"I tried to make romantic comedies for men, too," insists McConaughey, who takes on a serious role in The Lincoln Lawyer.
The Lincoln Lawyer: Finally a serious role for McConaughey
Matthew McConaughey is serious about getting serious.
You want to know how much? It matters to him that men like his movies, too, and not just the women who swoon at the sight of his frequently shirtless and impeccably chiseled bod.
He is fully attired, casually classy in a bespoke suit sans tie, when he arrives for a 9 a.m. Toronto interview, an obscenely early hour by Hollywood standards.
He stares intently at a 15-year-old photo of himself on the cover of Vanity Fair, which I’ve slid across a boardroom table to him.
“Where was it then, and where is it now?” McConaughey muses in his soft Texas drawl, as he examines the cover.
It’s the fold-out of the 1996 Hollywood edition of the mag, featuring new male stars. McConaughey shyly stands with nine other rookies, who include Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith and Benicio Del Toro.
“Right there, look, I have a crappy grin stuck on my face! Not my best smile. I was probably wondering, ‘What is going on at this big photo shoot?’ I’d probably be a little more comfortable standing there now.”
How so? Well, it has to do with getting older (he’s 41), becoming a new dad (son Levi is two, daughter Vida is one) and having a lot more movie experience behind him than he did when he was 26, his age at the time of that Vanity Fair front.
It also explains why he’s happy, maybe even relieved, to now be starring in a serious drama after a string of zany comedies, many of which involved him running around shirtless. He’s the title attorney in the courtroom thriller The Lincoln Lawyer, opening Friday.
McConaughey keeps studying the Vanity Fair cover, looking for clues about himself. He’d just finished shooting another movie about lawyers when the photo was taken.
“This was right after A Time to Kill. There was a year and a half, right after that, where the frequency of things coming at me was sometimes overwhelming — where it was just like I needed 28 hours in a day and there were only 24 . . .
“All of a sudden, I went from a spot where any work was great to (hearing from his agent), ‘I want you to do this, this, this, this and this!’ So, for me to become discriminate took some maturation.”
He did, and still does, all kinds of jock things, like going backpacking in Peru, surfing waves, running triathlons. Yet for a spell in the late 1990s, his thespian assignments tended more toward the dramatic, in films like Amistad, Contact and U-571.
The man with the million-dollar smile spent his thirties making mostly romantic comedies, establishing himself as a veritable hunk (he was People’s “Sexist Man Alive” in 2005) and also as a bankable actor. Much to his credit, he’s also been giving back, establishing the j.k. livin foundation (named for his “Just Keep Livin’” personal motto) to help at-risk teens.
Prior to The Lincoln Lawyer, his past five films were all comedies, not all of them hits: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Surfer Dude (which went virtually straight to DVD), Tropic Thunder, Fool’s Gold and Failure to Launch.
McConaughey quibbles over one of those — he played the straight man to Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder. Still, the movie was an exceedingly broad comedy.
The point is made, and accepted, but McConaughey argues that he tries to make movies for all audiences and both genders, even when he’s making pulses rise in romantic comedies, his most profitable genre.
“I’m not the first one to go see romantic comedies in theatres — it’s not my first choice. I like making them. So I tried to make romantic comedies for men, too. I said, ‘Well, how do you make one that guys can go to and not feel like they completely sold out and just went for their girl? How do we give the guy (in the movie) some huevos?’
“In a lot of movies, the guy comes crawling back at the end and says, ‘Woe be me and my ways. I’ve been nothing for all of my life. Will you please take me back so I can have some identity?’ And, in each one of these, I had many discussions with the directors and the writers about what girl wants that guy? Let him come back with some dignity!”
He admits he hasn’t always succeeded. But with The Lincoln Lawyer, at least, no apologies or explanations are necessary.
Based on a best-selling novel by Michael Connelly, the movie depicts McConaughey as an amoral attorney named Mick Haller, who shakes down everyone from bikers to billionaires in lust for quick cash and fast judicial victories, justice be damned. Haller’s conscience kicks in, and the plot takes dark twists, when he accepts a case where greed and expediency won’t do.
“Well, it can be a date movie but it’s not . . . I think guys will appreciate this one,” McConaughey says.
“I’ve seen it four times and, obviously, I know the script and the story, but just last week when I was watching it, I thought, ‘How the hell is Mick Haller going to get out of this? How’s he going to get out of this pickle?’ Even though I know what happens I was, like, ‘I have to see this again.’
Making the film, which is directed by Brad Furman (The Take) and co-stars Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe and William H. Macy, taught McConaughey something about American jurisprudence, a topic of long fascination for him. There was a time when he thought he might become a lawyer.
“It’s a lot about the system; that’s one of the things I really like about the flick. It’s about how the system works, and how you have to work it. I was so surprised, and part of it is because of my own idealism, but they’re always cutting deals: everything’s settled out of court. Nobody wants to go to trial. The judges don’t want trials, there’s no room — the jails are full — so let’s handle this out of court. You prosecute and you overcharge. I defend.”
That’s some serious talk. Will the audience buy McConaughey with a shirt on and a muzzled smile? He’s eager to find out, and also make more movies. He took most of the past two years off discovering the joys of parenthood with his partner Camila Alves, a Brazilian-born model.
“I’m ready to go to work again,” he says, flashing that famous smile.
“I’ve got the bug!”