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!"
His first real break came when Texas auteur Linklater—who had started a film society in Austin, where UT is located, and had made the film Slacker there—came back to town to make Dazed and Confused, a comedy that looked at the last day of school for a group of high school friends in 1976.
McConaughey met Linklater's producer Don Phillips in an Austin bar as they were getting ready to shoot and the producer suggested McConaughey to Linklater for a small role in the film: David Wooderson, a late-college-age guy who continues to chase the girls at his old high school.
"He wasn't what I had in mind for the character," Linklater says. "He was too good-looking, too clean-cut. I wanted someone creepier and scragglier."
In fact, McConaughey showed up for the audition, he remembers, dressed for a job interview—neat, shaved, shirt and tie—rather than trying to embody the character for which he was trying out.
"Rick told me, 'You're not this guy,' and I said, 'Maybe not. But I know this guy,' " McConaughey says. "To me, this character was who I thought my older brother was when he was in high school. I remember once, I was 11 and he was 17. It was 1980 and I went with my mother to pick up my brother at the high school. And before she spotted him, I saw him from the car, leaning up against the school smoking a cigarette. At that moment, he was cooler than James Dean to me. It's not who he really was, but who I thought he was from that image."
Says Linklater, "Matthew said, 'I know this character,' and then he transformed into him. His whole demeanor changed; he transformed right in front of me. I said, 'OK, you've got the part. Now don't cut your hair and grow some facial hair.' It certainly was a case where he didn't get cast because of his looks."
After McConaughey's first day of filming, Linklater began to write more scenes for him, expanding the role of Wooderson until he became one of the film's most visible characters: "The character only had three or four lines when I started, but I wound up working for two and a half weeks," McConaughey says. "When I went back to college, I was a much better director because I saw that being a director wasn't a dictatorship."
By the time the film came out, McConaughey had acted in another Texas-based movie (Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre) for "$320 a week for 17-hour days" and then packed his belongings in a trailer and moved to Los Angeles. There, he slept on the couch of Dazed producer Phillips, who offered to help him get started as an actor. Within two weeks, Phillips had introduced him to an agent who had seen an early screening of Dazed and Confused and saw potential in the young actor.
He auditioned for Boys on the Sid—-"My first audition in L.A.," McConaughey says—and was told by the casting director that he wanted McConaughey to read for the director, Herbert Ross. A few days later, McConaughey auditioned for Angels in the Outfield—and wound up being cast and going on location for the role, too.
"I was getting $48,500 just to act and play baseball," McConaughey recalls with a laugh. "I thought I was rolling in dough. Two weeks into shooting that, I got called back to read for Herbert Ross and got that role too."
McConaughey then tried out for a small role, a vicious Klansman in the film of John Grisham's best-selling first novel, A Time to Kill. At the audition, McConaughey asked director Joel Schumacher who was playing the lead role, an attorney named Jake Brigance (who was a semi-autobiographical version of Grisham himself). Schumacher asked whom McConaughey thought should play the role.
"I think I should," McConaughey told him.
Today, McConaughey says, "I totally straight-faced him. He laughed and said, 'That's a great idea but it will never happen. I think you'd be great and it won't happen.' But I left feeling good that I'd at least gotten the Klan part."
Two weeks later, Schumacher got back in touch: He wanted to do a screen test of McConaughey for the role. "But it was done completely off the grid," McConaughey says. "He told me, 'The studio will never go for this.' They were after Kevin Costner, actors like that, for the role and John Grisham had approval. So it was a long shot."
A few weeks later, McConaughey was filming Lone Star in the Texas desert for director John Sayles, when he got a call from Schumacher at midnight: "He said, 'Matthew, there's somebody I want to introduce you to.' And he put me on the phone with John Grisham. And Grisham said, 'My wife and I saw your audition tape and we'd love it if you'd play Jake Brigance.'
"After I hung up, I went out and howled at the moon. That was big. I understood what that meant."
The 1996 hit landed the still-unknown McConaughey on a raft of magazine covers, including Vanity Fair, whose cover line teased: "Why Hollywood is so hot for Matthew McConaughey." McConaughey could feel the world shift around him.
"The Friday before it came out, you could have shown my picture to 100 people and asked if they knew who I was and you'd have gotten 99 no's and one yes," he says. "And the next week it flipped in the opposite direction. I remember walking down the street in Los Angeles the weekend the movie came out and all these people were looking at me. I remember checking my fly.
"There was a tremendous amount of frequency cast on me. The shift was so dramatic that, at times, it was overwhelming. Once the movie had opened, what I did to maintain my sanity was pack a backpack and get a one-way ticket to Peru. I checked out for 19 days and just hiked anonymously, with no plan. I hiked Macchu Picchu and canoed the Amazon. I just needed to let time catch up with me."
