He's the Oscar winner who lived in a trailer park, turned down roles for years and refused to play by Tinseltown's rules. Now he's gone rogue again – the actor has written a brilliant memoir that lays bare everything from his eccentric family to his run-in with the law. By Ben Hoyle.
Matthew McConaughey's blue eyes gleam with happiness as he starts to re-enact the time that his mother tried to kill his father in front of him.
It happened in the family kitchen one Wednesday night in 1974 after Jim McConaughey came home from selling oil pipes and asked for extra potatoes. His wife, Kay, sneered at him for being fat. Things escalated from there.
Jim, a bear of a man who had played American football for the Green Bay Packers, flipped the table over. Kay ran to the wall-mounted phone to call the police but instead held the receiver in her hand, "like a club", recalls McConaughey, who was four at the time and had fled to the next room to follow the action from behind a sofa. When Jim came within range, she let him have it (he mimes the blow): "WHAAAAP! – across Dad's nose and blood gushing, hitting the floor.
"Pop just sort of pausing, stunned. Mom in her nightie, Dad in his muscle shirt." But then she grabbed a 12in chef's knife and called, "C'mon, Fat Man. I'll cut you from your nuts to your gulliver!" Jim snatched up a half-full bottle of ketchup, sploshed some of it in her face and they began circling each other.
McConaughey, in a hooded top and shorts, is pretending to be his mum now, wiping stinging ketchup from her eyes with the back of one hand, while slashing wildly at her husband with the knife.
Then he becomes his father, seeming to inflate in size up on the balls of his feet. "Dad was a big man but he also took ballet. So Dad's kind of on his toes, he's pirouetting, he's got one hand over his head. He's dancing and this thing is turning from graphic horror into this mockery and he's like, 'Touché!' "
Swaying like a matador, McConaughey drapes one hand over his own long, slicked-back curls, stretches out the other to flick more ketchup over his imagined assailant, and circles a bit more.
"All of a sudden it ended. He'd worked her to a stalemate. She dropped the knife. He set the bottle down. Their shoulders dropped. They looked at each other – blood all over the floor. They're sweating. F***! And then they went to the floor and that's when I left." McConaughey sits back down, brings his hands together to represent his parents and slowly interlaces his fingers.
"I didn't stay around for the lovemaking, but that's what they started doing."
It's a lot to absorb over a Zoom call. Even though I'd already read an account of the incident in McConaughey's new memoir, Greenlights, which he concludes by stating simply, "This is how my parents communicated."
Did that kind of thing happen often?
He beams. "I mean, I had no context, maybe because I was four. My brother, Rooster, who's older, he'd probably be like, 'Oh shit, yeah. Seen that kind of stuff go down a lot.' "
Jim and Kay McConaughey divorced twice but married each other three times. Their home was occasionally violent but always full of love. There was never a moment when either of them would break off mid-explosion and say, "Hang on a second. Matthew, go to your room," so there was no escape from the daily soap opera. "And that," he says, "was part of the beauty of our family."
In the 27 years since his film debut Matthew McConaughey, 50, has been many things to the cinema-going public.
He was the "new Paul Newman" for a while, before he gradually became a bit of a joke. There was his 1999 attempt to resist arrest, despite being stoned and stark naked, when police found him playing his bongos too loudly in his home at 2.30am. It blended into the lust object years when McConaughey seemed to be forever photographed running shirtless along the beach in Malibu or starring, often topless, in a string of mostly forgettable romantic comedies.
But then there was the glorious comeback – "the McConaissance" – after McConaughey, by now anchored by fatherhood, decided to "f*** the bucks" and seek out more fulfilling work. He instructed his agent not to take any more offers for rom-coms and he sat, without work, for a long, long time. "I didn't know how long it was going to go on. And it went on a pretty damn good amount of time. Long enough to become a new good idea. Eventually, people started wondering, 'Where is Shirtless-on-the-Beach?' Until two years later when these roles started to come in and then I just attacked them."
What followed was an astonishing career turnaround in which – among other career highlights – McConaughey delivered a chest-thumping, scene-stealing cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street, headlined the mind-bending science-fiction blockbuster Interstellar, was a co-lead in the adored first season of True Detective and, in 2014, won an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club.
Since then, he has been restlessly busy, but apart from his voiceover work as an entrepreneurial koala in the animated film Sing, he hasn't had another big film success.
His public service videos during Covid racked up millions of social media views.
