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Matthew McConaughey, Getting Serious Again

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Matthew McConaughey earned early attention as a sensitive actor with his turn in the 1996 legal drama A Time to Kill -- but since then he has mostly made a career with leading-man roles in romantic comedies like How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days, Failure to Launch and The Wedding Planner.

He calls these "tomorrow roles," and he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he appreciates them for what they are: parts he could land one day and walk on set to film the next day.

Plus, he understands that he has a capacity for the lightness such characters require.

"It's great to have your so-called fastball," he says. "You're not supposed to go deep on those. You go deep, you sink the ship."

In the past few years, however, in films such as Bernie and Magic Mike, McConaughey has been branching out and exploring his range as an actor. He has won critical acclaim for doing so, winning Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics two years in a row for his performances.

Now he's starring in Jeff Nichols' Mud, playing a man living alone in a boat stuck in a tree on a small island in the Mississippi River. Nichols wrote the part specifically for McConaughey.

The actor says the transition from romantic comedies to more serious movies — other notable performances have come in The Lincoln Lawyer and Killer Joe — hasn't been as planned as it might appear from the outside. He had decided to take a break from lighter parts, but he wasn't actively pursuing other kinds of roles.

"These roles — these last six films I've done — they came to me; I didn't go out and chase them," he says. "[W]hat I had in my life at that time was something really special, which allowed me to take a pause and back away and not do the romantic comedies, or not do the other scripts that were coming in. I had a son.

"So I said, 'I'm going to be a father for a while. I'm not going to rush into work. Let the work come find me.' ... So I was able to be very patient and, what happened is, I got the call from Billy Friedkin [about the part of a cop moonlighting as a murderer in Killer Joe], and then Richard Linklater came to me with the Bernie script. And I got the call from Soderbergh [for the strip-club-emcee role in Magic Mike], and then Lee Daniels gave me a call on Paperboy and then Jeff Nichols came. So they came to me — and that was just really one of those wonderful ways the world works."

Interview Highlights

On whether he has ever met real-life characters like Mud

"There have been characters I've met, and most of them probably being in the rural South [who] had little, you know ... bits of knowledge like Mud, but nobody as fully committed and with a full constitution like Mud. I mean, Mud, if he ever came to the so-called mainland and got off of the proverbial island and was sort of reined in by civilization, I don't think he'd survive. So he's really getting his knowledge from the stars, from the river, from Mother Nature — and that's one of the great things about the South. [It's] inevitable that's where you're gaining your knowledge of how the world works, because you're just engrossed in the middle of Mother Nature."

On visiting a strip club to research Magic Mike

"It was very carny. ... The whole world was carny. ... [W]e snuck in the back and watched. There was a birthday party there. There was a bachelorette party. You could see that the women that were in there had had this night circled on their calendar for — I don't know — a month, and they were going to go let loose. [It was about] the fun of it, of them sort of busting each other's chops, getting embarrassed, acting more embarrassed than maybe they even were. But they just had a ball and, you know, an hour of it was enough for me, but that was it."

On playing Wooderson in 1993's Dazed and Confused

"I met the casting director, Don Phillips, on that film in a bar one night. Top of the Hyatt, Thursday night, with my girlfriend at the time. ... [W]e went to that bar because I knew the bartender and he'd give me free drinks. He was in film school with me. He goes, 'The guy at the end of the bar is a producer.' ... [And so] I went down to introduce myself. Four hours later, we're kicked out of the bar and he says, 'You ever acted before?'

"I said, 'Man, I was in a Miller Lite commercial for about, ummm, that long,' and he goes, 'Well, you might be right for this role. Come to this address tomorrow morning, 9 o'clock.' ... And I went down there six hours later, and there was a script with a handwritten note on top of it, and ... this character's name was Dave Wooderson. He had a few great, great lines.

"The one that sent me off — and I was just like, 'Who is this guy?' — is when they're out front of the billiards joint and the ladies are walking by. Wooderson's checking them out, and Wooderson's like, 'That's what I like about those high-school girls, man; I get older, but they stay the same age.' That was the piece for Wooderson that I was like, 'That's not a line, that's his being. That's his philosophy. He has it figured out. He's not commentating.' "

On loving the 1976 remake of King Kong as a kid

"Oh, loved it. I absolutely loved it. I'm very interested in this measurement across the board. It's like I was whatever age I was — 12, 13, 14 — and I've never had more enjoyment in a filmgoing experience than that hour and a half I was in for that movie, at that age. I cried because I knew Jessica Lange and King Kong could have made it."

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