Matthew McConaughey’s new book, Greenlights, is one of the most entertaining celebrity memoirs in years, spiced with stoner philosophizing that (mostly) turns out to be both wise and genuinely inspiring. He is, it turns out, the guy his fans hoped he was, as free-living as he is introspective, hitting the road in an RV at the peak of his fame, or heading off to austere meditation retreats when life started to seem too easy. In an interview for Rolling Stone’s Last Word series, the actor shared some life wisdom and much more.
What are the best and worst parts of success?
The upsides are access, options, creative expression, being able to communicate. The worst part about success and fame is not meeting strangers anymore. The world is already coming in with an idea of me. It’s why I went away to Peru or Mali. I want to go someplace where, when I leave, the hugs goodbye are all based on the man they met when I showed up.
You confirm in your book that the story of being arrested in 1999 for playing bongos nude in your living room while high as hell is precisely what people hoped it was. But what does the nudity add?
Just freedom! I had played bongos late at night buck naked many times before, and have many times since. Bang, bang, bang, until you break a sweat. Have you ever tried it? It’s a great feeling. It’s legal, and it’s a great workout.
You’re a big music fan. Top five albums of all time, go.
Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is awesome. … U2’s Rattle and Hum …
That’s an unusual U2 pick!
A lot of that album was live. They were just spitting it, man. They were not asking for permission. They were honest. And man, they had fangs at that time. … John Mellencamp, Lonesome Jubilee was a big, big album for me. That shaped a lot of my sense of patriotism and even race relations and human relations. Oh, and Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Another back-to-front great album. And I’m gonna go with AC/DC, Highway to Hell.
In your book, you tell this story about trading your truck for a sports car in high school and suddenly losing your mojo. So you traded it back. What’s the moral of that tale for you?
I mean, I got nothing against red sports cars. But I’m a truck guy. I, essentially, am the fun guy, the guy who hustles, the guy who works their way to the front row at the concert no matter what time I get there. I never was the guy at the party who leaned against the wall and smoked the cigarette. I was the guy who was on the dance floor! I’m the guy who says, “Let’s go muddin’ after school.”
All of a sudden, I get a red sports car, and I’m leaning against that red sports car, relying on that red sports car to give me my identity. And I got lazy. And yeah, the girls are like, “Nice car.” But they didn’t want to hang out with me. We all get a lot of red sports cars in life, man. Things that we’re like, “Ah, this is my identity.” You can rely on your looks; you can rely on being the funny person. And if you rely on those things too much, they can make you lazy in other parts of your life. So it’s a good thing to get rid of that thing that doesn’t make you hustle.
After all the good luck you’ve had, do you ever fear the other shoe dropping?
Any time I start feeling like, “Oh, my gosh, this is all going too good,” I remind myself, “That is extremely arrogant thinking, Matthew, to think this is a ceiling.” Usually when I think the heat is hot enough to melt my wings, it’s not even 80 degrees.
What did it feel like to turn down a $14.5 million offer circa 2010, when you were determined to move away from romantic comedies?
At the time I was stuck between “You dumbass” and “Wow, how awesome!” [Laughs] My brothers and my mother were definitely on the “You dumbass” train. I didn’t get work for 20 months. But once I turned down that offer, it sent a signal to Hollywood. Whoever thought I might have been bluffing now knew I wasn’t.
You could have done the “One for me, one for them” thing that a lot of actors do, alternating between indie and commercial films. Why such a strict line?
I wasn’t being offered the “One for me’s”! It was all romantic comedies or action-adventures, which I enjoyed doing. At the same time, after four or so rom-coms, you could send me a rom-com tonight and I could do it tomorrow morning. I wanted to find some work that made me sweat in my boots.
And after your turnaround, you started the term “McConaissance” yourself, by fibbing to an interviewer that you had heard it from another reporter. How did that happen?
I unbranded. I didn’t rebrand. I basically was gone. And so it was like, “Where’d McConaughey go?” Then all of a sudden, I become a new, bright idea. “Hey, you know who’d be interesting casting?” And I was like, “If I’m putting together a great album of work right now, maybe it needs a title.”
One of your key roles at that time was in Dallas Buyers Club. What did you learn from losing all that weight to play someone battling AIDS?
The body is more resilient than we give it credit for. I sometimes miss that feeling, because all of the power I lost from the neck down sublimated to absolute mental acuity. I woke up every morning at 4:30 without an alarm. I became militant about [the diet]. Egg whites in the morning. For lunch and dinner, five ounces of fish and a cup of vegetables. As much wine as I wanted at night. I lost two and a half pounds a week, like clockwork. And I got a little bitty spoon, and that was my utensil. I could make two ounces of tapioca pudding last 45 minutes.
During the filming of that movie, you also shot your part in The Wolf of Wall Street. Apparently you were pounding on your chest between scenes, and it was Leonardo DiCaprio’s idea to have you do it on-camera. But where did that ritual come from?
Music has always been really important to me, rhythm. When I go into a scene, I don’t want to be in my head. And music is a great way to get out of your head. At the same time, every scene and every character has a rhythm. I give all my characters a personal soundtrack. And then I break down to, what are the rhythms of this character for each particular scene. So I’m always coming to the set with that rhythm either in my head or I’m tapping on something. And my preference is some form of percussion. And like what I did in Wolf of Wall Street, what I do before I go to work, is I bang on my body on because I’m going to find that rhythm. It also gets the blood flowing. And it also lowers my voice. I’m not as nervous. Because I’m not being about the words; I’m not being technical. I’ve turned this into a rhythm. It frees me up. And the final thing is, it makes a lot of people in the room look at me like, what in the hell is he doing? Which is a good thing, because it doesn’t feel like I’m on an island on my own. And I really better make this next take count.
You were five days into filming your first movie, Dazed and Confused, when your father died. You said that helped you learn to be “less impressed and more involved.” What does that mean?
I was starting a weekend hobby in the summer of ’92 that turned out to be a 28-year career. So, just when I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m getting to do this,” Dad dies. You want to get grounded? Let your dad die on you. When my father died, that automatically became the most important happening in my life. Acting became number two, and I was able to be more involved in the process, because I was less impressed with the process. If acting was the number-one thing, I wouldn’t be as good at it.