The standard operating practice of an award’s show, and any prize giving event for that matter, is simple: leave the biggest awards till last. The Oscars are no exception. As this year’s almost-three-and-a-half-hour ceremony drew to a close the penultimate award to be given out was the coveted golden statue bearing the label “Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role”. Among the nominees was a man, who five years ago you’d have been hard-pressed to believe would be in the position he is now. Perhaps even the man himself was somehow wondering how he reached this point. The envelope was opened and the name read out…
“It feels… I’m not going to say surreal. I did not expect it, but it’s a bit of the end of a journey with this film” Matthew McConaughey says to the press backstage with his distinct Texan accent and newly-acquired trophy in his hand. It’s funny that he mentions the word surreal because that might have been the reaction of someone who deep down was blindsided by the accolade, but it wasn’t that. He says it was unexpected but you get the feeling this recognition was part of a process by the 44-year-old that has been years in the making.
You See, in the 2000s the man now garnering critical acclaim was somewhat of an expert in the less than award-worthy romantic comedy genre. Films like The Wedding Planner, How Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Ghosts Giffriends Past, and Surfer, made McConaughey a household name (and a rich man). But as each lovey-dovey outing was followed by another, you got idea the actor had resigned himself to taking the easy route: using his movie star looks and smooth-talking persona to carry him from one role to the next.
But then something struck a chord and the man many had come to expect in the year’s biggest rom-coms was absent. If you look at the list of films he has starred in, there is a noticeable two-year gap after 2009s less-than-favourable Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.
“I took a couple of years off,” he says. “I didn’t know if it would be two years. I didn’t know if it would be three years, four years. I took some time off to stop doing the things I was doing because I wanted to do something I felt I could give an original take on. Something that scared the hell out of me.”
I didn’t have an epiphany, I just wanted to do some different things and show a different part of myself. Different chapter, same book is how I look at it.”
It was a break that would see the southern Lothario guise replaced with a more serious front. Rumours were swirling that he turned down a $15 million deal to star in a 21st century remake of the much-adored 1980s TV series, Magnum PI. But the more he declined roles similar to what he had become famous for and stayed out of the spotlight a funny thing happened. McConaughey’s name started to get thrown around for vastly different characters than his perfected-to-a-tee fun-loving Casanova manifestation.
“I started to notice the things I was reading, I was like ‘these are stories that when I’m in the hotel and there’s 20 selections, this is the first one I want to pick to watch as a viewer.’ They were all sort of anti-heroes and I went and did them. I got selfish I guess is a good way to put it — One, just for myself for my own life. And then secondly for my career.”
His selfishness saw him take on characters in distinctly darker films like The Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe and Mud. Even something he became synonymous for in his earlier projects (being topless) was flipped on its head when McConaughey portrayed a former stripper and now dodgy strip club owner in Magic Mike. And with this new side of the actor on show, he began to be taken seriously by critics with his performances being applauded and gaining the Texan the kind of praise he would never have gotten had he stayed in his rom-com-shaped safety net. This string of critical hits on McConaughey’s resume soon came to be dubbed “The McConaissance”, signifying that just like the Renaissance the man’s
career had undergone a period of revival and rebirth.
“That term.., somebody said it in Sundance,” the actor recalls. “He said ‘you’re on a McConaissance’ and he went on to say something special and I was like, ‘Wait, wait go back, what did you say?’ He goes, ‘a McConaissance’ I was like, ‘I don’t know what that is but it sounds good.”
When asked about what he thinks has been the key to this new chapter in his already-storied career, McConaughey reflects for a moment, thinking about the performances he has undertaken in the last four years, then the answer comes to him.
“I’ve been more process-oriented than I ever have been. I’ve been more like, ‘F it, go for the experience, Matthew. What’s the personal experience I can get out of this as an actor’ And love making the daily construction and architecture of making a movie. And when it’s over be fulfilled in the making of that movie. And if it rises to somewhere, if it goes straight to DVD, pfft, forget it. That
was about making the movie.”
