The Shape Shifter – Matthew McConaughey In the Dark Tower

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed”. Back in 1978, with these tantalising words, a young man called Stephen King began an epic narrative that is still unfolding to this very day.

King would go on to become one of the best-selling popular novelists in the world, a modern-day Charles Dickens, and these two characters – one clad in black, the other packing a pistol – would evolve into the central players in an epic canvas that is known as The Dark Tower, a story series that comprises novels, short stories, comic books and now, at long last, a movie.

The movie is set to open with these famous words. And the man in black is coming to the screen courtesy of a performance from Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey. “I play a sorcerer and a shape shifter,” begins McConaughey, explaining his character, who is known as both the Man in Black and also as Walter.

“He can move to different places in time, and he can move objects. He can really screw with people’s minds, with words or touch. He has got some badass powers, and to play with those is a lot of fun.”

The Man in Black is the movie’s prime antagonist, and the enemy of the central warrior-hero, the gunslinger, Roland Deschain (played by Idris Elba). The pair are locked in an age-old battle between good and evil, fighting over the fate of the Dark Tower, a looming edifice that holds the universe together.

The Man in Black is on the dark side; the gunslinger Roland, meanwhile, is fighting for the light. “Walter has one capable adversary and that is Roland/the Gunslinger,” continues McConaughey, who won an Oscar in 2014 for Dallas Buyers Club.

Theirs is a complex relationship. “In one way, Walter has had the Gunslinger walking in circles for centuries, like a hamster in a wheel. And then in another way, he wants to have the great meeting of good versus evil, the showdown. He wants something to go down. He wants to have his cake and eat it.”

Though Walter represents the forces of evil, McConaughey points out that, like most bad guys, he doesn’t necessarily regard himself as evil. He is exasperated by others and believes that time and space both deserve the fate he plans on crashing down upon them.

“As evil as Walter is, I never took him on as someone who believes he is a bad guy,” the actor says. “I look at him as a guy who thinks he is a minister of enlightenment, and he thinks he is speeding up the process of the inevitable.”

That process, Walter hopes, will conclude with the toppling of the Dark Tower —which serves as the linchpin of time and space — and the subsequent destruction of the multitudinous universes that revolve around it. Once this is achieved, the great evil that is the Crimson King will rule in the primordial chaos. And Walter will take his place at the King’s right hand.

Despite his evil intent, however, Walter has many layers, aspects of which McConaughey worked on with the film’s director Nikolaj Arcel. “Stephen King gave me a lot with the books,” the actor says. “The script and what was there already gave a great grounding but then it was a case of, ‘Okay, let’s go for the imagination.’”

Indeed, Arcel says that Walter has an interesting way of seeing the world, “with a certain delight, even if it’s on the wrong side of the light and dark spectrum,” he says. “I’ve been having a lot of fun with the character, and Matthew and I added a lot of layers, which at the same time were very true to the book; how Walter speaks, and how he moves.”

McConaughey concurs. “When I read the character of the Man in Black, he might not literally be the Devil but he’s not too far away and there is no one more fun, who you could play versions of, than the Devil himself,” he says.

“There are many ways to be evil, to kill people and torture them. It can be quick, mass destruction, or other times it might be a slow burn. Sometimes, Walter might expose someone’s hypocrisy and they’ll self-destruct.

“There are many fun ways in which the Man in Black delivers his particular type of evil. And, like I said, he believes he is a minster of enlightenment.”

Such is his power, when Walter speaks everyone listens. “Walter has a bit of a low, singsong timbre to his voice,” adds McConaughey. “Other times, he’s as sharp as a tack.

“Most of the time I took him as a guy who whispers in an open, barren field, but when he talks, everyone listens. He doesn’t have to put out a great deal of effort.”

McConaughey evidently put much considered thought into the character’s creation and he drew inspiration from a number of sources, including the character of Alex DeLarge, played by Malcolm Mcdowell in Stanley Kubrick’s cult masterpiece A Clockwork Orange.

“There was a whimsy and a joy with which that character enjoyed the chaos and the anarchy,” he says. “I like to imagine Walter as almost like an anime character, something unbelievable and not of this world.”