In the subsequent 15 years, McConaughey has worked on films that range from big-budget fantasies to low-budget independent dramas. He's had a string of romantic-comedy box-office hits (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Failure to Launch being the most successful) and worked with leading ladies such as Jennifer Garner, Kate Hudson, Jennifer Lopez and Sarah Jessica Parker (and been romantically linked with Sahara costar Penelope Cruz). He's worked with Oscar-winning directors such as Steven Spielberg (Amistad), Robert Zemeckis (Contact) and Ron Howard (EDtv), but also lent his talent to such well-regarded little indie offerings as Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Bill Paxton's Frailty.
His free-spirited existence and active social life have made him tabloid fodder over the years. There was, for example, that 1999 incident in Austin, when police responded to a late-night noise complaint from neighbors and found McConaughey playing bongos naked in his living room. And he was named one of People magazine's "hottest bachelors" in 2006.
Some of the stories spread about him were obviously false ("One time it was reported that I had three kids with three different women; that one didn't make me nervous for a second."). Some, in fact, are true.
His older brother, Rooster, did, in fact, name one of his sons Miller Lyte McConaughey. And there is a basis to the persistent rumor that McConaughey avoids revolving doors.
"I really don't like them," he admits with a sheepish grin. "I'm not a claustrophobic guy; maybe I've just seen too many Godfather movies. And I don't like tunnels. I'm surprised there aren't more accidents in tunnels; the blind spot when you go in gives me a little vertigo."
He's come to terms with the paparazzi and their seemingly constant presence in his personal life. He addresses it by dealing with photographers on a human level, saying, "OK, take a picture—then let me get on with my life."
"I was tired of getting pissed off. It was legitimate but I was tired of it," he says. "I thought, well, am I ready to move to a place where they weren't? No, not for good. Was I ready to build fences or tall walls around my house? No. So I just shook hands with it and dealt with it.
"So, say I'm taking my kids to the beach. And the photographers are there. I just talk to them and say, 'OK, go ahead and take your picture. And then move on.' How many pictures do they need of me running on the beach? So far, they've mostly respected that. But you've got to have a relationship with that kind of thing if you go out in public because that check's already been written. Sure, I feel intruded upon. But I don't feel it's unfair. I can't do anything about it unless I move on or imprison myself, and I don't want to live like that."
It's one thing to get the kind of break McConaughey received with A Time to Kill; it's another to build a career from that break and keep it moving forward, not just forward but upward. Yet McConaughey maintains that forward momentum—not an easy task.
"When you look back, you see a guy who has made a lot of right choices," William Friedkin says. "But he also has an inherent star power that few actors have. Young actors today are not long on career trajectory. They seem to be kind of one-note. But Matthew has something else. There are only a few people like that: Will Smith, say, or Tom Hanks. And, in a lot of those cases, star power trumps career choices because people want to see him in whatever he does. A guy like Matthew persists because people like him. There's a certain magic there."
For McConaughey, it's about keeping things interesting—challenging himself and finding work that feels important to do.
"After A Time to Kill, I wanted to do subjects that mattered to me, films that I thought, philosophically, I wanted to be a part of," he says. "They were good healthy stories to tell, with questions to ask. And some of the romantic comedies were pure entertainment for a Saturday night date. You know the guy and girl will end up together in the end but you hope people have a good time seeing how that happens.
"On a basic level, we can all read a script. You read The Lincoln Lawyer and you feel it's a thriller that could touch a nerve and be a hit. You read Killer Joe and you know it doesn't have the DNA to open on 3,000 screens. But it could be an arthouse cult hit. They don't all have to be blockbusters; it's not in their pedigree. Still, sometimes there are ones you think will go, 'Ka-boom!' and they don't. And the one you think won't does."
At 41, McConaughey has his own production company and a charitable foundation, both called j.k. livin (after one of the lines that served as his character's philosophy in Dazed and Confused: "Just keep livin', man-just keep livin' "). He has settled down with his partner, former model Camila Alves, with whom he has a son, 2, and a daughter, 1. Still, marriage is not in the cards in the foreseeable future.
"Marriage isn't something I'm against," he says. "My parents married each other three times—and divorced twice. I know a few older couples who have been married a long time and are happy; I've been around healthy marriages. I knew I wanted a family and I found a woman I love and felt was right for me. I thought, 'That's the woman I want to make a family with.' But marriage—it's not something we feel we need to be complete. It doesn't mean we won't do it.
"It doesn't make my mom that happy that we're not married. But it doesn't make her mad, either."
Then he puts it all into perspective, before taking his bike and heading off into the New Orleans afternoon: "Of course, I was raised to believe that you don't have sex until you're married," McConaughey says with that sly smile. "So there you are."
Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment on his website, www.hollywoodandfine.com