McConaughey holds a unique place in the pantheon of modern American celebrity. It’s the place reserved for one actor, the guy with incredible capacity to entertain and surprise, shine and inspire, the one with edge. When my family learned I was going to be interviewing McConaughey, it set off an explosive debate over his best movies — with my two boys and daughter-in-law at the dinner table with me and my wife, and my daughter and her husband weighing in from overseas.
The boys had seen him in “Reign of Fire” as lads and loved it. I watched it at their urging (and was thus able to surprise McConaughey with the reminder that the apocalyptic film — which features prominently in “Greenlights” — was set in 2020.) My daughter, the young mom, still has a crush on “Matthew“ dating from his breakout role in “Dazed and Confused.” She was outraged I’d never seen it, so I obliged her. Turns out I’d lived it — and it did indeed nail 1976 to its four corners. The son-in-law is a “Lincoln Lawyer” buff, while the daughter-in-law is all for “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” as the defining movie of scores of girl sleepovers — something about a yellow dress. We all acknowledge “Dallas Buyer’s Club” as an incredible feat of acting and self-discipline, but my wife and I are “Mud” people, even more so after reading “Greenlights” and getting the back story on a certain building project that defined McConaughey’s ninth summer.
His parents defy short descriptions and you can read the book or watch our interview online to see McConaughey become animated in discussing them. The Skype gods conspired to garble our audio in the recording so I am resorting to subtitles. It’s too good an appetizer to the main course not to serve even if the presentation is askew. In 39 years of radio and television interviews, the need to resort to subtitles has occurred exactly twice. The first time? A three-hour sit down with, wait for it, His Holiness the Dali Lama at the Buckhead Ritz Carlton in 1995. PBS wanted the show anyway so we coped. We will do so again.
I urge the book on the politicized and especially on the overwrought because it is both calming and laugh, laugh, laugh-out-loud funny. If you take solo adventures down the Amazon or into the heart of Mali having checked your celebrity at the start, extraordinary things happen, and McConaughey shares them all. It’s earthy, but not vulgar. Respectful of differences but not cloying. And it is so overflowing with gratitude toward everyone who has helped along the way that in this alone it is a model for the Beltway and every political organization everywhere.
And yes, he is a man of faith. His mention of Matthew 6:22 as his favorite verse took me down a rabbit hole into a part of scripture I’d never really noticed. Turns out it is a subject of great debate among the scholars.
Of course, “Greenlights” is jam-packed with stories of Texas and trailer life, but its call and charm lie in its open-handed welcome. In Timbuktu — where he ventured after filming "Reign of Fire — McConaughey waded unwisely into a heated discussion, but emerged with a pearl of great price: Don’t try and win every argument; try genuinely to understand the other side’s point of view.
McConaughey tells a Darrell Royal story that changed one life and may change others. He hinted to me that his road ahead may well include a political turn, provided it can be combined with an effective call to unify over shared values. That’s a reach. But intentionally “unbranding” from the rom-com star of old to jump to an Oscar while rolling out “True Detective” while holding tight to “alright, alright, alright” was quite a reach as well, and accomplished in very few years, so who knows.
Who indeed knows what Matthew McConaughey has up his Wooderson-style rolled sleeve, except an ability to put people at ease while bringing them together? And in November 2020, that sounds very attractive indeed.