At the movies

Matthew McConaughey moves from beefcake to respected actor

Michael Buckner

So much for shopworn stereotypes about Matthew McConaughey, whose 20-year journey across the Hollywood landscape reflects a fascinating dichotomy. In the public mindset, he’s still cast as the half-naked, laid-back lothario, but in the past few years, he has matured into one of the decade’s most intriguing leading men.

The 1993 high school classic Dazed and Confused may have laid the foundation for McConaughey’s rock ‘n’ roll reputation, but he quickly moved beyond that straitjacket as a sheriff in John Sayles’ indie favorite Lone Star, a gangster in Richard Linklater’s crime saga The Newton Boys, and well-intentioned attorneys in Joel Schumacher’s legal drama A Time to Kill and Steven Spielberg’s slave-era history lesson, Amistad.

In the 2000s, it was often a race to the bottom with such light fare as The Wedding Planner, Failure to Launch and Fool’s Gold.

He could have continued down such a path but wisely decided to leave the rom-com parts to the likes of Gerard Butler. Now, it’s his most recent work in smaller movies that have people realizing once again he’s not just all abs and no brains.

McConaughey, 43, says now that his transformation from matinee idol and Sexiest Man Alive (2005) to respected actor started with one word. “I said ‘no’ to a bunch of things,” he says, in a slightly softer version of his signature drawl. “Somehow I started attracting other things.”

The successful run is likely to continue with his role as an Arkansas murderer with a moral code in the anticipated coming-of-age story Mud, from cult Texas director Jeff Nichols ( Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories), out Friday.

For McConaughey, there was no dramatic, anvil moment when he decided to stop chasing the rom-com dollar in favor of stories with more character and depth. It was a gradual frustration.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do the Hollywood thing. I’ll do the Hollywood thing,” insists the father of three (wife is Brazilian model/designer Camila Alves). “I just said, ‘OK, if you do any more of these [romantic comedies], you’re going to be repeating yourself and [be] in a place where you’re not growing or evolving.’

“And I was reading scripts where I was going, ‘Ooh, I like that. I could do that tomorrow.’ And that was my thing. What about doing something that scares you a little bit?”

McConaughey says he didn’t have to beg for these newer, tougher roles. “I didn’t read Mud and then go, ‘Nichols, I’ve got to do this,’” he says. “I didn’t chase it. It came to me.”

For McConaughey, the role of Mud struck something deep within. “The character was a real revisitation for me to go back and clearly remember the first loves, first heartbreaks, first time being told I love you,” he says. “I thought it was a very specific Southern voice, a very specific place and time. And this guy Mud, I love that he’s a dreamer … like a river prince. What a great guy to run into for the summer, for these kids whose romantic views are hitting the ceiling of reality.”

While Mud is a story that could have been set anywhere, that it’s in Arkansas plays to the native Texan’s memories of home. And it continues McConaughey’s portrayal of complex Southern or Texas characters, moving beyond good ol’ boy stereotypes and caricatures to tap into something resolutely human.

“I’m a Southerner,” McConaughey says. “That doesn’t mean I’m looking for characters in the South, but I’m comfortable with it. … There’s something that turns me on about the swamps in Louisiana. There’s something that turns me on about the space in Texas. There was something that turned me on being on the Mississippi River. I’m able to feel at home and grounded there.”

Cary Darling

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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