Matthew McConaughey, Getting Serious Again
Originally published on Tue February 25, 2014 4:30 pm
Matthew McConaughey earned early attention as a sensitive actor with his turn in the 1996 legal drama A Time to Kill -- but since then he has mostly made a career with leading-man roles in romantic comedies like How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days, Failure to Launch and The Wedding Planner.
He calls these "tomorrow roles," and he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he appreciates them for what they are: parts he could land one day and walk on set to film the next day.
Plus, he understands that he has a capacity for the lightness such characters require.
"It's great to have your so-called fastball," he says. "You're not supposed to go deep on those. You go deep, you sink the ship."
In the past few years, however, in films such as Bernie and Magic Mike, McConaughey has been branching out and exploring his range as an actor. He has won critical acclaim for doing so, winning Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics two years in a row for his performances.
Now he's starring in Jeff Nichols' Mud, playing a man living alone in a boat stuck in a tree on a small island in the Mississippi River. Nichols wrote the part specifically for McConaughey.
The actor says the transition from romantic comedies to more serious movies — other notable performances have come in The Lincoln Lawyer and Killer Joe — hasn't been as planned as it might appear from the outside. He had decided to take a break from lighter parts, but he wasn't actively pursuing other kinds of roles.
"These roles — these last six films I've done — they came to me; I didn't go out and chase them," he says. "[W]hat I had in my life at that time was something really special, which allowed me to take a pause and back away and not do the romantic comedies, or not do the other scripts that were coming in. I had a son.
"So I said, 'I'm going to be a father for a while. I'm not going to rush into work. Let the work come find me.' ... So I was able to be very patient and, what happened is, I got the call from Billy Friedkin [about the part of a cop moonlighting as a murderer in Killer Joe], and then Richard Linklater came to me with the Bernie script. And I got the call from Soderbergh [for the strip-club-emcee role in Magic Mike], and then Lee Daniels gave me a call on Paperboy and then Jeff Nichols came. So they came to me — and that was just really one of those wonderful ways the world works."
On whether he has ever met real-life characters like Mud
"There have been characters I've met, and most of them probably being in the rural South [who] had little, you know ... bits of knowledge like Mud, but nobody as fully committed and with a full constitution like Mud. I mean, Mud, if he ever came to the so-called mainland and got off of the proverbial island and was sort of reined in by civilization, I don't think he'd survive. So he's really getting his knowledge from the stars, from the river, from Mother Nature — and that's one of the great things about the South. [It's] inevitable that's where you're gaining your knowledge of how the world works, because you're just engrossed in the middle of Mother Nature."
On visiting a strip club to research Magic Mike
"It was very carny. ... The whole world was carny. ... [W]e snuck in the back and watched. There was a birthday party there. There was a bachelorette party. You could see that the women that were in there had had this night circled on their calendar for — I don't know — a month, and they were going to go let loose. [It was about] the fun of it, of them sort of busting each other's chops, getting embarrassed, acting more embarrassed than maybe they even were. But they just had a ball and, you know, an hour of it was enough for me, but that was it."
On playing Wooderson in 1993's Dazed and Confused
"I met the casting director, Don Phillips, on that film in a bar one night. Top of the Hyatt, Thursday night, with my girlfriend at the time. ... [W]e went to that bar because I knew the bartender and he'd give me free drinks. He was in film school with me. He goes, 'The guy at the end of the bar is a producer.' ... [And so] I went down to introduce myself. Four hours later, we're kicked out of the bar and he says, 'You ever acted before?'
"I said, 'Man, I was in a Miller Lite commercial for about, ummm, that long,' and he goes, 'Well, you might be right for this role. Come to this address tomorrow morning, 9 o'clock.' ... And I went down there six hours later, and there was a script with a handwritten note on top of it, and ... this character's name was Dave Wooderson. He had a few great, great lines.
"The one that sent me off — and I was just like, 'Who is this guy?' — is when they're out front of the billiards joint and the ladies are walking by. Wooderson's checking them out, and Wooderson's like, 'That's what I like about those high-school girls, man; I get older, but they stay the same age.' That was the piece for Wooderson that I was like, 'That's not a line, that's his being. That's his philosophy. He has it figured out. He's not commentating.' "
On loving the 1976 remake of King Kong as a kid
"Oh, loved it. I absolutely loved it. I'm very interested in this measurement across the board. It's like I was whatever age I was — 12, 13, 14 — and I've never had more enjoyment in a filmgoing experience than that hour and a half I was in for that movie, at that age. I cried because I knew Jessica Lange and King Kong could have made it."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. For several years, I thought of my guest Matthew McConaughey - perhaps unfairly - as an actor who does mainstream romantic comedies. As likeable as he may be in those, I didn't get what he's capable of until the past couple of years watching him in "Bernie," as a vain, small-town DA, in "Magic Mike" as the owner and emcee of a male review in a strip club, in "Killer Joe" as a sinister and perverted police detective and hit man, in "The Paperboy" as a reporter with a secret life, and now in "Mud," as a mysterious loner.
McConaughey won Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics for "Bernie" and for "Magic Mike." In the new film "Mud," McConaughey stars as a man named Mud, living alone on a small, deserted island in the Mississippi River.
His clothes are torn, his hair is filthy and disheveled, and he's very low on food. He's discovered by two boys on a little boat. One of the boys is intrigued by the mystery surrounding Mud and by the romantic story he weaves about the love of his life. The other boy is more suspicious. Both boys' instincts are right.
This an early meeting between the boys and Mud.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MUD")
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Mud) Now, I like you two boys. You remind me of me, seeing as how you two is from Arkansas, and we know some of the same people, and we grew up in some of the same places. I reckon we could make a deal or something.
TYE SHERIDAN: (As Ellis) A deal for what?
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Mud) Food, food for a boat.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: He's a bum, Ellis. Come on.
SHERIDAN: (As Ellis) Why don't you go get your own food?
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Mud) Well, I would, if I could. See, I told somebody I'd meet him here, so, well, I'm stuck for now, and what I got's running low.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: He's a bum, Ellis. Come on.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Mud) I ain't no bum. I got money, boy. You can call me a hobo, because a hobo will work for his living. You can call me homeless because, well, that's true for now. But you call me a bum again, I'm going to teach you something about respect your daddy never did.
GROSS: Matthew McConaughey, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I read that Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed "Mud," wrote the part for you. Did he tell you why he had you in mind?
MCCONAUGHEY: You know, actually, just recently, we started talking about it, and he said a few things. He said there's an inherent likeability that I see in you and saw in you that is somewhat synonymous with the same reasons you kind of liked Paul Newman when he was a bastard in movies like "Hud."
He also said he thought I had sort of personal politics, that I've kind of got my own philosophies about life and how to go about life and approach it. And he said you've got to be somebody that - I wanted Mud to be somebody that I wanted to hang out on an island with for three months, actually making the movie, and also if I was a 14-year-old kid having this summer, if I found somebody on an island, who would be the guy that you'd want to say yeah, I want to spend a summer on an island with this guy.
GROSS: Even though he looks kind of dangerous, and it turns out he's a killer?
MCCONAUGHEY: Yes, yeah.
GROSS: So you said, you know, it - the part was written for you partially because you have, like, your own philosophy. The character in "Mud," the loner on this island, he believes in spirits, that there are fierce powers at work in the world, powers of good and powers of evil. Do you have, like, a philosophy that you can spell out like he does?
MCCONAUGHEY: Oh, well, I mean mine would be more just keep living, is a bit of a compass for me in my life. It's something that came to me. My father passed away in 1992, and I was trying to deal with his moving on physically and how to spiritually keep him alive, things he had taught me, things that incentivized me as a young that he had taught me, how to keep those things alive, keep them growing, cultivating them in my own life.
And I find that there's a just-keep-living decision with every choice for me. And in a very literal and simple sense, it's the life-affirming choice, and it's the choice that gives one the most residuals in life, the choice that has the most delayed gratification, while at the same time still enjoying what's going on right in front of me. So that's where I'm trying to come from.
But Mud, he's - yeah, he's a little more astrologic. You know, he's found his way through - I mean, I like to say this about Mud: He stepped in - you know, he stepped in piles of crap so many times in his life, he now believes it's good luck, you know.
GROSS: Do you know anybody like him? I've never, in my life, met anybody like Mud. I'm from cities in the North, not a small town on the Mississippi River. You grew up in Texas. Did you know anybody who remotely compares to this character that you play in "Mud"?
MCCONAUGHEY: There have been characters I've met, and most of them probably being in the rural South, that had little - you know, they were just - that had bits of knowledge like Mud, but nobody as fully committed and with a full constitution like Mud.
I mean, Mud is - if he ever came to the so-called mainland and got off of the proverbial island and was sort of reined in by civilization, I don't think he'd survive. So he's really getting his knowledge from the stars, from the river, from Mother Nature, and that's one of the great things about the South.
You're - inevitably, that's where you're gaining your knowledge of how the world works, because you're just engrossed in the middle of Mother Nature, which I mean, we had said Mud grew up, you know, in the woods, surviving in the woods since he was, you know, born, never had a mom and dad, really.
So I've met people with just tastes of Mud, but nobody living off the grid like he is, no.
GROSS: So I just want to explain, you're at a studio in New York, and I'm at a studio in Philadelphia. So we're not in the same room. And when my engineer turned on your mic, you couldn't hear me yet, but I could hear you. And what you were doing was...
GROSS: ...kind of singing, chanting. Part of it was like a meow, meow, meow, meow. And then you were doing this other thing. What was that about?
MCCONAUGHEY: Oh, I was - it was a couple things. It was - I was sort of banging on my belly and chest and humming and (makes noises). And it's something I do kind of, one, to get the voice going, which is good for radio and these wonderful mics you guys have.
GROSS: Oh, yeah, so that's - yeah.
MCCONAUGHEY: Also, rhythmically, it loosens me up. It relaxes me. And you know third is? You always - you used to have it. I don't know if you all have it anymore. There was a musician, Ali Farka Toure, and he used to be the segue, or maybe he still is in places.
(SOUNDBITE OF HUMMING)
MCCONAUGHEY: It's from a song "I Do," a great song off of "Talking Timbuktu" that he worked on with Ry Cooder. And I actually went and met that man, and he's the reason I went to Africa. I found him in a little town called Niafunke on the Niger River. And he has since passed away, I think, a few years back. But that was always - that's where a bit of that chest beating, humming comes from.
And so I'm here in the offices in New York talking to you on NPR, and it's a little call out to Ali, as well.
GROSS: Huh. So do you do that on a set to warm up your voice and kind of get in the rhythmic spirit? Yeah.
MCCONAUGHEY: It's a rhythm thing. It's a rhythm thing. It sort of, you know, takes the periods and turns them into commas for me. So it's - and I'm a - music and sound is very important to me, and it relaxes me, and it sort of - there's also something relaxing about someone going what in the hell's he doing, you know.
MCCONAUGHEY: And I'm look good, I got one on you. You're not sure what I'm doing. OK, we're free. But it's very good for the instrument. It's very good for the acting instrument, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF HUMMING)
GROSS: So that's your chest you're playing?
GROSS: It sounds like you could work McConaughey into that chant.
MCCONAUGHEY: Yeah, you could work - it's got the right amount of syllables.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah. So, if you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew McConaughey. He's starring in the new film "Mud." So you were at the Independent Spirit Awards this year, and one of the films you were there for was "Magic Mike." You were nominated for Best Supporting Actor for that, and you won Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics Circle Award. So I jut want to play a short clip from the film.
"Magic Mike," in that film, you own a strip - a male strip club, where the men strip in Tampa, Florida. And so as the emcee, you also do some stripping and dancing yourself, which is pretty wild. So in this scene, you're advising one of the young, muscular dancers how to take off his clothes. You're like, you don't just take them off, you're trying to show him how it's really done and what state of mind he needs to get into.
And so the young dancer is played by Alex Pettyfer.
Yeah, yeah. So if you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew McConaughey. he's starring in the new film "Mud." So you were at the Independent Spirit Awards this year, and one of the films you were there for was "Magic Mike." You were nominated for a Best Supporting Actor for that, and you won Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics Circle Award. So I jut want to play a short clip from the film.
"Magic Mike," in that film you own a strip - a male strip club where the men strip in Tampa, Florida. And so as the emcee, you also do some stripping and dancing yourself, which is pretty wild. So in this scene you're advising one of the young, muscular dancers how to take off his clothes. You're like you don't just take them off, you're trying to show him how it's really done and what state of mind he needs to get into.
And so the young dancer is played by Alex Pettyfer.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MAGIC MIKE")
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Dallas) See baby, you're not just stripping. You are fulfilling every woman's wildest fantasies, all right. You are the husband that they never had. You are that dreamboat guy that never came along. You are the one night stand, that free fling of a (bleep) that they get to have tonight with you onstage and still go home to their hubby and not get in trouble because you, baby, you made it legal.
(As Dallas) You are the liberation. Own it. Who's got the (bleep)? You do; they don't.
GROSS: That's Matthew McConaughey in a scene from "Magic Mike." So...
MCCONAUGHEY: What knowledge.
GROSS: Had you ever been to one of these strip clubs where the men strip for the women?
MCCONAUGHEY: I went one time just with Channing when he came to New Orleans, Louisiana.
GROSS: With Channing Tatum, who stars in the film.
MCCONAUGHEY: Just to see what it was like once I was on board, and we were going to go make the film. I said, well, I've never been to any kind of male revue, obviously. And we looked up what the hottest revue in town was. And the hottest male revue in New Orleans that night was basically about 15 miles outside of town in a little strip mall between a Laundromat and a Mexican food cantina.
GROSS: So did you, like, disguise yourselves to go in, or were you recognized?
MCCONAUGHEY: We were recognized, but I think the interesting thing is we went in a little bit early, and there's three men at the bar, looked like very conservative men. Obviously, I figured they were there for their own delights or whatever, but definitely didn't think they were going to be the guys that ended up onstage, which they were.
It was a lawyer. One guy was on the phone talking to his wife and three kids, saying goodnight. Another guy had just come back from overseas in Afghanistan, and this was a little sport that he had, a little job that I don't know if anybody knew about that he had. And they were just very sort of conservative guys, sitting there drinking water. One had a beer, but that was it.
And the next thing you know, they're out onstage. And it was very carny, much more carny. But the women came in, and that one of the things that I was - that I did see when we snuck in the back and watched. There was a birthday party there. There was a bachelorette party.
You could see that the women that were in there had had this night circled on their calendar for, I don't know, a month, and they were going to go let loose. And no matter how - it was just the fun of it, of them sort of busting each other's chops, getting embarrassed, acting more embarrassed than maybe they even were. But they just had a ball and, you know, an hour of it was enough for me, but that was it.
GROSS: It's funny, you know, I have not been to one of those clubs, but anytime I see it in a movie, like the women are always laughing, you know, as the men strip, which is not the reaction you get in a male strip club, which I also haven't been to.
GROSS: You know, when the women are stripping, I mean, I think the men are just like deeply into it. They're not going oh, ha, ha, ha, that's so funny.
MCCONAUGHEY: Well it is a different type of voyeurism for sure, that's true, because the men in a female strip club, there's I think some more, I don't know, maybe literal fantasy going on. But you're right. In a male revue, the women - it is a lot of laughter. I mean, no one's really got a serious look on their face, like they're really thinking like oh, yeah, you and me. It's a lot of whoo, whoops and hollers and screaming and covering your mouth, and he did not, oh my gosh.
It's a much more festive gathering, yeah.
