This may be the year of actor Matthew McConaughey.
At the very least, fans will remember 2012 as the year that McConaughey revolutionized his career. He's starred in five different independent films, taking on smaller, character-actor parts in place of his usual roles as the sly-grinning heartthrob in romantic comedies.
In some ways, the shift is a return to where McConaughey's career first began in the 1993 independent film Dazed and Confused. He played the slightly cheesy ladies man Wooderson in the movie, and he says he got the part after striking up a conversation with one of the movie's producers in an Austin, Texas, bar.
"Cut to three-and-a-half hours later, we've been kicked out of so-said bar," McConaughey said. "And he said, 'Have you ever acted before?' And I said, 'Well, I mean I was in a Miller Lite commercial.' And he said: 'There's a role in this film you might be just right for. Come to this address, and pick up the script if you're interested, and come tomorrow morning.'"
McConaughey did, of course, and that film launched his career. But after coming to dominate the romantic comedy genre, he started rejecting those scripts and decided to take a break from acting entirely in 2009. He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz about that break, what drew him back into acting and what he sees himself doing next.
On his break from acting
"I was like, 'Let's just hold off, McConaughey. Let's sit back and see if something comes and intrigues me that I do not feel like I could do tomorrow — that I feel like I could do it, but I got to go to work and figure out how I can do it.
"And as the world works in that wonderfully cyclical way, I started to attract exactly what I was looking for. I met with Richard Linklater about Bernie [a 2011 film also starring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine], and I get a call from William Friedkin and we have a meeting.
"Steven Soderbergh calls for the first time, Lee Daniels, Jeff Nichols. However that works, it was about a year-and-a-half or two-year period, and these were the things that I was attracting. Very independent and singular-minded directors and very singular-willed characters that were — no placation or pandering to society or anyone's rules, really, but their own."
On some critics saying he plays a parody of himself as Dallas in Magic Mike
"It made me get a little quizzical when I first read it. Then pretty quickly after I gave it a sly eye I kind of chuckled and said, 'I'll take that as a compliment.' A lot of people, they go, 'Well Dallas plays the congas, and that's a callback to 1999 when you were arrested in your birthday suit.' And I never thought of it like that ... objectively, people are going to see Dallas playing the congas and they're going to go: 'That's McConaughey in full regalia. We know that about McConaughey.' And that's a nice wink."
On what attracted him to his dark role in Killer Joe
"I read it and I did not get it the first time I read it. I actually thought it was despicable. I remember throwing the script in the trash and saying I don't want to be any part of that world.
"The second read of this, I found myself finding the small chuckles. I started to laugh kind of hard in places. And that was the light that revealed the humanity of the character for me, and also the meter of [Pulitzer Prize winner] Tracy Letts' writing."
On his future as an actor
"I wouldn't say I'm done with the romantic comedies. But what I'm doing right now, I'm feeling the experience of the work. The last five films, which I did back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back, I didn't have one day where I even had 60 seconds of complacency.
"Every single day, I'm fortunate to say I got out of bed a little nervous and very excited about the work at hand. I never got bored. That's a goal to get there that does not happen with all the characters I've ever played, but that's always been the goal. And that was the goal that I learned from the very first film I ever did, Dazed and Confused. I've been able to have that feeling. I had it with "Killer Joe." If I can work to get to that place and find characters where I can understand the identity as well as I've understood the identity of these guys I've been playing, that would be just peachy."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. This past week, actor Matthew McConaughey sat down with us to talk about the recent and radical shift in his career, and the somewhat darker roles he's been taking.
But before we got there, he told us the story of how he got into acting and particularly, how he was cast as the slightly sleazy character Wooderson in the 1993 film "Dazed and Confused." It began at a bar in Austin, Texas. McConaughey struck up a conversation with Don Phillips, the producer, who was in town looking for actors for the film.
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: Cut to three and a half hours later; we've been kicked out of so-said bar. And he says, you ever acted before? And I said, well, I mean, I was in a Miller Lite commercial for about, mm, that long. And he said, well, there's a role in this film you might be just right for. Come to this address and pick up the script, if you're interested, and come tomorrow morning.
