A Time to Shine
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."
"I always loved to debate. I still do," McConaughey, 41, says. "I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer at one point. And I always seem to be playing them."
Including The Lincoln Lawyer. The 2005 novel by best-selling writer Michael Connelly, and now the film version, take their title from the massive Lincoln Continental that serves as the trademark of the book's hero, fast-talking defense attorney Mickey Haller. Haller is chauffeured by a former client who is settling his debt by driving Haller to the numerous far-flung municipal, state and federal courthouses that dot the Los Angeles landscape. The character, Connelly says, was inspired by "a friend of a friend" he met at a Los Angeles Dodgers game a decade ago.
"He was a defense attorney who told me how he worked out of his car because there were so many courthouses in L.A.," Connelly recalls. "He had a client who couldn't pay his bill, so the client offered to drive him around. And while the guy drove, he worked the phones and the computer as he traveled from court date to court date. When he told me that, a lightbulb went off in my head."
Connelly had another such flash a couple of years later. As he settled into his local multiplex to see the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder, McConaughey came on the screen, playing a fast-talking, ultra-insincere Hollywood agent.
And Connelly immediately thought, "That's the guy."
Which guy? The one who could star in a movie of The Lincoln Lawyer, playing the sharp-shooting Mickey Haller.
"He's good at portraying someone who's looking for an angle," Connelly says of McConaughey. "I've seen it in some of his other movies, too. There was something about his eyes. When I wrote the book, I created an image in my head. And when I saw him in Tropic Thunder, I said, 'He'd be good as Mickey.' And I was right."
In fact, Mickey Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer, which opens in mid-March, is just one of three films—offering extremely varied roles—which McConaughey has poised for release in 2011. It's not a comeback, exactly. But it is the first time in a while—since We Are Marshall in 2006—that McConaughey has not had his name above the title of a romantic-comedy.
"I personally don't like to go see romantic comedies," McConaughey admits with a smile. "But people do want to see them, and they seem to want to see me in them. And quite a few of them have been real successful. I like to think that they're not shallow—they're light. And it's hard work to keep them light, to keep the comedy buoyant. If you dig too deep in those, you kill them.
"In some ways, it's a lot easier to do something like The Lincoln Lawyer. The punches hit, the bullets land and the consequences are life and death. I can click into that."
McConaughey is in New Orleans because he's just wrapped shooting on Killer Joe, a film based on the play of the same name by playwright Tracy Letts, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "August: Osage County."
In Killer Joe, a dark comedy, McConaughey plays the title character, a private detective who moonlights as a hired killer.
Director William Friedkin, an Oscar nominee for The Exorcist and an Oscar winner for The French Connection, says, "Normally it would be played as a character who was much darker. But I wanted him to have charm, ease and good looks—like Matthew. Not only does Matthew have comedic instincts, but he's one of the best-looking guys around. He has an inherent star power."
McConaughey, who leapt to stardom playing an idealistic defense attorney in A Time to Kill, assays a more cynical character in Mickey Haller: a defense attorney for whom the law has long since lost its glitter, one who uses whatever means are at hand (usually within legal limits) to sow enough reasonable doubt to get his clients off the hook. But he comes up against something different when he is hired by a rich real-estate agent (played by Ryan Phillippe) accused of murder, whose past has an unexpected tie to one of Haller's former clients.
"One of the things I liked about Mickey is that he seems to be one step ahead of the game—but there are many points where I don't think he really does have a plan," McConaughey says. "He's just rolling the dice and he doesn't know whether it will work. It's a great story about the system.
"I didn't have any idea that attorney-client privilege extends as far as it does, which means that Mick is walking some tightropes. And I had no idea that 90 percent of cases are dealt with out of court, through settlements or plea bargains. They're all wheeling and dealing, playing the game, and Mick plays the game well. But he's in a game with more serious consequences than ever. And he's got to play well just to survive."
Talk about deals and working the system sets McConaughey off on a discussion of the current legal climate, in which, he says, the people who should be pointing the way are instead being led by public opinion.
"Public opinion is the tail wagging the dog, which is the law," he says. "It should be inverted. We elect these people because they supposedly know the law. Experts supposedly make the law. Judges are judges because they're supposed to know the law. But when the public shouts first, public opinion creates a verdict before something even gets to court.
"Look at the Michael Vick thing. The NFL didn't go hard on him until public opinion said, 'Hang him.' Then the feds and the NFL stepped in. I don't think the penalty would have been what it was until the public's outrage was expressed. I'm not saying he shouldn't have served time. But look at all the high-profile people who've been allowed to stay free while doing heinous things to other people. But you create any kind of smoke and a team or an institution is going to say, 'We don't like this attention,' and they'll fire him."
Playing defense attorneys gives McConaughey a taste of what his life might have been like had he followed the impulse that guided him through his first two years at the University of Texas: "I was going to go to law school," he notes.
But as the end of his sophomore year approached, McConaughey realized he was too eager to get on his with life to invest the time necessary to become a lawyer. So he began searching for something else.
"Sophomore year was when credits started sticking and counting toward your major," he says. "If you changed your mind after the start of junior year, you were wasting those hours. I had really started to come into my own, to know myself, to have opinions and do some writing. I was 20 or 21. I realized that I had two more years of college, and if I then went on to law school, I wouldn't be back in society—in the game—until I was almost 28. I thought, 'I've got stuff I want to say and do right now.' I wanted to go to school, but I wanted to get in the game.
"I talked to a friend who had gone to NYU film school. He said, 'Have you ever thought about acting?' I said no, but the storytelling side of it interested me. So I decided to go to film school."
Even as he studied film and made short documentaries, McConaughey began landing small acting roles.
"I was waiting tables, picking up $1,500 here and there from commercials." he recalls. "I did a commercial for Miller Lite and made like $6,000—and that was huge!"
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