GROSS: Well, you are so into it in this film and your dancing. So did you have a choreographer teach you how to, you know, do a grinding kind of dance and all the other stuff that you do?
MCCONAUGHEY: Yes, yes. For me, obviously a very intimidating idea. Go on stage and strip, OK. And then I was like, well, what am I going to do. What kind of style And I thought, well, everyone does hip-hop. Is that what I need to do? And then I saw Channing dance, and I said I'm definitely not touching hip-hop. He's got that. I'd be a far distant second if I did my best.
And so I said I've got to find a song. I've got to find what's this guy Dallas' music, what's his dance. And then I was jogging. I was in New Orleans, actually, and "Calling Doctor Love" by KISS came on, and I was like that's, that's my tune.
GROSS: Why? Why is that your tune?
MCCONAUGHEY: Well, it was just something - I don't know, it had enough lethargy. It had enough panther. It had enough predatory thing to it. That was the fun of it for him, being the elder statesman, being the guy that, you know, doesn't really do it anymore, but if he does come out and dance, he's going to lay it down old-school.
And so I did a lot of work with those choreographers of, you know, I think you just play to your strengths. I didn't - I think my hips get looser now than they were before? Sure, but I just found a few moves that I was, like, felt more comfortable with, and then we worked around those. And trust me, if I could be choreographing and working on that dance to this day, and we didn't shoot that film until next year, I still couldn't have enough time to get ready for that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew McConaughey, and he's now starring in the new movie "Mud." You've gone from, you know, romantic comedies to doing some pretty dark, sinister stuff, case in point the movie "Killer Joe." And in this film, you play a police detective and hit man in a small Southern town, and you are - you're very kinky in this. And the kinky parts are too kinky for us to play scenes of. So we'll just stick with sinister.
GROSS: Though I will say, you know, you have your eye on a young girl who's, what, 12, 13 in this?
MCCONAUGHEY: Dottie, that's a little ambiguous in the film. I mean...
GROSS: She's way too young for you to have your eye on - but you've got your eye heavy on her.
MCCONAUGHEY: Yeah, (unintelligible) that's for sure.
GROSS: But anyway, so here's a scene in which Emile Hirsch plays a gambler in debt who wants to hire you to kill his mother so he can collect insurance money. She's divorced from his father, so he also convinces his father to go in with him on the hit on his mother, and his father will get some of the insurance money, too.
Your collateral in this is going to be this young girl who is the daughter, who you've got your eye on. So here's a scene with Emile Hirsch as the guy who wants to hire you to kill his mother, Thomas Haden Church is his father, and also here's my guest Matthew McConaughey is the police detective and hit man.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "KILLER JOE")
EMILE HIRSCH: (As Chris Smith) All right, well, sir, instead of me kicking this off, maybe this - you could tell us the questions we need to ask.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Killer Joe Cooper) It's pretty simple. You're going to pay me for a service that I'm going to perform. You're going to give me the particulars of her schedule, her habits. I'll act on them accordingly. I won't give you many details on my activities because the less you know the better for everyone involved.
HIRSCH: (As Smith) All right.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) Now I only have a couple of rules that I insist on sticking to - insist.
HIRSCH: (As Smith) OK, yeah.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) If you're caught, if you're implicated in this crime, you are not under any circumstances to reveal my identity or participation.
HIRSCH: (As Smith) Oh, of course.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) If you break this rule, you'll be killed. Do you understand?
HIRSCH: (As Smith) All right.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) I must be absolutely clear on this point.
HIRSCH: (As Smith) I understand.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) Do you understand?
THOMAS HADEN CHURCH: (As Ansel Smith) Yeah.
GROSS: My guest Matthew McConaughey in a scene from "Killer Joe." So I hope you don't mind me trying to describe, in as cleansed a way as possible, the most talked about scene in this film. Gina Gershon plays somebody who has crossed you, I won't say how, and after punching her in the face, you have her simulate oral sex, and this involves a chicken leg that you're holding.
I won't say where so as not to get too graphic. Now actors always say that they try to find the part in themselves that most closely relates to the character that they're playing, and I'm thinking if you're playing somebody as depraved as this police detective and hit man, if you do have a part in yourself that relates to what he does, you're not even going to want to admit it.
MCCONAUGHEY: I think you might be having some nightmares.
GROSS: Yeah, so where do you go for - to play somebody so depraved and sinister?
MCCONAUGHEY: Probably not as far and deep into the ether-world that one might initially think, at least for me. I mean, one, there's an underlying just absurd humor to this whole thing in these situations that on paper are grotesque and sickening. I mean, on my first read of the script, I was appalled. I mean, I got upset in my stomach, and I'm like I don't want to be anywhere near that, I don't like the world, I don't see what's funny about it at all. I don't like these people.
I need to go - as I said I need to go take a shower with a steel brush. And then I talked with a lady who I work with who I use and always value her opinion. She had read the script at the same time and got on the phone, and she's howling laughing and say oh, no, honey, you've got to - you didn't think that was funny? It's hilarious, da, da, da, da, da, da.
And I was like OK, I need to set it down for a couple days, and I'll come back and revisit it. And I did, and all of a sudden something clicked, and I got the music of it, Tracy Letts' writing. Here's what it was about for me: order. Joe was about order. If chaos was there, Joe straightened it out. He had different ways of doing this. This chicken leg scene is another way that Joe is creating order.