Nine-thirty that next morning, I went down to this place. And there was the script waiting for me, with a handwritten note. And for me, Wooderson was - it was not who my brother, my middle brother was, as a senior in high school; but at 11 years old, it's who I thought he was. And I had a wonderfully romanticized view of him. To me, he was 8 feet tall. His '81, Z28 Camaro was a rocket. Its sound system - the Tancredi equalizer Alpine system, and Concord speakers - was better than Phil Specter's wall of sound. I was working off these images of who he was when I was 11 years old.
And then I went to the set, did a wardrobe fitting one night, walk out. Richard Linklater sees me; he laughs, He goes yep, that's Wooderson. And I said, all right, well, I'll see you next week. And he goes no, don't go anywhere yet. He goes, we're shooting this scene at the Top Notch. It's Friday night. School just got out. Don't you think Wooderson might be hanging around here?
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DAZED AND CONFUSED")
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Wooderson) All right. Let's rock on.
And I said well, yeah, he'd be hanging around here. We smiled at each other and he goes, you want to shoot it? And I said, yeah. And I got in my car - the '70 Chevelle - very nervous, about to go onscreen for the very first time in my life. And I'm going through, in my head, what is Wooderson about? And I said, you know what? Wooderson's about four things. He's about his car; he's about his weed...
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DAZED AND CONFUSED")
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Wooderson) Say, man, you got a joint?
...he's about rock 'n' roll; and he's about chicks. And as they were counting down to say action, it hit me. And I said, I'm in my car. I'm high. I'm listening to rock 'n' roll. And right over there, there's the chick. And they said, action. And I said, that's three out of four. So let's give them a...
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DAZED AND CONFUSED")
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Wooderson) All right, all right, all right.
All right, all right, all right. And I pulled out.
MCCONAUGHEY: And that was the kick-start. The first words I ever said onscreen; still one of the lines that I hear people say, and I still repeat myself.
RAZ: That film launched Matthew McConaughey's career, a career in which he's come to dominate the romantic comedy genre. But after years of playing the sly, grinning, ladies' man, McConaughey started rejecting those scripts. And in 2009, he decided to take a break from acting entirely.
MCCONAUGHEY: I was looking at some things and saying, you know what? I like that, and I could do that tomorrow. And there's nothing wrong with reading something or - and seeing something that you feel like you can do tomorrow. But I was like, eh - well, let's just hold off, McConaughey. And let's sit back and see if something comes and intrigues me, that I do not feel like I could do tomorrow; that I feel like I could do it, but I've got to go to work and figure out how I can do it.
And as the world works in that wonderfully cyclical way, I started to attract exactly what I was looking for. All of a sudden, I got a call - you know, I met with Richard Linklater about "Bernie." Then I get a call from William Friedkin; we have a meeting. And Steven Soderbergh calls for the first time; Lee Daniels; Jeff Nichols, with "Mud." Very independent and singular-minded directors and very singular-willed characters that were, you know, no pandering to society or anyone's rules, really, but their own.
RAZ: Let's wind back for a moment and talk a little bit about how you got to that point because, I mean, your acting career, your breakout role, was in an independent film, "Dazed and Confused"...
RAZ: ...with Richard Linklater. And then somehow, you kind of became known for playing these romantic leads in these very successful comedies. I mean, you just sort of sat back and said, I'm done with that; I don't want to be that character anymore?
MCCONAUGHEY: Well, to be fair, and specifically - like, with a romantic comedy, it's a genre and a formula that you can only do so much with. You know you're going to meet the guy and the girl early on. You know they're going to get in a fight, and you know the guy's going to chase her at the end, and get her. The challenge is, how do you make that fun and engaging, and keep it buoyant? But it's basically that same story. I just felt like there was nothing really there that was scaring me, or really challenging me.
RAZ: Matthew, I want to ask you about the film "Magic Mike"...
RAZ: ...which, of course, is in theaters now. A lot has been said about what you brought to the character in that film - Dallas. He is this kind of sleazy nightclub owner, former exotic dancer.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MAGIC MIKE")
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Dallas) All right, rule number 1. This is the what-can-you-touch-and-not-touch rule.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS)
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MAGIC MIKE")
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Dallas) Can you touch this? Can you touch this? No, no, no, no, no, no.