He also listened to his fellow filmmakers. “Everyone involved, from the producers to the financiers was absolutely obsessed with The Dark Tower novels. They’ve been trying to get them made the right way for very many years, and now they’ve come across the right way to do them.

“So I listened a lot to these people who are absolutely made up with these novels and these characters. I got a lot of good information about what turned them on and why they loved the story.”
According to McConaughey, one of the great strengths of the film — which blends elements from a number of different books to create a continuation of the story — is the way in which it combines the ordinary and extraordinary, the worldly and the otherworldly.

“If you look at the history of my work I have never really done anything like this,” says McConaughey, who has won much acclaim for his performances in the likes of Dazed and Confused, Amistad, The Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe, Mud and the first series of HBO’s True Detective, among many others.

“The most otherworldly thing would be Interstellar but that is still a different genre from this. So I was looking to go play, and to have some otherworldy fun. And then hearing about how grounded Nikolaj wanted to make The Dark Tower while also enthusing it with the extraordinary, I just thought, ‘I’m in.’”

The story unfolds across two parallel universes, our own (which mostly plays out in New York City) and another called the Mid-World (which was filmed in South Africa).

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed”. Back in 1978, with these tantalising words, a young man called Stephen King began an epic narrative that is still unfolding to this very day.

King would go on to become one of the best-selling popular novelists in the world, a modern-day Charles Dickens, and these two characters – one clad in black, the other packing a pistol – would evolve into the central players in an epic canvas that is known as The Dark Tower, a story series that comprises novels, short stories, comic books and now, at long last, a movie.

The movie is set to open with these famous words. And the man in black is coming to the screen courtesy of a performance from Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey. “I play a sorcerer and a shape shifter,” begins McConaughey, explaining his character, who is known as both the Man in Black and also as Walter.

“He can move to different places in time, and he can move objects. He can really screw with people’s minds, with words or touch. He has got some badass powers, and to play with those is a lot of fun.”

The Man in Black is the movie’s prime antagonist, and the enemy of the central warrior-hero, the gunslinger, Roland Deschain (played by Idris Elba). The pair are locked in an age-old battle between good and evil, fighting over the fate of the Dark Tower, a looming edifice that holds the universe together.

The Man in Black is on the dark side; the gunslinger Roland, meanwhile, is fighting for the light. “Walter has one capable adversary and that is Roland/the Gunslinger,” continues McConaughey, who won an Oscar in 2014 for Dallas Buyers Club.

Theirs is a complex relationship. “In one way, Walter has had the Gunslinger walking in circles for centuries, like a hamster in a wheel. And then in another way, he wants to have the great meeting of good versus evil, the showdown. He wants something to go down. He wants to have his cake and eat it.”

Though Walter represents the forces of evil, McConaughey points out that, like most bad guys, he doesn’t necessarily regard himself as evil. He is exasperated by others and believes that time and space both deserve the fate he plans on crashing down upon them.

“Walter and a few others have the ability to travel, quite quickly, between these multiple worlds, via portals,” notes McConaughey. “Each world can follow up on the other one simultaneously.”
Along with Walter and Roland, there is a 14-year-old called Jake (played by Tom Taylor) who can also travel through these portals. He follows the clues in his vivid dreams and ends up in Mid-World where he searches for Roland, a character that has for a long time been appearing in his subconscious.

After meeting the Gunslinger, the boy becomes embroiled amid the supernatural happenings of Mid-World. “Jake is fresh on the journey,” says McConaughey, “whereas, Roland and Walter have been battling for centuries.

“Then this boy enters that relationship, so he’s like the audience seeing it all for the first time. He represents what humans are going through. Plot-wise, the boy is Walter’s secret weapon. And, in a way, he is also Roland’s secret weapon, too.”

As ever, there is complexity and many hidden layers in this story. McConaughey is glad he’s involved, and hopes that The Dark Tower sparks a successful franchise. There is certainly a rich vein of source material upon which to draw. And its creator, King, has been closely involved with the production.

“I thought The Dark Tower was original,” concludes McConaughey, who enjoyed a brief email exchange with King during production. “And I liked the idea that I could get in on a film that could be a franchise, and get in on the ground floor, where I could create a character and be his author, and be the first one in the series. I hope that’s what happens.”