When Matthew McConaughey steps outside of romantic comedies, it's kind of impressive what he can do. DAZED AND CONFUSED, LONE STAR, FRAILTY, TROPIC THUNDER, WE ARE MARSHALL, and THE LINCOLN LAWYER are all fine examples of McConaughey's range. Sure, he's made some awful movies even outside the rom-com genre, but look at his roster for the next year or so: William Friedkin's NC-17 KILLER JOE, Jeff Nichols MUD, Steven Soderbergh's MAGIC MIKE, Lee Daniels THE PAPERBOY, Simon West's THUNDER RUN, and even a television series with Woody Harrelson, "True Detectives." (Two of these are premiering at Cannes very soon.) McConaughey has hit some sort of creative peak, and I can't wait to see what he's got next.
But the reason I got to sit down with him and director Richard Linklater (who has worked with McConaughey previously on DAZED AND CONFUSED and THE NEWTON BOYS) at this year's SXSW Film Festival was the fantastic dark comedy BERNIE, in which Matthew plays Texas prosecutor Danny Buck, who has his sights set on Jack Black's title character for a horrific crime…depending on who you ask.
This is far from the roles McConaughey where he gets to look handsome and often expose his torso. No, here he has a terrible haircut, enormous glasses, and a cowboy hat that I'm pretty sure he thinks makes him look like the "good guy," even though an entire town turns against him for going after Bernie. McConaughey is funny and about as far from charming as he's ever played. And much like my recent interview with Jack Black, there just wasn't enough time to cover all of McCaonaughey's career, so I stuck to the subject at hand. As for Linklater, I may not always like his movies but I will defend his right to be eclectic and rarely repeat himself, unless he's making beautiful films like BEFORE SUNRISE and BEFORE SUNSET, as well as WAKING LIFE, TAPE, THE SCHOOL OF ROCK, FAST FOOD NATION, A SCANNER DARKLY, and ME AND ORSON WELLES. And work continues on his years-in-the-making project involving the filming of a single character (played by actor Ellar Coltrane) over the course of 12 years; the film is due in 2015, plenty of time to some damage.
Alright, please enjoy my interview with a couple of friendly Austinites, Richard Linklater and Matthew McConaughey…
Capone: Hi. How are you?
Richard Linklater: Hey man, it’s good to see you again.
Matthew McConaughey: Hey Steve, how are you man? All right?
Capone: Yes, sir. It’s good to see you again, Richard.
RL: How are you doing?
Capone: Good. It’s been a while.
Capone: FAST FOOD NATION I think is what it was. So, Matthew, I heard you had a great screening the other night with my boss moderating the Q&A [for KILLER JOE].
MM: We sure did.
RL: Yeah, I loved that Harry got up there. He missed SINISTER; he must have been really torn.
Capone: He asked me to go to that instead of going to see your movie. I’ve already seen BERNIE, but I’m bummed that I’m not going to it tonight if only to hear the reaction from the one line about the "People’s Republic of Austin," because that’s going to over…
RL: [Laughs] I’m looking forward to that one.
Capone: That whole scene where that guy is going through the map of Texas, I can’t believe you premiered the film anywhere but here, just because of that scene. That’s a great scene.
RL: Oh believe me, we should have shown it last year here. It was ready. The film was done, but not quite done.
Capone: And pretty much any college town gets that label. I live near Northwestern up in Evanston, Illinois, and people always call that “The People’s Republic of Evanston.” If it's a college town…
RL: Every town where there’s a kind of liberal, artsy center in a conservative environment and that’s “The People’s Republic of Athens, Georgia” or “Missoula, Montana.” It’s like where the cool colleges are with all of these hippies and liberals running around. [Laughs] And Sonny Carl [Davis] took it to “hairy-legged women.” It’s like he's living in the '60’s. But he’s an old guy, so his coolness notion stopped at about 1974. “Liberal fruitcakes.”
Capone: I’m curious about the doc segments, the interviews with the townspeople and some of them are actors, but a lot of them aren’t. Why did you decide that was the way to go in terms of the storytelling.
