How McConaughey Turned Into a Professional SOB for Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey, the former romantic comedy star and Hollywood stud tells Haaretz about losing 38 pounds for his new role and reinventing himself as a character actor.

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The moment Matthew McConaughey went up onto the stage to accept the Golden Globe award for his role in Dallas Buyers Club was one of the most important in his career. The first words he said were well-planned: “All right, all right, all right,” he said in a Texas accent. This was the first sentence he ever uttered in a film, in a small role in Dazed and Confused (1993). After years of climbing and long periods of standstill and doubt, it seems that McConaughey has reached the promised land at last. But for him, the real game has just begun.

Over the past few months, McConaughey has become one of the hottest names, not only in Hollywood, but in the American media landscape in general. With a Golden Globe award under his belt and high chances of winning an Academy Award for the same role, McConaughey has completed the transformation from a muscular, vapid star to a serious character actor.

"I get asked that all the time: What happened?" he told Haaretz. "I see it as much more of a natural transition than I’m hearing it appears to be. I wanted to do some things different. I look back and go, does that have to do with me being in my forties? Sure. Does that have to do with me starting a family? Sure. I wanted to shake up the relationship that I have with my career, although I was enjoying my career, I enjoyed the work I did then. I may do another romantic comedy in the future. It’s just using different muscles.”

Still, it's hard to ignore the fact that McConaughey has reinvented himself. The unsophisticated movies, such as The Wedding Planner, have moved aside to make room for interesting and sometimes impressive roles in films such as Magic Mike, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street and, of course, Dallas Buyers Club. He is also starring in a new HBO series, True Detective. Many critics have begun calling the new chapter in his life the McConaughaissance. Even though he insists in interviews that he does not regret any film he has ever appeared in, it is evident that in his new roles he is enjoying not only reinventing himself, but also puncturing his old image.

Falling in love with an SOB

When McConaughey discusses his latest role, playing Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, he speaks with the enthusiasm of someone who found his proper frequency and finally got to sink his teeth into a career-building part.

“I read the script five years ago and said: I some how, some way, gotta do this. No one was interested in financing it,” he says with a laugh. Indeed, raising money to do a film about a redneck homophobe dying of AIDS in the middle of Texas was no easy feat. But McConaughey and director Jean-Marc Vallee, would not give up.

“Ten days before we were going to shoot, Jean-Marc calls me and says, ‘Matthew, I have 4.9 million and I have 25 days. It’s impossible. I don’t know how I’m going to shoot this. It was too close to production, there was no more time to say ‘What else can we do?’ It was either we go make it for that or we don’t. And he said, ‘I’ll be there if you’ll be there.’ And I said, ‘I’ll be there.’"

At the same time, McConaughey immersed himself in researching the role so that he could put himself into the character of Woodroof in every way possible. “I got all the transcripts from Craig Borten, who’d gone down and interviewed Ron Woodroof in 1992 or 1986, so I was just humbling myself to what the information that I was getting about this guy. And then I went and met his family. They opened up their lives and his life to me. They didn’t try and sugar-coat who he was. A lot of times, my studies of talking to somebody, if it’s in any way biographical - if you talk to that person, you’re not always getting the real truth, because maybe they’re talking about themselves, how they want to be perceived. Then, in death, you’ve got a family talking about you. It’s really easy for somebody to start saying: Here was what was great about Ron. They talked about him as the son of a bitch that you see in the movie. Talked about how he stole their cars, and then they’d end up saying, ‘But you couldn’t help but love him.’”

To look like the emaciated Woodroof, McConaughey lost 38 pounds, but his weight loss did not weaken him.

“I ate well, I just ate small amounts,” he says, “I ate three meals a day, and had red wine at night.”

Over the months prior to filming, he also changed his lifestyle and stopped going outside almost entirely so that he would look pale and weak on set.

No way a straight person could get it

On screen, McConaughey, who used to look like he could model on the pages of a men's fashion magazine, is a convincing version of Woodroof - sick, twisted, angry, weak and clouded. “I was clear on this guy in that time: a bit of a redneck, being told he had HIV. I was at a very clear thought about how he would react, like to the doctor. One, in denial; two, he’s taking it as a personal challenge. Almost like: What’d you call me? There’s this almost ignorant adolescence and juvenility to him at that point. I remember back in ’86, ’87, ’88 — HIV and AIDS were taboo. It was understood across the board that it was only a homosexual disease. No way could a straight person get it, you know. And if you said they did have it, they almost took it as a challenge as Ron did.”

While McConaughey is far from a homophobe, as someone who grew up as a Methodist in conservative Texas, he knows the world Woodroof comes from.

It seems during the interview that Woodroof’s completely un-PC character and the craziness built into his behavior were just what McConaughey liked most about the project.

“The main emotion with Ron for me was how to deal with rage. And he was rage rage rage rage rage, and always dealing with the opposition. You got the FDA, you got your own limit on your life. He was always dealing with the opposition, so my job was: How do I show variation of rage so it doesn’t come off as one-note across the board? Then he gains compassion and understanding, but he doesn’t have that third-act break where he goes: Oh, my God, I’m so sorry for who I was.

“He doesn’t have that. There were comments on the outside like: He needs to become - we need to see this - a larger arch. And I’m not a fan of the big story-driven arches because they’re usually less human. People change. He gained compassion, but the guy’s fighting for his life. He was never a guy who was going to say: ‘Rayon, I’m sorry for calling you a faggot.’ At the same time, he was never going to be a guy who was waving a white flag, saying, ‘I’m the crusader — everyone follow me to Washington.’

“My feeling was: He was a real guy. If you stick to him being a son of a bitch, the humanity’s gonna come. It’ll reveal itself. If you stick to him being a business man, self-serving business man, the crusader will reveal itself.”

Sticking faithfully to the character and to the story were particularly important for McConaughey. “And I think, trusting that as much as he was a son of a bitch, as much as he was an anarchist, if he became a crusader, he almost didn’t know it. I don’t think he was a guy who ever made a decision one night and said, Oh, my gosh - you know what? I’m taking charge here, I can lead this. So acting out of self-preservation he becomes the crusader. We don’t have to sympathize with that guy, but you can empathize with him and say: I may not like you or your politics, but damn, you are what you are, you know.”

McConaughey's breakthrough role playing a 'redneck homophobe dying of AIDS' in Dallas Buyers Club Credit: AP
Matthew McConaughey speaks on stage during the 2014 Winter Television Critics Association tour.Credit: AP
Matthew McConaughey, left and Jared Leto.Credit: AP