Other things are more important though. This year he's been trying to raise morale in the battle with coronavirus, while "quarantining pretty hard" at home in Austin, Texas – where he is now – with his Brazilian wife, Camila, their three children and his 88-year-old mother, who still goes to bed later than him and gets up earlier most days.
McConaughey's unofficial public service announcements, delivered in his trademark oddball Texan shaman style, have racked up millions of views on social media. He's gone viral with a video shot on his property in which he appears as a cowboy bounty hunter called "Bobby Bandito", who teaches Americans how to make a pandemic mask out of a bandana, coffee filters and rubber bands. He has interviewed Dr Anthony Fauci. He has hosted a virtual bingo night for an old people's home.
He has also written Greenlights.
The process began in May 2019, when he spent 12 days alone at a remote desert cabin near the Mexican border with the diaries he has been keeping since he was 15. He took a cooler of food and drink, a printer and a generator for when it got dark. There was a mountain that he could climb to get phone reception and say good night to his family.
At about 9pm on the night of the fourth day he wrote, "This should not feel like a book that Matthew McConaughey should've written. This must feel like a book that only Matthew McConaughey could have written."
The book is "not an escape plan" from his acting career, but it is an attempt to be more "unfiltered". When he acts, "There is somebody else's script [and it's] directed by someone else, lensed through a camera by someone else and edited by someone else." He holds up four fingers to the screen, almost angrily. "That's four filters from my raw expression right there." (He does a lot of raw expressing.)
A book, on the other hand, is only one filter. It's thought out and planned, which makes it a departure of sorts for McConaughey, a freewheeling kind of a guy who would, I suspect, gladly perform his story spontaneously and in person for every single reader if he could.
Writing cramped his style at first. "You don't have my raised eyebrow," he says, raising his eyebrow. "You don't have my innuendo. You don't have my lilt." But then he found that it was fun to wake up in the morning, wait three hours for his first sentence to come to him and know that when it did – he bangs on the desk, clicks his fingers and says, "Whooooosh!" and then, "Rrrraaaoooww!" – he would be up and running.
The finished work is unmistakeably a "book that only Matthew McConaughey could have written". This is a good thing.
The very first sentence reads, "This is not a traditional memoir," and you would be hard pressed to find another Hollywood autobiography containing anywhere near this many handscrawled notes, cheesy bumper stickers, typed meditations, camping yarns, wet dreams deciphered as omens, newly hatched aphorisms and enlightening lessons from Texas college sports coaches. Or this few Hollywood anecdotes. McConaughey dismisses his big night at the Academy awards in two sentences: "They called my name. I won the Oscar for best actor." He devotes five pages to a single night drinking with strangers in a bar in the Montana countryside.
This turns out to make perfect sense because, probably uniquely in the annals of Hollywood, McConaughey reveals that he spent over three years in the late Nineties holding down a career as a leading man while living alone with his rescue dog, Ms Hud, in motorhome parks all over America.
He had postal addresses in two favoured campsites, a BlackBerry for his emails, a satellite dish for the internet connection and a microphone for recording his many, many, many thoughts.
He also carried a gun and a baseball bat, just in case, but never needed them.
If a director or producer was keen to hire him McConaughey would persuade them to fly into a nearby city and they'd have the meeting on the road while he drove them to the next airport. If he was working on a film – Steven Spielberg's Amistad in Rhode Island, for instance – he'd drive to the location and find a local trailer park to set up camp.
"People thought I was roughing it. I wasn't. I mean, the inside of my Airstream, I tricked it out and it was beautiful. I had one of everything. I had a really good stove; I had just the kind of coffee I liked. I had great sheets on my queen-size bed. I had my dog. I had my favourite plate, my favourite knife and fork."
Every now and then he'd treat himself to a few nights at a Holiday Inn, or the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, or the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, but he'd soon be itching for his trailer and the open road again. "Smaller spaces, in a lot of ways, help you be more free."
Sometimes he'd drive all day, park up at night and only realise the next day where he was. He awoke to a grizzly bear drinking from a river outside his trailer. Once he unwittingly parked 4ft from a railway track. "All of a sudden I wake up – 'What the hell's going on?' There's a train going by."
More often, "I'd look at the map for the day and say: you know, it's about one o'clock. I want to have an easy night. Sundown will be around seven. I'll pull in around five and start a fire, marinate a steak, make a cocktail. So I'm just going to look what's four hours down the road, pick out a place." He would ignore the big chains of the trailer park world in favour of quirkier, independent establishments – "JR's Getaway or so and so".
