Newsmaker: Matthew McConaughey

The Hollywood actor completed a transformation from forgettable romcom frequenter to generation-defining actor this week, accepting Best Actor at the Oscars for his role in Dallas Buyers Club with trademark eccentricity, writes Kevin Hackett.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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“Just keep livin’.” That’s the phrase bandied around rather a lot by Matthew McConaughey – comeback kid extraordinaire and the winner of this week’s Best Actor Academy Award. As he clutched his Oscar and ignored the 45-second time limit for acceptance speeches, his familiar Texan drawl ended with those very words. For someone that Hollywood had all but given up on, those words have more meaning now than ever before.

His career started out with a rapid ascension to the A-list, petered out into the romcom hinterland and now, against all the odds, he’s seriously hot property – that’s down to the left-field roles that he’s been choosing of late, more than anything else. But no matter how bad the films he’s starred in over the years – and some have been indisputable turkeys – his ability to act anyone off the screen has never been in doubt. He just needed the right role, the right director and the right moment to shine through.

As he addressed his contemporaries at the Oscars, his gaunt face and slight frame still struggling to pile back the kilos that he lost to play his winning portrayal of a heterosexual and homophobic Aids victim who’s been given 30 days to live in Dallas Buyers Club, nobody was in any doubt: McConaughey was back.

But isn’t he a bit, you know, mad? As a box of deranged frogs if his recent output is anything to go by and, if you’re wondering why, just check out his cameo performance in The Wolf of Wall Street – much of which he ad-libbed. He’s seemingly unafraid to take a role well beyond what many actors would feel comfortable with, sending up his own, previously manicured, pretty-boy image and ripping it out of himself. He’s a joy to watch.

But that’s nothing new for the 44-year-old. The youngest of three brothers, his late father, James, had been an NFL American football player for the Green Bay Packers before becoming the owner of a fuel station and ending up running his own oil-pipe supply company. His mother, Kathleen, was a supply teacher and ended up being divorced from, and remarried to, James a number of times.

Unlike his two older brothers, McConaughey never had any intention of following in his father’s footsteps. While in his senior year as a student at Longview High School in Gregg County, Texas, he was voted “most handsome” in the school’s yearbook – something that might have spurred on many to become a fashion model. But he had more than a pretty face and a well-defined torso; he had ambition and he initially wanted to be a criminal defence lawyer.

He spent 1988 in Australia, where some of his relatives still live, as an exchange student, “washing dishes and shovelling chicken manure” to earn his keep. On his return to the United States, he enrolled at the University of Texas. Before graduating, however, he read a book by Og Mandino, The Greatest Salesman in the World, which hit him right between the eyes, and he changed his major from law to film, graduating in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in radio, television and film.

Even before he finished his studies, McConaughey had commenced his acting career in television adverts and student films but, in a hotel bar in Austin, he happened to meet a casting director and producer by the name of Don Phillips. Phillips introduced the aspiring actor to a director called Richard Linklater, who at the time was working on his next project, a “coming-of-age” comedy-drama called Dazed and Confused, set in the summer of 1976.

Linklater considered him too good-looking to play the role of David Wooderson, a young, girl-chasing stoner. Undeterred, McConaughey grew his hair and an unbecoming moustache, and the job was his. Wooderson’s credo happened to be “Just keep livin’” – a line he ad-libbed and a mantra that he repeated to himself as he struggled to deal with the death of his father just days into filming.

The resulting film, released in 1993, immediately got him noticed. The offers soon began to roll in and he started with low-budget fodder such as 1994’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, in which he played the brilliantly named Vilmer Slaughter, but it was his turn as Buddy Deeds in John Sayles’s excellent, atmospheric Lone Star (1996) that sealed his reputation.

That was followed by a powerhouse performance in A Time to Kill. Decent material came his way for the rest of the 1990s before the rot set in. The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Tiptoes, Failure to Launch, Ghost of Girlfriends Past and the truly dire Sahara meant that the 2000s were his wilderness years, at least in artistic merit.

For two years between 2009 and 2011, McConaughey basically disappeared – missing, presumed career-dead. But what has since been coined “the McConaissance” started in earnest when he came back in The Lincoln Lawyer. So called because he basically works from the back of his Lincoln car, the lead role saw him return to his comfort zone as a defence attorney – he slowly but surely made his way back into the consciousness of film fanatics.

Normally, when an actor has committed career suicide by overindulging in the lazy pulp of Hollywood romcoms or self-serving extra-curricular activities, they have to prove that they’ve been through the mangle before they’re once again accepted as serious. Robert Downey Jr and Mickey Rourke are both prime examples of battered personas made good during their career second acts. McConaughey is different. He has no need to bare his soul or confess to any wrongdoing. He simply got back in the saddle and started choosing roles that made the previous decade almost irrelevant. Some credit has to go to his agent, but McConaughey knew that turning down Universal’s $15 million (Dh55.1m) offer to resurrect Magnum P.I. would pay off in the end.

William Friedkin’s 2011 violent crime thriller Killer Joe used the tag line “A totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story” and McConaughey played the bloodletting lead with gusto, putting light years of distance between him now and his wilderness years’ roles. But 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club, as we have come to see, marked him out as officially one of the world’s best.

So what else do we know about Hollywood’s hottest property? He’s now married and has three children. Allegedly he doesn’t wear scent or even deodorant, despite having modelled for Dolce & Gabbana’s The One fragrance. It’s also said that he sleeps in each of his home’s bedrooms alternately. See, he’s a bit mad. And we seem to like our A-listers a bit off-centre.

We also know that he’s saved at least one life over the years. During the Toronto International Film Festival in 2001, a woman went into a seizure during a film screening and, while others looked on helplessly, McConaughey leapt into action and gave her mouth-to-mouth. “Someone was saying they needed a doctor and this woman had a seizure and she wasn’t breathing,” he said at the time, “and I gave her mouth-to-mouth because I had been trained on how to do it.”

While Oscar mania gently subsides over the coming weeks, the man is still shining as viewers catch up with the HBO series True Detective. McConaughey plays the detective Rust Cohle, a downtrodden, pill-popping, alcoholic insomniac whose colleagues dislike him, convinced that he used to work for internal affairs. Cohle lives in an apartment with no furniture, except for a mattress on the floor, and piles of books about murder. Cohle has no family – his wife left him after their daughter died – and he thinks mankind should stop reproducing and volunteer for extinction. In light of the McConaissance, it’s a role that he was born to play.

“When he started making choices that were less based on his looks and had artistic integrity, a lot of young actors became very impressed,” Laura Gardner, an actress and instructor at the Howard Fine Acting Studio, told The New York Times. “McConaughey has demonstrated a commitment to his art, to finding that truth in his characters.”

But it’s Dazed and Confused that he keeps coming back to. At the end of that film, as he stares down a football field, he says to a group of angst-ridden teenagers: “The older you get, the more rules they’re gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin’, man. L-I-V-I-N.”

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