When movie stars go cold, the smart ones can find their way back. For Robert Downey Jr, that meant an Iron Man screen test so overwhelming that skeptical studio execs had no choice but to hire him. Ben Affleck scripted his own second act as writer and director and won the Best Picture Oscar for Argo. When we look back on how Matthew McConaughey sprang himself from rom-com prison by taking creative risks in small edgy films, his transformation won’t simply be pegged to the performance as AIDS activist Ron Woodroof that won him the Best Actor Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey’s second wind is a one-two punch capped off by his Emmy-caliber performance as the tightly coiled fatalistic cop Rustin “Rust” Cohle opposite Woody Harrelson in HBO‘s groundbreaking 8-episode drama series True Detective. Among other things, McConaughey explains here how patience was key to turning around a stalled career and how patience allowed him to let a complicated character percolate over a time span four times longer that he gets in feature films.
DEADLINE: True Detective is a high-water mark in this golden age where pay and cable TV series are as good or better than what we see on movie screens. Still, it’s chancy for a movie star to say yes to a TV show. You had a script you liked by Nic Pizzolatto, a novelist who was unproven as a showrunner. The director, Cary Fukunaga, was not a household name. What did you feel like you were risking when you committed?
MCCONAUGHEY: Not that much. I read those first two episodes, and the quality was so apparent, and had such an identity to it that even without reading the final six episodes, I felt this was going to be hard to screw up. The voices were so clear, if the writer just stays on this path, it was going to be hard to wreck this train. Maybe twice did I take a film project where I wasn’t happy with the entire script when I signed on. When you hear, “Here are some great ideas, here is what I want to do,” I’m always like, “Show me on paper.” With this guy, I read two scripts and could feel he knew exactly what this show was.
DEADLINE: So you said yes with no reservations at all?
MCCONAUGHEY: The only thing was, they wanted me for the Marty Hart part, and I liked the Rust Cohle part. The director, Cary Fukunaga, well I was a big fan of Sin Nombre. The fact that it was going to be those two, Nic and Cary, through all eight episodes? I would have been more scared if I was going to do something on TV with different directors and writers coming in. One director, one showrunner for a finite series made it feel like I was making a 450-page movie. As for TV, you don’t feel you are walking the plank anymore. The quality of drama on the small screen often surpasses the quality on the big screen now. I wasn’t approaching this thinking, “What is my image going to be and how might it change?” It was, “Let me find quality, and then go and do quality.”
DEADLINE: How did you go from playing the married detective role that eventually went to Woody Harrelson to instead playing the loner Rust Cohle?
MCCONAUGHEY: I understood why they wanted me for the Marty role. I think from my past work, someone would think that I would be more right for that. I said, the guy on the page who I cannot wait to hear what’s going to come out of his mouth, and who I agreed with in so many ways, or at least I understood his mind and his character, was Rustin Cohle.
DEADLINE: So Woody Harrelson came after?
MCCONAUGHEY: I’ve been told I was the one who said, “You got to go to Woody for this.” I don’t know if that came out of my mouth first, but I know that if it didn’t, I agreed when I heard it and knew he was a great choice right away.
DEADLINE: Even though you say you don’t watch much TV, was there anything you saw that made you feel it was OK for a movie star to do something like this?
MCCONAUGHEY: There was such quality to The Sopranos, and there are parts of The Newsroom I quite enjoyed, especially the early stuff. Sports is my favorite TV to watch, but that Sunday night episodic sit-down, that’s one of my favorite things to do with my wife. But I really wasn’t thinking about, “What does it mean to go from the big screen to small screen.” I honestly considered the risk of that for about 60 seconds. I was talking to my agent about it and said, “We can sit here and debate whether or not this is a good career move. The main thing is, if this is turning me on, and we’ve got a quality director and this dynamite script with a character for me that is highly original, then we just have to go for it.”
DEADLINE: We are now hearing word that True Detective could star Jessica Chastain and other movie actors in Season 2. Was it always your expectation you would go only one season?
MCCONAUGHEY: That was always how I saw it. One season, eight episodes, a finite beginning, middle and end, goodbye, look forward to watching it. If HBO had wanted an option on me for a Season 2 or 3, I wouldn’t have done it. I wouldn’t have walked into something where they could say, “We’ve got you for the next three years.”
DEADLINE: If you’d wanted sequels, you could have stayed doing movies?
