And he's readying for a remarkably challenging role; he recently lost 30 pounds to play an AIDS patient in the upcoming "The Dallas Buyers Club," which explains his gaunt appearance today -- his pants are slipping off his body.
Still, nothing could prepare audiences for McConaughey's turn as the title character in "Killer Joe," a Dallas cop who moonlights as a stone-cold contract killer. With a screenplay from Tracy Letts based on his play, "Killer Joe" centers on a young man named Chris (Emile Hirsch) who plots with his father (Thomas Haden Church) to take out a contract on his mother so he can collect the insurance money. Without enough cash to pay Joe up-front, an agreement is made for Joe to take Chris' innocent sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as sexual collateral. It's a dark, funny, twisted tale as unpredictable as Joe's hair-trigger temper, and McConaughey admits that when he first read it, he didn't get it. "I didn't want to go near it," the native Texan says in that famous accent. "I felt like taking a steel brush to my body to clean up."
A conversation with a friend who was a fan of Letts' work made him think twice. "She absolutely loved it," McConaughey says. "She said, 'Notice how consistent the dialogue is; that's his meter. This is a great part for you.' So I went back and read it and found myself laughing in places, thinking how wild it all was." A meeting with director William Friedkin, who had brought Letts' play "Bug" to the big screen, sealed the deal. "I can't think of a more impressive director meeting I've had in my career," McConaughey says. "It was personal, it was specific, and I knew that he really understood what he wanted to do. That's one of the things that I'm looking for as an actor, someone who has a real point of view on the material."
McConaughey says playing Joe was the first time he approached a character from the inside out. "My previous characters have gone out, they express and reveal themselves," he says. "It was a great liberty and freedom to play someone defined by their secrets. He's not just carrying a secret; he is a secret. And you feel comfortable just sitting there in silence. It was a different kind of fun and challenge as an actor." While Joe is a sadistic killer, he lives by his own moral code -- honor among thieves -- which also appealed to McConaughey. "He's amorally moral. His rules are clear, and if you break them, there are consequences," he says. It's starting to sound like McConaughey likes the guy. "Well, objectively, I can say there are better ways to handle situations than he chooses," McConaughey says with a laugh. "But while playing him, I dove into understanding him. And made no moral judgment on him as a character." Although the actor says he's not the type to take his work home with him, he admits that playing Joe affected him after hours. "I was definitely quieter and more introverted. My family would agree with that."
McConaughey was also attracted by the unusual love story between Joe and Dottie; as warped as some may find it, McConaughey saw it as a "fairy tale" of two broken people. One line he keyed into early is when Dottie tells Joe, "Your eyes hurt." Says McConaughey, "That line says a lot to me about everything you need to know about Joe up to that moment. How he looks at someone. How he sees himself in Dottie. How they understand each other and come together because they don't fit anywhere else." He is aware, however, that others might not see the relationship in such a romantic light. "I find love stories in unique places," he says. "I cried when they killed King Kong and he couldn't hook up with Jessica Lange."
McConaughey cites "King Kong" frequently, perhaps because it was only one of two movies he saw in a theater before the age of 17. (The other was "Orca," which "pissed me off because the killer whale looked so much larger in the poster.") Says McConaughey, "We weren't a media family. We didn't watch TV or go to the theater. Extracurricular activities in our household were sports and girls." They were, however, "great bullshitters and avid storytellers." McConaughey recalls fondly how the family would sit around and tell stories, stories full of "humor and heart and tears and passion."
McConaughey went to college with the intention of becoming a lawyer -- a profession he would play onscreen several times -- until he discovered the philosophy book "The Greatest Salesman in the World." Or rather, as he says, "I didn't find the book; it found me." Just days before the end of McConaughey's sophomore year, when he had to decide on a course direction, "it woke me up to become more interested in myself and ask myself what I really wanted to do with my life." He had been writing short stories and was interested in storytelling, and the day after completing his last exam, he called his parents to tell them he wanted to go to film school. "There was a 5-second pause, and my dad goes, 'That what you want to do?' " McConaughey says. "I said, 'Yes, sir.' He said, 'Well, don't half-ass it.' And that was such a great thing to hear as a young man, as a son, as someone just trying to find their way."
Though he had no experience or short films to show, McConaughey got into the University of Texas at Austin's College of Communication thanks to his GPA (he believes it was 3.78).
