The many lives of Matthew McConaughey
We sit down with the Oscar-winner to discuss his freshly-inked memoir — a deep-diving, best-selling, anecdote-fuelled trip through his first fifty years
You know the name. You probably can’t spell it, but you know it. It’s eleven unpredictable, tongue-twisting letters long — stuffed to the consonants with vowels. It’s a word that, when written, squares up at you from the page; daring you to misplace just one of its many wayward syllables. It’s a fightin’ name, an excitin’ name — and one worn by a man just as mischievous.
You know the man, too. He’s got just over 50 years under his well-worn belt, stands six handsome feet tall and lives his life by a singular set of fiercely philosophical rules. He’s at once laid-back and quick-witted; whimsical yet deadly serious. He’s a tall drink of water, a sharp shot of bourbon — and can be even more bewildering than that hard-to-spell, have-a-go name of his.
So what is that name? Who is this man? Why, it’s Matthew Mac— Matthew Mc— McConna— McConagh—
Help me out here.
“Matthew McConaughey,” offers Matthew McConaughey. Good Lord, what a voice. It’s like he’s pouring molasses down the phone line. From Los Angeles to London, the actor is sweetly, happily leading a one-man masterclass in the pronunciation of his own name. Not that I’ve been saying it wrong — I just really want to get it right.
And the actor has been more than obliging. Currently, he’s spelling it out slowly, each syllable marinated in a lifetime of garbled attempts and dropped letters. He says it again, and again, and then chuckles. Once more — for good articulated measure — and then he takes us headlong into a story.
“You know,” drizzles the slow syrupy voice, “I never gave even one percent of consideration towards changing my name. To this day, I still have people around me who say ‘McConaugh-hee’. But, early on, I learnt a trick to teach people. It was back in ’98 when I was working with a dialect coach.
“Here’s what you do Matthew, he said. Everyone will remember your name if you tell them this. ‘Matthew McConaughey’ rhymes with ‘What did Madonna say?’. And that’s it. Now I’ve told you that, you’ll never even think about pronouncing my name any other way.”
It’s a neat trick. A catchy one, too. Although Madonna has now popped into my head.
“Hey, man!” drifts McConaughey’s laugh across the Atlantic. “There are much worse things to think about.”
I suppose he’s right. And, The Material Girl aside, McConaughey (did you get it right that time?) hasn’t suffered too much at the hands of a tricky last name. It would take more than an extra consonant on a call sheet to derail a career as successful as his. Not only that, the actor has played so many parts anyway that you’ve probably never even given his real surname a second thought.
Instead, we invest in his characters — in the stories of marine salvager Dirk Pitt, tormented detective Rustin Cohle and dragon slayer Denton Van Zan. Together, we’ve followed the many lives of Matthew McConaughey. And yet we still know very little about the man himself.
But that’s all about to change. In McConaughey’s freshly-inked memoir — a deep-diving, best-selling, anecdote-fuelled trip through his first fifty years — the actor makes clear that these character changes weren’t confined to the screen.
In his personal life, too, he has mellowed and matured over time. That distinctive, alliterative name may have stuck around, but Matthew McConaughey himself has changed. He has followed many paths, weathered many storms and lived many, many lives.
Here are just a handful.
#1: A life of lies
He’s something of an outlaw, is Matthew McConaughey. But that’s no wonder. His whole family are. His father, Jim, was sinking drinks in a bar the day McConaughey was born. He had suspicions the child wasn’t his, and didn’t want to waste a trip to the delivery room.
And yet — born on November 4th, 1969 — Matthew was a McConaughey. He was a long-delayed, left-field and admittedly accidental addition to the clan, but he was a McConaughey nonetheless.
The family lived in Uvalde, Texas; a quaint town with an ugly name just under 100 miles from the Mexican border. And the Southern pride kicked in early. In 1977, his mother, Kay, entered McConaughey into the ‘Little Mr. Texas’ contest. He wore a wide-collared shirt, an even wider-brimmed hat and took home the top prize.
Every morning, the actor says, his mother would point at the framed victory photograph. “Look at you,” she would say. “Winner, Little Mr. Texas”.
Except he didn’t win. He came second.
Five years later, the family were living in Longview (still Texas) and Kay McConaughey sat her son down on the eve of his seventh-grade poetry competition. She handed him a poem by Ann Ashford. If he liked it, she said, he should enter it. He did, and he won.
“She’s the queen of relativity!” sings McConaughey. “That lesson, with the Ann Ashford poem? It was this: do you understand it? Does it mean something to you? Then it’s yours.
