In the new year, Matthew McConaughey is looking beyond the pandemic—and movies—toward a much bigger picture. Could politics be his next frame?
The other night, Matthew McConaughey dragged a couple of djembe drums out. Pulled out some congas, too. “Didn’t have anything the next day until, like, noon,” says the actor. “Went late, another cocktail, sure.” After the Magic Mike actor beat the drums—and the quarantine blues—for a bit, he says, he dialed up the volume of his speakers—“concert-size,” emphasis on the Z—played some tunes, and danced until sweat soaked the floor.
“Got my cardi-ooo, heh, heh, heh…I woke up the next morning with my hands completely swollen. I’m on a proper-tee where I ain’t waking the neighbors…and I’m pretty sure no one called the cops.”
So…you are not alone, reader. McConaughey is also going through it, dancing through the darkness, trying to make the best of a pandemic year when just keep livin’ —the actor’s most treasured piece of advice, seems of fresh, literal import. As in…try not to die.
And that is just what the actor is doing, posting up with his multigenerational family—three kids, his wife, Camila, and his 88-year-old mother, Kay, on an eight-acre spread on a hilltop outside of Austin, Texas. Tonight, he’s on the other end of a Zoom call, fingers stretching a rubber band, legs kicked up, eyes peering through a pair of clear frames. Scheming, sipping his Wild Turkey Longbranch whiskey, intonating.
Tonight the 51-year-old Oscar winner is celebrating a first: He’s now the author of a New York Times No. 1 best-seller. For those who want to get on the McConaughey level—er, find his frequency—well, Greenlights is your guide. The Texas-bred actor’s autobiography combines memoir, aphorisms, poems, and advice, all culled from journals that date back as far as age 14.
You’ll find the pillars of McConaughey myth, from a retelling of the actor’s infamous naked 1999 bongo-ing arrest, to his career reinvention with films like Dallas Buyers Club during the “McConnaissance”—a phrase the actor admits in the book to inventing and seeding in interviews.
But the most revealing stories in the book date from before McConaughey was a star. There’s the night at age 12 his mother waved a chef ’s knife at his father, and the two tussled until they made love on the kitchen floor; the time he saw his brother Mike swing a two-by-four at his dad’s head; the morning his father died while having sex with his mother, while Matthew filmed Dazed and Confused, his first picture. It’s raw, bracing stuff.
“I always saw them as beautiful stories of how hard my mom and dad loved—the physicality of how they communicated—although on paper, the facts might make people cover their mouth. Or think I need psychiatric help,” McConaughey says.
IT’S A CHALLENGE. YOU COME THIS WAY, I’LL COME YOUR WAY. THAT’S HOW DEMOCRACY WORKS.
At Camila’s urging, McConaughey took a trunk of his old journals out to the West Texas desert, and re-read them while writing the book in isolation. “I found consistencies. I am still interested in the same things at 51 that I was at 14. I’m still asking those existential questions. Who am I? What are we doing here? What’s my relationship with the world? What’s it all mean?”
While McConaughey searches for answers to some of those questions lately, one particular pre-pandemic memory comes to mind: back in November 2019, when the actor turned 50 and celebrated with a long weekend out at El Cosmico, the teepee-and-trailer resort out in Marfa, with a carefully selected guest list of 90.
“Those three nights are probably the antithesis of what I’m not doing now. Friends, midnight, music, arms around each other, kisses, sweat, laughing in each other’s face.”
A few months later, of course, COVID hit. “Well, 2020 sure jackknifed things, didn’t it?” says McConaughey, laughing.
Early in the pandemic, McConaughey filmed pro-mask PSAs, and interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci on Instagram; lately he’s been lamenting how politicized mask-wearing has been made by both sides of the spectrum. “It became apparent that there was no plan. Our leaders were scrambling.”
“I hope we’re gonna look back at 2020 as the year where we cleared up our vision quite a bit. Everybody, to some extent, has been reminded that hey—this is liiiiivvvve, man. Just when we thought we had things figured out.”
Ripping “December 2020” off the calendar won’t make things magically better, McConaughey says. “With the new year people will certainly reenergize in certain ways. But it’s foolish to think, oh, tomorrow we can go back to how it was. There is no more ‘how it was.’ So we got to turn the page.”
And what’s on McConaughey’s next one? “I mean, I’ve got some ideas I’m open to looking at. How can I be useful in a leadership role? I don’t know what that category is for me at this point. Not necessarily in film and TV, right?”
For a few days prior to our virtual happy hour, the actor’s name popped up on social media feeds with news that he seemed open to considering a run for governor of Texas, an office up for grabs come 2022. When asked by conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt whether he’d consider a bid, McConaughey replied that “It would be up to the people more than it would me.” Two days later, appearing on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, McConaughey clarified: “I have no plans to do that right now.”
I had dismissed the news as clickbait, but here McConaughey is, Zooming in the same wood-paneled room that he appeared in on Colbert—except this evening, a tall, gold-fringed American flag stood behind his shoulder.
I ask, “So, you’re really not going to run for Texas governor?”
“I said, I have no plans to,” McConaughey replies, sipping.
“OK, so what about the White House?” I chuckle; McConaughey doesn’t.
“Listen, I think everybody should at least entertain the idea. It’s a form of actually defining your values: ‘What if I was president of the whole world?’ You’re forced to consider your priorities.”
Just hypothetically speaking, I say, what would his campaign slogan be?
“Ha, ha, ha. Oh, I get sent a lot of ’em. I love it. There was one I really liked: ‘Make America All Right, All Right, All Right, Again.’ That’s a fun one.”
“But for me…” he pauses a second. “It’s ‘Meet Me in the Middle—I Dare You.’ ” He held up his thumbs and fore-fingers, and mimicked reading the campaign slogan on a bumper sticker. It’s the same type of social pragmatism that fills his book: When facing any crisis, I’ve found that a good plan is to first recognize the problem, then stabilize the situation, organize the response, then respond. (Folks, he’s running.)
“You can’t have unity without confrontation. And to have confrontation, you have to at least validate the other’s position. We don’t even do that. So I’d say, I’ll meet you in the middle. I dare you. It’s a challenge, a radical move. You come this way, I’ll come your way. That’s how democracy works.”
After batting the idea around, McConaughey demurs. “Really I don’t know if politics is my category to be the most useful. I’m not interested in goin’ and puttin’ a bunch of Band-Aids on things.”
McConaughey takes a sip of his Longbranch. Shadows move quickly across the louvered doors behind him, his kids horsing around. Dad’s about to join them.
So, if it’s not the campaign trail, is he headed to a movie set in 2021?
“Nothing’s set in stone. I’m circling a couple projects, but it’s gonna have to be really tasty to get me to quit playing the character I’m playing right now. Twenty-four seven, man. ‘Action’ was called one time: November the fourth, nineteen-sixty-nine. ‘Cut’ will be called one time, the day I die. I’m really liking the tape.”
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