The last time I sat down with Gotham Best Actor-winner Matthew McConaughey, almost a year ago, he looked scarily thin. He'd lost 38 pounds to prep for passion project "The Dallas Buyer's Club," about a straight man fighting HIV who becomes a dealer in unapproved drugs to stave off AIDS. The actor was fasting and subsisting on a diet of fresh fish and a daily glass of red wine. He was down from 182 to 143 pounds as he was just about to start filming.
Now his weight is up and he's doing interviews for the Focus Features hit based on a true 1987 story. "Dallas Buyers Club" focuses on a heterosexual man with AIDs, Ron Woodruff. "He's not a crusader, he's not waving a white flag, he's a businessman trying to get rich and trying to survive himself," says McConaughey. "In doing that he's fighting the powers that be, he's an activist, 'You gotta allow us to medicate ourselves.'"
His performance in "Dallas Buyer's Club" is extraordinary for its honesty and understanding of an American archetype Texas-born McConaughey knows well. For him, performing a role is "about behaving, not acting." (McConaughey dominated this year's Hollywood Reporter actors' roundtable.)
McConaughey and I talk about his new approach to choosing roles, which has yielded a rich panoply of films with top directors. One reason he'll be in the Oscar conversation for Best Actor for "Dallas Buyer's Club" is that he's overdue, and his comeback has been noted. His 2013 output comes after the extraordinary batch of movies he did in 2012.
There was "Bernie," directed by Richard Linklater, the Texas director who broke him into movies with "Dazed and Confused," as well as Tracy Letts' adaptation of colorful drama "Killer Joe," directed by William Friedkin, the husband of McConaughey's long-time studio champion, Paramount's Sherry Lansing. Two high-profile dramas played Cannes; the actor went gay in Lee Daniels' steamy gothic "Paperboy," and played a sweet "puppy dog" in love in Jeff Nichols' exquisitely written "Mud," among the first screeners to hit Academy mail boxes this awards season.
McConaughey's highest profile 2012 role came via the prolific Steven Soderbergh, who called him up to see if he'd be willing to bump and grind as Dallas, the owner of a male strip club in "Magic Mike." (One-time stripper Channing Tatum starred as one of his top performers.) McConaughey's role as a seductive, smarmy and dangerous Svengali in "Magic Mike" was the most improvisatory of the wide range of roles he's been playing, and it won him an Indie Spirit award earlier this year. Right now, McConaughey says, admitting that there's "been a shift" in his approach to picking projects, he is most interested in taking chances, feeling "that good fear" about challenging roles, and "expressing myself. I'm not asking for permission. I'm going to do my thing."
Still to come are projects with equally varied roles, from Mark Hanna in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" (December 25) which is finally screening and Chris Nolan's "Interstellar," co-starring Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, and Anne Hathaway, to HBO's "True Detectives," directed by Cary Fukunaga ("Jane Eyre"), which McConaughey and long-time "Ed TV" buddy Woody Harrelson have been pushing forward. That airs in 2014. And I hope McConaughey gets the terrific '"Lincoln Lawyer" relaunched--on TV if not the movies. Right now he's chasing the right co-star to add some marquee value to a film sequel.