That was my sort of hinge that I worked off of. And then the other thing was to really not see it as being sinister, like I'm a really bad guy. Joe doesn't think he's a bad guy. Joe, like I said, just wants to create order where there is not. He is very clear about the rules, as that scene that you just played lets them know exactly how this has to go down if it goes down.
And if they don't follow the rules, well, OK, you have messed up, and now I have to come and create order. There's a real clarity to his behavior.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Matthew McConaughey. He stars in the new movie "Mud," playing a mysterious man living alone on an island in the Mississippi.
You had been famous for romantic comedies for several years and now you're using your good looks for a different effect. In "Mud" your good looks help further the charisma that you have and the kind of romantic story that's at the heart of who you are and what motivates you. In "Killer Joe" your good looks kind of that to this character's magnetism and charisma, even though it's a kind of evil charisma. And in "Bernie," which is a comedy, your good looks are kind of played down, but everybody, but you're the kind of like heartthrob in the local town but it's all very comic.
So was there a point in your career where you said I'm kind of done with the straightforward romantic comedies, I'm looking for something different now? And if so, what was behind the change?
MCCONAUGHEY: Right. You know, I've been asked this question a lot and I've thought about it a lot and I don't have a clear clean-cut answer, because actually these roles, these last six films I've done, they came to me. I didn't go out and chase them. There was a time where I was reading somewhere romantic comedies, I was reading some more action scripts, and there were quite a few I liked, but most all of them I felt like I could do them tomorrow. I think that was where I just said wait a minute, there's nothing wrong with that. That's great to have something you feel like you could do tomorrow. It's great to have your so-called fastball and you like doing them. There's a lightness that you are able to keep and maintain in those that they need because they need a buoyancy, and I called them a Saturday character, the romantic comedy, it's a Saturday character. You're not supposed to get, you know, Hamletian about it. You're not supposed to go deep. You go deep on those, you sink the ship. I had fun doing that and also trying to do those without emasculating the male, which can be done in those romantic comedies often. But I just felt like I could do them tomorrow or the next day. So I said I want to wait. I don't know what I want to do. I want to wait till something really turns me on - moves my floor, as I said, makes me question it and go I don't know what I'll do with that material. And what I had in my life at that time was something really special which allowed me to take pause and back away and not do the romantic comedies or not do the other scripts that were coming in. And that's what, and I had a son, so I said I'm going to be a dad, I've got something to take up my time. That helped a lot, to have, to say I'm going to be a father for a while and I'm not going to rush into work. Let the work come find me and just be patient, McConaughey, it'll come. And so if I didn't have that project, which was raising my son or getting to know him in his earliest years, I would've become much more restless than I was.
MCCONAUGHEY: So I was able to be very patient, and what happened is I got the call from Billy Friedkin, then Richard Linklater came to me with the "Bernie" script, and then I got the call from Soderbergh, then Lee Daniels gave me a call on "Paperboy" and then Jeff Nichols came. So they came to me and that was just really one of those wonderful ways the world works. By saying no, I don't want to do these other things, I'm going to sit and press pause and let some things come to me and sort of - as I said - let the target draw the arrow, the arrows came my way.
GROSS: So this year, at the Independent Spirit Awards, you were onstage twice. Once to accept an award for Best Supporting Actor for "Magic Mike" and also to introduce the film "Bernie," which was nominated for Best Film. And when you were onstage talking about "Bernie," you told a story about how the director of the film, Richard Linklater, gave your mother a small role without even telling you and then she tried to upstage you on the red carpet. And then you told this story...
GROSS: Continually. OK.
MCCONAUGHEY: Oh yes.
GROSS: And then you told this story...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MCCONAUGHEY: Since "Bernie" and her time on screen, she corners every producer that she can find on any set that I'm on or otherwise and pitches her great idea - which is to remake "The Graduate" with her playing the Ann Bancroft role. And guess who's going to be the Dustin Hoffman part? Me. No (bleep). This is my mother. Dead serious. And she might have a good money-making idea but it is kind of weird, incestuous and everything. And if you ask her and you go, I've even said it, I mean mom, I mean you don't get how that's odd? And her answer is the same every time, goes, oh, get over it, I've seen it. It's not that big of a deal. These are all true stories.
GROSS: That's Matthew McConaughey at this year's Independent Spirit Awards. That is a hysterical story. What was your mother's reaction to you telling that story?
MCCONAUGHEY: Oh, she's, her reaction is that's right and we still need to make movie.
GROSS: She's serious about thinking...
MCCONAUGHEY: That's right.
GROSS: ...that you should play the - I mean there's two things wildly inappropriate about it.
GROSS: One, the son shouldn't play a young man having an affair with an older woman when that older woman is his mother. And two, you are both way too old for this role.
GROSS: Like Dustin Hoffman is like a virgin probably. It's like a young man...
