When Matthew McConaughey told his dad he was skipping law school to be an actor, this is what he said
In his new memoir Greenlights, the Oscar-winning actor reveals some of the most pivotal moments of his life
Actor Matthew McConaughey was fresh out of college when he decided to have "the talk" with his father.
McConaughey planned the conversation out carefully: it would happen at 7:30 on a Tuesday night — a time when his notoriously volatile dad would be home from work, he would have had dinner, and he'd be enjoying a beer on the couch with his wife.
The phone rang, and his father asked what was up. McConaughey told him straight: "I don't want to go to law school anymore. I want to go to film school."
"I had to catch my breath to say that. I was already sweating on the other end of the phone line," remembers McConaughey in a q interview with Tom Power.
"And I'm waiting for him to go, 'You want to what?' But instead, real calm he goes, 'Huh. Are you sure that's what you want to do?' And I immediately said, 'Yes sir,'" says McConaughey in his trademark Texas drawl.
McConaughay's father once again paused, leaving the young McConaughey to think he was about to yell, "Are you out of your mind?" After all, they were a blue-collar working family, and McConaughey was supposed to become a lawyer — "and here I am introducing this avant garde European idea of being an artist," he says with a laugh.
"Then he gave me three words that changed my life. He said, 'Well, don't half ass it.' And I remember tearing up when he said that," he says.
"It was more than approval that he gave me. He gave me rocket fuel with that line. The way he said it, he was like 'Do it. Not only do I approve of you doing it, but awesome. I'm giving you privilege and freedom to do it and responsibility to do it.'"
"And it was the best thing he could have ever said to me."
'He was cooler than James Dean ever was'
Of course, it was a massive gamble that paid off in a very big way.
Some of McConaughey's early film hits included The Wedding Planner, Failure to Launch, and Magic Mike. McConaughey went on to win an Oscar and Golden Globe for Dallas Buyer's Club, and an Emmy for True Detective.
He also acted in Interstellar, The Dark Tower, White Boy Rick and The Wolf of Wall Street, to name a few.
Now McConaughey — who in 2005 was also named People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive, and in 2014 was named one of Time's Most Influential People in the World — has released a new memoir called Greenlights.
In it, he recounts the story behind the role that shot him into the limelight, playing David Wooderson, a guy in his 20s who still hangs out with high school students and checks out the young girls as they go by, in 1993's Dazed and Confused.
McConaughey didn't have many lines, but one of them was what he calls "a launch pad line": "That's what I love about those high school girls, man. I get older, but they stay the same age."
"I said, 'Whoa, if that character believes that — if that's really an ethos of that guy, this is not an attitude, he's not being cool to make a joke, he believes that — well, who the hell is that guy? I mean, there's an encyclopedia on that guy," jokes McConaughay.
The actor based his performance on a moment from his childhood when he was 10 years old looking out the back window of the family's station wagon, and he saw his brother, who was 17, in the smoking area behind the high school.
"I see this silhouetted image of this guy leaning against a wall in the smoking section, smoking a cigarette in a lazy right-handed way, left knee bent up, boot heel on the wall. And he was 10 feet tall. He was cooler than James Dean ever was. And who was he? He was my brother, Pat. He was really only five-foot-10. But in my 10-year-old eyes from that 80 yards away, he was the coolest thing in the world," says McConaughay.
That fleeting moment stayed with McConaughey for the rest of his life, and ended up becoming the good-looking, smooth-talking Wooderson.
"So you take a line, 'I get older, but they stay the same age' and you throw it with that three-second impression that was in my mind, and I've got that guy."
'Alright, alright, alright'
Wooderson was also the character who first spoke the phrase that would become McConaughey's trademark — "Alright, alright, alright" — but it turns out the line was never in the script.
In fact, McConaughey was only on set for makeup and wardrobe that night, and wasn't supposed to be shooting at all, when director Richard Linklater came over and asked if he thought his character might be interested in a redheaded intellectual.
Soon after he was in a car wired with a lavalier microphone about to shoot his first scene when his nerves started to kick in. So he asked himself, "Who is Wooderson? And what is he about?"
"I'm like, 'Wooderson's about his car. Well, I'm in my 70 Chevelle, there's one.' I said, 'Wooderson's about getting high.' I looked to my right and see Slater's riding shotgun. 'He's always got a doobie rolled up. There's two,'" recounts McConaughey in his famously alluring style.
"I said 'Wooderson's and about rock and roll. I got Ted Nugent Stranglehold in the eight track right now, and I'm rocking to it. There's three.'
"And then I hear 'Action' and I looked up at Cynthia and I said, 'And Wooderson's about picking up chicks. I got three out of four. Put it in drive. I'm going to get the fourth. Alright, alright, alright."
'Think long money'
The rest is history, as they say, and clearly McConaughey — who at various points worked as a boat mechanic, a bank teller, a photo processor, a construction worker, an assistant golf pro, a waiter at a blues bar and a hand model — was right to heed the draw toward a career as an actor.
Of course since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many people are making similarly big life changes — moving homes, quitting jobs, getting married, getting divorced, pursuing things they've always wanted to do — even though we're in a time of unprecedented uncertainty.
In his book, McConaughey talks about the green, red and yellow lights that life throws us — signals that tells us to keep going, to pause, or to stop.
My advice would be this: Think long money. Make sure you're considering the outcome of the decision. How will you feel about that outcome when the world's grand again, and we're freely engaging and moving around and COVID and whatever other problems we may have are in the rearview mirror? Try to measure it.- Matthew McConaughey
So what advice would he offer others who are thinking about taking a big life leap?
"My advice would be this: Think long money. Make sure you're considering the outcome of the decision. How will you feel about that outcome when the world's grand again, and we're freely engaging and moving around and COVID and whatever other problems we may have are in the rearview mirror? Try to measure it," he says.
McConaughey sometimes thinks about what he would want his eulogy to say, and uses that as a litmus test. "I love writing the headline first and then writing the story to get to the headline," he quips.
"Now is a good time to think: 'What is the headline if I make this major change?'" he says. If your eulogy feels too far off, he adds, imagine yourself in 10 years looking back at your current self.
"Just go 10 years out and lay this decision out there and interview yourself. Have your 10-year-in-the-future self interview yourself now and see if this big decision that you want to make comes up, and how you feel about it."
Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview produced by Chris Trowbridge.