Robbie charts Matthew McConaughey’s rise from Hollywood hunk to Oscar heavyweight
If you go on YouTube you can find a video of Matt Damon on the David Letterman show talking about Matthew McConaughey from about four years ago. During the interview, Damon does a spot-on impression of McConaughey, on a fictional film set, asking his director if the scene they’re about to shoot would be a good opportunity for him to take his shirt off. McConaughey and Damon are old friends, and his impression, whilst hilarious, is not-mean spirited at all, but it did reflect the widely held view of McConaughey at the time: shallow southern charm, oiled in an air of self-satisfaction and devoid of any sort of artistic integrity. Yet as you read this there is every chance that McConaughey has just won the Academy Award for Best Actor, in a fitting end to what has been a remarkable cinematic renaissance. But how did everything go so right for McConaughey?
Whilst Matt Damon’s impression was intended to be light hearted, to me McConaughey represented everything which I hated about Hollywood. As a mainstay of frivolous action adventure movies and awful romantic comedies, he became the actor I would often cite in arguments as evidence that Hollywood was more concerned with aesthetics than talent. A film with Matthew McConaughey was almost assuredly going to be terrible, and should be avoided accordingly. Obviously not everyone shared my view, as the box office receipts for his movies demonstrated that he still had major pulling power, despite a lack of any discernable talent. Some people pointed to some of his early performances in the likes of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, or the John Grisham courtroom thriller, A Time to Kill, as proof that he was capable of turning in a good performance. Whilst admittedly these weren’t bad performances, they did not justify the career longevity he enjoyed subsequently, and made his appearances in the likes of The Wedding Planner and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past all the more shameful.
So why did he decide to make a change? His absence from our screens was a largely self-imposed one- not necessitated by a major scandal or sudden decline in popularity. And as he told journalists at a press conference in in London last month I attended, “somewhere in that impasse, which was about a year and a half, to two years, where nothing came it. Somewhere in there, I think in retrospect I can say safely, that I gained some anonymity by being in the shadows, and I became a fresh idea to people”. McConaughey described that after twenty-two years in the industry he wanted to “recalibrate”, and he made a “conscious decision to say I don’t feel like doing some of the roles that were similar to what I had been doing”. His career move paid off and he was suddenly a fresh idea to the likes of Steven Soderbergh and William Friedkin.
In Magic Mike he demonstrated for the first time some genuine acting chops- with his shirt on and off. In Friedkin’s Killer Joe, McConaughey’s old Texan charm disguises hitman Joe’s rotten core. McConaughey, quietly at first, established himself as not only a serious actor, but a seriously good one. When I stumbled upon The Lincoln Lawyer, I was taken aback by how capably he held the film’s courtroom scenes together. Here was Matthew McConaughey, an actor I had practically reviled, putting in a properly convincing performance, whilst still recognisably the same actor. That’s not to say vanity prevented him from making any major physical transformations. He lost a staggering three stone to portray Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, and gave a performance which has been universally acclaimed and brought him his lost weight in awards.
McConaughey has certainly proven his doubters, and has converted me to an ardent fan. His return to blockbusters at the end of the year, in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, is my most anticipated film of the year, in no short part due to McConaughey’s presence. So what does his career renaissance show us? That with enough commitment and the right material any actor can totally reinvent themselves? Is there hope that one day Gerard Butler might star in a gritty biopic of Alex Salmond? Perhaps it’s as simple as McConaughey described it, “You get one first chance, and I’m in the same book, just a different chapter”.