Published 08/12/2013 | 02:30
Just a few years ago, Matthew McConaughey looked to be all washed up as a serious actor, and had almost become a bit of an industry joke. A string of lazy turns in dodgy romantic comedies had pushed him to the bottom of the A-list pile, and there were some who argued that he wasn't all that much of an actor in the first place.
Not any more, however, because last year he embarked on a career renaissance that's almost unprecedented in Hollywood history. In 2012, McConaughey produced no less than five extraordinary performances that forced his critics to totally reappraise his reputation as an actor. He was so good in films like Mud, Bernie, Magic Mike and Killer Joe that commentators were left scratching their heads about where these great performances had come from.
He deserved at the very least an Oscar nomination for one of them, but may end up getting his first ever Academy nod in 2014 thanks to more good work in Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club and Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street. I recently saw an extended clip from Scorsese's financial thriller involving him and Leonardo DiCaprio, and McConaughey delivers some of the best screen acting I've ever seen from anyone.
So what gives? Why has the laidback Texan who seemed to stroll indifferently through films for much of his career suddenly turned into the new Robert De Niro?
In fairness, McConaughey did show some early promise. The child of a kindergarten teacher and a gas station owner, Matthew McConaughey was born in Uvalde, Texas, on November 4, 1969. He grew up suave and tall and coasted through his senior year in high school, where his colleagues voted him the most handsome guy in class. It all came easy for Matthew, who took a year out to travel around Australia before returning to Texas to begin studying law.
Then, he had a sudden brainwave. While preparing to enrol at the University of Texas, Matthew came across a bizarre spiritual self-help book called The Greatest Salesman in the World, in which author Og Mandino extoled the virtues of hard work and warned against the perils of laziness. McConaughey has said the book changed his life, and after reading it he decided to switch his major from law to film.
By 1991, he was doing TV commercials and appearing in student films, but his first break happened more or less by accident. He was in a hotel bar in Austin when he met producer and casting director Don Phillips, who later introduced him to Texan independent filmmaker Richard Linklater.
Linklater was in the middle of casting his cult comedy Dazed and Confused, and immediately saw McConaughey's potential, but initially thought he was too handsome to play the role of David Wooderson, a 20-something slacker who still hangs out with high school kids. The director cast him after McConaughey grew out his hair and moustache, and he stole the film with a perfectly pitched and rather creepy performance that included more than a bit of ad-libbing.
After Dazed and Confused, bigger roles slowly started coming Matthew's way. He played a crazed killer opposite Renee Zellweger in Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1994), and a handsome policeman in Boys on the Side (1995). But it was in the legal thriller A Time to Kill (1996) that he shot to stardom. Joel Schumacher's film was based on a story by John Grisham and starred Samuel L Jackson as a southern black man on trial for killing two hick racists who raped and beat his 10-year-old daughter. Val Kilmer, Brad Pitt, Robert Downey and Woody Harrelson were all considered for the key role of the man's defence lawyer, Jake Brigance, and Kevin Costner was all but cast until he started demanding total control of the production.
McConaughey was originally down to play a smaller role, but persuaded Joel Schumacher to let him read for the part of Brigance. Schumacher videotaped the audition and showed it to John Grisham, who agreed that McConaughey looked absolutely right.
"A Time to Kill was the one I got famous off," McConaughey told The Guardian recently. "Big ka-boom, over one weekend. After that, I did films that I really wanted do."
He certainly did, and within a year had worked with John Sayles on his excellent revisionist western, Lone Star, with Steven Spielberg on his historical epic Amistad, and co-starred with Jodie Foster in Robert Zemeckis's Contact. Suddenly, McConaughey was a player, and a rival for actors like Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp.
Then, Matthew discovered romantic comedies. His first foray into the notoriously tricky genre was opposite Jennifer Lopez in the 2001 romcom The Wedding Planner. Ms Lopez is a kind of one-woman Bermuda Triangle in which many promising careers have floundered (ask Ben Affleck – it took him the best part of a decade to get his back on track). McConaughey was bland at best playing a doctor who falls for his wedding organiser, and there was zero chemistry between him and the beautiful Lopez.
Romantic comedies, it seemed, weren't his thing, but as the 2000s wore on he did more and more of them. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Fool's Gold, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, the films were almost as forgettable as their titles, and for a time it seemed that Matthew was terminally typecast as a winsome southern bachelor.
His involvement with Sahara didn't help either. The 2005 adventure flick cost $130m to make and is now considered one of the biggest flops of all time.
McConaughey's career seemed to be drifting slowly but inexorably towards the rocks. But around 2009 or so, something changed. By then Matthew had met his now-wife Camila Alves, and become a father.
"I took about a year and a half, two years off," he said recently. "I was receiving scripts, there were some actions scripts and there were some romantic comedies. Some I even liked. Some came with beautiful paychecks. But I said, 'boy, I feel like I can do that tomorrow'. I had a talk with my agent and said, 'no more right now'."
Then, after a much-needed break, interesting work started coming to him. "I didn't go after Killer Joe," he has said. "William Friedkin came to me for it. Soderbergh called me [about Magic Mike]. Lee Daniels called me on Paperboy."
Suddenly, McConaughey was playing edgy, unpredictable and "kind of scary" characters in indie films and serious dramas. What's more, he was pretty good at it.
The real sign that things were different came in Friedkin's Killer Joe, a shocking trailer park thriller co-starring Gina Gershon and Juno Temple. McConaughey was enthralling as a deranged and psychopathic Texas sheriff, and a scene involving him, Gershon and a fried chicken leg is not easily forgotten.
He teamed up with old friend Richard Linklater to make the excellent Bernie, was all too believable as a male stripper in Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike, and was absolutely outstanding as a kind of latterday Huckleberry Finn in Jeff Nichols's Mississippi drama Mud.
Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club hasn't been released here yet, but is tipped for big things at the awards and tells the true story of a homophobic rodeo cowboy who begins importing the latest anti-Aids drugs into Dallas after he's diagnosed with the disease. McConaughey lost 50 pounds to play the part of Ron Woodroof, and the advance word is that it's his best performance yet.
At times, McConaughey has been a disastrous chooser of scripts, and someone once asked him how he felt about planning his career. "Be the lean horse for the long ride," he said. "I figure I am in the third round of a 15-round fight." It looks like his folksy mantra is finally serving him well.