AUSTIN -- It's 9 a.m. on the first day of Daylight Saving Time, just a few hours after the carousing of South by Southwest's initial Saturday night, and it's no doubt a morning of crossed wires, missed appointments and mumbled apologies all over town.
I was half-expecting Matthew McConaughey -- the man born in Uvalde, Texas, who initially made a splash as part of the stoner crew in Dazed and Confused in 1993, the naked guy arrested for banging bongos at 3 a.m. outside his Austin home in 1999 -- to have had second thoughts about getting up so early to talk with me.
But I'm greeted not by some bleary-eyed slacker hastily picking up clothes strewn across a room at the Four Seasons. Instead, he's dressed in a crisp shirt and pants, topped with a fedora, and ready to get down to business.
So much for my shopworn stereotypes about McConaughey, 43, whose now 20-year journey across the Hollywood landscape reflects a fascinating dichotomy. In the public mindset, he's still cast as the half-naked, laid-back lothario -- a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. commentator said in 2008 that he had "managed to elevate the art of chillaxing into a veritable cottage industry." But in the past few years, he has matured into one of the decade's most intriguing leading men, perhaps the only one representing a decidedly Southern masculinity while transcending the deep-fried cliches.
Dazed and Confused may have laid the foundation for McConaughey's rock 'n' roll reputation, but he quickly moved beyond that straitjacket as a sheriff in John Sayles' indie favorite Lone Star, a gangster in Richard Linklater's crime saga The Newton Boys, and well-intentioned attorneys in Joel Schumacher's legal drama A Time to Kill and Steven Spielberg's slave-era history lesson, Amistad.
In the 2000s, it was often a race to the bottom to see which would be more forgettable, his romantic comedies (The Wedding Planner, Failure to Launch , Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Fool's Gold, Tiptoes) or his attempts at action-adventure ( Sahara, Reign of Fire). He even risked becoming a parody of himself; Matt Damon's impersonation of him has become something of a running gag on Letterman.
Click here for a look at McConaughey's career highs and lows.
But even at his most blandly mainstream, McConaughey would toss in something slightly more compelling, like the crime drama Frailty or the football-themed We Are Marshall.
He could have continued down such a path but wisely decided to leave the rom-com parts to the likes of Gerard Butler. Now, it's his most recent work in smaller movies like Killer Joe, Bernie and the upcoming Mud and Dallas Buyers Club that have become his most persuasive calling card, one that has people realizing once again he's not just all abs and no brains.
McConaughey says now that his transformation from matinee idol and Sexiest Man Alive (2005) to respected actor started with one word.
"I said 'no' to a bunch of things," he says, in a slightly softer version of his trademarked drawl. "Somehow that 'No, thank you' message got across and I started attracting other things."
Beginning in 2011 as a criminal defense attorney in The Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey has been on a roll. Next was his take as a Texas district attorney in the quirky and much talked-about Bernie; a Texas hit man in the intense, critically adored Killer Joe; a Florida reporter in the stylized, love-it-or-hate it thriller The Paperboy; and an aging but still cocky owner of a Tampa male strip club in the box-office hit Magic Mike. In fact, the opening of Magic Mike -- in which McConaughey's character, named Dallas, gives the lusty audience the rules of the room, concluding with the sly, "The law says you cannot touch, but I see a lot of lawbreakers up in this house" -- almost seemed a winking parody of the actor's shirtless persona.
With all this activity, NPR's All Things Considered in 2012 declared, "This may be the year of actor Matthew McConaughey."
The successful run is likely to continue into 2013 with his role as an Arkansas murderer with a moral code in the anticipated coming-of-age story Mud, the latest film from cult Texas director Jeff Nichols ( Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories). It plays the Dallas International Film Fest on April 5, and opens in theaters April 26. Then there's the true-to-life Dallas Buyers Club, due for release this year, in which McConaughey dropped 30 pounds to play the late Ron Woodruff, a North Texas man who had AIDS and battled the government as well as drug companies in the 1980s to be able to sell his alternative remedies.
Finally, McConaughey also will show up on the small screen in True Detectives, an eight-episode HBO series penned by Nic Pizzolatto ( The Killing) in which McConaughey and friend Woody Harrelson portray cops hunting for a serial killer in the wilds of Louisiana's bayou country. (Like Fox's American Horror Story, if there are future seasons of True Detectives, they may feature a different cast.)
For McConaughey, though, there was no dramatic, anvil moment when he decided to stop chasing the rom-com dollar in favor of choosing stories with more character and depth. It was a gradual feeling of frustration. After all, he wasn't quite the same guy he was at the time of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days a decade ago -- he married Brazilian model/designer Camila Alves in 2012 and has three children.
"It wasn't that I didn't want to do the Hollywood thing. I'll do the Hollywood thing," he insists. "Hollywood has some good things to do that I will do and like to do.... I just said, 'OK, if you do any more of these [romantic comedies], you're going to be repeating yourself and [be] in a place where you're not growing or evolving.'
"And I was reading scripts where I was going, 'Ooh, I like that. I could do that tomorrow.' And that was my thing. What about doing something that scares you a little bit?... I'm going to dive in and trust I'm going to come up on the other side."
McConaughey insists he didn't have to beg for these newer, tougher roles. "I didn't read Mud and then go, 'Nichols, I've got to do this,'" he says. "I didn't chase it. It came to me."
Nichols, who also wrote Mud, confirms he had McConaughey in mind from the start.
"I was thinking of who that guy was and, even though I didn't know Matthew at the time, it just seemed like the right way to go," the director recalls. "I definitely remember sitting down writing and imagining his voice."
Wallowing in 'Mud'
Mud is one of McConaughey's best roles, a conflicted character who is on the lam for a murder committed in a pique of misplaced chivalry. The victim's family, seemingly no stranger to violence themselves, has made it their mission to track down and kill Mud, who's in hiding on an island in the Mississippi River.
His fate rests in the hands of two boys in their early teens (wonderfully played by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who stumble across him and could rat him out in an instant. Instead, they get sucked into the travails of his life and hiding his secrets while trying to piece together what it means to be a man as childhood begins to recede in their rear-view.
Mud is a leisurely yet involving Southern-set story that resonates with a novelistic sense of life and place, bearing echoes of Mark Twain and more contemporary writers like Carson McCullers or Paul Horgan.
It has been one of the highlights of the film-festival circuit, with Variety saying, "The story of the film, though, lies in a performance from Matthew McConaughey so immersive that he becomes unrecognizable in the role. Gone is the sly wit and charm of his romantic-comedy past, and what is revealed is a character who has seen more than his fair share of hardships, but even as an adult, clings on to the romantic ideals of childhood.... It's a magnetic and enthralling portrayal that serves as the culmination of a career spent as a leading man with a truly gifted character actor waiting to surface."
"Early on, I would tell people that I wanted to do a Mark Twain directed by Sam Peckinpah, and that's what I aimed for," says Nichols. "I'm not saying I achieved it, but a lot of the inspiration came from literary works."
For McConaughey, the role of Mud struck something deep within. "The character was a real revisitation for me to go back and clearly remember the first loves, first heartbreaks, first time being told I love you," he says. "I thought it was a very specific Southern voice, a very specific place and time. And this guy Mud, I love that he's a dreamer ... like a river prince. What a great guy to run into for the summer, for these kids whose romantic views [on life] are hitting the ceiling of reality."
While Mud is a story that could have been set anywhere, that it's in Arkansas plays to McConaughey's memories of East Texas. And it continues McConaughey's portrayal of complex Southern or Texas characters, moving beyond good ol' boy stereotypes and caricatures to tap into something resolutely human.
