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“No, you sit there, I’ll just pace around”: meeting Matthew McConaughey

The Oscar-winning actor on keeping secrets, Donald Trump, and the character traits that turn him on.

“Some people are really good at keeping a secret,” Matthew McConaughey says, looking down at me from his full height as I sit in an oversized armchair. “That means if you and I have a secret, we walk out of here and I don’t tell anybody and you don’t tell anybody, right?” Right. “But if you really, really, really, really, really keep a secret, you and I could have a secret now, and we could be on a ten-foot rowboat in the middle of the Pacific, and if I brought that secret up, you’d go, ‘I dunno what you’re talkin’ about.’”

I’m not sure I do know what he’s talking about (how I ended up on a ten-foot rowboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with not a soul but Matthew McConaughey is a story I’d like to hear in more detail), but I know that he believes every word. We’re here to discuss the film Gold, in which McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a self-made man who discovers “the largest gold find of the decade” in Indonesia.

Our encounter takes place on the day of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. As I wait in an outer room of a labyrinthine hotel suite in central London, I watch Trump being sworn in on television. A short while later, I’m beckoned over and told to wait outside McConaughey’s door. A publicist whispers seriously that McConaughey has been in this hotel suite since 10am. It is now after 5.30pm.

When I make it into the room, I introduce myself and take a seat – then immediately regret it, as the actor remains standing. Have I sat in his place? “I may walk,” he says. “No, you sit there, I’ll just pace around.” Suddenly, the hotel room seems far too small for all six feet of him. He cuts a striking figure in a dark shirt, jeans and boots but he looks a little dishevelled and there’s a slight glaze to his blue eyes.

An assistant reminds me that, as McConaughey has been cooped up in here all day, he hasn’t been able to watch the inauguration and so has no comments to make on the ceremony. (Does he have strong opinions on Trump as a person? “I don’t know him personally.” As a president? “Well, we’ll see. ’Cause it starts today.”) In an interview with Andrew Marr filmed on the same day, he said it was time for the US to be “constructive” and “embrace” the reality of Trump’s presidency.

I ask my questions upwards, into the vertical three-foot gap between us. As we discuss his new film, McConaughey’s enthusiasm overcomes any tiredness. On reading the script, he instantly connected with the character of Wells, particularly his reverence for family and loyalty, he says. “I can understand that here,” he tells me, pointing to his heart, “and not only here,” he adds, gesturing to his head.

Wells is the latest in a long line of McConaughey characters who are seized by ambition. He plays pioneers who are never content to do the done thing: a Confederate army deserter, a spaceship pilot on a mission, a strip club owner, or, in the performance that earned him his Oscar for Best Actor in 2014, an Aids patient smuggling experimental new treatments.

McConaughey describes them: “Underdogs. Outcasts. Men of singular obsession. Men that make up their own rules, don’t placate and pander to the social mores of society. Entrepreneurs. Guys that don’t toe the company line.” He smiles. “That turns me on.”

With Gold, McConaughey immediately understood not only Wells, but his Nevada world. “I know those places. I know the dynamic of those places.” He found similarities between Wells and his own father, who, he says, loved “a shady deal”. He also saw his parents’ relationship – they were divorced twice and married three times to each other – in Wells’s interactions with his girlfriend, Kay.

“They jumped off the cliff holding hands years ago, and Kenny probably promised they would learn to fly before they landed. And Kenny goes off and comes back and they haven’t learned to fly – but they haven’t landed yet, and they haven’t let go of each other,” he says.

“My mom and dad had that kind of relationship: the couple where you go, ‘These two shouldn’t be together! Why is she still with him?’ And the answer’s not psychoanalytical at all. It’s because she loves him. Because he loves her.”

McConaughey is resistant to intellectual ideas of acting. “When it’s time to go to work acting, I don’t want it to be a heady, thoughtful issue at all. I want it to be instinctual.” He continues, “Acting’s such a subjective experience. I like staying in the ‘I’.”

In one scene in Gold, Wells receives the Golden Pickaxe, the gold-mining industry’s highest honour. He delivers a speech about the importance of family legacy but insists that a prospector is defined by self-belief.

There are striking parallels here with McConaughey’s Oscars acceptance speech in 2014, the peak of what critics called “the McConaissance” – his shift from romcoms to serious drama. In it, he paid homage to his father (“. . . who I know is up there right now with a big pot of gumbo. He’s got a lemon meringue pie over there, he’s probably in his underwear and he’s got a cold can of Miller Lite, and he’s dancing”), but he concluded, to the amusement of many, that he was his own hero.

“There’s a part of me that has Kenny Wells in there, you know? If he finally landed,” McConaughey says, slapping his leg loudly, “he’s gonna die! He’s gotta stay on the approach, working out some kinda gig, some kinda deal, some kinda scam, some kinda hustle. You know?” I know.

“And that’s the gold, the getting of the dream, the pulling it off, the sticking it to the man, the proving them all wrong. That’s the gold.” 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia