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Matthew McConaughey: All-American? No More

To play a homophobic cowboy with AIDS, Matthew McConaughey had to lose 50 pounds and leave his pretty-boy image behind. Maybe now Hollywood will honour him with an Oscar…

By Danny Bowman

Matthew McConaughey has got to be one of the dreamiest actors in Hollywood. But several years ago he reached a point in his career where he decided to shake up his pretty-boy image. Instead of continuing to play the charming romantic hero, he would seek out more serious roles in smaller, independent projects. Recent films like Killer Joe, The Paperboy and Mud have seen him playing against type as he tries to widen his range in darker kinds of stories.

That determination to redefine himself is nowhere more evident than in Dallas Buyers Club, which opened late last year. In order to lend credibility to his portrayal of real-life Texas electrician Ron Woodroof, McConaughey, 44, lost 50 lbs to play the role of a womanizing, substance-abusing and homophobic straight man who contracted AIDS in 1985 before starting a “club” from which people infected with the virus could buy drugs that had yet to be approved for sale in the U.S.

McConaughey’s performance in Dallas Buyers Club, which co-stars Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner, is  garnering rave reviews and plenty of Oscar buzz, in many ways a vindication for his decision to redefine his leading-man screen image.

You took a big career risk leaving your all-American image in the dust. What was the impetus for this career decision?
McCONAUGHEY: I was tired of doing romantic comedies and films which didn’t really mean much to me anymore. It was time to go back to the kinds of stories which inspired me to become an actor in the first place. I’d been trying to help get Dallas Buyers Club financed for three years because I knew that audiences would love to see this man’s story. Of course, my wife wasn’t very happy when I told her I had to go on an extreme diet and lose 50 lbs. It scared me, too, but I knew I had to make this movie.

Matthew, your physical appearance in the film will shock many people. How difficult was it for you to lose so much weight?
McCONAUGHEY: The hardest thing was going through different stages of weight loss. At the beginning, it was easy to take off the weight with exercise and eating less but then you reach a point where 90 per cent of the weight loss is achieved purely through reducing your calorie intake. My goal was to lose four pounds per week.

That worked well for the first few months but then things got tricky.

Does it become torture at that point?
McCONAUGHEY: Not torture, but it’s mind over matter. You’ve got to embrace that sense of control you feel over your body. You’ve got to make exact calculations about how many calories you’re eating every day and that gets tough towards the end. Another problem is that you lose a lot of strength and your energy level is very low. My only comfort was drinking a glass of red wine or two at dinner.

Once I got down to 137 lbs, each day seemed like an eternity. You begin spending a lot of time thinking about food and craving it. That becomes very hard on you, psychologically. You’re fantasizing about food all the time.

What did your wife, Camila, think of your gaunt appearance?
McCONAUGHEY: She supports me in all my projects but this time she thought I was taking things a little too far. It was difficult for her to watch me get so thin, and we stopped eating meals together during that time.

You seem nearly back to normal now. Was it hard regaining the weight?
McCONAUGHEY: You have to be very careful how you go about it. You have to retrain your digestive system and retrain your brain which is telling you it wants you to keep eating more and more. Your body is sending out all kinds of signals telling you that it remembers what life was like at 182 lbs, my usual weight. But the doctors will tell you that you can’t start binge eating which can be very dangerous. So it takes some patience. But now I’m pretty close to my old self.

Was it hard for you to look at yourself in the mirror when you became so thin?
McCONAUGHEY: At the time I didn’t think I looked so bad because I guess it’s a gradual process and you don’t compare yourself to what you looked like several months before. But now that I look at the film or see pictures of myself when I was at 137 lbs I kind of cringe a little and I notice how thin I looked.

What was it about playing Ron Woodroof that made you want to put yourself through this physical ordeal?
McCONAUGHEY: Ron was an American original. He was a wild man, a selfish bastard and a businessman out to make a buck. He wasn’t a noble, crusading kind of guy which made this movie very different from other movies about HIV. Also, it was told from a heterosexual point of view which made it very unique. He was a real cowboy, a hard-ass. He was the kind of guy who was willing to play with fire.

Did you ever consider trying to make him a more sympathetic character with fewer rough edges?
McCONAUGHEY: No, there was never any question of doing that because if you’re basing your movie on a real-life character, you shouldn’t fudge the truth. I also don’t like stories that romanticize characters and they wind up becoming nice guys by the end of the film. I loved the fact that I didn’t have to soften Ron’s character and that I could bring some of my own Texas background into portraying him. Growing up, I wasn’t really part of that particular macho culture, but I knew people like him, real redneck guys, and that helped me get inside his head.

Was Woodroof a hero in some ways?
McCONAUGHEY: He was an anarchist. I think of him more as a classic anti-hero, a guy you like in spite of who he is. I compare my character more to Scarface. There are no violins playing for this guy, there’s no false emotion to him. This is a real-life story of a guy who is told that he has 30 days to live and decides to teach himself enough science so that he can manage his own care better, find drugs that aren’t approved yet, and make a profit from a business venture that allowed other HIV-infected people to get a hold of those experimental drugs.

Films like Dallas Buyers Club, Mud and other recent films are part of your process of transforming your career. Did you hate your old leading man image?
McCONAUGHEY: No, but I hated repeating myself. The last films I’ve done, not once did I ever have the feeling that I was dialing it in. Each of the films, whether it’s Magic Mike or Dallas Buyers Club, was a challenge for me. I had to dig deeper. Also, my decision to shake things up came after my first child was born. I had taken nearly two years off and I thought that I would enjoy my time as a dad and wait until something interesting came along. But I kept getting more romantic kinds of scripts or action films and I would tell my agent that I wasn’t interested in any of those projects.

What was Hollywood’s reaction?
McCONAUGHEY: Oh, the offers dried up after a few years and it was like I had fallen off the radar. But then directors like William Friedkin (Killer Joe), Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike) and Lee Daniels (The Paperboy) got in touch with me and wanted me to be part of their films. That was a whole new chapter for me. I didn’t chase any of those films and it made me think that I was right to take a chance, say no to the kind of thing I had grown tired of doing, and wait until something good came  around. And it did.

Does the talk of a possible Oscar nomination for Dallas Buyers Club excite you?
McCONAUGHEY: I won’t turn it down. It’s an honour for me to be the subject of that kind of discussion and I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t enjoy the recognition of the public and my peers. I’ve been very flattered and grateful for the kind of appreciation I’ve received for my work over the last few years. This is a very happy time in my life.

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