Matthew McConaughey was once known as the most shirtless actor in film but in more recent times has moved on to weightier roles in shows like True Detective and films like Free State of Jones. Mark Dapin met him in New York at the announcement of another new McConaughey role, that of Creative Director of Wild Turkey.
“Let it fucking rip, man,” urges Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey and, for once, it seems like what’s going on inside McConaughey is the same as what’s happening on the outside.
McConaughey stands in a football field in Austin, Texas, unfashionably unshaven, his hawkish eyes hidden by sunglasses, his wiry hair tamed by a baseball cap. Around him kneel the Texas Longhorns gridiron team. The Longhorns are gearing up for a Sunday-night home fixture against Notre Dame. It’s a big game – Notre Dame thrashed the Longhorns the last time they met – and McConaughey is trying to help the players with their pre-match nerves.
“You don’t get rid of fear or nerves by saying, ‘I’m not nervous!’” says McConaughey. “Uh-uh. Uh-uh. That’s not how you get rid of it. You admit it. I have many times when I go up on my first day of shooting and I’ve got my big fear, and I’ve learned, I just say it out loud. I go, ‘Man, I’m scared. Whoa! I’m nervous!’ And it all sort of goes away. I’m not nervous anymore.”
He tells the Longhorns to use their nerves to focus, to commit, and when the time comes to run out against Notre Dame, “Don’t be thinking anymore.”
He taps the side of his head with his finger.
“Like coach says, ‘Preparation’s over.’ Let it fucking rip, man.”
“Hell, no!” shouts a footballer, like a hapless first-time actor, reading the wrong line from his script.
“You’ve got one time,” says McConaughey. “So don’t come out of Sunday night going, ‘Oh man, if I woulda, I wish I woulda, coulda… If I was only a little bit quicker, man. I was kinda scared…’ Don’t have anything to regret. Let it fucking rip.”
And, come Sunday night, the Longhorns let it rip. They beat Notre Dame, the favourites to win, 50-47. And it’s McConaughey’s performance at the pep talk that people are talking about on this hot afternoon in New York as the world’s press waits for McConaughey to arrive at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, the hipster capital of the world.
In the streets around the Wythe, improbably bearded men play ping-pong as if table tennis were a deviant subculture rather than an Olympic sport. Pale-skinned women wear neck tattoos not as jobstoppers but as CVs. Both genders walk around carrying very small dogs. Everyone – even the shih tzus – is a website developer.
The Wythe is an impeccably fashionable hotel in a part of Williamsburg that might legitimately be called the “alcohol quarter”. The Whiskey Brooklyn – a cavernous sports bar with a huge whiskey selection – sprawls through a nearby building, in the same block as the Brooklyn Brewery, whose walls bear the words “Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer.” The quotation is attributed to Henry Lawson, which makes me feel proud to be Australian.
McConaughey is meeting the media in his slightly puzzling role as Creative Director of Wild Turkey, to introduce the TV commercial he has made and a short film he has directed. It is a curious diversion in a career that has seen him grow from a romantic-comedy star best known for taking off his shirt into the dramatic actor who received an Academy Award for his starring role in The Dallas Buyers’ Club.
McConaughey’s chick-flick phase in the 2000s included genre classics such as The Wedding Planner and How to Lose a Man in Ten Days, a movie which, unaccountably, I have watched twice. In these and several less accomplished pitches to the same market, he established himself as a man with a finely sculpted torso who could be relied upon to share it with an audience, from his perfect pecs to his eight-pack abs.
At the dawn of the current decade, he began making more serious movies, starting first in The Lincoln Lawyer, a formulaic legal thriller in which the lead character achieves alliterative status by working out of the back of his car. This was followed by Bernie, Killer Joe then The Paperboy, in which McConaughey was severely out-shirtlessed by Zac Efron, and only got naked when he was tied up and raped.
However, in 2012, McConaughey reached peak shirtless in Magic Mike, the story of a troupe of male strippers, throughout which he wore little more than malevolent bonhomie. The next year, he wore a suit for a minor but memorable role in The Wolf of Wall Street. Then came The Dallas Buyers Club, in which McConaughey only took off his shirt for artistic reasons, to show the large amount of weight he had lost to play a rodeo cowboy with AIDS. The next year, he played Rust Cohle in the first season of HBO’s True Detective. McConaughey as Cohle was as compelling as the show’s exquisitely bleak aesthetic, and he and co-star Woody Harrelson were probably better actors than the script deserved: together they turned it into art.
In many of McConaughey’s serious roles, the men he plays are struggling to suppress a manic energy fired by anger, madness, hysterical triumphalism or existential despair. As a mature actor (and he turned 47 years old in November) McConaughey’s genius is to show what’s going on inside the mind of his characters, rather than inside their shirts.
Some might argue this talent is not employed to its full effect in his Wild Turkey work. As the face of the product, he has to project unambiguous approval. There are no layers required, nothing seething beneath the surface. In the commercial, McConaughey plays piano in an open field, while a woman in a short skirt brings him a glass of bourbon.
