Matthew McConaughey
Credit: Courtesy Matthew McConaughey
It's 1996. "Boom," McConaughey says. "I get famous."

Suddenly he's being touted as the next Paul Newman and getting prestige roles in 'A Time to Kill' and 'Amistad,' movies that seem like a big deal at the time. Never mind that dour stares, awkward accents, and period costumes don't suit McConaughey. The kid is big now. He's flooded with scripts and offers. "It was a lot incoming," he says. "Life had pressed turbo pretty quickly."

But in Hollywood, boom is almost always followed by bust. 'The Newton Boys' and 'Edtv' flop hard. He's not the next Paul Newman. Disappointment sets in; he has a little fame hangover. In 1999, Austin cops catch him playing the bongos butt-naked, with a bong on the coffee table and smoke in the air. About that night, he later says, it "was real enjoyable until I looked up and saw someone in the house who I knew I hadn't invited. Less enjoyable when he was tryin' to pin me to the ground and I was fightin' back. It sucked when I was goin' into the jail, and once I got in jail it became enjoyable again because there were some real fun cellmates. We were singin' songs." Even in jail, McConaughey localizes.

In 2001, while in Ireland making 'Reign of Fire,' a highly entertaining but definitely B-grade dragon apocalypse picture, he's listening to a CD by the musician Ali Farka Touré. One song in particular moves him to tears. Who is this guy? he wonders. He opens the liner notes and finds out that Touré lives in Niafunké, a small village in Mali. A few weeks later McConaughey takes off with his backpack for Africa.

He hires a guide there and heads up the Niger River to Niafunké, where he finds Touré living at his second wife's house. They have dinner together, then listen to some of his recordings, including McConaughey's favorite song, Ai Du. He'd thought it was a love song, but Touré explains that the lyrics actually go "trust in your fellow man. If you cannot trust yourself, you cannot trust others." McConaughey doesn't often hear this sentiment in Hollywood. "It was a love song to community," he says.

Inspired, McConaughey hauls into the middle of the Sahara Desert in an Isuzu Trooper. He attends a music festival north of Timbuktu, then spends weeks living among the Bozo people in beehive huts along the banks of the Niger. They feed him and take care of him as if he's one of their own.

"I've always yearned for that," he says. "But you know how we are over here. We're not near to a trusting society. There are too many people with false ambitions, looking for an opportunity that may not be the best for you. But you get over there, man, they're not thinking that far in the future. They're not thinking about how this person can be an opportunity for them. When the trip started, I always had an arm through a strap of my backpack, but by the end, I'd be sleeping in a stranger's house, and the backpack would be across the room."

He returns from Africa after 22 days, clear-eyed and direct, a guy pal Woody Harrelson describes as "connected to some other sort of power source. When he does go on a stream-of-consciousness thing, it is incredible. It's almost like he's speaking in tongues or something." McConaughey says that, post-trip, his "bullshit meter is zero." If anything, he says, "I come back here and I'm an even better businessman, because I'm real clear about what I want. That trip was tending to the garden of the way I've always felt."