RL: It was there part and parcel from the DNA. From the very beginning of how I thought to tell the story, I usually get an idea early on like what it’s going to be, and that just made total sense to me with that gossip feel. Ms. Nugent’s dead, Bernie can’t speak, he’s in jail--this whole story is told retrospectively through town gossips. That’s just how that works. I wasn’t interested in doing like a traditional dramatic format. I just thought it was so much more interesting what other people thought. Because at the end of the day and particularly in a small town, we are what everyone says we are.
RL: For better or worse, you know? If everyone in town thinks you’re a horrible person, you kind of are. You don’t have to think of yourself that way, but perception becomes reality, and if everybody thinks you’re the sweetest guy… I was always that guy in a small town going, “Everybody loves that guy, but I don’t really like that guy. I think he’s faking it.” But then if everybody hates someone, I’d go, “I think they're kind of cool.” I kind of never believed it, never believed the gossip.
Capone: Bcause the story was written up in Texas Monthly, it reminded me of the way you would piece together an article about somebody, where you just have quotes from people about the subject and then a little bit of narrative and then more quotes.
RL: Yeah, yeah. Because it came out of… [screenwriter] Skip [Hollandsworth] gave me his stack of journalistic, quickly dashed, misspelled transcripts of all of these interviews, and that’s where the idea came from, and then he and I worked on the script from there, but that’s where that idea came from.
Capone: Matthew, I would normally ask you how you got into character, but I’d imagine just looking at yourself in the mirror with those glasses and that hair style would probably do the trick.
MM: A wig helps.
MM: The glasses were a home run.
RL: When’s the last time you were wigged?
MM: The plumpers did a little something else. The belly that we threw on also helped.
Capone: Wait, you had something in your cheeks?
RL: Subtle, but there.
MM: Yeah, like little cotton cigarette butts things.
RL: Kind of Brando-GODFATHER kind of stuff.
Capone: To put a little definition in there?
MM: Just a little something. It comes from back in here to help the meter of it. But yeah, those were fun exterior things that helped color it, and it’s really fun creating a character with Rick.
Capone: It’s got to be weird playing a guy who on paper is on the right side of this issue, and yet he’s basically the bad guy of the story. As an audience member, you forget who you’re supposed to be rooting for. think it’s the church scene after Bernie's arrest where the preacher is saying “Let’s say a prayer for Bernie,” and the reaction shots that you are throwing off are classic.
RL: That little look. “Am I the only sane person in this town who's hearing this?” Yeah.
Capone: Yeah, that’s great.
MM: Well we said early on, “Everything that comes out of Danny Buck is hanging on justice. That’s the bottom line, justice. That’s the place where 100 percent Danny Buck's right.” Now, how he colors that and what roads he leads you down to tell you “This is why,” that’s what makes guys in his job actors in their own right. But it was hanging on justice, so that always kept it grounded to an extent where I felt like it was coming from a true place. I felt like I could go until he ran out of film or ran out of video trying to take somebody down for those reasons. But also he’s a very colorful character. We metered different performances for embellishing more and being less dramatic or more dramatic, but it was always hanging on justice. He came to me at the beginning just like “Danny is really the only one that’s…” What was the word?
RL: I forget.
MM: “Sane” or “Fair”?
RL: Yeah, who sees it on a clear “right-wrong” spectrum. He’s the only one who is employed in this county to do that, other than cops. But with everybody else your emotions and your beliefs come first, and then your justifications come second; that’s how we look at everything. That’s why people believe what they believe, so it’s interesting the way the brain works. But yeah when it comes to your emotions--“I like this person. I don’t like this person”--facts are just kind of ambiguous. “Morality is for other people.”
MM: Yeah, so I tried playing that the whole time as if he's the one that’s sane. He's the one that’s right. There is no argument. I’ve got to make sure the rest of the people understand that. Like we said, “At the end of the interview, make sure they get the real zinger that lets them know that not only…”
RL: “If you let him back on the streets… He’s like a rabid dog, there’s no telling what he'll do.”
MM: That image is just great of Jack Black as Bernie: “Don’t let him back on the streets.”
RL: He’ll help your grandmother across the road.
MM: “You’re saving generations.”
RL: “Think of the unborn!”
MM: “The epidemic that will overcome us.”
Capone: Did you meet Danny Buck?
MM: I did not. I’ll meet him tonight.
RL: Yeah, you’re going to meet him tonight.
RL: Yeah, Danny’s coming.
Capone: Another reason I wish I were going.
RL: He’s already seen it once.
Capone: And I saw a name that had your last name attached to it. Your mom [Kay McConaughey] is in it, who I think I just saw out in the hallway there.
RL: She’s with us? She’s here?
MM: Yeah, she’s here.
Capone: How did she get involved in this?
RL: Well I’ve known her for years, a friend of the family.
Capone: Okay, yeah obviously.
RL: And as I moved forward on this I just started thinking of her for this one particular character. I knew she could do it. She’s not really like that, I just thought she'd be funny in the movie.
Capone: She is funny, too. Even before I knew who it was, I thought she was hilarious.
RL: Yeah, she’s in the top three or four favorites. Does she get jealous when you’re all over [actress] Kay Epperson?”
MM: I think she walks away.
RL: Is she jealous that you think Kay is such a great actor.
MM: I’m sure she’s a little jealous. I don’t that much around her. She probably walks away after I say “Kay” and then doesn’t listen to the last name, because she thinks I’m talking about her.
RL: Kay cut Elvis’s hair, man. She was on tour with the boys.
Capone: Nice. I told Jack too, the first note that I took about 20 minutes into the movie was “Corky St. Clair,” because there is a WAITING FOR GUFFMAN feel to his character. Obviously there’s no murder there, but just that theatrical element to it and that his sexual inclination is in question. I didn’t know if that ever crossed your mind or not.
RL: It’s the small town thing. But not really. I mean it’s out there. I mean I hate the term “mockumentary” and that movie is all that, this just had elements, but I was thinking more like REDS or films that have talking heads. A lot of movies do that as a device, so I was just thinking of it as a storytelling thing, but yeah Corky, that’s a funny movie.
Capone: Oh definitely.
RL: Filmed around here, too.
Capone: There’s something quintessentially Texas about this film and this story. Do you feel that way?
RL: I think any small town has unique characters and qualities. Texas is pretty staunchily individualistic and appreciates characters. I think East Texas is even bigger like that, but I’d say that for the whole south with that extra streak of independence and kind of craziness, I think, Texas kind of tolerates or encourages.
MM: In some places, it very much is encouraged, yeah.
Capone: Was it good to play a lawyer once again?
MM: First time prosecuting.
Capone: That’s true.
MM: Three defense, one prosecution. That was fun, because it’s a different…
RL: You’re always winning? You win on either side of the aisle? I’m trying to think.
MM: Yep, 4-0.
RL: 4-0 on both sides? Coaching for different teams?
MM: Yeah, in all of the defense roles, I always spend as much or more time trying to understand the prosecution. “If I were on the other side, what would be my argument?” That way, my reaction or what I’m saying is in reply to whatever they about to say. “What would the jury be thinking?” and “What’s that prosecutor going to say before I’ve even spoken? Or after I’ve spoken? Let me try and cover those grounds too.” But they're different: the defense attorney weaves the web of possible innocence, the prosecutor just drives and keeps nailing it in and then goes into some--not embellishments--but goes into some poetic and dramatic license.
RL: You do what you’ve got to do. You’re worried about that jury.
RL: And the truth is you had him at the photos of Mrs. Nugent.
MM: Yeah, but he just slammed it home.
RL: You’re like running up the score.
MM: Yeah. Yeah, yeah…
RL: It’s 98-0 and you’re going to try to get triple digits, I think. You’re passing on third down or first down.
Capone: Anyways, all right guys thank you so much. It was great to meet you.