Although Matthew McConaughey could boast of a cinematic career stretching back over 20 years by the time he appeared in Dallas Buyers Club, the performance, subsequent critical acclaim and Academy Award win re-established the Texan star as one of Hollywood’s most talented leading men.
But it wasn’t always this way. For much of McConaughey’s early career, he was the go-to hunk for directors of romantic comedies – with some (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) marginally more successful than others (The Wedding Planner). Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to envisage the articulate Oscar-winner as nothing more than eye-candy, but McConaughey’s move from soap-sap to superstar was no accident. The actor, in his own words, “un-branded” in a bid to head back to the types of roles which marked his early film career.
“I was tired of doing romantic comedies and films which didn’t really mean much to me anymore,” he explains. “It was time to go back to the kinds of stories which inspired me to become an actor in the first place.”
This career shift meant McConaughey was more than willing to “say no” to roles that purported to pigeonhole his undoubted ability in the past. Two years passed before he began to be inundated with offers. He told Deadline in 2014 that he felt he had become “a new good idea”.
“In un-branding, I found anonymity,” he said. “And anonymity is good for an actor, and for people’s perception of an actor and the process with which people choose actors to play characters. My lifestyle, living on the beach, running with my shirt off, doing romantic comedies … people were throwing that together and going, well that’s who McConaughey is, he’s just rolling out of bed, getting dressed and he goes and does it. On the romantic comedies, I had to say well, that was fun, but I’m not feeling as challenged as I want to feel.”
Since his “un-branding”, the 46-year-old has lent his name to success after success, with roles in The Wolf of Wall Street, Interstellar, Mud and celebrated TV crime drama True Detective solidifying the McConaughey name as one now intrinsically linked to dark, gritty storytelling and impeccable on-screen performances. His triumphant return to film and seemingly effortless segue into bona fide blockbusters was quickly dubbed ‘The McConaissance’.
“That was a whole new chapter for me,” he says. “I didn’t chase any of those films and it made me think that I was right to take a chance, say no to the kind of thing I had grown tired of doing, and wait until something good came aroundand it did.”
His latest project, however, animated comedy Kubo and the Two Strings, has finally given McConaughey the chance to blend two of his greatest passions in life: film and family.
“I loved the story, and it was something my children could finally see – it’s not like I can say, ‘Hey, let’s watch True Detective tonight,’” he laughs. “Kids are going to love this film, but so will adults.”
And after tackling huge social issues in Dallas Buyers Club – the film follows his character’s plight to help fellow AIDS patients get the medicine they need – McConaughey is adamant that his first foray into children’s entertainment can hold the same intrinsic value as his previous, edgier roles.
“That’s what is so important about these kinds of stories that carry deep and beautiful messages for children,” he says. “Kids get so deeply involved when they’re watching animated films, and a movie like this can be very entertaining on one level and also have many serious underlying themes.”
From rom-com to Hollywood heavyweight
For someone who has successfully moved from rom-com lead to genuine Hollywood heavyweight quite late on in his career, McConaughey says these films inspire people to “have the courage to write the third act of your life in order to get the happy ending”.
Now, more so than ever, the actor appears to have secured his own “happy ending”. An Oscar-winner and hot property in Hollywood, the dedicated father and husband currently resides in his home state of Texas with his wife of four years, Camila Alves, and their three children, sons Levi and Livingston, and daughter, Vida.
McConaughey’s own childhood centred on a family unit that kept together through tremendous ups and downs. His parents, Mary Kathleen and James, eventually ended up marrying each other three times –divorcing twice. Despite the fluctuating nature of his parents’ relationship, it’s clear that McConaughey still holds his parents in the highest regard.
“My mother was a kindergarten teacher, very strong, very determined, who led us by example,” he recalls. “My father has been a very tough football player, but my mother definitely never took any [rubbish] from us kids.
“One day, when I was maybe seven or eight years old, I remember asking my mother constantly about wanting to have a new pair of shoes. Finally, she took me into a poor section of town and showed me children who had no shoes at all. And she asked me, ‘Do you understand now? Do you really need another pair of shoes?’ That was the kind of moral rectitude that both my mother and father instilled in us.”
Alongside this, McConaughey’s parents introduced their son to Christianity – and the star has remained a man of faith in one form or another, even going so far as to reserve his first thanks during his Oscar acceptance speech in 2014 for God.
“That’s who I look up to,” he said on stage. “He has graced me with so many opportunities that I know are not by my hand, or any human hand. He has shown me that gratitude reciprocates.”
