Academy Award-winning actor and now author, Matthew McConaughey discusses the challenges of adapting his storytelling abilities from screen to paper for his book, ‘Greenlights’
Matthew McConaughey writes, always. In the middle of a Zoom conversation, the 51-year-old actor — who connects from his home in Texas, USA — zones out for a millisecond, struck by a thought which he then scribbles onto his notepad.
It is a practice that started when he was young, and it has now made him an author; Greenlights (Hachette), McConaughey’s first book, is a product of this note-taking habit, and the reason for our interaction.
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McConaughey muses, a lot. In fact, the Academy Award-winning actor had his 1996 GMC Savana van — which he owned during his A Time To Kill days — altered to accommodate a sophisticated audio recording system so that driving would not come in the way of him making notes.
“I have learned and am still learning to enjoy my own company. I talk to myself, I sing, I hum. I am happiest and most true to myself when I am going with the music of life,” he says, his words polished with a trademark Texas accent.
He adds: “What I do not do is go ‘Okay, I’m going to my office to think’. That’s immobilising for me.”
An unscripted life
The actor enjoys a cult status among movie buffs; an atypical flair he adds to his performances is a reason.
In Greenlights, not only are we treated to his worldly wisdom — accumulated through years of travel and time spent on the road — but we also discover McConaughey, the storyteller; the book is an example of engaging storytelling that does not rely on purple prose.
Writing about his family among many other things, and offering us a sneak peek that is as elaborate as possible for a celebrity not nearing the end of his prime, McConaughey, in his words, walks into the “minds of each character” whilst describing the stories.
The actor’s face lights up when asked if his storytelling quality is something that Hollywood studios have missed out on. After one of the many long pauses he takes during the interaction, McConaughey explains that part of the reason he wrote the book was to remove “the filters” that check his “raw expression of storytelling” on screen.
“I wanted to get rid of the filters. I wanted to write and direct the script, and be the character that is taking us through the stories. Now, I have verbally told many of the stories [from the book], performed them at dinners, campfires and got to a point where I was able to captivate audiences. So I started thinking about taking these performances on the road, doing a standup [comedy] maybe. And then I was like ‘Well you know what? I love to write’,” he says.
- Greenlights captures a son (Matthew) who yearns for his dad’s approval and a father who only affords it after he has put him through a rites of passage ritual. Whilst his mother, undoubtedly, has had the bigger influence on him, McConaughey regrets the time he never got to spend with his father after earning aforementioned approval; his father passed away only days after McConaughey landed his first prominent acting gig — in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) which gave us the now iconic “alright, alright, alright”.
- “My mom was there day-to-day, teaching me resilience, perseverance, positive attitude and things like ‘life’s what you make it’,” he says. “My dad… was an aspiration for me to get to. He wasn’t there daily teaching me, but he was the heroic figure I revered and aspired to be. There are certain things you can learn or aspire to understand who our fathers are, specifically young men. So, my father had a major influence in what I wanted to become. I have recalibrated [since]. I still preach the same values to my kids that my dad instilled in me, but I do it in different ways,” McConaughey remarks.
The challenge was, when it came to the written word McConaughey did not have the advantage of performing it. “You cannot hear my voice inflection, you cannot see me raise my eyebrow,” he says, whilst raising his eyebrows, and adds: “An ellipsis is my… pause.”
There is truth to this reasoning; McConaughey doesn’t hold back on details concerning his “twice-divorced, thrice-married to each other” parents’ domestic lives.
On paper, “with just the facts” he lays out, it is fairly easy to pick out the episodes that contain abuse and label them as entirely horrific stories. But the truth often lies in the middle, as the saying goes, and McConaughey reiterates that it is imperative to “see humanity” in those stories. “If I tell you the story, you are smiling. With the written word, I wanted to take up the challenge of ‘Can I get that across?’,” he adds.
And the stories range from the eccentric to the truly bizarre: like the time he wrestled an actual tribal wrestler in Mali during his “African walkabout”, or when he spent a year in Australia as a foreign exchange student with a family that was extraordinarily abnormal, to put it in a sympathetic way.
Greenlights is also flush with scanned copies of McConaughey’s handwritten notes and bumper stickers that he thought carried a profound line of message; this is besides the many free verse poems included in the book which is a reflection of a mind constantly at thought.
The two things that stand out, however, are notes he wrote — one in January 1989 that screams “I’ve found myself” in all caps as its headline, and where he writes: “I think I’ll write a book; a word about my life”. The second was written in September 1992 and is titled “10 goals in life”, again in all caps. Guess what the eighth entry on the list is? “Win an Oscar for best actor.”
Did he luck out with prophesying his own life, writing down options at a time when they weren’t even remote possibilities? McConaughey runs his palms through his long mane, holding them back for a second to take another one of his long pauses before looking away from the camera to collect his words.
“[Prophesying] is a great word for it. But the list I wrote in 1992, I was five days into my first acting job. I remember the night I wrote it. I was in the top bunk at my fraternity house and it was before I went to sleep. I wrote them down and forgot about it, except I didn’t obviously. I would have to say, ‘Boy, you really must have been thinking clearly with your head, heart and your spirit at that time, Matthew, because what you wrote down, you became a part of making it true and it happened to you, too. But you never consciously looked at it and said that’s what I’m going for’. I found other things that I wrote down and most of them are like ‘Well, I’m glad I didn’t do that’,” he laughs.
It is adopting a process similar to solving a riddle backwards that McConaughey attributes as a reason for his success. “I have jumped off the cliff and said I’m going to figure out how to fly on the way down. I didn’t know what I was going to find but I said ‘Tie your shoes and just go’,” he adds.
Evolution and reinvention
It is this attitude that led him to refuse a $14.5 million offer to be a part of a film in the late noughties; McConaughey had resolved to break his image trap as a romcom actor. Running the risk of voiding a career that served him great wealth and fame was the option he willingly took, even when his family thought he was making a mistake.
“My two brothers and my mom thought I was out of my mind,” he says. “But they respected it and that is a big thing in our family. Even if you do something everyone disagrees with, if you stand up for it, they will back you up. My family knew I was not negotiating or asking their permission,” he remarks.
What followed was a period of ‘The McConnaisance’, a catchphrase that every major media in the US picked up to describe McConaughey’s resurgence as an actor par excellence following his appearances in drama films like Mud, Magic Mike and of course, Dallas Buyers Club, which earned him the Best Actor Oscar. (Now here is the spin: McConnaisance wasn’t a term coined by an entertainment reporter or an editor. McConaughey planted it in one of his interviews whilst casually attributing its coinage to a nameless journalist… one who never existed.)
The actor is pining for a change in his life, again. “I’m working on that,” he says, adding, “I am working on how to be a best representative of what it is I want to do and what change the world could use. What would be my most useful and constructive position as a leader… is it a ministry? Is it politics? Is it another book? I think it will always be some sort of storytelling.”
He continues: “So, I’m looking for what is my place and where I can go… not in a movie, not in a book, but in the big show called L-I-F-E.”
But it ain’t going to be McConnaisance 2.0. He laughs: “You know what? It’s going to be a whole new title, and I’m not making this up… someone actually said to me recently, ‘I got a new title for you’ and I go ‘What’s that?,” he pauses, and adds: “Sensei McConaughey,” before breaking out into a laugh. “It rhymes, right?”
Priced at ₹799, Greenlights (Hachette) is available for purchase in India.