“There are three things that I need each day,” Matthew McConaughey told an eager audience at the Dolby Theater in 2014. “One, I need something to look up to, another to look forward to, and another is someone to chase.”
It was a surprisingly tender moment for the Texas native, who'd just won an Oscar for his transformative performance as activist Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. At risk of grounding himself too much, McConaughey capped his emotional speech with a classic rendition of his signature phrase: “Alright, alright, alright.”
For a brief moment in time, it seemed like no one could touch McConaughey. In addition to winning an Oscar, the actor had also starred in the game-changing HBO miniseries True Detective; Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi box office smash hit Interstellar; the critically acclaimed coming-of-age story Mud; the subversive stripper movie Magic Mike; and delivered a scene-stealing supporting performance in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. It seemed like McConaughey had left behind his days of starring in rom-coms and studio tentpoles, and had transformed his winning personality into pure substance.
However, the media phenomenon dubbed “The McConaissance” was never meant to last. Six years have passed since McConaughey was named Best Actor, and things have changed for the charismatic star. Critics and pundits were less kind to failed Oscar bait films such as the suicide drama The Sea of Trees, the Civil War epic Free State of Jones, the awards-friendly biopic Gold and the gangster flick White Boy Rick. The Dark Tower, McConaughey’s bid for a consistent role in a big-time franchise, became one of the biggest box office bombs of 2017.
This isn’t to say that a new McConaughey film isn’t a big deal. The star’s latest role is as drug kingpin Mickey Pearson in Guy Ritchie’s gangster comedy The Gentlemen, which opens in U.S. theaters this Friday. It’s the latest in a new trend for McConaughey, who has managed to step outside of his comfort zone while still honoring his roots. In the past year, he starred as a wise stoner in The Beach Bum, made a cameo as himself in Between Two Ferns: The Movie, and became a full-time film professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Between taking on more eccentric character parts and a keen desire to pass on his knowledge to a new generation, McConaughey has reinvented himself once more, this time with a dash of self-awareness and a thorough sincerity. Perhaps, we are living in The McConaissance 2.0.
The issue that McConaughey ran into with his post-Dallas Buyers Club work is that he seemed to pick prestige projects that sounded important on paper, but didn’t give him the chance to reap all the benefits of his personality. There’s an important story behind the insurgency within the Confederacy in Free State of Jones, just as there’s an interesting story with ambitious prospector Kenny Wells in Gold. However, these roles don’t call for the whirlwind of charisma and confidence that McConaughey brings to the screen. There’s a lot of great actors and a lot of great movie stars, but McConaughey has always been the rare guy who could be both.
What made the initial rise of “The McConaissance” so interesting between 2012 to 2014 was that McConaughey seemed to be adding a different flavor to what a prestigious actor could be. He couldn’t be more different from fellow white contemporaries like Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Christian Bale or Joaquin Phoenix. His role in Interstellar called on him to be a small-town dad who would do anything to protect his kids, and his role in True Detective asked him to give an introspective look at a Southern detective. While physical transformations and plot mechanics brought these characters to life, McConaughey brought with him a sense of irreverent likability and casual mannerisms that just felt sorely lacking in Hollywood.
With The Gentlemen, McConaughey is cast alongside an ensemble of handsome dudes who all seem to be contemplating their own stardom. Front and center on the marquee is Charlie Hunnam, an acclaimed television star who is in the process of transitioning to film. Next up are Hugh Grant and Colin Farrell, actors who’ve made the jump from romantic leads to in-demand character actors over the past 20 years. There’s also Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding and Succession's Jeremy Strong, two rising stars. A film with this many leading men seems destined to be a clash of personalities, but the wacky high jinks and double crosses that ensue in The Gentlemen suggest that everyone involved just wanted to have fun.
Even if the game of one-upmanship in The Gentlemen is strictly satirical, it’s easy to determine who is coming out on top. McConaughey’s Mickey Pearson, a cannabis lord from Oklahoma, is undeniably the scene stealer.
“In the jungle, the only way a lion survives ... not by acting like a king, by being a king,” McConaughey quips in the trailer. It's the type of masochistic prose that would sound preposterous coming from any other actor’s mouth, but with McConaughey, it just feels right.
The Texan actor’s most recent string of roles also suggests a less fixated, more self-aware movie star. Even Serenity, the critically reviled romantic thriller starring Anne Hathaway, has become a low-key internet cult favorite thanks to its ludicrous plot twists and cartoonish take on the high concept mystery. Even though it’s a failure, it’s the sort of interesting failure that will be talked about as a noble misfire for years to come. Would a film like Serenity get any attention if it wasn’t for McConaughey? It’s unlikely.
While he’s carving out a new path for himself on screen, McConaughey’s latest high-profile gig is as an educator. Returning to his alma mater UT, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1993, McConaughey has begun teaching an innovative course in the Department of Radio-Television-Film that takes students behind the scenes of the filmmaking process from script to scene. McConaughey had been a visiting professor for the last five years and officially joined the full-time staff in August 2019, and developed the curriculum for the course himself in order to prepare students for the reality of working within the film industry. Last August, he told UT News that it's “the class I wish I would have had when I was in film school.”
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Professor McConaughey, 50, isn’t your standard teacher, but then again he’s never been a standard actor either. He’s a passionate advocate of UT’s Texas Longhorns and frequently appears at both practices and game days. He’s invited his cinematic collaborators like Yann Demange, Harmony Korine and Jeff Nichols to class to speak about their films to students. He’s even brought Jimmy Fallon and The Tonight Show to film a live taping on campus with the help of thousands of UT students.
Toward the end of his Oscar speech six years ago, McConaughey shared an anecdote about what kept him inspired.
“When I was 15 years old, I had a very important person in my life come and ask me 'Who's your hero?' I said, 'I thought about it, and it's me in 10 years,'” he said. “I'm never going to be my hero. I'm not going to obtain that and that's fine with me because it keeps me with somebody to keep on chasing.”
McConaughey is still chasing his hero. His hero hasn’t changed, but he’s evolved, and now more than ever, he’s playing to his strengths and sharing with others. That’s quite an achievement for the guy that starred in Failure to Launch.