The last year has been pretty good to you: the Golden Globe and an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club; stealing scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street; an Emmy nomination for True Detective, 2014’s biggest TV show; and…Maxim Icon.
You know, it looks like a different magazine. It looks like the paper stock is thicker, and the whole thing seems more substantial. It looks more current, not all, “Hey, let’s give you hot ass, boners, and beer,” but it still has a good sexy edge to it.
Thanks, but let’s be honest, those other honors are almost as big a deal. So what happened? Five years ago, it seemed like you were a shirtless Malibu hunk playing bongos. Now you’re married with kids and winning every award short of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Well, there wasn’t any “road to Galilee” moment, but the stars have to align, and a lot of things have been aligning for me wonderfully. Does my wife, Camila [Alves], coming into my life have something to do with it? Absolutely. Does becoming a father have something to do with it? Absolutely. Just being in my forties—it’s a different chapter. You customize in your forties. So does that have something to do with it? Absolutely. Does luck have something to do with it? Absolutely.
Did your professional choices play their part, too?
Sure. I remember saying to myself, "I want to grow and have more life experiences through my work. I want to come out the other side of an experience that scares the shit out of me, and I don’t know how different I’ll be on the other side, but let’s go." That’s where a lot of my choices have come from. I huddled up with my agent and my wife, and said, “I’m going to start saying no to the things I’ve been doing, and the work’s going to dry up.” I talked to my financial adviser, and he said, “Your money’s good; you can pay the rent; you’re going to be able to live the same lifestyle.” So I was like, “Let’s do it!” I put the memo out to my agent, and that was that. It took about a year for the industry to stop sending me any more of the things I’d been doing, and then there was just nothing. Bone dry. Nothing.
Was there a turning point?
The turning point after two years of anonymity, I think, was Killer Joe. I didn’t rebrand, I unbranded. I stepped off into the shadows, went back and started a family down in Texas. Mind you, I got nervous during that time. I got anxious. I had some sleepless nights, wondering when the levee was going to break, or if it was even going to break at all. And then I started getting calls from directors. It was like a two-year boomerang that finally came back. All of a sudden William Friedkin calls, Steven Soderbergh calls, Lee Daniels calls, Rick [Richard Linklater] calls.
Rick gave you your first big break as Wooderson in Dazed and Confused. I couldn’t help wondering, if Wooderson grew up, would he become Dallas in Magic Mike, Mark Hanna in TheWolf of Wall Street, Ron in Dallas Buyers Club, or Rustin Cohle from True Detective?
I don’t think he would be any of those. I actually think he’s got redheaded triplet daughters, and he’s a late-night DJ in a little town in Texas. You know why Wooderson was cool? He was who he was. He wasn’t trying to be anyone else, and he wasn’t selling himself to anybody. Live and let live. Do your thing, and I’ll do mine. I don’t see him changing that much, and I definitely don’t see him having the ambition some of those other characters had.
Like Wooderson, you grew up in Texas. What was high school McConaughey like?
Man, I was catching more green lights in my life than I ever had before. I was 18, dating the best-looking girl, had a job, cash in my pocket, I’d made straight A’s, Mom and Dad were happy. Life was rolling. Then I go to Australia for a year, and it was like a screeching halt. I was living in a town in the bush with a population of 206 people—but I’d been told I was going to be living in Sydney. I didn’t have a car, had to wear a uniform, and they put me back in the 11th grade. I started going a little nuts. But I had given a handshake to the people back home and told them I wouldn’t come back for a whole year, so I was going to stick to it.
Travel seems like a big priority to you.
I could easily say my biggest inspiration has been culture. I’ve chosen to travel not just to nice, comfy places. And I think part of the reason I like those trips is that they are places where I spiritually get some anonymity. Anonymity is good for the soul, and it’s good for what I do as an artist and an actor.
What’s the wildest place you’ve been?
I’ve done this trip to Mali a couple of times, where I took a flight into Bamako, the capital, and hitchhiked nine hours to where the Bani and Niger rivers meet. I found somebody who spoke broken English, drew a map in the dirt showing where I wanted to go, haggled with them about the cost, and just did it.
The first trip was actually to find a musician, Ali Farka Touré, who passed away a number of years ago. I’d just been turned on to this Ali Farka/Ry Cooder album, and I had a recurring dream about going to Africa. Same dream: 11 seconds, 11 frames, and five years apart. So the second time I had it, I knew I had to go. I said, “Let’s go find Ali Farka and see where the trip goes.” Twenty-three days later, it was the greatest walkabout I’d ever had. Then I went back and did the exact same trip five years later.
You mentioned anonymity. On your travels, do the locals ever mistake you for guys like Brad Pitt or Leo DiCaprio?
No, I’ve never gotten those two. This one tribe, because of my white skin and beard, thought I looked like Chuck Norris. That’s about it. They don’t even know what I do. I go under some alias and make up some story about what I do.
What’s your alias?
Oh, I’ve got a bunch of good ones. It just depends on the time and the place. I learned that in college. We had a buddy who was great to fuck with, so anytime we’d go do something and get busted, the cops would ask, “What’s your name?” and we would go, “My name is Danny Harris” [laughs]. Poor Danny Harris is still in Austin, Texas, defending himself to this day.
True Detective blew up this year. How’d you end up with it?
There were only two episodes written, and they came to me with the Marty role: the one Woody Harrelson played. I read it and said, “I love it, but I’m this guy, Rustin Cohle. If you want me for it, let’s talk about that.” The director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, and Nic Pizzolatto, the writer and executive producer, came to Austin and we had a night together, and the next day they gave me Officer Cohle.