It was the birth of his first child, Levi, in 2008, however, that inspired McConaughey to make faith a focal point of his life once again. That decision, too, was inspired by the spiritual views of his parents and nostalgic recollections of his own childhood.
“As soon as we had children, I was like, ‘You know what? That was important to my childhood’,” he explained to GQ in 2014. “Even if it was just for the ritual of giving an hour-and-a-half on Sunday to yourself, to pray and to think about others, even if you’re tired.
“I noticed how much I missed it and needed it. It’s a time for me to take inventory of my last week, to look at what’s in the future, to give thanks and think about what I can work on to do better.”
Versatility in film and life
Much like McConaughey’s innate ability to avoid typecasting in his acting career – the star has covered every genre from romantic comedy to B-movie horror, thoughtful thriller and animated feature – his faith has transcended definition over the course of his life. Though his parents were devout Methodists, McConaughey was married in a private Catholic ceremony and now describes the church his family frequents in Texas as “non-denominational” – a place that is “based in the faith that Jesus is the son of God, but where many different denominations come in”.
As for his own personal relationship with God, the actor told GQ he views the deity as “somebody who can help answer my questions”. This intrinsic curiosity has always been a huge part of McConaughey’s life and career, both on-screen and off.
“As a child, I was always asking my mother a thousand questions: who? What? Why?” he says. “I would never stop. I’m very fortunate that my job as an actor enables me to travel and meet new people and learn about different moments in history and different cultures. I want my children to search for answers about their world and understand as much as they can and try to get closer to the truth. It’s a process that never stops.”
The trials and tribulations of modern society have also affected how McConaughey treats his children’s questions, even though he admits that “the truth may be hard sometimes”.
“Children are smart; they absorb everything and the news these days is filled with so much violence that you can’t ignore it,” he says. “You need to talk about serious things with them sometimes. Even though the truth burns, it’s going to enlighten them more as compared to what they’ll get out of playing video games where you do nothing but shoot people.”
He continues: “A parent has to walk a fine line between being a parent and a friend. Those two roles intersect and overlap. I’ve seen many examples where adults are trying to be friends to their children in circumstances where they’re doing a disservice [to them]. But I understand how hard it can be to know which role you need to play at the right time.”
Captain fun and Friday nights
In this description of the sometime struggles of parenthood, McConaughey draws comparisons to Beetle, his character in Kubo and the Two Strings.
“In the film, Beetle is a protector; he’s a hero in his own mind, and maybe so in reality as well,” he says. “He’s also Captain Fun. That’s what Friday nights are like in our household, where the answer is ‘yes’ to most everything, and we have fun along the way.”
As well as recently having the privilege of enjoying a film with his children – “my daughter Vida spoke in my ear, ‘Papa, Beetle sounds just like you’” he smiles – McConaughey has recently wrapped on Free State of Jones, an American Civil War drama. The star portrays Newton Knight, a Robin Hood-esque character who rebelled against the Confederates on behalf of his fellow farmers.
“When [director] Gary Ross came to me with the story and I read the script it was so amazing that I asked him if he was sure it was true,” McConaughey explains. “He was a man of the highest moral principles who fought to defend his freedom and that of his neighbours by forming an army of poor white farmers and runaway slaves.”
Knight’s morality and “innate need to correct injustice” are an inspiration to the Texan actor, whose inherent values of right and wrong were inherited from the respectful traditions of his own Southern parents.
“When the war was over, he didn’t stop fighting against injustice,” he says. “Knight wasn’t one of those men who went back to just getting along, he kept on fighting for justice and for the rights of African-Americans in the South to the day he was buried next to his wife Rachel, a former slave, when he was 94. He was a defender of freedom for everyone.”
Despite his questioning nature and ability to draw stimulation from the world around him, there will always be one person to whom McConaughey returns time and time again in times of strife: his wife, Camila.
“We were lucky that we met at the right time,” he agrees. “She inspires me to be myself and pursue what I love. She pushes me to take risks, to grow, and to be a better man.”
It’s clear that whatever film or genre the marvellous Mr McConaughey turns his hand to next, his ability to subvert expectations and chase his dreams – the very essence of the McConaissance that took the cinematic world by storm – is drawn from the teachings of his childhood, the support of his blossoming young family, and those solid Southern roots.
“The more secure a man is at home,” he smiles, exuding the air of eloquent sincerity we have come to recognise as McConaughey’s modern trademark, “the higher and wider they can fly outside of it.”