BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Matthew McConaughey doesn't exactly make for a sound bite sort of interview. Well, particularly not when you walk into the room and inquire as to whether he happened to know that his Longhorns had just taken it to the Sooners on the gridiron. Everything after that is a conversation, full of all the tangents and tributaries toward other conversations equally bereft of easy bites and bits to be plugged into the usual interview format. If you're from the south, too? The drawls kick in, feeding on one another. The parables take hold. Soon you find yourself wondering, "Wait, what were we talking about?"
On this particular afternoon, we're talking about "Dallas Buyers Club," the Jean-Marc Vallée indie production that provided McConaughey with more to chew on than perhaps any other role he's taken in his two-decade career. So there’s plenty to discuss, beginning with the obvious: the 45 pounds the actor dropped to play a man diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live.
"Once I said, 'I got to get to this weight — if I don't I'd be embarrassed,' the hard part was standing in front of the refrigerator 15 times a day and going, 'What are you doing,' and then walking away," McConaughey says, fidgeting on the couch but still somehow constantly appearing at ease and relaxed. "And then I said, 'I'm not gonna do that everyday for the next four months. So let's make up our minds. I got to control my lifestyle here.'"
It was more difficult than he expected it to be, to the point that he had to change how he did business, even. McConaughey stopped taking meetings out at restaurants. The aroma of good food, he knew it would be too much. So he pretty much became a hermit, he says, taking meetings at home, cutting out all distractions. And there was a task at hand, of course: he had a ton of research to do on Ron Woodroof, the very real person he would be portraying in the film. Every step along the way was difficult, he concedes, but in a constructive sort of way that just fed the machine.
The character of Woodroof was so charismatic that the time McConaughey did have to investigate the man wasn't nearly enough for as full a portrait he could have concocted. "I'll say this — if I had another year, I could have easily filled my year still working on that guy," McConaughey says. "Even through the shooting I was still, every Sunday, I would sit down, take over the room, spread everything out, grab old notes from eight months ago, bring 'em back. 'Let's get everything that could possibly pertain to tomorrow's scenes and get 'em logged in there. Any idea, something we didn't get the other day that could fit in this scene, do we bring that in?' There was always something to mix and match and kind of get my quiver of variations."
In a way, McConaughey was lifting as much nuance as he could glean from Woodroof's life so that he could have different versions of the character, all of them true to the source, ready for director Vallée's disposal. "I've got four variations on how this scene could go, where Ron would be, what he would do," McConaughey would tell the director.
[For more on McConaughey's process of becoming Woodroof, watch the actor's video interview with HitFix from the Toronto Film Festival embedded at the top of this post.]
The obsession mirrored Woodroof's own. Straight and homophobic, diagnosed with HIV in 1985 and stuck in a fight for his life with big pharmaceutical, the Dallas electrician was nothing if not driven. And in many ways, McConaughey observed from afar, it was like the death sentence was fuel for Woodroof's tank.
"It's basically when he really found some form and function in his life for the first time," McConaughey says. "He found the first thing, from wake to sleep — and he didn't sleep much — he could fight for. It was a new frontier, so he was pioneering, finding out all this sh*t. So that's what I kind of found myself doing with the research, is I was like, 'We'll just keep pounding on it. Pounding on it.' And I got more energy after I got down there. I needed three hours less sleep a night, which was odd. I didn't expect that."
But something else triggered for McConaughey that hadn't quite bubbled to the surface for him in his pre-production preparation. It didn't land for him until he was down on the New Orleans locations (which doubled for Dallas) and realized it as the narrative progressed in front of the cameras: Ron Woodroof's story is one of forced isolation.