BEVERLY HILLS -Matthew McConaughey is riding on the best reviews of his life, but that Texas charm is still steering.
"Matthew has an idea for your interview," says a studio publicist, calling the morning of a scheduled breakfast. Wouldn't it be great, the voice on the line posited, if the interview were to take place in a quieter area, with the University of Texas football game on in the background?
The actor grins widely a few minutes later as he greets an amused entertainment reporter in a hotel room. The UT-Oklahoma game "happens once a year!" the UT alum says, turning the television's sound way down. "There it is. In the background. It kicks off so early on the West Coast."
To his credit, the actor stays fully focused as he dives into the making of Dallas Buyers Club (opening in New York and L.A. on Friday), the true story of Ron Woodroof, a brash, homophobic Texas cowboy who contracted HIV in 1985 and was told he had 30 days to live.
"You made a mistake," McConaughey (as Woodroof) tells his doctor (Jennifer Garner) in disgust. "That ain't me."
Repelled by the inaccessibility of a local clinical trial administering HIV antiviral drug AZT, Woodroof crosses into Mexico to buy drugs unapproved by the FDA. His health stabilizes, a light bulb goes off at the black-market potential, and he begrudgingly cuts in a transsexual he met at the hospital, Rayon (Jared Leto), who can drum up business in the gay community.
"I love that this movie doesn't handle this subject with sentiment," says McConaughey, 43, who lost almost 50 pounds for the role, listened to more than 14 hours of audio interviews of Woodroof and was given access to his diary. "That (diary) was the real hook for me," says the actor, whose physique is filling out, but is still 10 pounds shy from his pre-film frame. "That's how I knew his secrets." In it, Woodroof catalogued the mundane with care: day jobs he won and lost, passive ruminations on book ideas, local women who interested him.
"When he got HIV is when he found purpose. Sometimes tragic things put that kind of structure in our lives, and I think that's what happened with him....it gave him something to fight for 24/7," says McConaughey.
Woodroof's acerbic bravado is all-too-familiar territory. "I remember that time in that part of Texas.... I know that humor, I know that ignorance," says McConaughey. "For Longview, Texas, where I grew up, it was called the pine curtain. The pine trees. And boy, very few people get outside of the pine curtain."
A total transformation
Even fewer actors hopscotch toward the Oscar stage from the fluffy place where McConaughey's career had stalled. The overhaul he's engineered over the past few years has been critically arresting: Mud, Magic Mike, Bernie, Killer Joe and The Paperboy. Next he's in Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street and Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.
Currently, "he's poised for a serious Oscar run that could go all the way," says Tom O'Neil, founder of awards tracking site GoldDerby.com.
Dallas Buyers Club is a world away from the last time McConaughey worked with Garner: That would be Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, one of a litany of easy-on-the-eyes rom-coms that became the actor's bread and butter since he started wooing Kate Hudson with diamonds in 2003's How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
"His backstory is a lot like Sandra Bullock," says O'Neil. "Somebody who was known for making cheesy commercial movies of dubious quality, who hung in there year after year and maintained a career until suddenly they got the good movie roles and critics' attention. Hollywood likes that. They like the survivor. And they like the happy ending."
Happiness got him here. In 2012, McConaughey married model Camila Alves, and together, the couple have three children: Levi, 5, Vida, 3, and Livingston, 10 months. A few years ago, McConaughey started weighing what it all meant. "(I thought), 'Oh man, this is what I'm doing. I'm growing in my real life and I want to feel my growth in my career, because that's my life too."
His rent, as he puts it, was paid; he'd worked hard to earn a time out. For roughly two years, McConaughey started saying no. "If anything, I wanted to un-brand a little bit. Become a little more of an ambiguous brand. I didn't know what it was going to be."
Then Steven Soderbergh called, with Magic Mike. And Jeff Nichols, with Mud. He calls 2012 his favorite year of his life -- and he lost money.
"I started to attract the right things," he says, as Dallas Buyers Club sat on his desk. He knew it was "the one," he says, but there was no money. Finally, financing started to come together, and McConaughey began to shed weight. "I was happy after 30 pounds," says director Jean-Marc Vallée. "And he went further. That was his decision. He needed that."
To play the mesmerizing Rayon, Leto arrived in drag, and stayed in character for the duration of the shoot. "Certainly one of the reasons that I decided to do the film is because I knew he was doing interesting work in his career right now," says Leto, who accepted his first film role in six years. "And I thought, if he had sussed this out, then there must be something really special there."
But on set, Garner worried about their gaunt frames. "I hated it," she says. "I worried about him and I worried about Jared as well. At least Matthew was sane about it and stepped it down gradually, or lost weight over months and months. Jared just stopped eating and looked like he was going to fall over."
The shoot was just 25 days, shot quick and dirty, without using any artificial lighting. "I've never worked on a film with a smaller crew or a more ambitious schedule," says Garner. "There was no room for error. There was no messing around."
To maximize his time, Vallée shot the cast's rehearsals. "They were taking me out of my comfort zone," says the director. "I'm from the 'less is more' school. These guys were giving me 'more is more.'"
They also worked to inject Woodroof 's wicked sense of humor into the script. "He was witty," says McConaughey. "He may have been lying half the time. But that's who he was." Woodroof, a man who bullishly challenges the FDA in court, in one scene procures AZT, much to his relief. He heads home and pops two pills. He exhales. And then he snorts a line of cocaine.
In a festival screening in Toronto, the startled audience guffawed. "We were a little bit concerned and scared at the seriousness of the subject matter and the dramatic content of the film. We went, we've got to make people laugh," says Vallée.
The culmination of what ended up on screen is a transformative AIDS story that insiders say could wrest Oscar gold from favorites including 12 Years a Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor and All is Lost's Robert Redford. But that's not what's on his mind.
"I've asked this question continually, what really did he do?" says McConaughey. "At a time when he got a disease that no one knew about, no one understood, the doctors were in the same position as him, they were all pioneers, this was new ground. Here's a redneck cowboy-electrician-bull rider who becomes a scientist. Who becomes an expert on this disease he's got and how to keep the bridge extended, how to keep life going in a more healthy way with that disease.
"And what did he do? I say he shook the tree."