“That’s not to say I’ve gone on and stolen stuff from everyone,” he laughs. “In fact, I think it’s why I love footnoting people. If someone spins a line at a dinner, I’ll jot it down and ask them to sign it. Then I’ll tell them I’m gonna steal it!”
It’s a uniquely ‘McConaughesque’ approach to life; a creed he calls ‘Outlaw Logic’. It’s the slightly crooked compass that has steered the actor’s course; a way of wheeling, dealing life that has seen him happy and served him well. It’s a bending of the rules to breaking point; a snowstorm of white lies — and it’s all he’s ever known.
Because McConaughey’s parents lived by this logic. Iron-willed and hot-blooded, the couple were married three times and divorced twice during their lives. They’d often lie to McConaughey about these separations, chalking the absences up to ‘extended vacations’.
In 1988, while his mother was on once such ‘vacation’, a teenage McConaughey stole a pizza. His father found out. He didn’t care about the theft itself, but when his son claimed innocence, he dealt him a blistering backhander. McConaughey, stinging, had learnt another lesson; ‘Outlaw Logic’ and outward lying were not one and the same.
“There’s a larger asset to that sort of logic,” McConaughey points out. “As far back as the Ann Ashford poem, my mom was clearly teaching me to be a performer — before I even knew it. Because that’s what an actor does. If you’re going to do your best work, you have to act it like you own it.
“That doesn’t mean you’re plagiarising,” he adds, then snorts. “Although I obviously was with the poem…”
When McConaughey enrolled at the University of Texas, it was to study law. ‘Lying for a living’, as the saying goes. But the courtroom left him cold. Instead, he turned to a more glamorous type of trickery; acting.
“The acting thing,” says McConaughey, “for me, was making sense early on. I think I wanted to be an actor long before I ever admitted that I did. I was always writing stories. I was always going to the movie theatre to see stuff.”
Adept and assured, the actor charmed his way into films from Dazed and Confused to A Time to Kill. He became bankable. And, before long, high on a streak of successful romantic comedies — “I had taken the baton from Hugh Grant” — he bought a house in the Hollywood Hills.
Life was good. He became a husband, a father. But, after a decade of stepping into others’ shoes, McConaughey felt conflicted. His box office numbers were solid, but he was no longer enjoying the work. He was lying to himself.
“My appreciation for acting had grown deeper,” he explains. “I’d been taught what acting really was. What my rights were as an actor. I knew how not to get complacent. What to do if I felt lost. How to get myself back in line.”
And so, after turning down $14.5 million for one last romantic comedy, McConaughey bluffed and begged his way to a string of critically acclaimed dramatic hits. The ‘McConaissance’ had begun — a term which, incredibly, the actor reveals that he actually coined himself, despite telling one journalist he’d heard it from another.
He cameoed in The Wolf of Wall Street. Then starred in Dallas Buyers Club. True Detective. Darker roles. An Emmy nomination. An Oscar win.
“My job as an actor,” McConaughey considers, “and what I’ve wanted to do all my life, is empathise with humanity. I don’t have to agree with characters. I don’t have to judge them. I just have to play them. To see their individuality and greatness — even if they may not be considered that.”
Blimey. It’s profound stuff — especially from a man who spent much of his early career typecast into toplessness. But that life, McConaughey admits, was a lie. In the end, he found his truth in depth and drama. He wanted serious, sinewy roles — so he unleashed his inner outlaw and he stole them for himself. Like that Ann Ashford poem all over again.
#2: A life of vice
But what’s life without a little fun? Matthew McConaughey’s father had the right idea — spiriting away to a bar the day his son was born. And the actor’s brothers; they too knew the importance of a good time. Mike, the eldest, used to drink beer and throw knives behind the family barn in Uvalde, Texas. And when Pat McConaughey (the clan’s golf-mad middle son) wasn’t smoking balls down the fairway, he’d be blazing grass of a different kind.
Restraint was never the McConaugheys’ strong suit. Instead, Little Mr. Texas and his rascally brothers spent their childhoods cooking up capers from lumber theft to poetry plagiarism. Life was made for livin’; with two super-sized, deep-fried side orders of lyin’ and lovin’. This was ‘Outlaw Logic’ as outlined by McConaughey’s mother. McConaughey’s father dealt with smaller picture stuff — like teaching his son to drink.
“He took me duck hunting,” chuckles McConaughey, “with a couple of his friends in Arkansas. I was 13. It was winter. We had to wade through the swamps — and they were cold. Big chunks of ice floating through the water. And my waders, well, they had a hole in the crotch that I did not know about. And they filled up all the way to my waist.