"I met Million Milers, man, who had been out there for a million miles." He'd ask them, "What do you regret?" and they'd always say, "We didn't do it sooner." There were "retired couples, young outlaws on the run. Stayed in a trailer park in Austin. My neighbour was a professional clown and the guy to the left of me was an Eighties cover band guitarist.
"There's a whole other book of trailer park stories, for sure."
In the memoir he calls his trailer park years, "acting and storytelling 101, a front-row seat to real characters in real life". He didn't just want to find "real behaviour" for professional reasons, though.
The wandering was a part of his response to becoming globally famous, he says. "I was looking for strangers to meet again. I was looking to see how many people I could still find that did not recognise me. And secondly, I was looking for people that did recognise me, but didn't really give a damn."
McConaughey comes from a "long line of rule breakers", he writes, a family of "outlaw libertarians" with a reverence for the Old Testament and a mistrust, verging on contempt, for government and the law.
He was "a Momma's boy" and she taught him to walk into every room like he owned it. He grew up in awe of his much older brothers, Rooster and Pat. Their big-hearted father, who was always hustling, who sent hired heavies to convey death threats to his debtors and dreamt of opening a Florida gumbo shack if he could just "hit a lick" big enough to retire, was a man to be feared and loved at the same time.
He sought advice from Paul Newman. "The best advice he gave is, 'give 'em hell!'
The family's finances were generally precarious but they enjoyed a sudden lift in the early Eighties. Jim McConaughey moved the family out of the trailer where they had been living into a house. "All of a sudden, he had 70 employees under him."
Pretty soon they had a half-share in a tan and dark brown Lear jet, with a matching jet boat ("So Texan, right?") and, of course, his mother "had her mink coat and her Fleetwood Cadillac". McConaughey grins. "Now, did we own all those things?" He bursts into hoarse laughter. "I don't know."
Despite the violence and sometimes brutal discipline of his childhood there's an irresistible warmth to the McConaugheys as he describes them. "In our family, we love really hard. We get angry really well. We cry it out if we're sad. If you got a problem, you lay it out. We're really transparent. And no one makes up any damn drama. We're a resilient, brush-it-off family." If something flares up it gets tackled head on. It always has. "No going to bed with a grudge. No going to bed mad… We work this thing out.
"McConaugheys turn the page and I found the world doesn't do that nearly as much."
They also love a tall tale, he concedes. Just how reliable a narrator is he? "I'm much more reliable than anyone else in my family!"
Jim McConaughey had always told his children, "Boys, when I go, I'm gonna be makin' love to your mother." He was right.
It happened one morning in 1992 and proved a turning point in his youngest son's life, the moment he realised that there was "no safety net" for him any more. McConaughey was studying film in Austin at the time, after dropping long-held plans to become a lawyer.
A few nights earlier he had shot his first professional scene as an actor: an improvised performance in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. He'd joined the shoot mid-production after scoring an audition accidentally thanks to a chance meeting with the casting director in a bar. It took another three years for McConaughey's big break to arrive, the male lead opposite Sandra Bullock in the legal drama A Time to Kill. It made him famous overnight.
Characteristically, "pretty doggone soon" after the film's release, he hiked to a remote monastery in the New Mexico desert and shut himself away from the world to recover.
"If anything's consistent when I look back through the stories of my life it's that when my spirit was shaking, or when I was lost, I've done a pretty good job of going, 'All right, I'm pulling the parachute. I'm out of here.' "
Two years later he needed another course correction after an "18-month hedonism tour" living as a leather-trousered semi-nocturnal resident of the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard. He rebalanced himself, as not many other A-listers would, by backpacking alone through rural Mali for a month, during which he accepted – and survived – a fight with a village wrestling champion.
McConaughey's biggest ambition remained out of reach. "The one thing I knew I always wanted to be was a father. That's been my main dream. That has always been, like, well – you made it."
He met Camila Alves in 2005. Her parents had also married and divorced each other twice; they just hadn't married a third time as his had. She knew exactly who she was and McConaughey was blown away. They moved into his Airstream together at the Malibu Beach trailer park.
Levi, Vida and Livingstone McConaughey arrived over the next seven years (one of them wanders in and out of the frame a few times while we're talking), and in 2012 he and Alves were married by the monk who'd counselled him at the New Mexico monastery in 1996.
At Alves's insistence the family have always gone with him on location.
