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From himbo to hero – the rebirth of McConaughey

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Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in 'True Detective'

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in 'True Detective'

Helping people help themselves: Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof  in the film 'Dallas Buyers Club'.

Helping people help themselves: Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof in the film 'Dallas Buyers Club'.

Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey in 'Fools Gold'.

Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey in 'Fools Gold'.

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Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in 'True Detective'

Second chances are rare for the Hollywood himbo. Once you've built your reputation around your pecs, your gleaming teeth, your talent for breathtakingly shallow romantic comedy, it's best not to have ambitions beyond immense wealth and fame.

In view of this immutable fact, the creative rebirth of Matthew McConaughey – the himbo's himbo thanks to leads in How To Lose a Guy In Ten Days and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past – has been astonishing.

He's up for Best Actor in the Oscars for his part in '80s-set AIDS movie Dallas Buyers Club, comprehensively stole Leonardo DiCaprio's thunder with his cameo in Wolf of Wall Street and, alongside Woody Harrelson, is star of the acclaimed new American detective show True Detective, debuting on Sky on Saturday.

This is an extraordinary turnaround – so much so that someone has gone to the trouble of coining a phrase for it, the "McConaissance", defined by The New Yorker as "a bold second act in the American actor's life which somehow feels as novel as it does deliberate". McConaughey's talent, to be clear, was never in doubt. He was extraordinary in his first role of note, the 1993 coming-of-age movie Dazed and Confused.

But by the time he was crowned Sexiest Man Alive by People magazine in 2005, his cinema career was a joke without a punchline.

Then one day he decided he needed to stop. By every account, in person McConaughey had a lot in common with the laid-back rom-com lead he played on screen. Still, he was not lacking self-awareness and understood how low his stock had sunk.

"My relationship with acting was fine," he said last year. "But like in any relationship, you need to shake things up. I just wanted a charge. Like, 'Let's throw a spark into this'."

McConaughey isn't the first actor to reinvent himself in such a manner. Most famously of all is the case of Robert Downey Jr who appeared to have flushed away impressive early turns in movies such as Chaplin by tumbling into drug casualty infamy (he was in and out of prison and rehab between 1996 and 2001).

Yet he went completely drug free in 2003, convinced Marvel to cast him as Iron Man and is today the highest remunerated actor in Hollywood, earning $50m (€36.5m) as part of the ensemble cast of Marvel Avengers Assemble.

Sometimes, it takes just one movie. Mickey Rourke had became a cautionary tale for young stars in danger of getting caught up in their own hubris prior to his award-winning appearance in The Wrestler in 2008.

The difference is that none of these actors was ever quite the joke that McConaughey had become. Downey Jr and Rourke were known as volatile and self-destructive, and while their reputation didn't help win them any parts, it generated a certain mystique.

McConaughey, in contrast, exuded all the edginess of a perfume commercial – the very presence of his name on a poster told the audience to expect a movie high on ditziness and low – if not completely lacking – in dramatic heft. With Dallas Buyers Club and True Detective, that's all changed.

"Matthew is a divisive figure in Hollywood," Woody Harrelson told GQ magazine in December. "I have found myself defending him to people who don't really know him, who for some reason feel very antagonistically toward him.

"He's a good guy, he's great-looking, has a perfect body, his career's through the roof," he says. "People resented that, and the way they justified it is, he has never done a movie of substance. They can't say that any more."

Irish Independent