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Matthew McConaughey Is on a Mission to Heal America

The actor reflects on his career and explains why he wants to help unify the country

Why Matthew McConaughey Turned Down $14.5 Million

The last time Matthew McConaughey regaled me with his stories, he was nearing the end of his reign as People magazine's 2005 Sexiest Man Alive — restless to move forward, on the verge of reinventing himself.

“I'm pushing onward,” he told me then. As proof, he arrived at our interview not as the pretty boy from one of his rom-com romps but as his We Are Marshall character (a football film he was then promoting) — slightly stooped and swathed in brownish-orange ‘70s polyester. Decidedly unsexy but hearkening back to his blue-collar roots.

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McConaughey grew up the youngest of three boys, in a Bible Belt town in East Texas. His schoolteacher mom and steel-pipe-salesman dad (twice divorced, thrice married, to each other) taught him to work hard and kick himself above the surface, once even literally throwing him into a river to sink or swim. He swam, and as an undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin headed for law school, he again thrust himself above the waterline, charming his way into his first film role as the sleazy, scene-stealing slacker in 1993's Dazed and Confused. McConaughey's ad-lib drawl, “Alright, alright, alright,” became an iconic mantra for Gen Xers everywhere and a signature line forevermore associated with him.

While luck played a part, very little of the path he's taken since was random. “Matthew's pretty deliberate,” says Dazed and Confused director Richard Linklater, a longtime friend who directed the actor in two other films. “People were thinking he's some surfer dude. But he's very good at seeing steps A, B, C, D and achieving them. He's not random — he knows what he's doing.”

Several well-received supporting roles followed through the mid-'90s, until McConaughey again summoned his inner audacity to snag a breakthrough lead role as a lawyer in John Grisham's A Time to Kill. The film's success brought him sudden, stratospheric fame. Still, his looks and Southern charm made typecasting inevitable, so that by the time we last spoke, McConaughey had become the king of rom-coms, thanks to films like The Wedding Planner (2001) and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003).

But then, in search of deeper truths on more serious ground, McConaughey took to the road in his trailer, fell in love off-screen (with Camila Alves, a Brazilian model and designer) and became a father. And so began his next reset, an era he calls his “McConnaissance.”

“I remember saying, ‘Eff the bucks, I'm going for the experience,’ ” he recalls. He quit Hollywood, then emerged as a dramatic force in such films as The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) and the 2014 TV series True Detective. His coronation arrived that same year: a best actor Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, for which he lost 50 pounds to portray AIDS activist Ron Woodroof.

spinner image film still from the dallas buyers club with jared leto and matthew mcconaughey
Matthew McConaughey (right) as AIDS activist Ron Woodroof in "Dallas Buyers Club."
Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

“He was on fire,” says director Jean-Marc Vallée of McConaughey's intense focus during the 25-day shoot. “He gets the humanity of people who are suffering. He wants to be at the service of something bigger, to help the underdog, to reach out to people and touch them.”

Which is the gist, he tells me, of his latest McConnaissance. Oh, he'll still pop up in those cool, moody ads for Wild Turkey bourbon and Lincoln cars, because he likes the products and because they allow him to do other things, like smaller, lower-budget movies. But perhaps, also, to move far beyond the big and small screens.

He'd already anointed himself the “Minister of Culture” for Austin, Texas, where he and his family are based, when the pandemic hit. In the ensuing months, he posted messages of hope and unity on social media. In March he and his wife raised nearly $8 million via a virtual “We're Texas” fundraiser to help his home state recover from the devastating storm in February.

Then, last year, the actor, 51, put out his memoir, Greenlights — a quirky “playbook,” he says, of the insights and philosophies and green lights that allowed him to move forward on his path. In fact, much of it seems to spring from the philosophy and phrase he embraced after the unexpected death of his father while he was shooting Dazed in 1992: “Just keep livin'.” And now there's talk of “livin’ ” even larger — and another rebranding — as he contemplates a run for governor of Texas. “I'm interested in finding our common denominators,” he says.

Clicking onto our Zoom interview this time, I was pleased to see that McConaughey appeared on-screen as his charming self, rather than a character from his films. There it was, the tan, the dimples, that bourbon-infused drawl. But he's dead serious about trying to help America heal.

“Coming together — that's the radical move right now. That's the dare,” he says, “and we have the ability to do it.”

Here, in a wide-ranging and exclusive interview, McConaughey recounts the radical moves that have brought him to where he is today.

