Matthew McConaughey’s blue eyes gleam with happiness as he starts to re-enact the time his mother tried to kill his father in front of him.
It happened in the family kitchen one Wednesday night in 1974 after Jim McConaughey came home from selling oil pipes and asked for extra potatoes. His wife, Kay, sneered at him for being fat. Things escalated from there.
Jim, a bear of a man who had played American football for the Green Bay Packers, flipped the table over. Kay ran to the wall-mounted phone to call the police but instead held the receiver in her hand, “like a club”, recalls Matthew, who was four at the time and had fled to the next room to follow the action from behind a sofa.
When Jim came within range, she let him have it (he mimes the blow): “WHAAAAP! – across Dad’s nose and blood gushing, hitting the floor. Pop just sort of pausing, stunned. Mom in her nightie, Dad in his muscle shirt.”
But then she grabbed a 30cm chef’s knife and called, “C’mon, Fat Man. I’ll cut you from your nuts to your gulliver!” Jim snatched up a half-full bottle of ketchup, sploshed some of it in her face and they began circling each other.
Matthew, in a hooded top and shorts, is pretending to be his mom now, wiping stinging ketchup from her eyes with the back of one hand, while slashing wildly at her husband with the knife.
Then he becomes his father, seeming to inflate in size up on the balls of his feet.
“Dad was a big man but he also took ballet. So Dad’s kind of on his toes, he’s pirouetting, he’s got one hand over his head. He’s dancing and this thing is turning from graphic horror into this mockery and he’s like, ‘Touché!’ ”
Swaying like a matador, Matthew drapes one hand over his own long, slicked-back curls, stretches out the other to flick more ketchup over his imagined assailant, and circles a bit more.
“All of a sudden it ended. He’d worked her to a stalemate. She dropped the knife. He set the bottle down. Their shoulders dropped. They looked at each other – blood all over the floor. They’re sweating. F***! And then they went to the floor and that’s when I left.”
Matthew sits back down, brings his hands together to represent his parents and slowly interlaces his fingers.
“I didn’t stay around for the lovemaking, but that’s what they started doing.”
It’s a lot to absorb over a Zoom call. Even though I’d already read an account of the incident in his new memoir, Greenlights, which he concludes by stating simply, “This is how my parents communicated.”
Did that kind of thing happen often?
He beams. “I mean, I had no context, maybe because I was four. My brother, Rooster, who’s older, he’d probably be like, ‘Oh shit, yeah. Seen that kind of stuff go down a lot.’ ”
Jim and Kay McConaughey divorced twice but married each other three times. Their home was occasionally violent but always full of love.
There was never a moment when either of them would break off mid-explosion and say, “Hang on a second. Matthew, go to your room,” so there was no escape from the daily soap opera.
“And that,” he says, “was part of the beauty of our family.”
In the 27 years since his film debut Matthew (50) has been many things to the cinema-going public.
He was the “new Paul Newman” for a while, before he gradually became a bit of a joke. There was his 1999 attempt to resist arrest, despite being stoned and stark naked, when police found him playing his bongos too loudly in his home at 2.30am.
It blended into the lust object years when he seemed to be forever photographed running shirtless along the beach in Malibu or starring, often topless, in a string of mostly forgettable romantic comedies.
But then there was the glorious comeback – “the McConaissance” – after Matthew, by now anchored by fatherhood, decided to “f*** the bucks” and seek out more fulfilling work. He instructed his agent not to take any more offers for romcoms and he sat, without work, for a long, long time.
“I didn’t know how long it was going to go on. And it went on a pretty damn good amount of time. Long enough to become a new good idea. Eventually, people started wondering, ‘Where is Shirtless-on-the-Beach?’ Until two years later when these roles started to come in and then I just attacked them.”
What followed was an astonishing career turnaround in which – among other career highlights – Matthew delivered a chest-thumping, scene-stealing cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street, headlined the mind-bending science-fiction blockbuster Interstellar, was a co-lead in the adored first season of True Detective and, in 2014, won an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club.
Since then, he has been restlessly busy, but apart from his voiceover work as an entrepreneurial koala in the animated film Sing, he hasn’t had another big film.
Other things are more important though. This year he’s been trying to raise morale in the battle with coronavirus, while “quarantining pretty hard” at home in Austin, Texas – where he is now – with his Brazilian wife, Camila (38), their three kids and his 88-year-old mother.
Matthew’s unofficial public service announcements, delivered in his trademark oddball Texan shaman style, have racked up millions of views on social media. He’s gone viral with a video shot on his property in which he appears as a cowboy bounty hunter called “Bobby Bandito”, who teaches Americans how to make a pandemic mask out of a bandana, coffee filters and rubber bands.
He has also written a memoir, Greenlights. The process began in May 2019, when he spent 12 days alone at a remote desert cabin near the Mexican border with the diaries he’s been keeping since he was 15. He took a cooler of food and drink, a printer and a generator for when it got dark. There was a mountain that he could climb to get phone reception and say good night to his family.
The very first sentence reads, “This is not a traditional memoir,” and you would be hard pressed to find another Hollywood autobiography containing anywhere near this many scrawled notes, cheesy bumper stickers, typed meditations and camping yarns. Or this few Hollywood anecdotes. Matthew dismisses his big night at the Academy awards in two sentences: “They called my name. I won the Oscar for best actor.” He devotes five pages to a single night drinking with strangers in a bar in the Montana countryside.
This turns out to make perfect sense because, probably uniquely in the annals of Hollywood, Matthew reveals that he spent over three years in the late ’90s holding down a career as a leading man while living alone with his rescue dog, Ms Hud, in motorhome parks all over America.