MCCONAUGHEY: I mean is she serious? I mean somewhat. If someone said I think it's a great idea, let's do it, and came with the financing, she would perk right up and go, yup, I knew it. Is this blasphemous humor? Absolutely. But that's our family. You know, my mother has always wanted to be a Solid Gold dancer and she's a heck of a dancer. So also, you know, has done some plays and some things and she's been in a couple of little bit parts in films and she likes it and she's pretty good at it. And so she ended up getting in "Bernie," and anyway, she's always - this goes back 15 years, ever since I got to be successful, and she came out and would come to a premiere with me, she'd hit the carpet and she wanted the camera. She has thrown elbows into my ribs and moved me out of the way of the camera when they're interviewing me on the red carpet. And it actually, I had trouble dealing with it when she first came out because I was, it was all brand-new for me. Well, now I completely get the joke and she's such a great life spirit that, you know, she's just a yes woman.
GROSS: There's a picture of her on the red carpet and I don't know what the ceremony was for. You're not with her. There's somebody who I don't recognize with her, and she's lifting up her skirt to reveal the very bottom of her underwear.
MCCONAUGHEY: It's probably showing off her hot legs.
GROSS: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. And I'm thinking...
MCCONAUGHEY: Look at my legs at 81 years old is what she's probably doing.
GROSS: Did she embarrass you when you were growing up?
MCCONAUGHEY: No. No. We're not - you get over embarrassment in our family real quickly, and if you do get embarrassed, you're going to get, everyone's going to give you 100 percent of the dosage. You, our family is, I mean it's kind of just how we relate, no matter how old you are. Nothing is precious. You will get, and if you come in with -ny - if you have any kind of attitude or you have any sort of hang-up where you're not being completely honest, our family will gang up on you and just basically verbally pound you into submission. And as soon as you submit, we all grab your lift you up and put you on the highest pedestal and then have a party for you. It's a very resilient way that we deal with each other and it's how we deal with each other growing up. And even, you had to - and if anyone had an air about them or anyone was, I remember mom going like, I see you walking on your toes a little bit. Getting kind of cocky, huh? Mm-hmm. And then, bam, you were the one that was going to receive the joust from the whole family until you broke down.
GROSS: OK. OK. Let's try this. In high school you were voted Most Handsome...
GROSS: ...in the school. So did you have to be knocked down at home after that?
MCCONAUGHEY: Oh, I think they still, I mean my brother still jives me about it. You know, that was an 1988 and if something, I mean something will happen, you know, he'll go like oh yeah, yeah, you got that done. Sure you got that done. Hey, you know, you're most handsome. Sure. Most handsome gets that done. Yeah. And so there's always, there's a running joke about things like that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew McConaughey, and he's now starring in the film "Mud." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Matthew McConaughey. He's starring in the new movie "Mud. When we left off, he was talking about how his family still gives him grief about being voted most handsome in high school.
MCCONAUGHEY: I have a wonderful story...
MCCONAUGHEY: ...about that most handsome thing. You want to hear it?
GROSS: Sure, go ahead. Yeah.
MCCONAUGHEY: Oil is mink was a product. By mother became an in-house salesman for, it was a mink oil that you put on your face and my mom was turned on to it by my father's secretary and it was one of these kind of like an Avon lady, you go door-to-door and you sell this oil of mink. Well, I'm 15 years old and my mom's got these tubes of mink oil and she says, you know, you've got these adolescent pimples and stuff. Maybe you should put the oil of mink on your face and do these masks and stuff at night. I'm like, that's a great idea, mom. And we read the label and one of them says it pulls out the impurities and then you'll be clean and you'll never have another blemish in your life. And I'm like, well, this is great, man. If I can get through these, you know, 15-year-old pimply faced stuff, it would be great. So I start putting these oil of mink masks on my face. Well, quickly my face is beginning to swell up and I'm forming acne and really bad acne. And I talk to my dad's secretary who turned my mom onto it. She comes over the house and I'm really concerned and the lady is like, wow, well, you do sure have a whole lot of impurities, Matthew. Keep it up.
And we'll just pull all the impurities out, because once they're out, you're clean forever. So I stick with another three weeks. It's almost two months now and I have, I mean my whole face - I going to look like myself. I have full-blown really bad acne. Go to a dermatologist. He's like, what are you putting on your face? We show them the product. He's says this is a mink oil base. This is for, this is the last thing an adolescent oily-faced kid should be using. This has clogged up your pores. You are about 10 days before you're going to have those ice picks holes in your face from that acne. And we're like, well, geez, how do we help? He got me on medication. It ended up being Accutane, which really worked, it was a year and a half sort of just to be acne away and we learned our lesson. Anyway, during...
MCCONAUGHEY: During that time, somebody in the family got the idea of, yeah, you know what? We need to follow a lawsuit against oil of mink. That's right. Our son Matthew, I mean you've been - look at you. I mean you are emotionally pounded and psychologically this really had to hurt, and everyone started feeling all of these, you know, ideas. But, yeah, I was emotionally done. Yeah, my confidence was lower. Well, there's a lawsuit filed.
MCCONAUGHEY: I think it was for like $30,000 or something. And as lawsuits go, they take a while. So remember, that was when I was 15. Cut to now 18, senior in high school. I get called in for a deposition by the defense. And he sits me down and he goes through all this, you know, emotionally this must've been so tough for you. And look at these pictures of the acne you had. Oh my God. I mean your face is almost bleeding. You look like a monster. This is so bad. Man, it must've really been tough on you. And I'm like, yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir. And he goes through this for about 45 minutes. And I'm thinking this is great. Man, this is the defense is talking to me in he's saying all the problems that I had. Then he stops and he reaches down under the table and he pulls up this yearbook and he opens up this page, turns around to me and slides over and he goes, what's this picture here, this award you won? I looked down at it and it says Most Handsome.