How to Just Keep Livin’

spinner image collage of images courtesy of matthew mcconaughey include him as a small boy a list of life goals he wrote in nineteen ninety two and other personal photos
(Clockwise from top left) Matthew McConaughey in Uvalde, Texas, in 1971; a to-do list he wrote on Sept. 1, 1992, 14 days after his father died; with Camila Alves, whom he met in 2006 and married in 2012; paddling on the Amazon, circa 1996; accepting his best actor Oscar in 2014.
Courtesy Matthew McConaughey (4); Getty Images (1)

Though I love ‘em, facts only go from the neck up. Storytelling is the best way to communicate. We're raised on stories and folklore. I can tell my children, “You shouldn't do that because of this,” but I have a better chance if I tell a story about the boy who touched fire or tried to put his fork in the electrical socket. If you dramatize the facts, we listen and remember more. And if you weave facts into a personal story, a parable, and make associations, they become like music.

I come from a family of great story-tellers. We'd sit around the dinner table — my brothers, my father, my mother and me. I'm the youngest, so I'd listen, listen, listen, and say the least. I had the fewest stories and the least confidence. I remember waiting and not putting too much food on my fork because I wanted to be ready — maybe I'll get a silent gap to come in. And I'd find that gap and start a story. I'm in the game, I'm holding court — and now I'm nervous because everyone's listening. All of a sudden, I stutter or go off script and lose my train of thought. Storytelling was a competition in my family, and if you didn't hold the attention, a better storyteller took over and took the stage.

But I continued to tell stories. I took them out of the house and told them to friends and strangers, around campfires and at dinner parties. I became pretty good at it. In school I studied behind the camera, but I ended up working in front of the camera. I just knew I wanted to be part of a story. I learned to find the rhythm of a story and to trust the pauses — to find the music of a good story.

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The challenge with my book Greenlights was, How do I show the humanity in my stories through just the written word? I didn't have the ability to perform it or show you my raised eyebrow or give you pregnant pauses. You couldn't see my wet eyes when I'm telling you about my mom and dad fighting, to understand I'm not crying because it was a horror story — I'm crying because it was a love story.

I was the go-to rom-com guy. I enjoyed making them, and they paid well. I was leading a successful life as an actor. But there's a certain buoyancy built into rom-coms that isn't about hanging your hat on humanity, like a drama is. You stay light. If you go deep in a rom-com you can sink the ship. In my life, though, I was going very deep. I found the love of my life in Camila. We had a newborn coming. I had more things to get angry about, laugh about, have more joy about and be sad about. The ceilings and basements had more depth and height to them, and I wanted to do work that reflected my personal vitality.

But no matter how much of a pay cut I would take, dramas were not being offered to me.

So I quit. I talked to my wife, my agent and my business manager and said, “Look, I may not work for a while.” And trust me, my family — my brothers, my mother, everybody — thought I was out of my freaking mind. They were like, “Little brother, what's your major malfunction?”

It was scary. But Camila said, “If we're going to do this, we're not going to half-ass it.”

So I went on a sabbatical away from Hollywood. I said no to every rom-com script that came my way. I turned down one for $14.5 million. Word got around Hollywood I'd done that, and they said, “McConaughey's not bluffing. Quit sending him romantic comedies!”

No offers came in for almost a year and a half. I was now shaking hands with the fact that I may never work in Hollywood again. It pinched me a little, but I was OK with it. It was time for a new chapter in my life.

You didn't see me in your living room or movie theater in a rom-com. You didn't see me shirtless on the beach every weekend in Malibu. “Where'd McConaughey go?”

I found anonymity.

And then what happened? Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe, Bernie, Magic Mike, Mud, True Detective, Dallas Buyers Club. I unbranded those two years to then rebrand. All of a sudden, I became a new, novel idea. The dramas came my way, and I jumped on them.

And now I'm pivoting again. In my next chapter I'll step into some sort of leadership position, but I don't know what that is yet. Politics? Another book? A ministry? The crux of it is to help others. We're coming out of a time of limbo and evolving, as people and as a nation. We've got to come together and have some sort of unity — I think everyone can agree we can use that.

spinner image actor matthew mcconaughey with family on red carpet
Matthew McConaughey with his wife, Camila Alves, their three children, Livingston, Levi and Vida, and his mother, Kay, in 2019.
Gary Miller/Getty Images

After George Floyd died, we sat down with our kids [Levi, 12, Vida, 11, and Livingston, 8] — mainly with the eldest two — and talked about it. We talked about the race problem historically and about how unfair that was to someone because of the color of their skin. Camila is Brazilian. My kids didn't understand what the color of skin had to do with anything. We talked about needing law and order, and I said, “Do you see where that person was irresponsible with his position of power and why? This is not how we treat any human.”