He had postal addresses in two favoured campsites, a BlackBerry for his emails, a satellite dish for the internet connection and a microphone for recording his many, many, many thoughts.
He also carried a gun and a baseball bat, just in case, but never needed them.
If he was working on a film – Steven Spielberg’s Amistad in Rhode Island, for instance – he’d drive to the location and find a local trailer park to set up camp.
“People thought I was roughing it. I wasn’t. I mean, the inside of my Airstream, I tricked it out and it was beautiful. I had one of everything. I had a really good stove; I had just the kind of coffee I liked. I had great sheets on my queen-size bed. I had my dog. I had my favourite plate, my favourite knife and fork.”
Every now and then he’d treat himself to a few nights at a Holiday Inn, or the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, or the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, but he’d soon be itching for the open road again.
“Smaller spaces, in a lot of ways, help you be more free.”
Sometimes he’d drive all day, park up at night and only realise the next day where he was. He awoke to a grizzly bear drinking from a river outside his trailer. Once he unwittingly parked a few metres from a railway track.
“All of a sudden I wake up – ‘What the hell’s going on?’ There’s a train going by.”
He comes from a “long line of rule breakers”, he writes, a family of “outlaw libertarians” with a reverence for the Old Testament and a mistrust, verging on contempt, of government and the law.
He was “a Momma’s boy” and she taught him to walk into every room like he owned it. He grew up in awe of his much older brothers, Rooster and Pat. Their big-hearted father, who was always hustling, who sent hired heavies to convey death threats to his debtors, was a man to be feared and loved at the same time.
The family’s finances were generally precarious but they enjoyed a sudden lift in the early ’80s. Jim moved the family out of the trailer where they’d been living into a house. “All of a sudden, he had 70 employees under him.”
Pretty soon they had a half-share in a tan and dark brown Lear jet, with a matching jet boat and, of course, his mother “had her mink coat and her Fleetwood Cadillac”.
Despite the violence and sometimes brutal discipline of his childhood there’s an irresistible warmth to the McConaugheys as he describes them.
“In our family, we love really hard. We get angry really well. We cry it out if we’re sad. If you got a problem, you lay it out. We’re really transparent. And no one makes up any damn drama. We’re a resilient, brush-it-off family.”
If something flares up it gets tackled head on. It always has. “No going to bed with a grudge. No going to bed mad . . . We work this thing out.”
Jim had always told his children, “Boys, when I go, I’m gonna be makin’ love to your mother.” He was right.
It happened one morning in 1992 and proved a turning point in his youngest son’s life, the moment he realised that there was “no safety net” for him any more.
Matthew was studying film in Austin at the time, after dropping long-held plans to become a lawyer.
A few nights earlier he’d shot his first professional scene as an actor: an improvised performance in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused.
He’d joined the shoot mid-production after scoring an audition accidentally thanks to a chance meeting with the casting director in a bar.
It took another three years for his big break to arrive, the male lead opposite Sandra Bullock in the legal drama A Time to Kill. It made him famous overnight.
Characteristically, “pretty doggone soon” after the film’s release, he hiked to a remote monastery in the New Mexico desert and shut himself away from the world to recover.
Two years later he needed another course correction after an “18-month hedonism tour” living as a leather-trousered semi-nocturnal resident of the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard.
He rebalanced himself, as not many other A-listers would, by backpacking alone through rural Mali for a month, during which he accepted – and survived – a fight with a village wrestling champion.
But his biggest ambition remained out of reach.
“The one thing I knew I always wanted to be was a father. That’s been my main dream. That has always been, like, well – you made it.”
He met Camila Alves, a model and designer, in 2005. Her parents had also married and divorced each other twice; they just hadn’t married a third time as his had. She knew exactly who she was and Matthew was blown away. They moved into his Airstream together at the Malibu Beach trailer park.
Levi (12), Vida (10) and Livingstone McConaughey (7) arrived over the next seven years (one of them wanders in and out of the frame a few times while we’re talking), and in 2012 he and Camila were married by the monk who’d counselled him at the New Mexico monastery in 1996.
At his wife’s insistence the family have always gone with him on location.
He’s talked to a lot of “very successful people” in Hollywood about this, household names, and “none of them did it how we do it”.
Every one of them chose to let their kids stay at school, rather than bring them with them on location.
“Every one of them said they’d do it different if they could go back.”
While the pandemic is keeping him largely homebound he has plenty to keep him busy. At the moment he’s promoting his book, doing more writing, working on a values campaign for his beloved University of Texas (where he’s now a professor teaching a film course of his own devising), working with his football team (he’s co-owner of a new Major League Soccer franchise), doing more car and bourbon adverts and growing his and Camila’s foundation for disadvantaged high school children.
“And as far as acting in front of the camera, I’ll do more of that. But right now? That sounds pretty damn boring.”
There are no great regrets. Plunging back into his past, he’s discovered he likes his younger self more than he expected to, and the things he thought he’d be embarrassed about mostly turned out to be funny instead.
“I saw a young man questioning certain things that I have more answers to now. But as you know, when you find out the answers, all it does is open up more questions.”
At the end of his book is the most enjoyable “About the author” section I’ve ever come across.
“Matthew feels at home in the world,” it states. “A crooner, a talented whistler, a wrestler, a prescriptive etymologist and a world traveller . . . He has won six water-drinking competitions worldwide.”
The very last line is enigmatic poetry – “Matthew prefers sunsets to sunrises” – so I ask what it means.
On the other end of the Zoom call Matthew starts cackling.
“I heard that the other day too! And I was like, did I say that? I have said that.”
He pauses, and smiles.
“I do prefer sunsets to sunrises. Because I like to have a lot of fun after the sun goes down.”
© The Times Magazine/News Licensing