Interview: Matthew McConaughey

Diggin’ his inner `Ed’: The subjects of `EDtv’ are ones McConaughey knows well : instant celebrity and the pitfalls of fame

March 26, 1999, Austin American-Statesman

Sucking a cigarette, scrunched into an executive chair with his bootie-clad feet propped on a conference table, Matthew McConaughey looks to be fighting the Hollywood glamour thang with East Texas gusto. Smoke wafts in the air, mingling with the decorum he’s thrown to the wind.

McConaughey, who grew up in Longview, doesn’t rise to shake hands with two strangers who enter the room, and he speaks in such a guttural mumble that a tape recorder only picks up a fraction of his words. The actor has just landed in Austin via Los Angeles, so his weathered leather coat, Longhorns T-shirt and pajama-like pants are excused. (But what’s with the booties?)

None of this matters much. McConaughey’s celebrity assets shine through the civilian smoke screen. He can’t erase the clean symmetry of his matinee idol mug, can’t diminish the klieg-light pearlies (that will take a few more smokes). His dimples are doing their dimply thing, and are his cough drop-blue eyes really twinkling?

McConaughey, 29, was in Austin March 17 for the Texas premiere of  “EDtv” at the Paramount Theatre as part of the South by Southwest Film Festival. He plays Ed in the Ron Howard comedy, a fresh and funny probe of our ravenous celebrity culture and the pitfalls of fame.

“Ron did something really special with it,” McConaughey says. “It’s fun and you get a little message about calling yourself on your own b.s.”

Superficial similarities to last year’s “The Truman Show” abound, but “EDtv” orbits a more accessible, less portentous universe. It’s a mainstream romp in which an East Texan named Ed gets his own TV show that requires cameras to follow his every move 24 hours a day. Unlike Truman in “The Truman Show,” Ed is a willing participant in the mass exposure. He relishes it — for a while.

The University of Texas graduate, who got his break in 1993 in Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused,” resides in Austin when not working on far-flung projects. He took a break from the Italian shoot of the World War II submarine drama “U-571” to be in the United States for “EDtv” premieres in L.A. and Austin.

“I’m more than glad to be in Austin, man,” he says. “I love it here. I love the people. I sleep well at night. There’s a wonderful pace.

“It’s a place where you can find people who hang on to the right things and traditions, yet they’re modern and progressive enough to take on new things that work. They allow you to come in and be whoever you want to be, as long as you’re on the good guys’ side. There’s a lot of leverage with that, too.”

In “EDtv,” McConaughey plays up his rural, party-boy roots, grinning energetically and loafing in a minimum-wage job to pay for the night’s Budweiser ration. Ed, he says, is a welcome respite from heavy roles like the righteous lawyer in “Amistad” and the theologian in “Contact.”

“There’s a time for everything,” he says. “I was ready to go to a weekend character. This is the lighter side of things. You know, my research was my Friday and Saturday nights with my friends, having a good time, and all of a sudden laughing at something and writing down what we laughed at and going, ‘What if that’s Ed’s sense of humor?’

“Ed and I are both optimists and we both love life. That was the spirit I got to bring to Ed.”

Howard wasn’t quite convinced of McConaughey’s capacity for comedy until his teen-age daughter, who’s googly about Matthew, urged him to watch “Dazed and Confused.” He was sold.

“Part of what I thought was appealing about Matthew, and where a lot of the charisma was coming from, was his sort of loose, natural, earthy charm and sense of humor,” says Howard, who also was in Austin for the “EDtv” premiere. “He’s not a comic, but I didn’t want this to be a vehicle for a stand-up comedian.”

McConaughey and Howard saw parallels between Ed’s overnight rise to fame and the actor’s meteoric boost following his role in “A Time to Kill.”

“It happened so fast,” McConaughey recalls. “I didn’t meet strangers after that. Everybody tried to put their two cents in. You get advice for what you oughta do and say because you’re on the cover of a magazine. Everybody seems to know you, but you don’t know them. Any time you get that thing called fame, it’s a crazy situation — wonderful, frustrating, wow, and what the hell is going on? There’s no way to prepare for it.”

McConaughey is enjoying his lap on the fast track. And he’s expanding. Like several young stars, from Sandra Bullock to Alicia Silverstone, the actor has parlayed his position into a production company — j.k. livin’, which is short for “just keep livin’,” a line he says in “Dazed and Confused.”

The company executive-produced S.R. Bindler’s hit documentary “Hands on a Hard Body” and is developing projects for Warner Bros. and Howard’s Imagine Entertainment. McConaughey has also written, produced, directed and stars in the 20-minute comic short “The Rebel,” which he hopes will play at film festivals.

His ambition has led McConaughey to roles that some have deemed outsized for the young performer. Though critics lauded his serious portrayal as a lawyer in “A Time to Kill,” he took critical hits for his turns in “Amistad” and “Contact.” Those stung, he says.

“Would I rather do those films and get wonderful reviews across the board? Sure I would. But I understand now that you can’t please everybody. There were certain people who agreed with what I did with the parts and I’m more interested in what they’re thinking than the ones who disagree.

“But it doesn’t last that long. I don’t think about it for more than 10 seconds. I think about it and go, ‘Is there something I can get from it?’ Sometimes people give good, constructive criticism and I can go, ‘That’s a good point. I could have done that better.’ I try to take that in. You can’t please all the people all the time. You can only keep going and please yourself. And I’m pleased with myself.”

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