It’s 9 a.m. on the first day of daylight saving time, just a few hours after the carousing of South by Southwest’s initial Saturday night, and it’s no doubt a morning of crossed wires, missed appointments and mumbled apologies all over town.
I was half-expecting Matthew McConaughey — the man who initially made a splash as part of the stoner crew in “Dazed and Confused” in 1993, the naked guy arrested for banging bongos at 3 a.m. outside his Austin home in 1999 — to have had second thoughts about getting up so early to talk with me.
But I’m greeted not by some bleary-eyed slacker hastily picking up clothes strewn across a room at the Four Seasons. Instead, he’s dressed in a crisp shirt and pants, topped with a fedora, and ready to get down to business.
So much for my shopworn stereotypes about McConaughey, 43, whose now 20-year journey across the Hollywood landscape reflects a fascinating dichotomy. In the public mindset, he’s still cast as the half-naked, laid-back lothario — a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. commentator said in 2008 that he had “managed to elevate the art of chillaxing into a veritable cottage industry.” But in the past few years, he has matured into one of the decade’s most intriguing leading men, perhaps the only one representing a decidedly Southern masculinity while transcending the deep-fried clichés.
“Dazed and Confused” may have laid the foundation for McConaughey’s rock ’n’ roll reputation, but he quickly moved beyond that straitjacket as a sheriff in John Sayles’ indie favorite “Lone Star,” a gangster in Richard Linklater’s crime saga “The Newton Boys,” and well-intentioned attorneys in Joel Schumacher’s legal drama “A Time to Kill” and Steven Spielberg’s slave-era history lesson, “Amistad.”
In the 2000s, it was often a race to the bottom to see which would be more forgettable, his romantic comedies (“The Wedding Planner,” “Failure to Launch,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” “Fool’s Gold,” “Tiptoes”) or his attempts at action-adventure (“Sahara,” “Reign of Fire”).
But even at his most blandly mainstream, McConaughey would toss in something slightly more compelling, like the crime drama “Frailty” or the football-themed “We Are Marshall.“
He could have continued down such a path but wisely decided to leave the rom-com parts to the likes of Gerard Butler. Now, it’s his most recent work in smaller movies like “Killer Joe,” “Bernie” and the upcoming “Mud” and “Dallas Buyers Club” that have become his most persuasive calling card, one that has people realizing once again he’s not just all abs and no brains.
McConaughey says now that his transformation from matinee idol and Sexiest Man Alive (2005) to respected actor started with one word.
“I said ‘no’ to a bunch of things,” he says, in a slightly softer version of his trademarked drawl. “Somehow that ‘No, thank you’ message got across and I started attracting other things.”
Beginning in 2011 as a criminal defense attorney in “The Lincoln Lawyer,” McConaughey has been on a roll. Next was his take as a Texas district attorney in the quirky and much talked-about “Bernie”; a Texas hit man in the intense, critically adored “Killer Joe”; a Florida reporter in the stylized, love-it-or-hate it thriller “The Paperboy”; and an aging but still cocky owner of a Tampa male strip club in the box-office hit “Magic Mike.”
In fact, the opening of “Magic Mike” — in which McConaughey’s character, named Dallas, gives the lusty audience the rules of the room, concluding with the sly, “The law says you cannot touch, but I see a lot of lawbreakers up in this house” — almost seemed a winking parody of the actor’s shirtless persona.
With all this activity, NPR’s “All Things Considered“ in 2012 declared, “This may be the year of actor Matthew McConaughey.”
The successful run is likely to continue this year with his role as an Arkansas murderer with a moral code in the anticipated coming-of-age story “Mud,” the latest film from cult Texas director Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter,” “Shotgun Stories”), which opens Friday.A26
Then there’s the true-to-life “Dallas Buyers Club,” due for release this year, in which McConaughey dropped 30 pounds to play the late Ron Woodruff, a North Texas man who had AIDS and battled the government as well as drug companies in the 1980s to be able to sell his alternative remedies.
Finally, McConaughey also will show up on the small screen in “True Detectives,” an eight-episode HBO series penned by Nic Pizzolatto (“The Killing”) in which McConaughey and friend Woody Harrelson portray cops hunting for a serial killer in the wilds of Louisiana’s bayou country.
For McConaughey, though, there was no dramatic, anvil moment when he decided to stop chasing the rom-com dollar in favor of choosing stories with more character and depth. It was a gradual feeling of frustration. After all, he wasn’t quite the same guy he was at the time of “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” a decade ago — he married Brazilian model/designer Camila Alves in 2012 and has three children.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do the Hollywood thing. I’ll do the Hollywood thing,” he insists. “Hollywood has some good things to do that I will do and like to do. . . . I just said, ‘OK, if you do any more of these [romantic comedies], you’re going to be repeating yourself and [be] in a place where you’re not growing or evolving.’ ”
The actor’s current dedication to craft seems a far cry from that kid who was voted Most Handsome in the Longview High School yearbook and later admitted that he used to pretend to be DJ Kidd Kraddick to get into Dallas nightclubs.
He parlayed that moxie into appearing in a couple of commercials, but he soared into the moviegoing consciousness in 1993 after a chance meeting with director Richard Linklater. That led to the part of “Dazed and Confused’s” ’70s-era suburban seducer David Wooderson.
Linklater, who has worked with McConaughey a couple of times since then, on “The Newton Boys” and “Bernie,” considers him a friend, and has been a keen observer of his career. “He’s the same,” the director says during a separate interview at SXSW. “He hasn’t changed. He just gets better. Anyone who has that experience who works as hard as he does, they just get better, more refined. . . . It’s always good to see him jump in and tackle something. Matthew is all-in. He’s going to do it, he’s going to do it all the way.”