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A Time to Shine

Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Matthew McConaughey, March/April 2011

The star power is set on "Mute" as Matthew McConaughey rolls up on his bicycle. It's hardly a movie-star entrance: no limo or flashy car, no entourage, no stylish threads and no "don't look at me" baseball cap and sunglasses either. Just Matthew McConaughey from Uvalde, Texas, who, 15 years after his breakout role in John Grisham's A Time to Kill, still tries to live by the same credo he followed when he started out: "Be a gentleman and don't lie."

It's a sunny but chilly day shortly before Christmas in New Orleans and McConaughey is wearing a red North Face jacket and gray workout pants, with a head-clinging stocking cap that comes almost to his eyebrows. He hauls his bike casually up the steps of the Mayan Import Company, a Garden District cigar store, and commandeers a table on the front porch for an interview. He pokes his head inside and says, "Hey, is it OK if we sit out here while we talk?" then climbs into a chair.

Not that he lights a cigar, though several are on the table (his favorites are Romeo y Julietas): "I do like to smoke when I'm playing golf," he says (he's carded four holes-in-one in his life, including two within 11 days of each other when he was in high school). "I don't smoke them as often as I used to. Smoke doesn't agree with me on a daily level.

"I like to chew on a cigar, almost like a cud. I like one with a late-night port with a friend—that traditional set-up. You have a conversation, a cigar, some port—it frames it with a certain formality that's traditional and that's a great thing. It's just relaxing."

When he was shooting A Time to Kill, he recalls, he chewed on a cigar in character: "Swisher Sweets, which is what you smoke as a kid because that's all you can afford. I still like to taste a little sweetness in my cigar. A hardcore Cohiba is a little strong for me. But then, if I'm drinking beer, I'll drink Miller Lite because I can drink more of it."

He's been schooled by friends in the fine art of cigars, including producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a former head of Warner Bros. worldwide theatrical distribution: "He always had good cigars when I'd see him," McConaughey says. "When I'd meet up with him, he'd give me a cigar  and say, 'Now don't smoke this for 10 years.' I love the lineage of that, the patience to say, 'Ah, this will mature.' I've got a few in my humidor that I'm not supposed to touch for another decade."

Sitting on the cigar-store porch away from the sidewalk, even though he leaves his hat on and does nothing to call attention to himself, McConaughey is recognized several times during the interview by passersby. Twice, groups of young women approach tentatively, asking whether McConaughey would be willing to have his picture taken with them.

"You know, I'd rather not right now because I'm having a conversation with my friend here—is that alright?" he says with that blue-eyed, high-wattage smile that helped earn him People magazine's designation as the Sexiest Man Alive in 2005. He asks their names, thanks them for stopping to chat and sends them off smiling with a cheery "Merry Christmas!"

"Matthew always seems to be fundamentally the same guy," says Richard Linklater, who cast McConaughey in 1993's Dazed and Confused and subsequently has worked with him on two other films: 1998's The Newton Boys and the upcoming Bernie, in which McConaughey stars opposite Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine. "He's the kind of guy who will call you up out of the blue and say, 'Thank you for any part you played in helping me be where I am today.'"

But, Linklater says, he's also a guy who loves juicy give-and-take in a conversation: "He's always thinking about things," Linklater observes. "He's a thinker. He'll take a subject and turn it upside down and inside out. It's not that he's negating your thing, he's just taking it all in."

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