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Matthew McConaughey on Mud, His Craft, and Magic Mike the Musical

Matthew McConaughey
Matthew McConaughey. Photo: CLINT SPAULDING/

Matthew McConaughey has been stretching himself as an actor in his last few roles, so we shouldn’t be too surprised that when we met up with him to discuss his latest bravura performance as the title character in Mud, he was stretching once again — this time literally, on the floor, “to keep fresh,” he said. As he got the kinks out of his back and legs, he chatted with Vulture about handling snakes, mud-slinging, and his hopes for the Magic Mike musical.

How did the snake handling go in Mud?
There were a few real snakes in there! But I made sure, I checked with the guy who was the snake wrangler, and they were definitely not poisonous.

Around four years ago, you did an experiment — you read your reviews. What did that do for you?
I went through the negative reviews. I pulled all the negatives. I said, “Pull all the negatives!” There were a lot of bad ones, but not as many as I thought. There was a lot of them where I was like, “Oh, this person just doesn’t like me.” But there was quite a few where I was like, “That’s good constructive criticism! You know what? I would have written the same review.” And some of them were funny! I’ve got a pretty good sense of humor about myself, enough to go read these and not feel like I’m worthless, and overall, it wasn’t as daunting as I thought it was going to be. But I kept reading the same thing about me — not bad, but not who I was. Not completely.

So what did you decide to do differently at that point?
It didn’t specifically have to do with making new choices. It had to do more with … All right. There’s a gap in acting, actually with any job, even what you do. It’s what you want to do, what you go and do, and what gets done. Right? There’s a gap between what I want to do, what I do on-camera, and what gets edited. Right? So the goal is to try and close the gaps. What’s the biggest compliment is if I read a review and it’s exactly what I wrote down in my diary before ever filming it. That’s really cool. That’s the biggest signifier of closing the gaps. If I’ve written in a diary about a character, “This is who this guy is,” and then I read a review two years later and they write almost word for word what I wrote about that character before I ever did it? Then I go, [claps] “Now we’re on to something! It translated!” Now the gap was tighter, the gap between who I am, what I’m doing, and how I’m perceived.

When did the gap first tighten, the way you saw it? Some people pinpoint Tropic Thunder, others The Lincoln Lawyer, and then you had a banner year last year.
It happened in Killer Joe — someone wrote four adjectives, and they were the exact four I had written down, almost like they stole my diary. And I had never shared those words, never spoken them. It happened in Magic Mike. And I’ll say this — those films, those characters had real identities. Dallas, in Magic Mike, is a lightning rod. What’s tougher about a romantic comedy is that it’s a whole different game. They’re not supposed to have a super-clear definition. You have to float through those. [Makes a waving motion with his arms.] There’s an amiability and a buoyancy, and you got to keep it afloat. And definition will go down, and if you go down in a rom-com, you sink the ship. It’s dead. Over. Twelve minutes into the film, you’re done. So yeah, Mud, you could say he has an arc, but something I could obsess on from frame one was his unconditional love for this woman [played by Reese Witherspoon]. That’s what powers him. So if I can get a hook, one obsession like that I can say, “When in doubt, this is always true for this character.”

Director Jeff Nicholas wrote this part for you ten years ago?
Over ten years ago. It was ‘08, ‘09, that he came to me with it. He liked me in Lone Star and the inherent likability and danger that he sees in me that he thought would work for this. I still had to dig to find the guy, but it was an innocent magical mystery tour for me, the innocence. For me, the whole role and the movie feels like when I was 14. And it also has that eighties Stand by Me feel. Not as a throwback film, but this deliberate tone, the deliberate pace. For Mud, we shot what was exactly in the script more than any other film I’ve been on. Now, I had all kinds of writing and musings, but the thing was, we would just agree, what he wrote was better. Whereas with Magic Mike, the character was written, but boy, it’s fun as an actor to approach it like, “This is about this guy,” and create a life outside the lines. Where would he go when we were offscreen? What would he do? What wouldn’t he do? And that’s just fun. And I was sharing all this stuff with Steven [Soderbergh], about Dallas breathing fire and whatnot, in these eight, nine, ten page e-mails, and Steven did a cool, smart thing by only saying a little back: “Yep.” “Sure.” He put it on the actor’s shoulders to go, “I own it.” And if you can get to that spot, then you’re on it. That’s when you’re like, “Yeah!” It’s not always like that.

Would you want to own it on Broadway? They’re making Magic Mike a Broadway musical.
Oh! I don’t know! I’d have to see. I want to see it! I’ve got Dallas. If someone else is taking Dallas, I would hope they would change his name. If it’s someone else. But I look forward to seeing or perhaps being a part of whatever rendition there is, if there’s going to be a sequel or what. I’d like to see whatever version there would be. Magic Mike’s living on, yeah!

What’s the conversation you’re having with Christopher Nolan about defining Cooper in Interstellar, then? Especially considering you were on the opposite side of the faith-versus-science argument in Contact?
There’s some good conversations going on, but it’s a fun lockdown we’ve got going on, to keep it mysterious. But I’m a personal believer in faith and science. I think the two can definitely co-exist. I’m always trying to make faith a science! But part of all of this is working with directors who have a really particular point of view. These independents that I’m getting acclaim for, let’s remember — I could have given the same performance in crappy movies!

McConaughey on Mud and the Magic Mike Musical