MCCONAUGHEY: I liked True Detective, the whole series and the experience of making it, so much that I’d be open to doing another one now. At the time, I was looking at six months and not beyond that. I don’t know of a feature film I’d sign for where I’m going to say, “If this works, you’ve got me whenever you want me for the next three years.”
DEADLINE: Watching this drama slowly unfold over eight hours, fleshing out these distinctive characters as they track this serial killer over 17 years, I found myself wondering what Michael Mann could have done with Heat, or Jonathan Demme with Silence Of The Lambs or so many other great films if they hadn’t been confined to 2 1/2 hours. There’s this tectonic shift going on, where good movie writers moved to TV because studios mostly make no-budget found footage films or formulaic tent poles. Why is a format like this more creatively satisfying, to the point TV has begun winning the battle in quality?
MCCONAUGHEY: Well, even when you’re talking about Heat, Silence Of The Lambs, you are working in this 2- to 2 1/2-hour medium, and you’ve just got to compress so much. Here’s what we had on True Detective, and it was the first thing I noticed when we were making it: If you break it down to the three-act structure, that first act is three hours, and the second is three and the last one is two, roughly speaking. So the first thing that would have been edited out, left on the floor in most studio pictures is the stuff in the first act. You want to hurry up and get to that point on point page 35, where the conflict is introduced and you get on with the story and the action. But what do you set up in Act 1? That’s where you introduce your world and your characters and their relationship. Well, in True Detective we had a third of 450 pages. We got 150 pages just for our first act, all that character development that actors love. That’s the stuff they drop first in studio films, because they’re like, “Let’s hurry up and get on with it. Audiences are smart enough that they know what’s happening; let’s get on with the action.” But as an actor, I love that first act, I love the setup, that time where you know you’ve got to be patient, to let a story and a character unfold slowly.
DEADLINE: How does that change your own process?
MCCONAUGHEY: We are doing 1995, and my character is very stoic, almost monk-like. We got five weeks into shooting and I found myself getting very nervous, asking myself, “Is what I’m doing going to be boring?” Because I feel like I’m not doing anything, and I had that urge to pizazz it up. I had to remind myself to be much more patient as an actor and say, “Trust this guy.” The 2012 Cohle, he’s coming, and the 1995 Crash [his alter ego, a reckless undercover narcotics agent] version of his character is coming. Those more eccentric or wild characters are going to reveal a dynamic, so just be patient and save the wild for later. Stick to this guy, this stoic Cohle, and let’s trust and hope that you’ll see how he is really boiling underneath, trying to keep his shit together. I am so happy I stuck with my patience, because I got a little antsy after five weeks.
DEADLINE: For a movie star, the idea of a good story, told confidently in its own pace…
MCCONAUGHEY: That is what got me going in the first place. That thing had such an identity, that after reading those two episodes, I didn’t even have any questions for the writer. All I said was, “Whoever wrote this, he would have to lose his mind to fuck it up, if it stays on this track.”
DEADLINE: The other thing you had going was your character Rust’s rawboned, edgy look. When you shot, where were you in that process of losing weight to play Ron Woodroof in your Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club?
MCCONAUGHEY: We finished out Dallas Buyers Club the 19th of December, and we started shooting this at the end of January. So I had six weeks, and I was 29 pounds heavier when I played Rustin Cohle.
DEADLINE: Despite that weight gain, your character was still all hard angles, and it just didn’t feel like we were watching the charming Matthew McConaughey who makes you feel safe. It was also effective in your short stint in The Wolf Of Wall Street. From here, it seems like changing your appearance can be quite a tool for an actor to alter expectations. How did you feel about that?
MCCONAUGHEY: It’s hard for me to answer that, it just kind of worked out that way. I mean, Wolf of Wall Street I shot before Dallas Buyers Club, so I was just losing weight and I had to stop that for a week to go do that. What was my excuse for understanding why that character would look that way? It was the ’80s and he was a guy who liked his cocaine and his uppers. So it was OK for him to look that way. It was clear in True Detective that in those scenes that took place in 1995, there was a stoic emaciation quality to Rust Cohle and so I didn’t put on as much weight as I naturally could have. I held back for Rustin, though not close to the 135 I weighed for Ron Woodroof. It all worked. Given the limited time between Dallas Buyers Club and True Detective, I could only do so much. I couldn’t have starred in The Wrestler, but I could do this. Those three characters, it just made sense to have them in different forms of emaciation. You could understand it with Ron Woodroof who had HIV. Rust Cohle, he was a bit monk-like, there was a real regimen to this guy’s loner lifestyle. He had dealt with his own drug use, etc, and people I know who are just trying to hold onto the rails and keep it together, need that kind of discipline and monastic life. Then you saw Rustin become Crash and that was when he was free, and he’s got this appetite and he lets it loose.