He's talked to a lot of "very successful people" in Hollywood about this, household names, and "none of them did it how we do it". Every one of them chose to let their children stay at school, with their friends, rather than bring them with them on location. "Every one of them said they'd do it different if they could go back."
It's not the only instance of McConaughey picking his heroes' brains. When he was younger he sought advice from Paul Newman and Warren Beatty.
"Newman was great. We went in his office and played pool. [He calls him "Mr Newman".] We hung out and he asked me, 'What do you want to know from me?' I'm like, 'Uuuugh… I really admire you. I'm just hoping to hear a bit of the lay of the land.' Anyway, the best advice he gave me is, as I was leaving and I was shutting his door, he goes, 'Hey!' and I push it back, look in and he goes, 'Give 'em hell!' "
Acting? I'll do more of that. But right now? That sounds pretty damn boring.
Beatty told him to do "a version of what I'm doing now [with the book and its lack of filters]. He was like, 'Direct now! Before you're ready. You get older. You get tired.' "
There's no sign of McConaughey flagging yet. He wants to keep getting "carried away with the right things". At the moment that's promoting the book, doing more writing, working on a values campaign for his beloved University of Texas (where he's now a professor teaching a film course of his own devising), working with his football team (he's co-owner of a new Major League Soccer franchise), doing more car and bourbon adverts and growing his and Alves's foundation for disadvantaged high school children.
"And as far as acting in front of the camera, I'll do more of that. But right now? That sounds pretty damn boring."
There are no great regrets. Plunging back into his past he has discovered that he likes his younger self more than he expected to, and the things that he thought he would be embarrassed about mostly turned out to be funny instead. "I saw a young man questioning certain things that I have more answers to now. But as you know, when you find out the answers, all it does is open up more questions."
At the end of his book is the most enjoyable "About the author" section I've ever come across.
"Matthew feels at home in the world," it states. "A crooner, a talented whistler, a wrestler, a prescriptive etymologist and a world traveller… He has won six water-drinking competitions worldwide, says his prayers before meals because it makes the food taste better, is a great nickname giver, studies gastronomy and architecture, loves cheeseburgers and dill pickles, has been learning to say, 'I'm sorry,' and enjoys a good cry once a week at church."
The very last line is enigmatic poetry – "Matthew prefers sunsets to sunrises" – so I ask what it means.
On the other end of the Zoom call Matthew McConaughey, "a self-proclaimed fortunate man", starts cackling immediately.
"I heard that the other day too! And I was like, did I say that? I have said that." He pauses, and smiles. "I do prefer sunsets to sunrises. Because I like to have a lot of fun after the sun goes down."
Book extract: Could I slide my cuffed wrists under my butt?
After three years on the road, I started hankering for a tad more domesticity – cleaner sheets, a full kitchen and some more water pressure sounded like Shangri-La, so I decided to rent a two-bedroom house in the sleepy neighbourhood of Tarrytown, in Austin, Texas. I liked Austin because it let me be myself. It's really the secret to why Austin is so cool; all you have to be in Austin is you, and Austin appreciates it when you are.
It was late Saturday afternoon in Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium when my 18th-ranked Texas Longhorns had just beaten the undefeated and No 3 nationally ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers 24-20, handing the Huskers their only defeat of the season. The city was on fire and so was I. It was time to celebrate.
I partied through the night into Sunday, and through Sunday night without sleeping a wink.
At 2.30 that Monday morning, I decided to wind down. It was time to lower the lights, get undressed, open up the window and let the jasmine scent from my garden come inside. It was time to smoke a bowl and listen to the beautiful African melodic beats of Henri Dikongué play through my home speakers. It was time to stand over my drum set and follow the rhythm of the blues before they got to Memphis, on my favourite Afro-Cuban drum. It was time for a jam session.
What I didn't know was that while I was banging away in my bliss, two Austin policemen also thought it was time to barge into my house unannounced, wrestle me to the ground with nightsticks, handcuff me and pin me to the floor.
"Ohhh, looky who we got here," the 'roided-up cop with a crew cut, who looked like a Nebraska Cornhusker himself, said as he read the driver's licence he picked up off my coffee table.
Then he picked up the bong. "And looky what we got here. Mr McConaughey, you are under arrest for disturbing the peace, possession of marijuana and resisting arrest," he proudly stated while squatting atop me, knee in my back.
"F*** you, motherf***er! You broke in my house! F***, yeah, I resisted!"