“I started sniffling and sneezing and shivering. It was so damn cold. So, to settle me down and warm me up, my dad gave me a sip of whiskey. Wild Turkey bourbon.”
It’s a brand name we’ll hear again. But, for now, a freshly-thawed McConaughey had to hustle his way through high school. He chased girls, caught straight-As and was voted ‘Most Handsome’ in 1988 (we’ll come back to that, too).
Life moved fast. Stolen pizza. A taste for tequila. The University of Texas. He starred in a commercial for Miller Lite (a beer McConaughey’s brother Mike loves so much that he named his son ‘Miller Lyte McConaughey’). The actor even made his first Hollywood contact over drinks; a flurry of jangling vodka tonics shared with producer Don Phillips in an Austin hotel bar.
Phillips landed McConaughey Dazed and Confused. Then came an offer to play an all-American baseball star in Angels in the Outfield. The year was 1994, and the ten-week job would pay $48,500. Big money — and a chance to indulge in another vice; gambling.
“It’s not a guaranteed way to make money,” laughs McConaughey. “But I like to play the intangibles. Let me see what I can size up — and I do this in life, too — using information that’s not obvious. What can I do with the information not everybody sees?”
“It’s the psychology of people,” he continues. “If the Philadelphia Eagles bring in Sylvester Stallone, I’ll bet against them. The team may be excited that Rocky Balboa is there, but their energy will be focused in the wrong place. I might not always be right — but it’s fun when I am. Then I’m like: ‘I knew it!’”
And McConaughey gambles on more than just sport. He once did peyote in a cage with a Mexican mountain lion, and gambled he wouldn’t be mauled. In 1996, he floated down the Amazon on a hit of ecstasy, and gambled he wouldn’t drown. In 1999, he played his conga drums while high and naked, and gambled that a couple of police officers wouldn’t arrest him. They did. With brute force.
But his really decadent days were still to come. In 2000, after winning the lead in The Wedding Planner, McConaughey rented a room at the original den of iniquity; L.A’s Chateau Marmont. He bought a Triumph Thunderbird, wrote the hotel a running tab of $120,000 and danced with his devils there for two long, sparkling years. He enjoyed “liberal libations”, tanned by the pool and sneaked into the hotel kitchen at 3am to cook steaks.
There’s more gossip — probably even juicier than those early-hour ribeyes — but McConaughey won’t spill it.
“That’s none of your business!” he laughs. “But yeah, I did witness some wild stuff. Most of it was good-hearted fun, where everyone was having a good time. It’s a little loose over there for a reason, and the Chateau has always been a place that promotes a bit of mischief…”
When the hangover finally hit, McConaughey settled down. He fell in love, became a father and began finding his highs elsewhere. He still gambled — but only with his career.
That particular bet — turning down rom-com millions to focus on dramatic roles — paid out with films including Interstellar, Mud and The Lincoln Lawyer. The latter even led to a lucrative advertising deal; Lincoln sales increased 13% after McConaughey slipped into the driving seat. Another collaboration followed — with a whiskey he’d first sipped in an ice-cold swamp decades earlier.
“I wanted to be more than the face that showed up to sell Wild Turkey,” reasons McConaughey. “So I came on as Creative Director, and helped shoot and write some of the ads.
“Going in, I’d always said that I’d wanted my own bourbon. So, after a bit of back and forth, tasting samples and such, the juice that is Longbranch was born. And my name’s signed right there on the bottle. I set out to make the best whiskey on the planet and, for me, that’s what I did.”
It’s a glass-raising, trailblazing kind of whiskey, cooked up in Kentucky and refined over Texas mesquite charcoal. It’s a bright gold distillation of McConaughey’s life; lapped up and lionised by even the harshest whiskey devotees. In fact, it’s so good, you wouldn’t be blamed for dropping everything and rushing to your nearest bar to try it. Yes, even if your son is being born…
#3: A life of love
Here we go again; this time with feelings. In 1969, Matthew McConaughey was born in Uvalde, Texas. In 1974, his parents tried to kill each other in the kitchen (something about mashed potatoes). In 1976, his older brother knocked out his father with a plank of wood. He thought he’d killed him. He hadn’t. By 1979, the youngest McConaughey had realised that you don’t get to choose your family.
But that didn’t matter. The McConaughey clan, the actor says, always loved each other. They just didn’t always like each other.
