BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – Matthew McConaughey doesn’t exactly make for a sound bite sort of interview. Well, particularly not when you walk into the room and inquire as to whether he happened to know that his Longhorns had just taken it to the Sooners on the gridiron. Everything after that is a conversation, full of all the tangents and tributaries toward other conversations equally bereft of easy bites and bits to be plugged into the usual interview format. If you’re from the south, too? The drawls kick in, feeding on one another. The parables take hold. Soon you find yourself wondering, “Wait, what were we talking about?”
On this particular afternoon, we’re talking about “Dallas Buyers Club,” the Jean-Marc Vallée indie production that provided McConaughey with more to chew on than perhaps any other role he’s taken in his two-decade career. So there”s plenty to discuss, beginning with the obvious: the 45 pounds the actor dropped to play a man diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live.
“Once I said, ‘I got to get to this weight – if I don’t I’d be embarrassed,’ the hard part was standing in front of the refrigerator 15 times a day and going, ‘What are you doing,’ and then walking away,” McConaughey says, fidgeting on the couch but still somehow constantly appearing at ease and relaxed. “And then I said, ‘I’m not gonna do that everyday for the next four months. So let’s make up our minds. I got to control my lifestyle here.'”
It was more difficult than he expected it to be, to the point that he had to change how he did business, even. McConaughey stopped taking meetings out at restaurants. The aroma of good food, he knew it would be too much. So he pretty much became a hermit, he says, taking meetings at home, cutting out all distractions. And there was a task at hand, of course: he had a ton of research to do on Ron Woodroof, the very real person he would be portraying in the film. Every step along the way was difficult, he concedes, but in a constructive sort of way that just fed the machine.
The character of Woodroof was so charismatic that the time McConaughey did have to investigate the man wasn’t nearly enough for as full a portrait he could have concocted. “I’ll say this – if I had another year, I could have easily filled my year still working on that guy,” McConaughey says. “Even through the shooting I was still, every Sunday, I would sit down, take over the room, spread everything out, grab old notes from eight months ago, bring ’em back. ‘Let’s get everything that could possibly pertain to tomorrow’s scenes and get ’em logged in there. Any idea, something we didn’t get the other day that could fit in this scene, do we bring that in?’ There was always something to mix and match and kind of get my quiver of variations.”
In a way, McConaughey was lifting as much nuance as he could glean from Woodroof’s life so that he could have different versions of the character, all of them true to the source, ready for director Vallée’s disposal. “I’ve got four variations on how this scene could go, where Ron would be, what he would do,” McConaughey would tell the director.
[For more on McConaughey’s process of becoming Woodroof, watch the actor’s video interview with HitFix from the Toronto Film Festival embedded at the top of this post.]
The obsession mirrored Woodroof’s own. Straight and homophobic, diagnosed with HIV in 1985 and stuck in a fight for his life with big pharmaceutical, the Dallas electrician was nothing if not driven. And in many ways, McConaughey observed from afar, it was like the death sentence was fuel for Woodroof’s tank.
“It’s basically when he really found some form and function in his life for the first time,” McConaughey says. “He found the first thing, from wake to sleep – and he didn’t sleep much – he could fight for. It was a new frontier, so he was pioneering, finding out all this sh*t. So that’s what I kind of found myself doing with the research, is I was like, ‘We’ll just keep pounding on it. Pounding on it.’ And I got more energy after I got down there. I needed three hours less sleep a night, which was odd. I didn’t expect that.”
But something else triggered for McConaughey that hadn’t quite bubbled to the surface for him in his pre-production preparation. It didn’t land for him until he was down on the New Orleans locations (which doubled for Dallas) and realized it as the narrative progressed in front of the cameras: Ron Woodroof’s story is one of forced isolation.
“It was fun to meter,” McConaughey says. “What does a guy like that – who honestly doesn’t believe that as a straight guy you can even get AIDS – how does it go from shock to, you know, basically, ‘F*ck you, man. I can’t get that,’ to, ‘Wait a minute, I’m gonna go study a little bit,’ to full-on fear, ‘Oh my God. I’ve got a ticking clock. I got 30 days?’ That was a fun transition to do in a few scenes. And then in between there you had his friends leaving him, people at his job saying, ‘Turn around, get out here.’ So [he was] slowly getting isolated like that, which was all true in a place and time like that in that area. I remember when AIDS first hit, no one knew where it came from. Could you get it from shaking someone’s hand? So everybody got fully alienated. And then our story begins. Who does he end up befriending? Rayon [Jared Leto]. The other outcast. The misfits. The odd couple, stuck together.”
The narrative also sported intriguing ties to the modern health care climate. The film is about a man fighting for access to unapproved care and medication that could potentially prolong his life. Indeed, those 30 days were eventually stretched to seven years for Woodroof because of his diligence and globe-trotting, bringing in medicine from other countries and, with Rayon, setting up a buyers club for the afflicted in the Dallas area.
It’s not something McConaughey was focused on while shooting the film, but considering it now, he ponders “how much things changed by staying the same.” Nevertheless, there remains a concerted effort, whether the question is put to Vallée or McConaughey, to not vilify the FDA of the late-1980s here. “It wasn’t like the FDA didn’t want anyone to get the right thing,” McConaughey says. “They just had one thing and they said it worked, kind of, on some cancer patients. ‘Let’s give them that: AZT.’ And then there was a contract, you know, with the pharma company that had that, so they didn’t want a competing pill out there, obviously for some business reasons. Now, I mean, yeah, we still have a lot of questions. We’re still confronted all the time with ‘where does business precede common sense and good health?’ Ron was one of the people that said basically, ‘Here’s the thing. I’m gonna do it myself.'”
And there was no rousing victory for the man in the immediate. “But he made enough noise, shook the tree enough, made enough money on the black market that they came down and shut him down three times,” McConaughey says. “He was on the radar. So I would say that he had something to do with the government fast-tracking, finding out a better prescription than just AZT, to get to people, which you could say helped a lot of people and maintained a lot of people’s lives sooner. It got that fight from the bottom of the file to the top of the file.”
It also paints the film with thematic strokes regarding personal freedoms, perhaps, more so than a commentary on the modern health care situation and access to same, etc. Moreover, from a point of view of character, there was something about antagonism driving a man like Woodroof that McConaughey found appealing.
“He liked the opposition and to go, ‘Yeah? Watch this,'” McConaughey says. “He was drifting, wandering through life until he got HIV. Two-bit gambler, kind of half-ass electrician getting a little work here and there. What’s he gonna do? He’s going to do that for how long, party on the weekend until you can’t see? Aimless. He finally had somewhere to go, had something to fight for. He got a real identity when he found a goal.”
McConaughey will take a lot from the experience of immersing himself in this role, not least of all being a big token to his career renaissance as of late. But there are some good reminders he dug up throughout the process. “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” he offers, “which is a good one and does ring true a whole lot. And I’ve always had, I think, a healthy dose of questioning authority. But working on something like this – I mean, I’m 43, so I’m not delusional to a large extent of what really goes on and what injustices are out there – but working on something like this, I definitely started questioning authority more. It kind of made me look a little more soberly at things and give gut checks to people in authority.”
To put it more simply, “Just show me the receipt,” he says. “I gave you $100. You got the case of beer. You’re only bringing back $60. You gonna tell me it’s a $40 case? Just show me the receipt.”
“Dallas Buyers Club” arrives in theaters on Nov. 1.