aside, the key to McConaughey’s performance—and the reason why it’s the most awe-inspiring turn of his career—is that he stays true to the character. Woodroof never takes the easy road to rank sentimentalism. Whether it’s hawking his car to purchase more anti-viral meds for his “patients,” or his increased affection for his partner-in-crime, Rayon, Woodroof is redeemed through his actions. He’s one admirable sonofabitch.
McConaughey’s career about-face hasn’t been quite as dramatic as Woodroof’s, but it’s impressive nonetheless. The metamorphosis began back in 2008. After shooting a string of flops—Fool’s Gold, Surfer, Dude, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past—and welcoming the birth of his first son, Levi, with then-girlfriend Camila Alves, he went on a brief hiatus.
“The first move was saying no to things that were very similar to things I’d done,” he says. “So, I remember having a human moment with my [now] wife where I said, ‘Look, things are going to dry up here for a while. But the rent’s paid for, the kids are going to be able to eat. I’m going to get antsy, but when I get antsy, I’m going to need to be patient.’ I didn’t know how long that period was going to last.”
It lasted about two years. Then, the calls started coming—and boy, did they come. First Steven Soderbergh, who pitched him the role of Dallas, an aging stripper, in Magic Mike; followed by William Friedkin, who sought him out for Killer Joe; then Jeff Nichols wrote a role for him in Mud; and Lee Daniels recruited him to play a closeted gay journalist with a penchant for S&M in The Paperboy.
“I guess I became a good idea to these directors,” he says, before pausing for a moment. “I definitely think it’s true that the more stability you have at home, the higher and further you can fly outside of it. I think that’s true for a man, especially. And I always feel like I’ve got to be building something—be in construction on something. So, while I wasn’t acting, I felt like I was building something: a family.”
He pauses again.
“I didn’t see romantic comedies as a low point, but a different thing that I quite enjoyed. It’s just a different game. From my point of view, my career was like a relationship that was going pretty well. There was no reason for a divorce in the relationship, but let’s spice things up! Let’s go scare ourselves.”
And the scariest part of all this? We haven’t even reached peak McConaughey yet. Later this year, he’ll star as a shady stockbroker in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. And next year, he will appear opposite pal Woody Harrelson in the HBO series True Detective, and play the lead alongside Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar.
“For whatever reason, I don’t feel hyperextended at all,” says McConaughey, who’s back to his fighting weight of 175 pounds. “And the projects don’t feel like they’re running together for me—which is good, because I’ve had times in my career where I really felt like the movies were running together. But the work that I’m doing now is reciprocating, so the energy I’m putting out, it’s sending it right back.”