DEADLINE: It was clear from your Oscar speech that you are a spiritual man. Rust was so bleak and cynical and such a fatalist. How do you reconcile your own beliefs with this guy who makes such a strong case why there is nothing out there after you die?
MCCONAUGHEY: I’m very clear with myself and my own belief in God, and I don’t bring my morals to my day job because they might get in my way. I loved the agnostic side of Rust and what he said. There were some things there that made you go, gosh, damn, he might be right! I loved his voice. I’m a pragmatist, but nowhere near as much a cynic as Rustin Cohle, but I love philosophy. I studied it in school, and I love the sciences and the point of view that someone like Rust Cohle has. I’m glad I am now not as hard on myself as Rust is, but I really loved that poetry, that language, his understanding of the subject, and the fact that you couldn’t really argue him out of what he was saying. My own beliefs don’t factor into it, I just need to be able to hang my hat on the humanity of the character. I’ve met people like him and I have a part of Rust Cohle in me.
DEADLINE: Rust was so tightly coiled and steeped in his own code. In your mind, what flaw allowed him to betray his partner by having sex with his wife [Michelle Monaghan], and did he understand how she used this unexpected burst of passion to end the marriage to her philandering husband?
MCCONAUGHEY: For me, I don’t think he knew it would happen. She caught him in a weak moment and she manipulated Rustin Cohle. He never consciously would have broken the code of the man he is. After it happens, and I don’t know if you got this out of it when you watched it, they are standing there together. She just pulls on her panties and her dress and turns around with this very resolute ‘well that was business’ look on her face. Cohle sees it and realizes, holy shit, what’d you just do, what just happened? You witch! Oh my God, you just…And then she says, ‘I never could have gotten him to leave, if it wasn’t somebody other than the person who is so close to him.’ Then it’s Oh, my God! Immediately, Cohle knows he was duped into completely breaking his constitution, the definition of the man he is. That doesn’t undercut the attraction Cohle and Maggie may have had, but it was never an overtly sexual thing for Rustin Cohle. Maggie was great because she was someone he could actually talk to. He was much more open with her than anyone else, and he got manipulated. It was such an original part of Nic’s writing. I remember when I got to that part in the script, and when they were about to have sex, I was saying, no! That would be so conventional! And then I kept reading, and he flipped the convention of sleeping with a buddy’s wife on its head so it felt completely original. There was nothing ever conventional in Nic’s trip. This was great writing. Cohle was hammered drunk, and had an act of passion that he immediately regretted. And oh boy, he got duped.
DEADLINE: And came to work the next day ready to take his beating like a man, knowing his partner would be made aware what had happened.
MCCONAUGHEY: Oh, he went looking for that beating. Nic writes characters who are not going to actually apologize. Rust owns up to what he is and what he’s not. So it was, let’s go get this put right now, and I deserve what I’m gonna get. And even then, the last person who could forgive himself was Rustin Cohle. He was never going to let himself off the hook.
DEADLINE: You got pigeonholed in romantic comedies and people thought of you as the good time surfer guy. Yet you could see skill. I asked your Days And Confused director Rick Linklater his reaction to you winning the Oscar and he used the word ‘inevitable.’ How much of the great stuff you are going through right now was inevitable, and how did you get to this better place?
MCCONAUGHEY: Only in hindsight might it be easy to say something is inevitable. Did I get frustrated? I got to feeling like, for a few years, I was doing something that I liked to do with romantic and action comedies. But believe me, I noticed there were other things that were not coming in. And if they were coming in, it was in an independent form with a much smaller paycheck, and nobody really wanting to get behind them. I am not going to say it bothered me. It was more like, there were other things I wanted to do, and it became clear I had to make changes if I wanted to do them. I couldn’t just say, hey guys, I want to do these other things, and have them say, good on you, great! It was, you know what? We’re not sending ‘em. So I consciously recalibrated my relationship with my career. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, because I wasn’t getting those things. But I knew I could say no to the things I’d been doing.
