It is no easy feat to climb out of the mid-career ditch and avoid slipping into tired rom-com roles, but Matthew McConaughey is somehow still impressing audiences. Cemented by his performance this week in the much anticipated Interstellar, McConaughey’s astronomic resurgence continues on its dizzy trajectory. By contrast with Robert Downey Jr. who emerged from his own mid-career slump to play the tremendously popular Iron Man, McConaughey did not leap back into the public eye through roles which were always guaranteed to win over the audience.
His unassuming, everyman character is perhaps responsible for this continued rise in popularity. Indeed many reports on the casting for Interstellar suggested that it was this relatability that sold him the role. Being able to present oneself as both amongst the stars and the audience is a real talent, and something which, unless thoroughly convincing, can provoke a tremendous backlash. His acceptance speech for the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2014 gives a real sense of this delicate line McConaughy treads. It is an unusual man in modern film who opens his speech with thanks to his divine wingman, then proceeds to tell you he is his own hero, and yet still comes across as likeable. McConaughey’s argument is that he is chasing after himself ten years down the line, and it is this romantic image of the self-effacing and driven everyman which is so marketable.
McConaughey has a rough, earthy charisma. He is not the sort of man for whom one instantly falls, and though possessing a profile which could chisel ice, he is no Gyllenhaal or Ledger in the looks department. This is certainly something which bled through to his performance in Dallas Buyers’ Club. Although the film rightfully attracted criticism for some of its casting decisions, such as its failure to seize the opportunity to cast a transgender person in Jared Leto’s role, it is a struggle to think of a name which could have brought much more to the character Ron Woodroof.
His all-too-brief appearance in The Wolf of Wall Street is a fine example of McConaughey presence and impact; being able to construct a memorable and lasting character in so short a moment is testament to his growth from stock rom-com character to trailblazing practitioner. There is something delightfully ‘meta’ about a star who killed so much time in poorly written, lazy roles delivering a monologue about hedonism and success to DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort.
Interstellar is a triumph, and McConaughey feels meant for his role in a manner that is difficult to pin down to one given factor. Whether it is his rugged-folksy character which lets him blend into the bleak Dust Bowl landscape, or how well he fills the role of the distant but ever loving father, what is clear is McConaughey’s talent. Had a Cruise, Pitt or DiCaprio been cast in his place it is doubtful they could have brought so much depth – their names and their images too readily subsume and become the characters they construct. By comparison McConaughey fleshes out and grounds a narrative which could have been wrecked by a less natural performance. Although it is not quite right to call his approach method acting, McConaughey appears to effortlessly and ineffably occupy his roles in a way which escapes many more famous names.
In none of these films, nor in the often overlooked Mud, does McConaughey play a wholly admirable and instantly loveable character. Something which really stands out from comparing his performance in his recent filmography is McConaughey’s fantastic ability to capture the journeying man, whether as Cooper choking on tears as he leaves his children on Earth in Interstellar, as a man who has already climbed Woodroof’s prospective ladder in The Wolf of Wall Street or as one who moves from vile homophobe to a deeply sensitive and admirable character in Dallas Buyers’ Club.
The New Yorker, amongst the first to coin “the McConaissance”, neatly frames McConaughey’s years spent languishing in mediocre and forgettable flicks as a period of battery charging and a fall back before the spring forward into critically acclaimed stardom. There is then an argument to be made that, like many performers, McConaughey never stopped being or ‘became’ talented – he simply found that great break, that moment of reinvention which sadly eludes many after their first flirtation with cinematic attention. As McConaughey continues in his reinvention as an icon of recent cinema, long may the McConaissance last.