by John Powers | photographed by Anton Corbijn
Canadians are known for their equanimity, but on this cool Saturday night, the air outside Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre carries a tinge of hysteria. Hundreds of fans, mostly women, line the road. They’re hoping to catch a glimpse of Matthew McConaughey, the star of Jean-Marc Vallée’s film Dallas Buyers Club, which is about to have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
At long last, a limo pulls up a few feet from the rope line. The instant McConaughey emerges, sleek as a greyhound in his dark Dolce & Gabbana suit, the crowd starts screaming, a whoosh of ecstasy that keeps cresting. “I feel like a teenager,” says a 40-ish woman, madly snapping photos with her iPhone. It’s like it’s 2005, the year that People named him the Sexiest Man Alive, all over again.
When I mention the frenzy to the actor two days later at his hotel, he gives a good-natured laugh. “Some were shriekin’ for me,” he admits in his familiar Texan drawl, “but most were only shriekin’ to be shriekin’.” Sporting a gauzy shirt, loose tan trousers, and that famously immaculate tan, the 44-year-old star looks like a backpacker you might meet in Goa—if that guy were good-looking enough to be the face of a Dolce & Gabbana fragrance.
On this Monday morning, his mood is as sunny as his outfit. Dallas Buyers Club wowed the critics, and McConaughey is being touted as a top Oscar contender for his galvanizing turn as Ron Woodroof, a racist, homophobic, sexually excessive Texas cowboy who, in 1985, learns he contracted HIV from a forgotten encounter and, in fighting for medicine to keep himself alive, gradually becomes a more decent human being. Reinforced by McConaughey’s unnervingly skeletal appearance—he lost 47 pounds to play the role—it’s a riveting piece of acting that’s at once angry, touching, and hilarious.
This triumph in Toronto is just the latest step in one of the oddest comebacks in Hollywood history. While many stars have recovered from flops to become bigger than ever, McConaughey has done something new: He’s bounced back from hits. Shucking off his male-bimbo image (oh, those shirtless photos!) after a series of profitable rom-coms, he has managed in the past eighteen months to turn in a rogues’ gallery of vivid indie performances, everything from spoofing his sexy-guy persona in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike to winning sympathy as a hopelessly lovestruck murderer in Jeff Nichols’s Mud—not to mention playing a self-promoting DA in Richard Linklater’s black comedy Bernie and a closeted journalist in Lee Daniels’s racial potboiler The Paperboy. Weathered and experienced, he has matured into a terrific actor—solid and serious, yet fearless. “Last year was arguably the best creative year of my career,” he says, “and it was the first year I ever lost money. I wound up in the red—and had the best time doing it.”
In person, McConaughey is exactly how you’d expect him to be—affable, twangy, and enviably comfortable in his own skin. He clearly doesn’t give a hoot what you think of him. He perhaps owes such ease to his upbringing. He was raised in Uvalde, Texas, by a colorful couple who kept divorcing and remarrying—his dad had played some pro football; his mother’s a cutup who’s been known, in her 80s, to flash her gams on the red carpet. Offering stories, not sound bites, he talks with his whole body, waving his arms, tap-tap-tapping on the table, lolling back on the sofa, then lurching forward to say something particularly juicy. “He’s from Texas,” says Vallée of his star’s nonstop physicality, “and Texas is movement.”
McConaughey was 23 when he first caught the public eye in Linklater’s 1993 cult hit Dazed and Confused. The movie instantly set a template for his rascally image—his first words were “Awright, awright, awright!” More important, it proved him to be a screen natural, a quality that goes beyond simple handsomeness. (“Matthew has a musical rhythm,” says Martin Scorsese, who just directed him in this month’s The Wolf of Wall Street, in which he plays Leonardo DiCaprio’s slippery mentor. “It’s there in both his dialogue and his body language.”)