In the leading-man landscape, there is nobody quite like Matthew McConaughey. While peers like Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio hide in mansions unless they are selling a movie or telling us to go green, McConaughey is the one you find living among the masses, drinking beer in a trailer park or roughing it in the wild. No leading man seems more comfortable in his own skin (or is photographed that way) than McConaughey. He’s an unapologetic guy’s guy, a redneck Buddha (as described by pal Lance Armstrong) who has romanced co-stars like Ashley Judd, Sandra Bullock and Penélope Cruz and gotten arrested for playing bongos in the nude after a wild post-football game celebration.
As an actor, the 38-year-old has been compared to Paul Newman and Marlon Brando. His manly vibe has worked in guy films like the cult classic Dazed and Confused, A Time to Kill and We Are Marshall, and his Texas charm and good looks have made him America’s romantic-comedy answer to Hugh Grant in hits like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Failure to Launch. His latest is Fool’s Gold, in which he stars as a surfer and treasure hunter opposite Kate Hudson.
One of three brothers, McConaughey was raised in a close-knit east Texas household. His father, Jim, a former Green Bay Packer who owned a gas station and an oil-pipe supply business, three times married and twice divorced Matthew’s mother, Kay. McConaughey’s father may have preached nine-to-five working-class values, but his mother encouraged her son’s penchant for high adventure, which sent him to Australia when he was 17. While down under he changed his career path from law to movies.
McConaughey studied directing at the University of Texas, but his good looks and homespun charm eventually led him to the front of the camera. At a bar with a casting director, McConaughey talked himself into his first big movie, Dazed and Confused. Next he talked director Joel Schumacher and author John Grisham into casting him, not Brad Pitt or the other stars rumored to be in the running, as the lead in A Time to Kill.
Fame followed. His romances were chronicled in the press. People magazine named him Sexiest Man Alive in 2005, and the gossip blogs dogged his every move. His friendships (and bike rides) with Lance Armstrong and Jake Gyllenhaal became an Internet fixation, and his decision not to alter his daily routine because of the paparazzi made him even more popular online. Photographers hid in bushes while he was filming the upcoming Surfer, Dude. That movie is McConaughey’s second stint as producer as well as actor (after Sahara). He’ll fill the same roles for The Grackle, a raucous comedy that will start production soon, in which he plays a barroom brawler for hire.
When we decided to catch up with Hollywood’s favorite beach bum, Playboy sent Michael Fleming, who last interviewed Chris Tucker for the magazine. Fleming reports, “We met at his Malibu home, where McConaughey led me past surfboards that carry the dings and scars of wipeouts on reefs in Papua New Guinea, where he honed his surfing skills for Surfer, Dude. He explained that surfing has replaced golf as his sporting passion. Throughout the interview McConaughey proved to be a fully formed regular guy, a great storyteller who’s not above grabbing his interviewer to demonstrate a wrestling maneuver. By the time his girlfriend, 24-year-old Brazilian model Camila Alves, gave me hello pecks on both cheeks, I had become convinced his life was as good as we’d all feared.”
PLAYBOY: You have an impressive body of work, which is why we have to begin with a question about your seeming inability to refrain from showing off your body. What do you have against shirts?
McCONAUGHEY: Yeah, I’m shirtless a lot because I’ve had three summers off in a row now. I spent the summer of 2006 in Malibu, learning to surf. Then I went to Australia and caught six months of their summer while I shot Surfer, Dude. Then I came back to Malibu for another summer.
PLAYBOY: But the shirtless image predates your endless summer.
McCONAUGHEY: Well, I grew up in the country and didn’t wear shirts or shoes. My mom didn’t even put a bathing suit on us at the country club until we were nine.
PLAYBOY: Do you mind that your penchant for going shirtless has become fodder for jokes and parody?
McCONAUGHEY: I don’t keep up with all that, but I heard there was a series of shots of me with my shirt off. Then Matt Damon did an impersonation on Letterman. That’s the first time I realized it had become some pop-culture thing. To me, though, it’s about chasing summer. I surf. I run. Exercise is a form of meditation. Nothing’s better than feeling that fatigue. It settles your mind. I break a sweat to get all the tentacles up there connected. Exercise makes me very conscious of my anatomy. Shirt off, man? Yeah!
PLAYBOY: Whether or not you’re being chased by cameras, apparently.