“Growing up,” says the actor, “I definitely spent more time alone with my mom. But I didn’t feel like my dad was gone too much, you know? I never felt like, where’s he been?”
Jim McConaughey was a pipe salesman, and “a bear of a man”. He travelled for work but, like any good father, he was there when it mattered. Friday nights, for example, when he’d watch The Incredible Hulk with his son. Or whenever McConaughey’s mother left on an ‘extended vacation’.
One late-seventies summer in Longview, the two McConaughey men were living in a trailer. They had only each other — and a cockatiel named ‘Lucky’ — for company. The bird’s name was unknowingly ironic; it would soon drown in a toilet. But that tragedy gave McConaughey one of his first glimpses at his father’s softer side. Bawling and broken, Jim McConaughey had fished the dead bird from the bowl and attempted to resuscitate it.
He succeeded. The bird lived another eight years. Lucky indeed.
But such affection was rare. For the next decade, it was mostly tough love and stolen pizza beatdowns. It wasn’t until McConaughey decided to drop out of law school that his father showed similar compassion. Jim McConaughey may have been a brawling, blue-collar bear, but it turned out he didn’t mind that his son wanted to be an actor. He just had one piece of advice: “Don’t half-ass it”.
So McConaughey didn’t. He landed a Spanish-speaking role in Scorpion Spring (without knowing the language). He campaigned for the lead in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboot (with barely any experience). He made a name for himself. $48,500 for Angels in the Outfield. Taking the baton from Hugh Grant. 3am steaks at Chateau Marmont. The actor became Hollywood’s go-to man for libertines, lotharios and heartthrobs. And soon, he’d fall in love for real.
It was July 2005, at Hyde Kitchen on Sunset Boulevard. Over handmade margaritas, Matthew McConaughey met his future wife, Camila. One missing car, a silk turquoise dress and a pancake breakfast later, the two decided to date. They’ve been together ever since.
“But there was a non-negotiable,” laughs McConaughey. “Even before we had kids, Camila said: ‘One rule, if you go to work, we all go to work’. And like that, bam!”
“The next day, I called my agent and said: ‘From now on, my whole family goes. No matter what’. We have to get a house, even a nanny sometimes. You have to think about schools. The logistics are hard, especially because I’m not at the hotel with the rest of the cast. It’s a whole thing.”
But it’s a thing that works. McConaughey’s first son, Levi, was born in 2008. Possible names had included ‘Man’, ‘Medley’, ‘Citizen’ and ‘Igloo’. They moved back to Texas and had a daughter, and then one more son. Tight-knit and true, it’s been a far-cry from McConaughey’s own, somewhat splintered childhood.
“I never thought of that,” considers the actor. “Or I never consciously thought of that. It was a scary proposition for me at first, as an artist. Before then, I’d always gone to work on my own — living in a small trailer. I wouldn’t party if I had work the next day. I’d cook my own dinner, read my script and be in bed by 9 o’clock.
“I was very utilitarian that way. But, suddenly, the whole family’s coming? What about my little cocoon? Well, it turned out to be a great blessing. Because children ask you the best questions — it turned on a lot more creativity.”
The actor’s new world order coincided with the ‘McConaissance’. Bernie, Magic Mike, The Paperboy. The Oscar. Lincoln. Longbranch. McConaughey moved to make movies, and his family came along too — even when he landed in Louisiana for the 110-day shoot of his first television drama.
Radically structured and simmering with mesmerising monologues, True Detective saw McConaughey reunite with Woody Harrelson; a fellow Texan and his “brother from another mother”. The actors had worked together on stoner comedy Surfer, Dude and satire EDtv in the past — but True Detective really saw the friendship fuse.
“Although I haven’t been as good of a friend to as many people as I should have,” says McConaughey, sitting back and taking stock. “And that happens. I try to give myself a break — but I could do better with friendships. I think that happens when a man has a family. Your friend might call and say: ‘Las Vegas, tomorrow? Let’s do it!’ — but, of course, I can’t just pop off like I used to. Hopefully my friends understand that.”
They almost certainly do. This Matthew McConaughey, after all, isn’t the same broad, bombastic bad boy he was during his romantic comedy days. This Matthew McConaughey is a father, a husband — a man with his priorities in order. And anyway, if you’re going to overpromise on anything, there are surely worse things to pick than love.
#4: A life of lights
Okay, you know the drill. Uvalde. Little Mr. Texas. Longview. Ann Ashford. Leaky waders. Lucky the cockatiel. By 1988, Matthew McConaughey had lived enough life to have things cracked. He unleashed ‘Outlaw Logic’ on his high school, climbed to the top of the popularity pile and was voted ‘Most Handsome’ at prom.