Did you have any idea what a phenomenon the show would become?
We watched it like everybody else, every Sunday night. I’d either stay tuned and watch it again, back-to-back, on Sunday, or watch it again, like, Monday or Tuesday night. I watched them on average three times apiece. Even I didn’t know what the hell was going to happen. I mean, I knew what the ending was, but I didn’t know what episode-to-episode would be. So I was just as surprised as everybody else, in a way. I loved it.
And now you’re starring in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which is probably going to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year.
Well, look, I haven’t even seen the final cut yet, but from what I have seen, I can tell you this, straight and honestly: It’s the most enormous and epic adventure I’ve ever seen on film. I don’t think anyone does scope larger or better than Christopher Nolan. At the same time, the film is incredibly intimate and personal. And for a film this size to be that personal is really impressive.
How do you prepare for a heroic leading-man role, after these somewhat dark or damaged characters?
The challenge—I realized this very early on—is that my character, Cooper, is supposed to be the everyman, and I was like, “Who the hell is that today? Who is the everyman?” It’s not like Don Draper in the ’50s or ’60s. So I worked hard with Chris to make this personal. Cooper’s not perfect by any means. He performs some incredibly heroic acts, but at the same time it’s not like he’s always right— or comes up with the perfect answer or solution. But Chris has an incredible mind, man. Just the capacity with which he holds on to the concept and knows how to see it through in his films is amazing.
I know you studied some of the science behind the movie. Would you ever want to travel to Mars? They’re trying to establish a colony there in the next decade.
I wouldn’t do it as a guinea pig, now that I have a family. Still, it would be interesting as a trip, if you believed there was a good chance of being successful. But you’d probably have to go train and say goodbye to the family for a year. I don’t know about that.
But you’d also go down as a legend, like Neil Armstrong or Christopher Columbus.
Yeah, that doesn’t concern me very much. It would be a nice thing to check off your things-I-got-to-do list, but notoriety or fame doesn’t do much for me.
You’re known for throwing great parties and the “Just keep livin’” philosophy. So what are some of your tricks?
I’ll tell you a good one. Have someone offer a really nice tequila shot at the door. It just raises everyone’s temperature a full degree, and 50 percent more people will be dancing a few hours later. Here’s another secret: If people get there at, say, 6 p.m., tell them dinner is at 8 p.m. But it’s never really at 8 p.m.; it’s 10 or 10:30, so people are starving. That way, no matter how much you cook, even if you’re a great cook, it tastes even better because they’re so damn hungry. Although sometimes my brother won’t even eat because he doesn’t want to disrupt his buzz. But we usually don’t do anything too formal. We’ll just get around the grill and I’ll end up cooking steaks and shooting the shit.
What about music?
You’ve gotta have a different playlist for every party. You’ve got to think about what the day is, what the event is, and then plan how long it’s going to go and when you want the party to peak and when you want it to really get rocking. The challenge is that you’ve always got clever little guests who, after a couple of those tequila shots, want to DJ, so you’ve got to hide your music player.
Being a good host is a skill.
Yeah, I got it from my dad. We’d have a yearly Super Bowl party at our lake house.
Wasn’t he drafted by the Packers?
Yup, in 1953.
So does that make you a Packers fan or a Cowboys fan?
I’m a Redskins fan!
What? How the hell does a guy from Texas, whose father was drafted by Green Bay, end up a Redskins fan?
Well, when you’re 4 years old and you’re watching westerns with your dad and you find yourself rooting for the Indians, it starts like that. And your favorite food is hamburgers, and they have a middle linebacker, number 55, named Chris Hanburger. Then you’ve got John Riggins running the ball, and Joe Gibbs and the Fun Bunch, and the Hogs and such. Even in Dallas, I’d have a robe wrapped around me painted burgundy and gold, and a headdress on in Texas Stadium. I will say the two best-looking uniforms are the Redskins, number one, and the Packers, number two.
Redskins aside, you seem to have your priorities in order. Do you think that’s one of the reasons for this comeback?
I do feel pretty good about keeping my priorities consistent over the years. I mean, I don’t think anyone’s got it all figured out: There’s times when it rolls smooth and everything is real clear, and times when things get fuzzy. If you’ve got any ambition or take any risks, things are going to get fuzzy, and it’s just a question of working through the fuzz to get to the other side and find the clarity again. Now mind you, recently a big thing for clarity in my life and direction is family.
It seems like things started turning around for you right around when you found Camila.
Listen, a good woman is a great thing for a man to have. And then you have children, and all of a sudden, as a father, you’ve got a small kingdom that you’ve got to oversee. I like to say that as a father, your peripheral vision gets much better. And you know, resilience is definitely a McConaughey trait. That was handed down from my parents. So that helps me get past the stuff that sucks a lot more quickly, and it helps me appreciate the stuff that’s working out.
Do you just take things moment by moment, or is there something more? Is time really a flat circle, as Rust Cohle claims?
I don’t think each moment is significant. Sometimes we create false drama and make every single moment feel so significant. There is significance in all of the moments put together, but every moment is not that significant. We say this in our family all the time: “No drama, man. Let’s deal.” Drama is going to come. It is. Someone’s going to get mortally sick, people are going to die, so we try not to sweat the small stuff.
Interstellar is out beginning November 7.
Photos by Kate Copeland