Much of Matthew McConaughey’s new memoir, “Greenlights,” is drawn from journals he’s kept over the last 35 years.
With the exception of two journals documenting specific travels, this was the first time he sat down and read through them all. “I had more compassion for myself than I thought I would,” he said. “That’s part of the reason I think I dared myself to write a book: I was afraid to go back through those cringeworthy moments and be like, ‘Ooooh, geez.’ But I’d mostly laugh at myself. Or I’d forgive myself.”
If there’s a perception that the Oscar-winning actor is an easygoing person — “I’m sure there is that perception to some extent,” he said, “that hey, I’m always relaxed and easygoing” — the book reveals how and why he’s been able to reach that point: “You’ll see a lot of the work that I put in so I can relax. You’ll see a lot of the preparation I do so I can play. You’ll see a lot of the questions and seeking and being confused that I go through to get to that certainty.”
When asked to share a worst moment from his career, the story he told illustrated this very point.
My worst moment …
“I had been out in Hollywood for a couple of years. Now remember, I did ‘Dazed and Confused’ in 1992 between my junior and senior year of college, then went back to school, graduated, then drove my U-Haul out to Hollywood. And the first two auditions I went on, I got the job.
“But there was a point about two years in where I decided to start taking acting lessons because I was like, you know what? I have the instincts for this, but maybe now I should go learn what it is. During this time I was still going to auditions but never landing the job and it was because I was getting heady; I was learning how to do something for the first time that I only instinctually understood how to do before. So in the beginning of this learning curve I was not landing jobs. And it’s because I was holding back, I wasn’t taking risks, I wasn’t going with my instincts. And I was kind of concerned about this.
“Well, during this time, I got a blind offer for a role in a movie called ‘Scorpion Spring’ (which came out in 1995). Didn’t have to audition, it was a blind offer, and I said yes. It was a one-day role for a guy who was a drug runner on the south border of Texas where it meets Mexico and the coyotes are bringing the drugs over and instead of me paying for them, I shoot the guys, steal the drugs and get away with it.
“Well I decide, my bright idea at the time was, you know what? I know what the problem is and why I’m not landing roles: I’m thinking too much, I’m learning too much and I need to go back to how I did it in the beginning on ‘Dazed and Confused’ where I improvised and went with my instincts because I knew my man — my man being the character, right? — and you could put me in any situation and I would just say what my man would say and do what my man would do.
According to IMDb, McConaughey’s character in “Scorpion Spring” is named El Rojo.
“Oh geez, see, I didn’t even remember that.
“But my plan was, I’m not going to read the script, I’m not even going to read the scene, I’m just going to do and say just what El Rojo would do and say, because if I know the circumstance and I know the stakes and the obstacles, I will overcome the obstacles and that would be what my man El Rojo would do. That’s my bright idea, right? I’m like, enough with this studying and learning and preparing and all this stuff, I’m just going to be my man and improvise and do what I would do.
“Now, cut to the day on set. I’m on location. I have not looked at the script. I got to my mark and we’re about to start this scene that I am completely unrehearsed and unread for. Well, the production assistant comes by and says, ‘Would you like to see some sides, Mr. McConaughey?’ Now, sides are a small version of the script of that day’s work.
“And I guess I said sure because I was starting to feel a little anxious and insecure about my choice of just winging it. So I get the sides and I decide right before they call action that I’m going to have a look at them. Page One: OK. Page Two: OooK. Page Three: OooooK. Page Four: Oh (shoot). It was a four page monologue — in Spanish! (Long laugh)
“Well, I immediately feel this big bead of sweat come up on the back of my neck and go trickling down. And my heart rate flies up and I remember saying this out loud to everyone and no one in particular: ‘Uh, can I get 12 minutes?’ And my thinking was, 12 minutes would not be long enough to be inconsiderate to the crew, but also enough time for me to learn a four-page monologue in Spanish because I thought, at the time, hey, I took a semester of Spanish in the 11th grade (laughs).
“Well, 12 minutes was not enough time to learn a four-page monologue in Spanish, and I came back exactly 12 minutes later and did the scene. I don’t know what I did — I think I started off speaking very poor Spanish. Like, ‘Porque yo no valgo.’ I was numb, I don’t remember the moment. I may have put together a semblance of a scene and made something happen, but I don’t remember what I did. I’ve never watched it and I doubt I ever will.
“But I do know that this was a seminal moment for me because I was so embarrassed. That moment is when I said, ‘No, no, no, no, no, Matthew. You have to prepare to have freedom. You have to do the work early so you can play on the day. You have to get organized so you can let it all blow in the wind.’
“So from that day on, I heavily prepared for all my work and have since, because that embarrassment, the absolutely embarrassment — I was humiliated and I felt horrible for being so irresponsible — from that day on, I’ve been a heavy-duty preparer.”
“I had feelings of guilt and shame for about a month after. Like, you idiot, Matthew. And it wasn’t until whatever the next movie role I did that I was able to forgive myself. Like, OK: You’re never doing that again, you’ve righted the ship and now let’s just make sure I never make that mistake again.”
McConaughey’s next feature film role was in 1996 1/4 u2032s “Lone Star,” followed that same year with his first movie lead in “A Time to Kill.”
“Going into ‘A Time to Kill,’ I met Joel Schumacher, the director, in his office to talk to him about the role of Freddie Lee Cobb, which is the role Kiefer Sutherland played. That was the role that I had been offered. Now, talk about preparation? I had read the script and the book and I went into that meeting with Joel prepared and with the full intention of planting the seed that I wanted to play the role of Jake Brigance.
“And I remember sitting in his office, I had a sleeveless John Mellencamp T-shirt on and I was smoking a cigarette and at the end of our conversation about Freddie Lee Cobb and how I’d be right for the role I said, ‘Hey, by the way, who’s playing the lead role of Jake Brigance?’ And he goes, ‘I don’t know, who do you think should?’ And I remember I took an inhale on my cigarette and on the exhale delivered the line that I had intentionally planned on delivering, and I looked him right in the eye and said: ‘I think I should.’ And he laughed and said, ‘That’s a great idea, but buddy that ain’t ever gonna happen. The studio needs a name.’
“But things went my way, he called me in for a screen test because the studio and Joel and John Grisham hadn’t settled on who could play the role of Jake Brigance. And next thing you know, I get a call on the set of ‘Lone Star’ one night around midnight from John Grisham and Joel Schumacher saying, ‘Do you want to play Jake Brigance?’ And I said, ‘Hell yeah!’”
The takeaway …
“Getting ready for a role, that’s the hard part. That’s when I break a sweat, so I can be so fully prepared from every angle that when I show up, now it’s not work, now I’m playin’ — I I know my man and I’m ready for anything you want to throw at me.
“So you have to prepare to have freedom. There’s a responsibility. You have to put in the work in order to play. You have to create structure first. I call it conservative early, liberal late — that’s not political, it means: Do the work, figure out the rules and what the game plan is, so that when you show up you don’t have to think about it and then you can move from instinct.”
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