“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.”
This article appears in the 08 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine