Talking to Matthew McConaughey is exactly what you think it’s like. Rarely has an actor’s persona melded so seamlessly with their most famous roles. The public feels like they know what Matthew McConaughey is like because he’s never tried to hide it.
He’ll be the first to tell you that the characters he’s brought to life over the years — Rust Cole, David Wooderson, Dallas, even those Lincoln ads — aren’t masks. They’re as real as he is. If you’ve seen a Matthew McConaughey movie, you know Matthew McConaughey.
“Every role is a character in humanity, and we all have got everybody in us,” McConaughey says from his home in Texas. “And you just have to — like an equalizer — fine tune it. You got to turn up the volume on this part of myself, turn down the volume on this part of myself. And then, it’s just recalibrating the equalizer for every role I play: figuring out how much of that is me and already in me, and how do I access that?”
He has an extremely lowkey, professorial vibe, peppering conversations with a deep well of custom aphorisms and pithy observations about life, death, God, self, others, love, forgiveness, you name it.
He’s introspective without being shy, vulnerable without being self-conscious. He’s well-read, and has mixed a huge number of disparate influences and philosophies into a perspective all his own. Like a surfer with a penchant for Thomas Merton or a substitute philosophy lecturer called in from stargazing at Joshua Tree. He has a preacher’s way of keeping an eye on his listener to make sure they’re tracking with what he’s saying. If he senses he’s not being clear, he’s quick to illustrate his point with a personal anecdote, an analogy or even an ethical brain teaser.
For example, he asks me: “If I’m going to lie, cheat and steal right now, you call that a selfish act, right?”
“Sure,” I say, though I sense I’m wrong.
“Ah, but is it really? Because tomorrow, everywhere I go, I have to be looking over my shoulder to see if anybody’s there,” he says, head whipping around in a mimic of jittery, wide-eyed paranoia. “I’m buying my time to stress about a decision I made in the past. So, what’s really the more selfish act?”
McConaughey is obsessed with little tensions like this. Existential balance. Questions of virtue and responsibility. Fate and self-determination. In this genre of conversation, it’s hard to get him on a subject he hasn’t clearly done a lot of thinking on. Not that he’s figured it out — he’s explicit on that — but he knows the landscape.
“I’m a believer. I believe in God,” he says. These days, that question is closed for him, but he’s still trying to figure out what that means. If God is up there working out His perfect, divine plan for Matthew McConaughey’s life — a plan that has, let’s be honest, been pretty good to him so far — then what is McConaughey’s role supposed to be? That question occupies a lot of McConaughey’s time, and he’s getting close to striking a balance.
“God’s laying out the highways, but we each have our hand on the wheel,” he says. “I look at Earth. I look at the little dot that we are on the planet. The world’s turning. And we’re that little individual on the planet. That smallness can make you go, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m nothing. None of what I do matters.’”
He pauses for dramatic effect, raking his hands through blonde curls that nearly brush his shoulders.
“But,” he finally continues, waving his finger. “A place of humility is actually when you realize, ‘Oh, it allllll matters.’ There’s a great empowerment that comes with that.”
This is about as close as he’s gotten to a definitive answer, but he owns the reality that he’s got a lot more to learn (“I like to know what I know and I like to know what I don’t know,” he says). But he believes there’s value in the search in and of itself.
Or as he has it: “I do believe God loves a trier.”
Heaven on Earth
To illustrate this point, McConaughey gives an illustration he says he first heard from his pastor. “An individual in his small house: imploding,” he says. “Just going through all the hardships, shaking the devils and monkeys off his back; just frustrated. It’s getting dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark.”
“And just outside his door, the one door to his one room that he’s in, stands Jesus, all right?” McConaughey says. “The door only has one doorknob, but it’s on the inside. I love that image of that. God is there but we have to open the door. We have to grab the doorknob. It’s up to us to grab the knob and open the door.”
“I’m eternally fascinated with trying to get to what are the decisions we can make that are selfish and selfless at the same time,” he says. “What is our relationship with responsibility and freedom? Understanding the responsibility of freedom and the freedom that comes with responsibility? Where do we make the decisions? The ultimate place — I call it heaven on earth — is when we want what we need and we actually need what we want.”
McConaughey’s career trajectory is a good illustration of this heaven on earth sweet spot. You remember the “McConaissance” — the 2013 – 2014 period in which McConaughey’s twin performances on The Dallas Buyers Club and the first season of True Detective hurtled him into a rarified stratosphere of all-time great second acts. That resurgence wasn’t accidental. It was a decision. He started turning down the rom-com scripts that had made him a household name, including saying no to an eye-popping $14.5 million offer.
“It didn’t feel relevant to who I was becoming, didn’t feel relevant to my soul,” he says of that genre. “Oh, [the scripts] were fine. They were still in the asset section. They weren’t bad things to do. But subjectively, to myself, I thought doing those at that time would have been being a tyrant to my true self. I was seeking something different.”
I Forgive You For That
The ostensible reason for our conversation is Greenlights, McConaughey’s new book which he calls “a big stack of stories about people, places, prescribes, poems and prayers,” drawn from 35 years of his diaries. He’d thought about compiling them all into a book many times — plans to bring on a ghostwriter fell through — until his wife Camila Alves finally convinced him to pack the diaries up in a pickup truck and take them out to the desert to write it himself.