"That's enough!" he grunted, then wrangled me to my feet. "We're takin' you downtown."
The other officer, the more civil one of the two, grabbed a blanket off the couch and moved to wrap it around my body.
"Ohhhh no!" I barked. "I'm not putting shit on! My naked ass is proof I was mindin' my own business!"
They escorted me out of my house through the courtyard entry on the way to the street. Still naked and reluctant to submit to the inevitability of my predicament, I got relative, and decided it would be a clever idea to run up the walls left and right of the gated passageway and do a somersault backflip over the Cornhusker cop who was guiding me from behind. My thinking was that in mid-flight, while upside down in the air, I would assume a pike position and then slide my cuffed wrists under my butt and up and over my legs, then stick the landing behind the Cornhusker, now with my fettered hands in front of me. My rationale at the time was that after pulling off such an extraordinary Houdini-like stunt, the officers would be so impressed that they would abrogate the arrest and set me free. I know, stupid, but remember, I'd been celebrating for 32 and a half hours straight.
Before I'd taken three steps up the wall, the Cornhusker body-slammed me back down onto the brick footpath.
Meanwhile, word must have spread over the police scanner as to just who had been arrested because there on the street were 6 lit-up cop cars and about 40 of my neighbours.
"Sure you don't want this blanket?" the civil cop asked again.
"Hell no, this is PROOF of my innocence!!" I yelled to everyone on the block and one more over.
They lowered my head, put me in the back of the patrol car, and drove me to the precinct. After we landed and I declined the third offer to wear the blanket, we headed up the steps toward the entrance of the Austin Police Department.
At the double doors to admissions, a 6ft 6in, 285lb, tatted-up, working inmate greeted me just outside the entryway. He was holding a pair of men's orange institutional pants. Before he could say a word, I said, "Proof of my innocence, man."
He just looked at me, seeming to understand but knowing better. "We all innocent, man. Trust me, you do wanna put these on."
When a 6ft 6in jailbird built like a brick shithouse tells you you do wanna put on some pants before you go in the clink, it's probably best to listen.
At 9.30am, my 32-and-a-half-hour buzz now turned hangover, I was sitting in the corner of the cell when two people showed up on the other side of the bars.
"Mr McConaughey, I'm Judge Penny Wilkov and this is criminal defence attorney Joe Turner." An orderly unlocked the cell door.
"I don't know how in the hell a disturbing the peace call escalated into a class A misdemeanour of resisting arrest and a class B misdemeanour of possession of less than two ounces of marijuana," the judge said, "or why two of our police officers forcibly entered your home without fair warning. I am going to dismiss the disturbing the peace and possession misdemeanours and give you a personal recognisance bond on the resisting arrest."
"Well, Judge Penny, I'm not sure what all that means, but I don't either," I said.
Joe Turner, who was the same attorney who successfully defended Willie Nelson years earlier in a possession case, spoke up. "Judge, we all agree that this situation got out of hand very quickly, but you also gotta understand that these policemen literally broke into this man's house while he was playing some bongos in his birthday suit! The resisting arrest was self-defence! I suggest you dismiss it altogether and my client will plead to the class C violation of a sound ordinance as he was indeed bangin' on those bongos pretty damn loud for 2.36 in the morning."
"Deal, case closed," said the judge.
I thanked them both, got dressed in the lavatory, splashed my face with cold water and tried to breathe out the blues that were starting to set in. Why the blues, you ask? Well, obviously I was lucky, walking out of jail only $50 poorer – this didn't happen to everyone who got hauled in on charges like resisting arrest and marijuana possession. The problem was, in my family, we didn't get in trouble for committing the crime, we got in trouble for getting caught. I got caught and for that, I felt guilty. Outlaw logic.
Looking for some fearless consolation, I decided to call my mom before I chose which way to leave my first prison stint. Maybe it was the fact that while I was sure she would have no mercy for my circumstance, at the same time I knew she would pour a drink and toast to how it was I got into it.
"They what, Matthew?! Broke into your house!? Those son of a bitches, you keep your head up," she said. "There is nothing wrong with smokin a little fun stuff and playing your drums naked at night in your own home. Who do they think they are, comin' in your house like that?!"
Just what I needed. I hung up and decided to stride toward the media mob out front instead of sneaking out the back.
Two days later, BONGO NAKED T-shirts were all over Austin.
Extracted from Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey.
Written by: Ben Hoyle
© The Times of London