HELEN BARLOW meets a southern gentleman who likes to let his hair down - when it's not shaved off for a movie role - to play the bongos nude.

Matthew McConaughey has something strangely formal about him that doesn't put you at ease. First, I mispronounce his surname. Big mistake.

"Mo-kon-o-kay," he corrects me, then tells a story about his kindergarten days.

"A kid came up and went 'Matt, let's go play' and I turned around and it was my [school teacher] mum pulling me. She said: 'Your name is Matthew, I named you after the Bible. It is not Matt, do not ever answer to Matt in your life.' It was like 'Yes mam', so that's one of the things when people go 'Matt', I say 'Matthew, please'."


There's no mistaking McConaughey is a southern gentleman, or at least he tries to be.

"I was raised Methodist, not southern Baptist," the 31-year-old points out, as if to say he's not that southern. Texas-born, he lives in his former university town of Austin, like his former sweetheart (and A Time To Kill co-star) Sandra Bullock. They remain good friends.

Now single and eligible, when not making movies McConaughey tries to live a normal life. He drinks at Austin bars, where the locals mostly leave him alone.

He tries to get along with everyone, so it came as a surprise when his neighbours called the police as he was playing the bongos nude in his home in late 1999. He was thrown in jail and suspected of smoking marijuana.

Could his neighbours have gone about it in another way? "Yeah. But you know what? Maybe they didn't want to get out of bed, so they weren't wrong," he replies.

He was exonerated of any guilt, paid a small fine for noise violation, but it would be some time before he would live down the incident.

John Cougar Mellencamp sent him a set of bongos and a pair of boxer shorts, and a friend gave him a T-shirt saying, "What part of naked bongos don't you understand?" To his credit he took the incident in his stride.

Two things are for sure, he says, "next time I'll close the windows" and there are "no plans for a musical career."

McConaughey's screen characters have been something of a mix between his southern gentleman and boyish bongo player. His latest role, in The Wedding Planner, is the kind he does best, where he gets to flash that killer smile as the groom of the wedding that Jennifer Lopez is organising. The film marks the first romantic comedy for both actors.

"After five months in tight quarters with 15 guys in [submarine movie] U-571 it was nice to go and spend some time with a nice lady," he says.

Of Lopez, he says, "She plays a role that is different from anything you've seen. She has a very efficient way of doing comedy. There's some nice naivete and innocence you haven't seen before."

He says it was a relief to play a love story, where "there was no structure or rules, it was much more improvisation.

"Dr Steve's a cool dude, I like this guy a lot. He's a doctor, but it wasn't a story about a doctor, it's all about affairs of the heart - he's a heartist. The film says a lot about affable separations in relationships. I don't think there were many couples in the past when they broke up who remained friends and I know that today more people do."

What kind of wedding would he have? "I don't know ... I've got to find a girl I want to marry first."

Few actors in the history of Hollywood have had such a sudden rise to fame as this tall, handsome, muscular, bronzed Texan. He had the looks for the central character in A Time To Kill, a lawyer based on author John Grisham. McConaughey was set to play the Kiefer Sutherland meanie and suggested himself for the lawyer - after all, he'd studied law. Seemingly coming out of nowhere - except for smaller parts in Dazed and Confused and Boys on the Side - he shot to fame before the film opened at the top of the US box office.

"There's nothing like it. I wouldn't know how to explain it to someone," he says of his rapid rise, "but I tried to enjoy the ride because it's pretty wild."

Once the dust had settled, McConaughey failed to come up with another hit movie. He worked with Steven Spielberg on a rare flop, Amistad, and with the seemingly box-office immune Ron Howard on EDtv, another disappointment (thanks to Peter Weir's similarly themed The Truman Show). He seemed hopelessly miscast as Jodie Foster's love interest in Contact, and The Newton Boys was unwatchable.

Happily, he returned to the spotlight in last year's U-571, a hit in the US, even if his submarine captain (a role originally intended for Michael Douglas) was way too wooden. And now comes The Wedding Planner.

He has completed Frailty, a Texas-set psychological thriller "with a biblical structure," he notes) written and directed by his U-571 co-star, Bill Paxton, and he now sports a bald head for his dragon-slayer role alongside Christian Bale in the science-fiction fantasy Reign of Fire, shooting in Ireland.

These days McConaughey is taking no chances. He has formed a production company and will make his own movies.

"I will be in most of them," he says. "I haven't produced anything yet, but I will. I like having my hands in the clay. I like the movie-making process."

* The Wedding Planner is screening now.