RAZ: Some critics have said, you know, it's almost as if Matthew McConaughey is poking fun at a parody of himself.
MCCONAUGHEY: I read that a couple of times, too. It made me get a little quizzical when I first read it. I then kind of chuckled and said, well, you know what? That's a - that's - I'll take that as a compliment.
RAZ: I think it's a compliment, yeah.
MCCONAUGHEY: Yeah. I mean, I've heard, you know, that a lot of people love that I - they go, well, Dallas plays the bongos, and he plays the congas, and he plays the djembe. And that's a callback to 1999, when you were arrested in your birthday suit. And I didn't actually...
RAZ: Which is something that really happened, we should say.
MCCONAUGHEY: It did. That did really happen, yes. That's a fact. And I never thought of it like that. But I will say this - as soon as I said oh, Dallas, this emcee, this PT Barnum of this circus, he's got to play the drums here, he's got to play the congas here. And then after I pulled them out, I was like, oh, yeah. Well, yeah, objectively, people are going to see Dallas playing the congas, and they're going to go, that's McConaughey in full regalia - you know? That's - we know that about McConaughey. And I was like, well, that's a nice wink, you know?
And I mean - then there's another thing about that. I think there for a couple years, I did three summer movies, and had three summers where I was fortunate enough to be in weather where I could go shirtless. And then when I was doing Dallas and after we got done, I think I got asked the first question in the press, and it came to my lips, I said, well, yeah. I was doing some character research for this guy for the last few years, but this Dallas guy, he's a real evolution for me because this guy's dropping his pants.
RAZ: I'm speaking with the actor Matthew McConaughey. His new film is called "Killer Joe," and it opened in theaters this weekend. In this new film, "Killer Joe," you play Joe Cooper, who is a sociopathic cop, and he's also a serial killer.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "KILLER JOE")
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Joe Cooper) Now, I only have a couple of rules that I insist on sticking to. Insist.
EMILE HIRSCH: (as Chris Smith) OK. Yeah.
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Joe Cooper) If you're caught, if you're implicated in this crime, you are not - under any circumstances - to reveal my identity or participation.
HIRSCH: (as Chris Smith) Oh. Well, of course.
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Joe Cooper) If you break this rule, you'll be killed.
RAZ: It's not the first time you have played a killer. You did in the 2002 film "Frailty." But I think it's safe to say, a lot of your fans are not going to be used to seeing you like this. It's, at times, a disturbing film and role. What attracted you to that character?
MCCONAUGHEY: I read it, and I did not get it the first time I read it. I actually thought it was despicable. I remember throwing the script in the trash and saying, I don't want to be any part of that world. The second read of this, I found myself finding the small chuckles. And that was the light that revealed the humanity of the character, for me. And also, the meter of Tracy Letts' writing, which when - the first read, I was like - some of the spots, I was like, this isn't even good writing.
And what I found in the second read was, everything Tracy writes, and what the characters say and more importantly, what they don't say, is very deliberate - the pauses, the incomplete sentences, the nonlinear responses to questions that the characters have with each other. Once I understood that meter and that rhythm, it started to reveal who Joe was, to me.
RAZ: You've been working pretty much nonstop. I don't know how you did these five or six roles - I don't know how you found time to do it. But is this basically - I mean, do you see this as kind of the direction in which you're headed, these character roles; less of the, kind of the romantic leads? I mean, do you think that you're done with romantic leads?
MCCONAUGHEY: I wouldn't say I'm done with the romantic comedies. But what I'm doing right now, I am feeling the experience of the work. The last five films, which I did back-to-back, I didn't have one day where I even had 60 seconds of complacency. Every single day - I'm fortunate to say - I got out of bed a little nervous, and very excited, about the work at hand. I never got bored. That's a goal, to get there. And if I can work to get to that place, and find characters where I can understand the identity as well as I've understood the identity of these guys I've been playing, that would be just peachy.
RAZ: That's actor Matthew McConaughey. He stars in five films this year, including "Killer Joe," which opened this weekend. Matthew McConaughey, thank you so much.
MCCONAUGHEY: Guy, you're welcome. I enjoyed talking to you, and I enjoy the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.