When McConaughey arrives at the Wythe with his entourage (and, it appears, his entourage’s entourage) it strikes me he does not look real. He looks hyper-real. It is as if he is in Technicolor while everyone around him is in black and white. I wonder if I look real to him, it’s hard to tell, as when I sit down beside him he fixes his penetrating gaze somewhere past my right knee. But he is gracious and slightly hesitant, with an opiate drawl that could tranquilise an elephant.
When I tell him I’m from Australia he asks me if I have ever heard of Warnervale. I say I have, although I haven’t. He loves Australia – “I lived there for a year and I’ve worked there three times,” he says. “I went to Australia just after I turned 18.
I was two weeks out of high school. Like most people at 18 years old, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life. So it was my mom’s idea. She said, ‘What about going to Australia? Head over there for a year.’ And I was like, ‘That sounds like a damn fun thing to do,’ so I packed up and I was on a plane. Found a family who would take me in. I lived with them and off we went. I have an aunt and a now-passed-on uncle that lived in Sydney. I’d go and see them once every couple of months.
“No frills: I enjoyed that about the Aussies. You guys like to play hard as well, which is another reason why I think you’ll enjoy the ad and the campaign. It’s fun. I’ve been in some of the positions that’re in the campaign when I had some nights like that over there. This is back in ’88, so this is Barnestorming and Jimmy Barnes.”
It seems unlikely he is talking about playing paddock piano in Warnervale, which turns out to be a town on the NSW Central Coast. “It was the same sort of Friday and Saturday nights that I had growing up,” he says. “You go out to some open lot, everyone brings their trucks, drops down the back end of the truck, and you bring out what you’re doing. Somebody brings some music, maybe a live band, maybe bring out the best stereo and you go at it. Sometimes you see sunrise.”
I ask McConaughey how he takes his bourbon.
“I’ve had some nice nights with Wild Turkey,” he says. “I like it with a couple of nice rocks on, just to chill the air, and touch it down with tap water. That’s how I have it. I got into that Rare Breed last night. Now, that thing’s got some movement, man. But it’s clean. It’s not a fuzzy line, it’s a clean line, from beginning to end.”
I’ve got no idea what he’s talking about, but it turns out Rare Breed is Wild Turkey’s premium over-proof line. Australia is Wild Turkey’s biggest export market, but Rare Breed is not a big seller because we tax spirits on proof so the price is steep.
The thing about McConaughey, though, is he doesn’t seem much like a drinker. He’s a married Christian with three children, and he seems more like, well, a footballer. His late father – who was married three times, on each occasion to McConaughey’s mother – played college football and was drafted into the NFL, but was released before he could play a league game.
I ask if McConaughey played football in Australia.
“No. I threw it around a little bit. I was there for State of the Union…”
State of Origin?
“State of Origin, I’m sorry, yeah. So I was around it a lot. And cricket a lot, too. I got introduced to five-day matches. You have a drink, you take a nap, you wake up, eat a hotdog, and maybe someone takes a wicket. Then you do it all over again.”
McConaughey grew up in Texas and, in theme with this issue of Men’s Style, I ask him to name a lesson he learned about how to be a man. He says, “The first butt-whipping I got was for saying ‘I can’t.’ I was eight years old and I said, ‘Dad, I can’t get the lawnmower going.’ He goes, ‘You what? Are you sure you’re not just having trouble?’ I said, ‘No, I can’t.’ And I got butt-whipped. And then afterwards, he went out and he fixed it. He said, ‘See, you were having trouble.’ And I’ll never forget that. Then the second one, from my mom, was I heard the word ‘hate’ at school and I told my brother I hated him. She stopped the party and I got a licking. That when I got my first ass-whippings… two pretty good reasons to get them.”
McConaughey’s movie Free State of Jones was released in Australia last September. It was received tepidly in the US but McConaughey calls it “a great true story about the war that defined America, the American Civil War which, I was reminded when I made it, it’s not that long ago. Hell of a true story about a guy named Newton Knight who lived in the South and actually fought against the Confederacy.”
Another movie, Gold, is due out in the US at Christmas. For Gold, which McConaughey says he is “really excited about”, the actor went up several shirt sizes, gaining about 22 kilograms to play – somewhat against type – a bald, fat man who discovers a gold mine in the jungles of Borneo.
Time with McConaughey is limited – there’s a journalist from Brazil waiting in the hallway – and somebody from one of the four PR companies represented here today ushers me out to a Wild Turkey event where McConaughey is to speak at a press conference. One reporter accuses him of drinking water instead of bourbon, but McConaughey insists his glass holds “Wild Turkey and…” Well, something, He doesn’t finish the sentence. Later on, however, he downs a double with elegant relish.
But when Matthew McConaughey says he loves Wild Turkey on the outside, it’s not at all clear what’s going on inside. He makes a fine ambassador for bourbon but I suspect the interior and exterior McConaugheys might find more perfect harmony if he were spruiking the NFL.