“It ended up being the best time I’ve ever had in my life with myself,” he says. “All the things I thought I was going to be so embarrassed about, I ended up laughing at. All the things I thought would be so shameful about, I was like, ‘Oh, I forgive you for that.’”
The idea of forgiving yourself comes up a lot with McConaughey. “I’m the last person to forgive myself,” he says. “I’ve always struggled with this.”
McConaughey has a story from early in his career, shortly after A Time to Kill made him a star, and he was struggling with what he calls “the excesses of fame.” He heard about The Monastery of Christ in the Desert — a remote community of Benedictine monks adrift in the wilds of New Mexico with a guesthouse for anyone who cares to sample the monastic life. A friend dropped him off and the monks welcomed him in. McConaughey told them he needed to talk to someone. They directed him to a monk aptly named Brother Christian.
“I confessed to him for four hours,” McConaughey says. “I’m feeling like I’m at the bottom of the earth. I’m bawling and snot’s coming out of my nose. What does he say? The only word he says to me after four hours of my confessions. He looks me in the eyes and he goes: ‘Me too.’”
McConaughey’s eyes pop behind dark-rimmed glasses. “He let me know that I was not the center of the universe. He let me know it was a human condition, what I was going through. God’s not looking for us to come there perfectly. He’s not looking for us to come there all cleaned up and a halo on it. He wants to open the door when we’re groveling. He’s not going to judge us on that,” McConaughey says, folding his enormous arms in an imitation of a stern, disapproving deity.
“No,” he continues. “God’s going to go, ‘Hey man, thanks. I’ll come with you through this. I’ll go with you through this. I’ve seen it all.’”
On a whim, I ask Matthew McConaughey what prayer looks like for him. His answer is worth recounting in full.
“Prayer is inventory,” he says. “I go to church once a week. I go, I pray and I do inventory. I take a deep breath, understand myself as me being number two in God’s house, and go back through my week.”
“I try to picture everyone in my life until I can catch them in a snapshot in my mind, when they are their most true selves,” McConaughey continues. “Now, some are very solemn faces: a friend of mine or a loved one or a family member. Sometimes, it’s a picture of them 20 years ago. Sometimes it’s a picture of them this morning. I’ll try to go through the Rolodex in my mind and see everyone has their most true self.”
“And then I end trying to see myself as my most true self. Now” — he leans forward, his voice dropping low — “that can be the hardest picture to grab in my mind for my prayers. I have to get one. I go, ‘No, you were trying to act like you were happier. No, you had more attitude. No, you were posing. No. No.’” He pretends to flip through false images of himself, discarding them with a swipe of his finger.
“I keep going through the Rolodex until I catch my self in a picture of myself, and go: ‘Ahhhh, there you are. There you are.’”
“And then each one of those pictures, when I see them, I just pray that that image of who that person was and how they felt inside, in their mind and in their heart and in their spirit at that time, can flourish. That they can carry that into the masses of the world and into the future. That part of them can grow.”
“That’s what prayer is to me,” he concludes. “And then I come out of that church with whatever lesson the pastor shared and go, ‘Alright. Tomorrow’s Monday. Let’s see if we can put those into practice.’”
An Anonymous Soul
Doesn’t all this sound a little like a Matthew McConaughey movie? He thinks so. In going back over his life story, McConaughey felt like it all had a cinematic quality (“A lot of these stories, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s wilder than anything I’ve read in Hollywood,” he says), and every good movie has an ending.
McConaughey turned 50 this year. The ending is, presumably, a long ways off, but when you’re pouring over history, it’s hard not to think about the future and, well, the end credits.
“I’ve been practicing my eulogy,” he says. “I think this is good for everyone to practice. We’ve got the pen. We’re writing that story.”
He doesn’t know what’s going to happen after he dies. “I do believe that it’s not over when we leave here,” he says. “But it’s blatantly obvious that’s one of those things old science has not figured out yet. But science, to me, has always been the practical pursuit of God.”
So since he’s not sure what happens in the great hereafter, McConaughey’s focusing on what he does know. He knows he needs solitude. “One thing that happens with someone like myself who gets famous, you lose your anonymity. It can feel like you’re giving things away and then people are trespassing and people can take advantage of that.” So he’s protective of his alone time, and says the best way anyone can be themselves is to be an “anonymous soul.”
But there’s another tension. How much anonymous solitude can a guy like Matthew McConaughey really get? He and his wife have three children — two boys and a girl — and he spends a lot of time thinking about the things he can do now that will deliver the highest “ROI,” to use his language. And this is where we get back to that “heaven on earth” sweet spot he mentioned — the place of needing what you want and wanting what you need. The McConaissace proved he could do it with his career. And all this feels like him figuring out if he can do it with his life too.
“Who’s my investment?” he asks. “Me, my family, my loved ones. I try to make those decisions where what I want for me hopefully matches what could be best for the most number of people.”
“I don’t always hit it,” he says. “But I think that’s what I’m chasing.”