MCCONAUGHEY: And he goes, yeah, it was just really tough, that oil of mink episode, wasn't it? And I shut that book and started laughing. My dad jacked with me and my brothers jacked with me for years after that, going, man, we almost won a $30,000 lawsuit and you got to go win most handsome. You son of a bitch. Man, what are you doing? Trying to make some money in a lawsuit and what's little brother do? Got to go win most handsome. Thanks a lot, man. You're just screwed it up for all of us.
MCCONAUGHEY: So I still get hell about that.
GROSS: So was being on the stand useful in playing a lawyer, which you've done?
MCCONAUGHEY: Well, actually, that was in a law office. But I was very interested in law back then. And actually I thought my path was going to be, I was going to be the family lawyer. I was going to SMU, is where I was going to go to school.
GROSS: And you'd become the family lawyer.
MCCONAUGHEY: I was going to go to SMU. I was going to - because I felt I could get a job in a law firm easier in Dallas than anywhere else that I was going to go to school. And I got a call from my middle brother and he said, you know, what about the University of Texas? And I said no, I don't want to. You know, I want to go to SMU because it's Dallas, and I think that's where I can get into the workforce sooner in a office. And he goes, well, Dad's not going to tell you this but I'm going to tell you this. It's going to cost 16 grand to put you in SMU because it's a private school but if you go to the University of Texas, it's going to cost six, and Dad's not going to tell you, but the oil business is not good right now, and Dad - business is really tough. It would help him out a lot. Because, of course, Dad wouldn't say, you know, I can't afford to send you to SMU.
So I called Dad and I said you know what? I had a change of mind. I want to be a Longhorn. And he goes, god, dog, buddy, I like the sound of that. And I went to the University of Texas. And as soon as I got to Austin and what that city was about, and how it, you know, I fit into it and it fit with me, the first year I was still thinking about going to law school but it's where I got - it's a time where I got really creative.
And decided, you know what? That's not for me. And that's when I decided to get in the storytelling business. And I didn't think I was going to be acting. I went to film school, studied behind the camera. 'Cause the acting gig was something that - that was still too farfetched. I've always said this and it's true; acting was never really in the vernacular of my dream.
GROSS: So how did you become an actor, then?
MCCONAUGHEY: In film school I started - when I would be directing something or the photographer or even the AD, I will always found myself jumping on the other side of the camera and acting it out what I meant, if I was trying to give direction or saying, well, let me do that.
Or let's not talk about it, let me just show you. And I liked going over there and acting something out. And then actually when I went to Hollywood I had a production assistant job that I went out there for. And I was interested in acting but I sill wasn't able to shake hands with - even with myself, that was really going to be a possible career. And somebody liked what I did in "Dazed and Confused," an agent said I want to meet you and sent me out on a read, and the first read I ever had in Hollywood, two weeks after I've been out there was with a cast director named Hank McCann and it was for a film called "Boys on the Side," which I ended up getting the part. I never had to take that production assistant job.
GROSS: So "Dazed and Confused" seemed like an aberration to you 'cause what? Did you know the director, Richard Linklater, where you friends or something.
MCCONAUGHEY: No, I didn't. I met the casting director, Don Philips on that film in a bar one night. Top of the Hyatt Thursday night with my girlfriend at the time, Toni Sideros(ph). We went to that bar because I knew the bartender and he'd give me free drinks. And he said - he was in film school with me. He goes, the guy at the end of the bar is a producer. He's in town producing a film. I went down and introduced myself. Four hours later we're kicked out of the bar.
And he said have you ever acted before? And I said, man, I was in a Miller Lite commercial for, mmm, that long. And he goes, well, you might be right for this role. Come to this address tomorrow morning, 9:00. At this time it was already 3:00 A.M. And I went down there six hours later and there was a script with a handwritten note on the top of it.
And it had - this character's name was Dave Wooderson. There was - had a few great, great lines.
GROSS: Some of them are famous. You want to recite the famous one?
MCCONAUGHEY: Oh, well, the one that was like that sent me off - and I was just like, who is this guy? - is when they're out front of the billiards joint and the ladies were walking by, and Wooderson's checking them out, and he's there with the character played by Sasha Jenson, and Sasha's like you better stop that or you're going to end up in jail. Wooderson's like, no, man. That's what I like about those high-school girls, man; I get older, but they stay the same age.
And it's a great - that was the piece for Wooderson that I was like, that's not a line, that's his being. That's his philosophy.
MCCONAUGHEY: He has it figured out. He's not commentating. And when I looked back at that scene I noticed what I did is I actually stepped out forward off the wall and kind of - him saying the line to the ether. Kind of just proclaiming to the stars. And they stay the same age. And Wooderson even says, yes, they do. He says it to himself. And I love it when I watched that. I'm going, yeah, he wasn't commentating.
He wasn't - there was no attitude to it. This was this guy's DNA and he had it figured out. And if that's delusionally optimistic or whatever, yeah, God love him for that, for just knowing who he is.