But looks are a funny thing. They can be a blessing. They can be a curse. They’re frequently more trouble than they’re worth. Yet genetics undoubtedly created a magnetic, athletic man in Matthew McConaughey — and he believes this was his first ever spark of cosmic good fortune. Of course, he wouldn’t phrase it that way.
“They’re a greenlight,” the actor says slowly. “And greenlights, in a nutshell, are simple metaphors. Think about green lights on the road. We love them. They don’t interrupt us, and they don’t get in our way. They tell us to proceed. They’re easy.
“Red and yellow lights,” he continues, picking up the pace, “slow us down. We don’t like them. Metaphorically, they could be deaths, interventions, arguments or poor health. Even just not getting what you want. They’re bad. But they can hold lessons; greenlights we’ll later realise were hidden in those red and yellow lights all along.”
This concept — that our existence is just a string of fortuitous, fluorescent moments — is what forms the backbone of McConaughey’s new memoir, itself titled Greenlights. The book is a hardback hard look at the actor’s life so far, measured out in quirks of fate, chance encounters and strokes of luck. Luck, for example, in looks.
“Look,” reasons McConaughey. “Good looks, or whatever people may describe them as being, can get you in a lot of doors. They can get you a seat at the table. But they won’t get you past that.
“I never ran from my looks,” the actor adds. “But I damn sure never wanted to rely on them, either. You can have the looks, but you also need the work ethic. You get a hell of a lot more attractive by being alive, fun and working for things — let me tell you!”
McConaughey himself stands testament to that. He worked his way through film school. He hustled his way into Dazed and Confused. He moved to Hollywood in 1993, scoring supporting roles in Boys on the Side and Angels in the Outfield before winning his first lead in A Time To Kill. He wooed countless romantic comedy producers, played his intangibles and had checked into Chateau Marmont by 2000. All was good.
And then his hair began to fall out.
“Oh, the hair thing?” asks McConaughey. “Well, I was in my early thirties and losing my hair. So I started with a good head shave, and applied Regenix to my scalp daily. I honestly believed I was going to bring my hair back. And, well, it worked for me!”
It sounds like a miracle. But then the sun does shine on Matthew McConaughey.
“Absolutely it does!” the actor laughs. “And call that good fortune, call that luck, call that ‘I don’t have any idea how or where that came from’, but I’ve had so many times when I’ve just been in the right place at the right time. What if I’d shown up at the club that night I met my now-wife, say, 15 minutes later? What if I’d gone somewhere else?
“There are so many things I look back at in the rear view mirror of my life, and think: ‘How do the dots connect here?’”
It’s true. There have been some seismic, staggering shifts in the actor’s life. Since gambling his career on a turn of tone in 2010, he’s become an Oscar-winning father-of-three with a talent for playing the tragic and a best-selling book on the shelves. McConaughey’s a new man.
And the ‘McConaissance’ affected more than just McConaughey’s acting career. He inked the Lincoln deal, created “the best whiskey on the planet” and was appointed a professor at the University of Texas’ Department of Radio-Television-Film — co-teaching the ‘Script to Screen’ class. He founded the Just Keep Living Foundation to empower adolescents struggling with their health — and even bought a stake in Austin’s first Major League Soccer team, Austin FC.
Of course, he’s still starred in films. With crime biopic White Boy Rick, fantasy mystery Serenity and Guy Ritchie-directed gangster flick The Gentlemen all added to his resumé in recent years, there’s no indication that McConaughey is ready to wind down just yet. But the world is now wider for the actor — something he explores at length in his memoir.
“You know,” he says, sighing down the phone line, “this book is the truest, most permanent extension of myself that I’ve ever created. I’ve kept a diary for 36 years, and when I went away to the West Texas desert for 52 days — with no electricity — to work incredibly long hours on it, I felt really glad that I’d kept track all those years.”
So, after flicking through notebooks and thumbing through napkins; after deciphering the jottings and scribbles and scrawls; after reliving the many lives of Matthew McConaughey, only one question remains to be asked: Would he do anything differently?
“Absolutely not. And I’m happy to sit here and say that. Look, good true stories are always going to be better than any fiction — so I wouldn’t change anything. Because, when I look back now, the stories of my life are some of the most entertaining stories that I’ve ever heard.
“I just happen to be a part of them.”
Matthew McConaughey covers the Winter 2020 Issue of Gentleman’s Journal. Check out what else the magazine has in store here…
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