Sometimes in Hollywood, no matter what product you've turned out, it's the thing you're arrested for that really sheds light on your character. Think of Mel Gibson shouting racist slurs, or Robert Downey Jr. passing out in his neighbour's bed, or Hugh Grant getting nabbed with a hooker.
For Matthew McConaughey, the Texas-born star with a wolfish grin and a dude-ish drawl, the sin was playing music too loudly. In October 1999, police responded to a noise complaint at the actor's house in Austin, Tex., and what they found there instantly entered pop-culture history: McConaughey, playing bongos, in the nude.
Now, what's so wrong with that? He was in his own home, hanging out (so to speak), doing no real harm. He's hardly the only person who has strolled through his abode naked. Things escalated when the police spotted what they thought were illegal substances, and McConaughey was charged with resisting arrest. But the initial image stuck, because it confirmed the vibe he'd always exuded: that his life's a laid-back party. Not, to be clear, a party at Charlie Sheen's house. More like a kegger in a field on grad night, like the one in 1993's Dazed and Confused, the early Richard Linklater film that unleashed McConaughey and his motto, "Just keep livin'," on the world.
Hailed early as the next Paul Newman, McConaughey sprang onto the cover of Vanity Fair (where considerable attention was lavished on the fit of his chinos) and into A-list movies including A Time to Kill, Contact and Amistad. Off screen, he excelled as a genial good ol' boy. When I spoke to him a few years ago for a feature in In Style magazine entitled "What's Sexy Now," he offered thoughtfully mellow answers to my pedestrian questionnaire (Saturday night or Sunday morning? Lingerie or Naked?), and as a bonus, hummed his own on-hold music while he formulated them.
Here's how he talked: "The Amazon is the madam of sexiness," he said. "You're right there in the crux of Mother Nature." And, "Blackouts are sexy. You can feel it all over the city: Everyone is unplugged. We don't notice how much energy is pulled from us by the outside. But in a blackout, all you can do is sit and take it in. It's languid. It's a comma, not a period." And, my favourite: "Water is sexy. It's never clumsy. It's the fourth dimension. It connects the moon and the womb. It has no right angles, it's all curves. Curves are sexier than angles. Horizontal is sexier than vertical. Latitude is sexier than longitude and bass is sexier than treble. That's how my mind works." I totally dug it.
If his career didn't quite live up to its initial promise, McConaughey became a reliably amiable presence in action movies and romantic comedies. Hollywood holds a prejudice against men who frequent the latter - other than Hugh Grant - because they're perceived as playing second fiddle to the female, i.e. real, star. So McConaughey's turns in them, along with his penchant for appearing shirtless, may have tarnished his image as a serious actor. But he racks up numbers at the box office.
In his new film The Lincoln Lawyer, opening March 18, McConaughy, 41, is back in shark mode, all hair gel and gleaming choppers as Mick Haller, a smarty-pants attorney who conducts his semi-shady business from the back of a Town Car. Perpetually on the move and on the make, he jokes that his worst nightmare is an innocent client - and then discovers he had one, and blew it, and embarks on a quest to make it right. McConaughey also has two other films due this year: Killer Joe, directed by William Friedkin, and the comedy Bernie, which reunites him with Linklater.
Visiting Toronto this week, McConaughey was in fighting trim, hair slicked back, jaw like an L-square. Sitting at a hotel boardroom table with The Lincoln Lawyer novel by his side, he swigged from a bottle of raw juice, made mad eye contact, and was as eager a participant as ever - in our interview, and in life in general.
"You sweat over certain conflicts, and you bleed over others," he said about The Lincoln Lawyer, which pits Haller against a nasty client (Ryan Phillippe). "You can jab or you can punch. But this one is Frazier fights Ali. It's a heavyweight fight. Frazier doesn't need to have a bad day to lose. He may have his best day, and still lose. No one's coming in with a limp. No one's making the proverbial bad shot from point-blank range that you see in so many movies. We don't give conveniences. I'm not a fan of conveniences that let somebody off. Mick doesn't trip himself when he's running downhill. It's can you finish the race? Because it's a marathon, buddy."
McConaughey's a family man now, with a house in L.A., a long-term partner, Camila Alves, and two children, Levi, 2, and Vida, 1. "I still have a great time, and I still do what I want," he said. "I just want to do different things. I'd always heard, 'Oh man, when you have kids, your life just r-r-r [sound of tires screeching to a halt]' That's not been my experience whatsoever. I travel for we instead of me now. My peripheral vision's a little better. And they're great at busting you when you're taking yourself too seriously, whether it's crapping their pants and laughing about it, or bursting your bubble in some other way.
"But there's no more one-way tickets," he continued. "I gotta get the return ticket now. I have a great woman who knows that I still need to venture" - love that word choice - "put on a backpack, head out somewhere into the unknown. I don't feel it [his responsibilities]as a weight. It feels lighter. It's nice to have a natural truth, a given. I don't have to question 'Am I into that any more?' The clarity gives a lot of horsepower."
McConaughey's bear-hug embrace of life reminded me of his gleeful response to the final choice on my questionnaire a few years back: Sunrise or Sunset? "I'm so glad you asked me that!" he exhaled. "I was thinking about that the other day! Sunrise, as any primo would. Any primitive - as man is - should see the sunrise and think, 'Ooh, got another one! Another day!'"