GROSS: So let's play the actual scene, which we have ready to go. This is "Dazed and Confused," which his set in 1976 on the last day of high school. Matthew McConaughey plays somebody who's already out of high school. He's kind of too old for this but is still hanging with the high school kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "DAZED AND CONFUSED")
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Dave) So you're a freshman, right?
SASHA JENSON: (as Don) Yeah.
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Dave) So tell me, man. How's this year's crop of freshman chicks looking?
JENSON: (as Don) Wood, you're going to end up in jail sometime really soon. I know that.
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Dave) Nah, man.
JENSON: (as Don) Yeah.
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Dave) Nah, man. I'll tell you. That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older; they stay the same age.
JENSON: (as Don) Yes, they do. God.
MCCONAUGHEY: Yes, they do.
GROSS: A much younger Matthew McConaughey in a scene from "Dazed and Confused" which was directed by Richard Linklater. So - and he directed "Bernie" so you've...
GROSS: Stayed in touch, I presume.
MCCONAUGHEY: And "The Newton Boys." Yeah, we are friends now. I didn't know him at that time but we became friends in "Dazed."
GROSS: Matthew McConaughey stars in the new movie "Mud." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew McConaughey and he's now starring in the new film, "Mud." So when you were growing up, your mother was a kindergarten teacher, father, correct me if I'm wrong, owned a gas station and an oil pipe business?
MCCONAUGHEY: Well, he started off and he had a Texaco station in Uvalde. Then he was a truck driver and then he ended up being a pipe salesman for a company there.
GROSS: And this is in...
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Uvalde.
MCCONAUGHEY: And then we moved to Longview in the late '70s when the oil boom happened in Longview - was actually the fastest-growing city in the nation at that point.
GROSS: So, you said in an interview that your father collectors who were really tough Texas guys. Did he need to call on them much to get clients to pay what they owed?
MCCONAUGHEY: You know, I don't - that's stuff I was too young to have known or been told. I would ask my older brother. And I'm sure he knows a lot of the inside stories. I had my own couple of experiences where we went and visited people who wouldn't return the phone calls. Oh, he's not in. I sat in the parking lot a few times with him at the building in Houston or in Dallas where the guy who owed him money was on the top floor.
And we were parked right next to his car and we saw the guy walk in the building that morning at 8:00 A.M. and his secretary is saying, no, he's out of town. And we were like mm-huh. And so Pop brought me along because I was the cute - I was the son. I was eight years old or I was 10 years old and I could get you in the door. So we'd go up and I was there as the embarrassment factor.
GROSS: So I've read that your parents were married and divorced, and married and divorced. Was that confusing for you?
MCCONAUGHEY: I didn't know. Again, those things you find out after, after your father passed away. I thought Mom was on some extended vacations. You know, I thought she was down in Florida and I didn't know, you know, but I didn't question why Dad and I moved into a trailer park outside of town, and it was he and I for the whole summer. I didn't question it.
Again, my older brothers were probably went through and understood what was happening. It wasn't really confusing. I mean, there were never times where I remember, like, oh, my god. Where is Mom? The summer I had with my dad when my mom was gone, boy, that was neat. I'm going to spend it with Dad. You know? So it was never confusing. I mean, I never questioned about, oh. our mom and dad split up. Does one love me more or loved me less? We didn't have - none of that.
GROSS: What was high school like for you?
MCCONAUGHEY: I had a very good time in high school. I took care of my business. I made my A's for Mom and Dad. I was socially active. I was emotionally very extroverted. I had a good friend, though, who has a lot to do with why I'm going what I'm doing today named Rob Benler(ph). He was the introvert, so to speak, and he's the one who introduced me to, hey, you don't have to go party Friday and Saturday night.
I'll go party Friday night but Saturday night let's go to my place and watch a movie. And so he introduced me to films. He introduced me to art. He introduced me to storytelling. He was writing scripts and he went to NYU and he's the one who said why don't you go try and act? He was the one - when I couldn't even dream about it, he was saying, no, you can do this and do it really well.
GROSS: What's one of the films that you fell in love with that made you fall in love with movies?
MCCONAUGHEY: Oh, I mean, you know, at the time I think it was like "Angel Heart," that Alan Parker film I loved, with Mickey Rourke and DeNiro and Lisa Bonet. I really loved that film. "Hud" was always a favorite of mine, the Marty Ritt directed film with Paul Newman. Later on, "Indian Runner," Sean Penn's film, a wonderful film that Viggo Mortensen and David Morse were in. You know, "Raising Arizona" was my comedy. You know, the most quotable that I've watched over and over and over. And then again, the only movie I saw before I was, like, 15 was "King Kong." And I must say...
GROSS: Which version? The remake or the original?
MCCONAUGHEY: The remake, introducing Jessica Lange.
GROSS: Jeff Bridges.
MCCONAUGHEY: Yes. And I cried.
GROSS: That's a terrible film, I think. Really? OK, you cried.
MCCONAUGHEY: Oh, I loved it.
MCCONAUGHEY: I absolutely loved it. And I'm very interested in this measurement across the board. I was whatever age I was - 12, 13, 14 - and I've never had more enjoyment in a film-going experience than that hour and a half that I was in for that movie, at that age. I cried because I knew Jessica Lange and King Kong could have made it.
MCCONAUGHEY: I knew that they could have made it.
GROSS: Matthew McConaughey, he stars in the new movie "Mud." You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at #nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.