His meteoric rise is Hollywood legend; he met casting director Don Phillips at a bar one night, asked for a production assistant job on "Dazed and Confused," and ended up being cast in the small role of David Wooderson, where he uttered the immortal lines, "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older; they stay the same age. Yes, they do."
His next film was the prequel "Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation"; writer-director Kim Henkel offered McConaughey the role of Renée Zellweger's boyfriend, but as he was about to leave the meeting, McConaughey asked to audition for the villain. He grabbed a wooden spoon, pretended it was a knife, and improvised a scene with Henkel's secretary; the filmmaker offered him the part on the spot.
After shooting, McConaughey headed to L.A. though he hadn't decided on a career as an actor. He still thought he would work his way up in the industry and went to crash on Phillips' couch before starting a PA job. But an agent who had seen him in "Dazed and Confused" began sending him out on auditions. His first was for the drama "Boys on the Side," and he booked it. "So I never did take that PA job," McConaughey says.
Other roles followed, culminating in McConaughey's landing the coveted lead in the adaptation of John Grisham's "A Time to Kill," an event that played out in the media like the hunt for Scarlett O'Hara. McConaughey was touted as the next big thing, beating out established movie stars for the role of Southern attorney Jake Brigance. McConaughey says that at times the attention got to him. "Objectively, I was well-aware of the pressure I was under," he says. "But the job that I had at hand, and the work I had to do, and the story I was a part of, and the people I was working with on this story that meant a lot to me, was of such import that I just told myself, 'Do your job and do it as best you can, McConaughey.' "
A little more difficult to navigate was the way "A Time to Kill" changed his life. "Suddenly I'm doing covers of magazines and people are saying yes to me," he says. "Things did a 180. It went from being 99 noes and 1 yes to 99 yeses and 1 no. It's difficult for anybody, especially a young man at that age. What do you want to do when all of a sudden people are saying you can do whatever you want?" McConaughey took a step back and realized he wanted to do stories that were important to him, collaborate with great directors, and bury himself in work. "I wanted to be a part of stories that meant something to me," he says. "To look at things and say this was a story I want to tell, not necessarily a character I have to play." So he signed on to play an antislavery lawyer in Steven Spielberg's "Amistad" and played the love interest of Jodie Foster in "Contact." The latter was a surprise to some, considering it was a supporting role. "Jodie always told me, 'You took the chick's role!' " McConaughey says.
McConaughey's characters have frequently shared traits with his public persona -- the easygoing surfer who drawls, "All right, all right, all right." The actor knows that people might not realize how hard he works. "There are a whole bunch of roles where people say, 'Oh, you're playing yourself,' " he says. "I guess it's kind of a compliment. Or people say, 'Oh, man, you just roll out of bed and do that.' The work is to make it look effortless. That's the hard part."
He is not above playing into people's perceptions of him. In "Magic Mike," McConaughey's Dallas gives each of his strippers a theatrical introduction; during filming the actor hit on the idea of playing the drums for some of his announcements. At first, it didn't occur to him that this might cause audience members to remember his 1999 arrest on a noise complaint, in which he was found in his house playing bongo drums naked. "Funny how that was my most public session, even though I was all alone," McConaughey says. "But my thought was that Dallas had to give these guys entrances and exits; I have to be this host with sounds and lights and music. It was never 'Oh, that would be funny for me to do that in a movie.' What I said was 'That is what Dallas would do.' Five steps later, I thought, 'Oh, guess what? Because of that incident, it makes this even funnier.' " And yes, McConaughey is playing his own drums in the film -- he owns 32 sets.
McConaughey is aware that many of the roles he's chosen also lend themselves to dismissal as easy. "The romantic comedies I've done have a stigma that comes with them; they're a little disrespected just by their genre," he says. "But I'll be honest with you: They're not easy. It's not easy to keep something that buoyant. You already know the guy and girl are going to meet in the beginning and get together in the end. I can tell you that pitch in six seconds -- now, how can we tell that story in 90 minutes and entertain you with a plot you already know the outcome of? It's not easy to do." He also says that it can be hard to justify some of the plot points that keep a film going. "In real life, if I had a problem or a misunderstanding with a girl, I'd pull her aside and say, 'Hey, what's going on here? Let's talk about this.' You do that onscreen, the movie is over in 10 minutes!" So is playing the doctor in "The Wedding Planner" more difficult than terrorizing people as Killer Joe? McConaughey pauses. "That's a really good question," he says. "I won't say harder, but they're different challenges. Both are good lessons for me in acting, good skill sets to have as an actor. Let's just say I take my comedy very seriously."