McCONAUGHEY: I am aware that when I run past the paparazzi it becomes like the Discovery Channel: “They’ve caught the mammal McConaughey running without his shirt again!” It hit me years ago: If this is going to be a part of my life, I’m not going to cocoon up. I tried it, actually. I insulated myself for a year. I would lose energy getting pissed off or not go places I wanted to go. I realized what was happening one night when I was in my car with my security guard, who was driving 85 miles an hour and running red lights because the paparazzi were following in three cars. For a second I thought it was necessary. I got home with my brother and my right-hand guy, John Chaney, and we looked at one another. That was a load of shit, I thought. There’s no reason to be running from guys who have cameras and not guns.
PLAYBOY: What made you want to hide out for a year?
McCONAUGHEY: One Friday afternoon I walked down the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. There were 500 people, and five were looking at me. Two were cute girls, one was a guy I knew and maybe the other two liked my shirt. Then on Monday, after I became famous from A Time to Kill, 495 of the 500 people were looking at me. I didn’t know if my frickin' fly was unzipped, if I had a booger on my nose or what. Strangers feel they know you. I was like, “Whoa, let me catch my breath here, man.” Life had just changed. The anonymity was gone. So I hid, but no more. Now it’s not a problem, just a fact. As long as I’ve got my 18 square inches of personal space, bro, I’m fine, though I still don’t think a celebrity who goes out should be treated like the frickin' Eiffel Tower.
PLAYBOY: Were you angered by Matt Damon’s impression of you on David Letterman? He had you plotting for a way to take your shirt off.
McCONAUGHEY: I laughed. I sent him some of my T-shirts. I said, “Here, man. I’m not wearing them. Maybe you can use them.”
PLAYBOY: Damon has said he won’t whore out his life to sell a movie and feels the exposure cheapens his value as an actor. Is it possible he was thinking about you?
McCONAUGHEY: I don’t know, man. I don’t take it that way. I’ve met him and liked the guy I met. I think he’s got enough good stuff going on in his own life. He’s got better things to do than worrying about what I’m doing.
PLAYBOY: Do you worry that your image—the shirtless hell-raiser—could impact the quality of your work on-screen?
McCONAUGHEY: Truthfully, no. In fact I know I have gotten jobs because of how I am. I got EDtv because I was in Brian Grazer’s office and I spilled Coca-Cola. Instead of wiping it up, I bent down and sucked it off the table.
PLAYBOY: Did that qualify as an audition?
McCONAUGHEY: He said, “You just sucked Coke off the table! You’re funny.” You don’t know why things happen, right? I don’t know if I wasn’t offered the next role—as a lawyer—because there’s a perception of me as a beach guy. You just don’t know. I heard this joke yesterday: “How do you know the seasons are changing? McConaughey’s put on a suit.”
PLAYBOY: Joking aside, are you becoming a better actor?
McCONAUGHEY: Yes, I understand the craft more. I’m working harder at it. I’m more specific about what I want to do. I’ve got a production company now. I’m doing things that turn me on every day. That’s what turns me on, not worrying about my image. I know a lot of people in my position for whom managing an image is much more of a concern, who are great at it. You see only what they want you to.
PLAYBOY: Who’s great at it?
McCONAUGHEY: I’m not going to say specific names. I’ll tell you this, man. I’ve heard of people who wear the same thing every time they go out, because then nobody will buy the photo. Others get ahold of the press anytime they go out. They say, “This is where I’m going. Here’s what I’m wearing. This is the shot I need.” And it’s lit just right. If you can pull that off, bravo, man!
PLAYBOY: Do you pose for the paparazzi?
McCONAUGHEY: If I went running up the trail right now, I would know where the paparazzi will be, but I wouldn’t stop and pose. When I’m with my girlfriend they always want me to put my arm around her. “I’m not posing for you, dude,” I say. I’m going to do my thing. “You want to catch it? Very well, man, catch it. Oh yeah, and by the way, you want to make sure you’re in focus and we got nice light.”
PLAYBOY: Do you resent living in a fishbowl?
McCONAUGHEY: It’s all about how big you see the bowl, man. Do you look at it as a goldfish bowl, a swimming pool or an ocean?
PLAYBOY: How bad was the attention in 1999 when you were arrested in the infamous naked-bongo incident?
McCONAUGHEY: That invasion of privacy? The idea that a person can walk into another man’s house? I don’t care if you’re an officer of the law; you don’t have the right to walk into someone’s house unless you have a reason.
