“Yeah baby!” Matthew McConaughey says to me, sealing the sentiment with a chest bump. We’re waiting in the wings at a theater in North Hollywood, where McConaughey is due on stage in just minutes for a Q&A following a special awards season screening of Steven Soderbergh’s summer sleeper hit Magic Mike, and I’ve just asked him if the song he croons (and co-wrote) near the end of the movie, “Ladies of Tampa,” will be submitted for a Best Original Song Oscar. “Yeah baby!” he grins again, shooting a glance at the Warner Bros publicist nearby. “Oh, I know who to talk to about that one!”
The idea of watching McConaughey perform his strip club ditty at the Oscars is one of those things that seems unlikely at first, but then becomes the sort of crusade you root for the more you mull it over … much like the idea of Magic Mike itself, or the nascent awards campaign launching to remind audiences of McConaughey’s work in it. At 43 years old, McConaughey’s awards shelf is mostly stocked with reminders of his movie stardom — a People’s Choice Award here, an MTV Movie Award there — but after a year where he showed off new layers in films like Killer Joe, Bernie, and even The Paperboy, the hope is that McConaughey’s amped, revealing performance as the male revue owner Dallas in Magic Mike might earn him some Best Supporting Actor plaudits.
“I didn’t think about whether it was possibly an awards-worthy role,” McConaughey admits to me. “The guy just resonated, and as I was performing him, every day felt like his creation just got more enriched and wider and bigger.” McConaughey himself is notably thinner and smaller as he says this, having dropped close to 40 pounds for his new role as an AIDS-afflicted man in Dallas Buyers Club, a new drama he’ll begin shooting this weekend in New Orleans. (He flew in to Los Angeles for a single day to attend the screening.) Even though plenty of paparazzi photos have leaked of the actor’s new look, it’s still jarring to see him so pale and gaunt up close, swaddled in a black suit with a long gray scarf around his neck like he needs the extra bulk to keep warm; later, an audience member will ask him, “Why do you look like John Wilkes Booth right now?”
It’s all the odder because the movie he’s promoting now, Magic Mike, features McConaughey at the height of his tanned, buff shirtlessness. “Reverb is what I call it,” McConaughey tells me, pulling from his pocket a piece of folded-up paper that’s covered in his tiny, neat writing. “I keep a diary each time I make a movie, so this morning on the plane, I went back and was able to look at stuff so that I could show up here and not speak so retrospectively. Know what I mean? Gotta get back in that feeling where it feels vital, where you’re present again, because it was a very different energy than what I’m doing now.”
Suffice it to say, then, there will be no stripping or singing in Dallas Buyers Club. Well, at least not yet. “Well you know, in the original script for Magic Mike, Dallas never danced at the end,” McConaughey says, suddenly perking up as he hears the closing-credits reprise “Ladies of Miami” drift in from the theater next door. “Oh, listen to that in the background!”
In fact, in their first phone call about the role, Soderbergh gave McConaughey an unusual amount of freedom to shape his performance, from picking out costumes to choosing the song he would strip to. “God, I heard that and immediately on the phone I got nervous, felt a tingle in my back, started to break a sweat, and just as I was feeling that way, the other side, the little devil over here” – he gestures to his shoulder – “said, ‘Absolutely, man! If you don’t do this, you would regret it the rest of your life. How many times are you gonna be in a male stripper movie? You ain’t gonna do it in real life, so let’s go get it on.’”
After “Ladies of Miami” fades out and the house lights come on, McConaughey takes the stage to a round of applause, albeit from an audience that’s notably more gray-haired and balding than you might expect to see in a theater playing Magic Mike. Still, when moderator Pete Hammond asks McConaughey, “Why do you think this movie connected so well?” every woman in the audience responds with a lusty, guilty laugh — and the answer.
“Let’s just look at the low-hanging fruit,” drawls McConaughey. “Let’s not intellectualize things. Male strippers … just on selling skin alone, Warner Bros. went, ‘We see a trailer.’”
Fittingly, then, the questions from the audience about McConaughey’s performance are split pretty evenly between people genuinely curious about the actor’s method, and those with more carnal interests. “Now that you’ve learned all those cool moves, will you be using them in your personal life?” asks one woman.
“Yeah, I’m fire-breathin’ every night,” laughs McConaughey.
Another woman compares McConaughey to actors like Viggo Mortensen, but asks whether the media’s focus on his beauty gets in the way of being perceived as a serious actor. “When someone bestows something on you, no matter how true it is, when someone says, ‘Sexiest Man Alive,’ I’m honestly going, ‘Thank you. Right on,’” he answers. “For me, it’s never canceled out anything, it’s never made me go, ‘Does this make me less talented of an actor?’”
McConaughey recalls that after filming three big movies over consecutive summers — each of which required him to doff his shirt — an Australian journalist told him, “It’s kind of becoming a real phenomenon,” then showed him an online image search filled with “eighteen [shirtless] pictures, side by side,” says the actor. “And I was like, ‘No shit? That’s what everyone thinks I do, that’s all I do?’ I do do it daily, but it’s not all I do.” But not to fear: When McConaughey puts weight back on, the shirt may again come off. “I do like doing it. And I’ll do it some more.”
Especially if it means a Magic Mike sequel sometime down the road. Laughs McConaughey, with just a hint of his strip club owner’s sleazy drive, “I’d love to get back in Dallas’s leathers.”