I want my kids to be conscientious and understand the world we live in and that there are certain expectations, rules and regulations. But hey, be an original thinker, too.

The next generation gets it. It's beautiful when Camila and I overhear our children talk about a friend, and then the friend shows up and that friend has darker skin — but we didn't know because they never said, “Oh, my friend who's Black…” It's not even in their context of how to define someone.

But what about us, the adults in control right now? After COVID, George Floyd and civil unrest, we need to look back and say, “OK, there are changes that need to be made. Can we come out of this changed for the better? Has our floor been shaken enough that we'll reevaluate or recompose our value system?”

We're never going to be perfect. But that doesn't mean we say, “Well, if we'll never get there, I'm not fighting for it.” We keep going after it. You get up and you take another swing and you pass it on to the next generation — as it was passed on to us — and that generation passes it on to the next. And hopefully, we make small escalations and get a little closer, a little bit better, and more evolved.

John Mellencamp's “Pink Houses” is about how it ought to be. The song is a love story about America and its potential. I see America like I see individuals — whether we know it or not, we're trying to chase our better selves, our truer selves, our more transcended selves.

spinner image actor matthew mcconaughey and his mom at a film festival
Matthew McConaughey with his mother.
Michael Buckner/Getty Images for SXSW

Outlaw logic is the individualism of my family's thinking.

Don't follow the flock with how you're supposed to think or what you're supposed to like or what you're supposed to wear or what game you're supposed to play or what entertainment you're supposed to like or how you're supposed to treat somebody.

They're rule breakers. If you had to put it in political terms, I'd say they are libertarian. They always were.

My mom, at 89, is still the queen of outlaw logic. She was a teacher for 39 years and never had her damn certificate. She bluffed her way in and told the head of the school, “My papers are coming from the last school,” and then she ingratiated her way in. And she's also sensitive and understands people and is a great listener. All the kids and other teachers were like, “She's a great teacher!” So the head of the school quit asking for her papers.

I've seen my family break rules to make happen what they want to make happen — good things. They weren't tyrants. Tyrants are not welcome here. Don't come in here and try to take advantage and do the proverbial rape and pillage. No, that's not going to fly. But renegades? Yeah.

As a child, I got a whupping for lying or saying “I can't.” That was based on my parents’ outlaw logic. What did that do for me? I learned skills I'd need to negotiate life once I was out of the house. As an exchange student in Australia, I was lost and confused, but I never thought, I can't. Instead I created disciplines for myself that gave me structure and kept my feet on the ground — being celibate, being a vegetarian, running six miles a day. Outlaw logic.

This year I watched the Super Bowl, and talk about an exceptional individual with outlaw logic — Tom Brady. Look at him! Superhuman! He defied age expectations. If people do that every once in a while in sports, it makes us all think: I was thinking I'd be done at 38, but Brady's 43. Maybe I'll extend my expectations of how long I can play whatever proverbial game it is we're playing in life. What can I achieve?

Now, I've never done a Western — not sure why.

I did The Newton Boys, but they were more bank robbers. Governor of Texas? Yeah. That'd be kind of a Western, for sure.

So I see a Western in my future, one way or another.

spinner image actor matthew mcconaughey
John Russo/Contour by Getty Images

For fun? We love to cook. We love a good bottle of wine. We love a good bourbon. Also enjoy thoughts and ideas.

I still love banging on drums, whether they're congas, djembes or bongos. I've got a roomful. I also enjoy a good libation. I really enjoy music and dancing. I've not found any place where a little bit of a jig is the wrong time. Even if it's just a little bit of a sway, you can find a rhythm anywhere, and it's relaxing. I like breaking a sweat on the dance floor late into the wee hours. I have to pick my spots. I don't like doing it on a so-called school night anymore, because the next day it's just…

But I do like to pick my spots, and that's why I love Friday night. I like Friday more than Saturday, because I got two open days to follow. I try not to recklessly go out there whenever and just have as good a time as I want.

I've got my big concert speakers in the other room. Camila and I like to have our late-night dancing here. Music's incredibly important for me in my life, and I know I'm happier for it. I'm always looking to find the music in a situation. And in times when I'm not as happy, most of the time I can go back and go, “You're not listening to the music!”

New York Times best-selling author Natasha Stoynoff's most recent book, The King of Con, is currently in development for a TV series.

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