From 'The Wedding Planner' to 'True Detective:' Reveling in the 'McConaissance'

Focus Features

By Karen Yuan, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 24, 2014

It’s 2005. “Sahara,” a movie starring Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz, screens for free at Columbia College Chicago. After the screening, the producers — one of whom is McConaughey — hold a Q&A session with their audience. The theater is half-empty.

Matthew McConaughey enters the stage, and it’s immediately clear.

The man is higher than Everest.

He starts fielding question after question about the movie — for each one, McConaughey replies with a crooked grin and outrageous answer.

Then: “Matt, who’s your favorite actor?”

McConaughey pauses for a bit, considering, and says, “Me, in ten years. Cool ... yeah ... ”

Fast-forward to today, and we really are about ten years later. McConaughey has “Dallas Buyers Club” from 2013 under his belt, complete with an Oscar for his role as Ron Woodruff. The story, which has been circulating around the Internet, has been debated on its veracity, but there’s no doubt that Matthew McConaughey has made huge splashes recently as an actor. Some are calling it the “McConaissance.” Some are calling it “McConaughey-day.”

In the past year, beyond “Dallas Buyers Club” and the Academy’s acknowledgment of his stellar performance, McConaughey has played a critically-acclaimed starring role in the first season of “True Detective” on HBO. “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) featured him in a much smaller role, but he was just as praised and essential to the movie. As a matter of fact, the chest-beating anthem hum was all McConaughey’s idea. And as we go a little farther back in time to 2012, we have his award-winning titular role in “Mud.” It’s been a slow but steady climb to the microphone on the stage of the 86th Academy Awards this month.

What’s strange is that prior to 2012, most of McConaughey’s films were romance, comedy or romantic comedy. Cast more for his set of abs than acting chops, he would have been an absurd choice in 2005 for the role of an AIDS patient in a biographical drama. McConaughey has been able to reinvent his career and become one of the most sought-after “serious” actors today. Next up is “Interstellar,” a Christopher Nolan film opening this year about the exploration of space.

So how has McConaughey achieved his new image from rom-com hunk to dramatic A-lister? I think the transition is less surprising than it initially seems, because McConaughey was never necessarily a bad actor. He was just constantly typecasted, featured in the same genre of movies as the same kind of character again and again. It’s entirely possible, however, to be simultaneously typecast and good at acting, as evidenced by John Wayne (macho gunslinger) and Morgan Freeman (wise old sage).

“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” (2003), for example, includes perfectly timed comedic delivery from McConaughey, down to the careful pauses between words and subtle expressions. Though the movie’s story is nothing groundbreaking – it’s a run-of-the-mill fluff piece on relationships – McConaughey works as much as he can to flesh out his character. Even in his films from the 2000s, we see a watered-down but certainly visible glimpse of McConaughey’s true acting potential. The McConaughey of today is not a new person, but rather a more ambitious version of yesterday’s.