It an approach which led him to take on what is arguably his toughest role to date but as luck would have it, it was a role which only landed in McConaughey’s hands thanks to his previous acting
life. As he fervently recounts, the script for Dallas Buyers Club got turned down 137 times over a 20-year span and while notable actors were temporarily attached to the project at different times they ultimately passed on it and so further down the list of leading men it went until it reached McConaughey.
“I’m so glad it got passed on so many times,” he says. “Really glad it got passed on so many times or it wouldn’t have come to me.”
The script told the true story of Ron Woodroof, an electrician, rodeo cowboy and homophobe, who in 1985 was diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live. Frustrated by the lack of available medicines in the US he scoured the globe for alternative remedies. Upon returning to Dallas he set up a buyers club to supply people with AIDS and HIV medications which were not government- approved and in the process became a gay rights crusader.
It was the role of lifetime for the Uvalde, Texas-born thespian and one which saw him shed close to 20kg to properly portray Woodruff. As pictures emerged from the set of the film of the bony, thin McConaughey, talk began to circulate of his drastic transformation. It wasn’t until the film was released that the dialogue shifted to the leading man’s performance.
“I understood before the film came out that was the headline. That photo of me at the airport was how we got people to click on the site. I got that. But I’m happy that people’s reactions meant the film quickly became something more than the ‘Matthew McConaughey got skinny movie’. This wasn’t an affectation or an eccentric idea, I had a responsibility to portray the man to the best of my ability.”
That commitment to the role announced the period of the McConaissance to the masses and the industry replied with a string of accolades for the actor’s second coming. This wasn’t a
flashy film with a big crew, instead it only carried a $5 million budget and was shot in just 25 days. With all of the film’s funding still not completely confirmed days before shooting was to begin,
the fact it was completed was a minor miracle according to McConaughey. But when he got sent a first look he knew something special had been captured.
“I saw the first cut [Director] Jean-Marc sent me to look at and I was like ‘Oh I think we may have gotten it on camera. I think we have a good film here..'”
“You never know what’s going to happen after that. All of a sudden, it premieres in Toronto. It’s received well. It sticks with people in a way. They pass that word along. Then we open up in a few
theatres in America, and it started to gain momentum, started to really stick with people.”
Soon enough it and its cast was being bestowed with nominations and awards for some of the most renowned honours in the biz.
And that takes us back to the Oscars ceremony. McConaughey’s performance has now put him in the running for the Best Actor gong. The fact he even nominated is evidence of the McConaissance. Jennifer Lawrence is presenting the award and prolongs the suspense of the reveal even more when she fumbles with the envelope. “And the
Oscar goes to” she says. “Matthew McConaughey.”
The audience errupts into applause and cheers while the man of the hour looks toward the ceiling. This is the culmination of years of dedication to chasing something people would have never thought he could get and he understands that. This victory is sweet. He collects the prized statue with the audience now on its feet, a sign they are undoubtedly aware of the transformation this man has undergone, not just for this role but for his career.
His acceptance speech is delivered with that signature McConaughey charm but it’s a much more self-aware tone. He tells the audience there are three things he needs each day: something to look up to, something to look forward to and someone to chase, with those being God, his family and himself in 10 years. On the latter he admits he will never become that person 10 years in the future because they will always be 10 years away and that’s just fine by him because that keeps him chasing.
As his moment of recognition draws to a close, McConaughey shows he is mindful of his own journey by ending his speech with two of his most famous lines of dialogue from his first film, Dazed and Confused. Just as those were a symbol of his arrival on the scene when they were first said, now they are announcing another arrival – that of a man who is only just getting started. Again.
“So, to any of us, whatever those things are, whatever it is we look up to, whatever it is we look forward to, and whoever it is we’re chasing, to that I say, ‘Amen.’ To that I say, ‘Alright, alright, alright.’ To that I say ‘just keep living.’ Thank you.”