"I'm a Southerner," McConaughey says. "That doesn't mean I'm [only] looking for characters in the South, but I'm comfortable with it.... There's something that turns me on about the swamps in Louisiana. There's something that turns me on about the space in Texas. There was something that turned me on being on the Mississippi River. Those places don't scare me. A lot of people I know that I work with, those places scare them. I'm able to feel at home and grounded there."
It's a character that probably would not have come his way if he were just waiting for mainstream Hollywood.
"[This] being an independent film, I was going to be with a director with specific visions and there comes with that a lack of pull back to the center," he says. "Plus, with an independent film, the proverbial suits don't come closer because there's not as much money in it. That's the real fun of the job. There's [no one saying], 'That's far enough, don't yell that hard, don't hate that hard, don't love that hard, don't cry that hard, don't mean it that much.'"
'Dazed' and amused
The actor's current dedication to craft seems a far cry from that kid who was voted Most Handsome in the Longview High School yearbook and later admitted that he used to pretend to be DJ Kidd Kraddick to get into Dallas nightclubs.
He parlayed that moxie into appearing in a couple of commercials, but he soared into the moviegoing consciousness in 1993 after a chance meeting with director Richard Linklater. That led to the part of Dazed and Confused's '70s-era suburban seducer David Wooderson, best known for two quotes that have become irrevocably tied to McConaughey: "All right, all right, all right," and the signature "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age."
Linklater, who has worked with McConaughey a couple of times since then, on The Newton Boys and Bernie, considers him a friend, and has been a keen observer of his career.
"He's the same," the director says during a separate interview at SXSW. "He hasn't changed. He just gets better. Anyone who has that experience who works as hard as he does, they just get better, more refined.... It's always good to see him jump in and tackle something. Matthew is all-in. He's going to do it, he's going to do it all the way."
That would apply to the dramatic weight loss demanded for Dallas Buyers Club, something McConaughey insists wasn't that big a deal. It's what was going on underneath the skeletal exterior that attracted him. "It's a wonderful role and this guy [Ron Woodruff] ... was very obsessed with what he needed to do with the most base incentive in the world, which is to survive, to stay alive, and the guy would do anything to stay alive.
"When you find a clear-cut literal thing that you can apply to every scene, I was able to lock into that. He defied the odds for seven years, longer than he was supposed to. It deals with HIV and AIDS from a heterosexual point of view. I haven't seen that before, and No. 2, he never became a white-flag crusader for how to survive a plague. He was selfish, a businessman, and he happened to be dealing illegal homeopathic drugs to who? Gay men with HIV, so he wasn't held down in this weight of Philadelphia. There's a rock 'n' roll buoyancy but it's heavy stuff. In that way, it was original."
In the past few years, McConaughey hasn't just been known for his movie performances. He was friends with fellow Austinite Lance Armstrong, and the disgraced cyclist's admission to doping, after years of denial, at first angered the actor.
"My first reaction was I was [ticked] off," he told MTV News during the Sundance Film Festival in January, where Mud was screening. "I was mad. I then got kind of sad for him. First off, I had a part of me that took it kind of personally, which I think a lot of people have."
He has also founded the j.k. livin foundation (short for "just keep livin'") aimed at getting high-school-age kids to lead healthy lives, and now has a men's casual fashion line, called JKL, that will be available in Dillard's stores this month and at other retailers in the fall.
Yet for all the changes in McConaughey's life and career, if you ask him about the character that started it all for him -- Dazed a nd Confused's Wooderson -- and get him to ponder what that guy might be doing today, the onscreen and offscreen personas merge into one middle-age version of their former selves.
"Rick [Linklater] thought he probably has got a couple of kids, probably two daughters, and I think he might be late-night deejaying," McConaughey says with a laugh. "He plays his own tracks and keeps some change in his pocket. Works during the day, comes home, gets a little sleep, picks up the kids from school, maybe even has a little dinner and then heads off to the studio.
"He has no regrets," McConaughey continues, and you're not sure if he's talking about Wooderson or himself. "He's once again and still right where he's supposed to be."