Matthew McConaughey isn’t one to shrink away from a role’s unique challenges. He donned a G-string for Magic Mike, whittled 60 pounds off his frame for Dallas Buyers Club, and, in Stephen Gaghan’s new film, Gold, gained 40 pounds to play balding, desperate gold prospector Kenny Wells. But as McConaughey told Vulture this past week, his beer-and-milkshake diet for Gold wasn’t nearly the most dangerous thing the film put him through. That came at the tail end of the shoot, when filming a scene where Kenny decides to do something outrageous — pat a rich businessman’s pet tiger — in order to secure a lucrative business deal. The tiger was real, and as McConaughey told Vulture, so was his onscreen fear.
“Now, look,” said McConaughey, laughing. “We shot that in New Mexico as the last scene of the movie, and I don’t think that’s coincidental. If something happened during that scene, they wouldn’t need me on the screen anymore.” Alternately, maybe that’s just how long it took to find a beast that wouldn’t maul the film’s leading man: While the scene was first scheduled during Gold’s initial Thailand shoot, the tiger they scrounged up in that country felt like more of a risk. “We didn’t quite trust that tiger as much as we trusted the tiger in New Mexico,” said McConaughey. “The Thai tiger was cheaper, but he was funky, man. He had been caught out of the wild, like, yesterday.”
When the day finally came to shoot the tiger scene, McConaughey bid good-bye to his family — “We were all kinda nervous and excited at the same time,” he said, adding, “They know I like to get off to that kind of buzz” — headed to set, and huddled with the jumpy tiger’s trainer, who warned McConaughey not to make any sudden movements: “I talked to the trainer and got to know him pretty doggone well, and said, ‘I know he’s been fed, but —’ and he interrupted me and said, ‘Yeah, but he’s still a meat-eating mammal. What he works his lips for, and what he gets pleasure from, is eating.’”
Expecting a pep talk, the actor was instead told all the ways things could go wrong. “The trainer said, ‘Look, I’ll have him on a little wire like a leash, but I’ve got to be behind him. If you come up in front of him and he lunges, I can’t stop the lunge. I can only stop what happens after the lunge,’” said McConaughey. “He told me what the worst is that could happen, but said, ‘We’ll do everything to not make that happen.’ And I gave him a good, long handshake before the shoot.”
Gaghan and McConaughey had to wait for the trainer to give the go-ahead to film, but the tiger wasn’t as amenable to the stop-and-start nature of a film set. “He was a younger tiger, and he’d lose his attention span,” McConaughey said. “He’d roar and look around and get anxious, like, ‘Why am I doing this again? Why’s this guy walking in front of me, putting his hand on my head?’ Here’s what we had to watch out for: his curiosity. Because his curiosity might mean I’m screwed! When you’re curious like a cat, you might want to reach out and paw some string … and I didn’t want to be pawed.”
Still, while McConaughey admitted to some nerves, the tiger eventually settled down and they got the shot. “When you see me sweating there and saying, ‘I’m touchin’ a tiger,’ I didn’t have to act that,” said McConaughey. “That was live. But trust me, I didn’t sit there touching that tiger’s head for a while. My heart was pounding pretty steady. What a great way to finish the last day of shooting.” And an unexpectedly practical one, given that most films would simply conjure the dangerous animal out of pixels. Said McConaughey, “A CG tiger would have been safer. Maybe more expensive. But less of a buzz.”