The Mythmaking of Matthew McConaughey

In his memoir Greenlights, the actor finally plays himself. Or does he?

Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for Wild Turkey
Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for Wild Turkey

Did you know that Matthew McConaughey made up the McConaissance? Indeed, he “coined, and created” the term, and fed it to an MTV reporter at a 2013 Sundance interview for Mud. It was a deliberate part of his rebrand from “rom-com McConaughey” — the leading man in films like The Wedding Planner and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, which brought him fame and fortune in the aughts — to a serious dramatic actor. But he needed a “campaign slogan, an anthem, a bumper sticker” to brand the pivot, and he knew it couldn’t come from him. So when the interviewer congratulated him for his recent work on Killer Joe and Magic Mike, he said: “Thank you, yeah, I’m on a great ride, I actually did an interview the other day and the journalist called it a ‘McConaissance.’” Brilliant — the McConaissance! The reporter gushed, “That may stick.”

The story, which he’s never shared until now, is literally a footnote in Greenlights, his memoir, out this week. Reading it, you come across many of these anecdotes, which smell just slightly of bullshit but not enough to distract from the charm of the storyteller behind them. In fact, that’s a good way to describe Greenlights, a book that will be sold as a celebrity memoir, but whose tales are so tall it reads more like a book of folk tales for grown-ups.

Consider the hero’s wet-dream adventures. The first was in ’96, when he had a vivid, ejaculatory nightmare in which he was floating down the Amazon River, his body wrapped in various dangerous reptiles. He followed the dream to Peru and floated naked down the Amazon, where he caught the “wave of a mermaid’s tale” as she headed downriver. He waved back. When the same wet dream came years later, he spied “African tribesmen” on the banks, and followed the vision to Mali. There, he took on a local giant in a wrestling match as the rest of the village cheered them on. He claims, at various points, to have done peyote in a cage with a mountain lion, watched his father resurrect a drowned bird with mouth-to-mouth, and built a 13-story treehouse out of stolen wood. (He no longer has prophetic wet dreams, but the mountain lion, he says, ended up in his lap, purring while he scratched it under the chin. It was not a baby.)

Greenlights seems a natural title for a book by a man who’s spent much of his life on the road. “Behind the steering wheel has always been my favorite seat, and driving the highways of America has always been my ideal office,” he writes. And indeed, McConaughey spent years taking meetings in his car, which he used to drag around the 28-foot airstream in which he lived after becoming famous. The book is scattered with poems and journal entries from the last 36 years of the actor’s life, many of them musings on American life, God, and class. They’re collected under his own philosophical framework, something he calls “catching Greenlights.” He uses traffic lights as a sort of extended metaphor for living a well-examined life: What good can we find when we’re forced to stop? What’s the advantage of slowing down? How can we get better at catching green lights, and otherwise “navigating the autobahn of life”?

Now, at 50, McConaughey is sharing that philosophy on a virtual book tour (he is so far enjoying “the Zoomies,” as he calls them). Before starting ours, he gets up to grab a cup of tea — it’s one of two silent stretches in the conversation and he fills it with whistling; in the other, he sings a nonsense ditty, doo-doo, da-doo, doo-doo, da-doo. Today, he’s wearing glasses with transparent frames that obscure his eyes a little, but they’re picked up by the light-blue button-up he’s wearing. The stubble along his jaw, which he rubs when he’s searching for words, is salt-and-pepper, but his hair, which is wet, longish, and tucked behind his ears, is dark. As his author blurb notes, he’s grown more of it “at age fifty than he had at thirty-five,” and I recall a story from Greenlights in which he shaved his head to combat hair loss and get in character for a role. When People published a photo of his rashy, chalk-white, “freshly shaved nugget,” he almost lost the movie. But he oiled and tanned the nugget for a week, and showed up to an industry party in a Gucci suit, looking, I presume, like this. He kept the job.

When he dimples, I recognize the rom-com-era McConaughey, the one I saw most growing up, but otherwise his air is distinctly professorial, a demeanor underscored by how frequently he falls into philosophizing. This is helpful, though, when I admit how nervous I am: “You just did the best thing — to this day I do the same on set. It’s something I learned when I did the film A Time to Kill. There was a great defense attorney, last name Spence, and before every final summation, he’d get so nervous, and couldn’t quell it. You’ve gotta learn to sit there right before and go: Sheesh! I’m nervous!” he hollers this, leaning back in his chair and pretending to wipe sweaty palms on his shirt. “It kind of pops the bubble and all of a sudden, you relax.”

Right now, he’s at home in Austin with his three kids, wife, and 88-year-old mother. They’ve been doing puzzles, and every night the family goes outside to look for shooting stars. It’s a way, McConaughey says, to replace the catharsis of church, where he usually likes to have a good cry. “You look up in the sky and you go, Oh, I don’t really matter. And in the I don’t matter is when you realize everything matters.”

He’s been “relatively pretty good” in quarantine. He likes to be alone, he says, sometimes too much, and recently spent several solitary months in the desert to write Greenlights, so the transition to lockdown was smooth. He’s spent more time counseling others, he explains, about how to make the best of the situation: “What assets can we find? How do we get to know ourselves better? And when we come out of it, how can we find the courage to take what we’ve learned back into everyday life, when we’re out there dancing again?” It’s the language of “catching Greenlights,” but it works rather well in These Times.

Photo: Crown Publishing Group

Greenlights was written partially as a corrective — McConaughey is so convincing in his roles, he’s often accused of playing himself. He’s learned to take this as a compliment, explaining that all of his characters have a little bit of him in them—he’s simply their humble vessel, the guy who “cranks up” the hedonism here, or “pulls down” the piety there. But even as he describes Greenlights as an effort to publicly separate his identity from his work, he speaks about his real life in terms of a role: “The character that I’m playing at this location, which happens to be our home, is papa,” (what his kids call him) “who wrote the book Greenlights. And now I’m going out and sharing it with people.”

Maybe it’s deliberate, this description; letting his life bleed into his art, and vice versa, magnifies his larger-than-life-ness. It’s a theme in the book, but more specifically his acting career. Take the circumstances of landing his first role as the endearing dirtbag Wooderson in Dazed and Confused. He met and charmed casting director Don Phillips at the Hyatt bar in Austin, which he couldn’t afford but his friend, the bartender, gave him free drinks. Or, consider the regiment he tried to impose on himself while preparing to play dragon slayer Denton Van Zan in Reign of Fire, which involved the following: a double shot of tequila when he rose at sunrise, five barefoot miles run across the West Texas desert, and tackling sleeping bulls in a nearby ranch, naked. (The ranch was named locas pelotas, “crazy balls,” after he was caught doing this.) None of it is impossible, but reading it you can’t help but wonder, what is fact, what is fiction, or if McConaughey really is just that unbelievable — a word he happens to hate on a visceral and etymological level.

These anecdotes — of how he prepared for roles or finagled his way into jobs through a combination of talent and charisma — are the closest thing we get in Greenlights to gossip. He barely names any other stars, glossing over the “18-month hedonism tour” he embarked on while living at the Chateau Marmont, a time that coincided with what he later describes as “the bubbly mendacities” of his “rom-com emasculation.”

Instead, there’s a section in Greenlights that feels more revelatory than any dishy Hollywood anecdote. It’s actually dropped right there in the intro, a two-page list that is markedly different from the rest of the book, and serves as a snapshot of McConaughey’s life. These stories seem so far afield from his tall-tale-spinning, easygoing stoner persona that they’re startling to read, and they appear in a form that suggests he hasn’t quite figured out how it all fits together either.

Some parts of the list he expands on later in the book, such as the tumult of being the child of “twice divorced and thrice married” parents. But there are also two disclosures which, like much of what he wrote about in the diaries that became Greenlights, he hasn’t spoken about publicly, or even privately. The first: “I was blackmailed into having sex for the first time when I was fifteen. I was certain I was going to hell for the premarital sex. Today, I am merely certain that I hope that’s not the case.” The second: “I was molested by a man when I was eighteen while knocked unconscious in the back of a van.”

It’s all he says about either incident in the book, and beyond telling me “it’s a fact, one I’ve never shared,” he doesn’t really say why he included it in the introduction. He does, however, share the details of the events and how they made him feel, describing how sad he was he lost his virginity in such a bad situation: “There wasn’t anything pretty about it. There wasn’t anything beautiful about it. I wasn’t nervous for the right reasons.” He notes that the molestation ended before “it could have been something that may have really scarred me.” He insists, without being asked, that neither experience affected him long term, that he never “needed or pursued” help afterward, and describes how he instead processed the events — “rearranged” his thoughts — so that he wasn’t shaped by them. When I thank him for addressing it, noting that it’s rare for men in Hollywood to discuss experiences of assault, he sort of gives a deep breath and nods. “Good. Yeah. Even just talking with you right then. It was enjoyable to talk about that in that way.”

McConaughey “considers himself a storyteller by occupation,” and with Greenlights, seems to have fully made that turn. He’s written a couple of scripts. The one he wants to direct is about a young Black boy, “the greatest fisherman the world never knew,” named Curtis Mylove. “His name is Curtis Mylove, because when his grandmother sees him, she says there’s Curtis, my love” — here he holds his hands up, cupping an invisible face. He tells the story, using sound effects and phantom fish poles, and for a moment, Matthew McConaughey, the actor, is there. “Anyways, I get excited when I talk about it,” he says a little bashfully at the end, shaking his hands about his head like he’s swatting gnats away. He calls the story magic realism — a genre that peppers the mundane with the surreal, and is most effective when the audience can’t quite tell what is fact and what is fantasy. It’s a good metaphor for Greenlights, and perhaps his life.

Would he ever play himself? Pause. And then, loudly: “The movie I’m trying most to play myself in is this one we’re all in! L-I-F-E. Ideally directed by God, recorded by the hands of time. That’s the movie, you know what I mean?”

The Mythmaking of Matthew McConaughey