DEADLINE: How quickly did things change?
MCCONAUGHEY: In saying no to those things, I knew work was going to dry up for awhile. I still said no. No lasted six months. That stretched to a year, and still nothing came in. Year and a half, still nothing. At two years, all of a sudden, in my opinion, I became a new good idea for some good directors. Steven Soderbergh called with Magic Mike. William Friedkin called with Killer Joe. Rick Linklater called me with Bernie but I probably would have done that anyway because he knows what I can do. In those two years that I took off, I didn’t re-brand. I un-branded.
In un-branding, I found anonymity. 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. I always put in the work, and the homework before I made films; I enjoyed doing that. But if I was to play many anti-heroes in a row, I’d get branded as that and they would say, man, he can’t play a lovable father. And I might want to play a lovable father. On the romantic comedies, I had to say, well, that was fun. But I’m not feeling as challenged as I want to feel, so I’m going to step in the shadows here, and say no to the things I didn’t say no to before. I don’t know when it’s going to end or how long it will take to see good things that turn me on. Hopefully they will. And they did, a couple of years later.
DEADLINE: Was there one in particular that helped change perception?
MCCONAUGHEY: My opinion, it was Lincoln Lawyer, which did a couple of things. Lincoln Lawyer made some people think back to A Time to Kill, with more antihero edge, an R rated version of this guy who’d win the case by any means necessary. And then the movie did pretty good, grossed 50 something million dollars or whatever it made. People saw it and realized, ‘that Mick Haller guy, man, I like that guy. I haven’t seen that in a while.’ Whether I had done that version before in Two For The Money or something else, the movie has got to get seen to make an imprint on the industry.
DEADLINE: Then Chris Nolan offers you the lead role in his film Interstellar. Which of your films lit his fuse?
MCCONAUGHEY: Mud. At some MTV award show, he came up to me, looked at me and said, Mud. Loved that performance in Mud. Really loved that performance in Mud. Really, really liked Mud. That was it. Chris writes his stuff, and makes own decision and I asked him your question, and that is what he told me, that it was his reaction to Mud.
DEADLINE: You come off two drastically different performances and one wins you an Oscar and now the other has you in the Emmy conversation. What did the journey to get to this place teach you about how to conduct your career going forward?
MCCONAUGHEY: That I ask myself, ‘what really lights my fire?’ I ask myself, ‘what really turns me on?’ I ask myself, ‘is this something that I feel like I can actually have an original take on this and where, after it’s seen, you might possibly go, nobody else could have played that role?’ I want to be surrounded by a good filmmaker. I want to be in a good story. I don’t want to just play a character that turns me on, with a director that doesn’t know what he’s doing and a story that’s a mess. I don’t want that. So I want to be surrounded by things that I feel are can add up to excellence. If I can define a character’s obsession or obsessions, then I feel like I can fly. Then, man let’s show up on the day and I can give you eight versions of the truth in the same scene. If you don’t understand a guy’s obsession or what his real need is, then you go to work and you try to come up with seven or eight versions of the truth just to try and protect yourself from telling a lie. It’s a whole lot more fun and a whole lot more vital to be able to have eight ideas and eight versions of one truth in this scene, then it is to be in a scene and going ‘I’m just trying to protect myself from a lie.’ I am also now going for the personal experience. I want to be a little scared of the adventure, and maybe not know what the hell I’m going to do. Put myself in a situation where I got to feel like an underdog, and have to figure it out.
DEADLINE: That was one of the gratifying things about True Detective. You didn’t know if Rust Cohl would kill himself. Or if he was an honest cop or a murderer. I’m not sure ten years ago that I would have had that feeling watching you in a role like that, because you were always the good guy.
MCCONAUGHEY: Right. This is better. And True Detective was like this great extended experience, like you were having an opening weekend, for eight weeks in a row. I’d watch it Sunday, and found myself talking about it all week with friends. And I knew what was going to happen. I’d read the scripts and played the scenes, and I was still engaging in conversations like I didn’t know what was going to happen. I’d watch it again Tuesday and Wednesday, for the pure enjoyment of watching those characters play off each other. I loved it that much, and then I would get excited with the anticipation for the next one. What a wonderful eight weeks.