PLAYBOY: Maybe the officer saw a bong.
McCONAUGHEY: I don’t believe the guy saw a bong, since there was no bong to see. He saw a man standing buck naked, sweating, playing music, having a ball, singing, and I think he just went, “What planet is this?”
PLAYBOY: Do you admit you had been smoking pot that day?
McCONAUGHEY: We’d been up for two days, man. It was after the Nebraska game, which we won. We were still reveling in the victory. I’m going to leave that there. I’m going straight around that question.
PLAYBOY: Do you advocate smoking pot?
McCONAUGHEY: I say it’s up to the individual, man. People say you can’t be addicted to it, and I say yes, you can. I know people who are.
PLAYBOY: How about naked bongo playing? Do you recommend it?
McCONAUGHEY: I think everybody should do it at least 100 times. I’ve done it since, too. Oh yeah, bro, I love playing drums naked. Who doesn’t like comfort and music?
PLAYBOY: Before you were famous you posed nude for photos.
McCONAUGHEY: I did, yeah.
PLAYBOY: How did you feel when the photographer sold them after you became successful?
McCONAUGHEY: I understood it. I went to the guy personally and said, “Man, I’m just telling you, I’d rather you didn’t. Do you want to do another photo shoot instead?” He said, “No, I got to do this. I can make some money.” And I went, “Okay, well.” I shook his hand and said, “I’d rather you didn’t, but okay, go for it. C'est la vie.” And he put them out there.
PLAYBOY: Did you view it as a crisis?
McCONAUGHEY: Most things in life seem like a bigger deal at the time. In the larger scheme, though, most things are just a blip. You want to sober up and talk about real crises? Try some of the stuff I saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Try cancer like Lance Armstrong had. Those are crises.
PLAYBOY: You may not have had life-threatening crises like cancer, but you have put yourself in dangerous situations. What’s the most reckless adventure you’ve taken?
McCONAUGHEY: I don’t think of any of them as reckless, but yeah, I’ve been in what people would call dangerous situations. Like when I went down the Amazon in an unstable canoe with its edge an inch above the waterline and a 14-foot gator bumped me. In Africa, a path I had to go through was flooded, and the only way across was to wade. I had my backpack over my head, water up to my chest, and looked to my right and saw about 40 gators sitting there. During a dive I was inverted at 35 meters and came up on the underside of a huge underground reef with 80 barracuda as close as you are now, staring and showing their big teeth. I got called out in a wrestling match in Mali. This guy Michel, a tree trunk of a man, the champion of the village, challenged me.
PLAYBOY: Did you accept his challenge?
McCONAUGHEY: My heart started pounding. I got up and walked toward the pit. I had on a pair of shorts, no shirt, no shoes, beads all woven into my beard. And he’s got like a burlap bag with a rope around the waist, no shirt, no shoes. I don’t know if we’re boxing or what the rules are. The chief is there, but no one speaks English. He comes up, puts one hand on my head and the other on Michel’s. Michel comes up, grabs my hip with one hand, then the other, and puts his head into my shoulder, so I do the same thing. Then Michel backs up. So I thought, Okay, he’s getting leverage. This is the beginning of the match. And all of a sudden the chief lifts his hand and makes a noise. I’ve wrestled. I had two older brothers. I have an ass and legs; that’s my strength. So I go for Michel’s legs, and I look down there and see these tree trunks. I realize, Man, I’m in the land of ass and legs. We are almost horizontal to the ground, locked in a scrum. We spin around, but he doesn’t take me down. The longer the wrestling goes on, the more excited the crowd gets. I’m not winning, but he doesn’t have me down. I think, I’m doing all right here. We get up, spin around, separate and come back at each other. I try to pile-drive him, and I get him down one time. He flips up, though. Just as he comes to me, I flip up, get out around and above, a quick move. I’m like, All right, I’m surviving this.
Then the chief separates us. I am soaking wet. Blood’s running down both my knees. My ankles are bleeding. Two of the beads in my beard are ripped out, so I got blood dripping from there. The chief says, “Beh!” I look over at Michel. He’s not even sweating. And I’m like, Oh shit! So we go boom, boom, boom, smash. I flip him, and he comes back and takes me down. I flip him over my head onto my back, flip him over the top. I never pin him, but he never pins me. Another two and a half minutes and the chief steps in, grabs my hand and grabs his hand. He raises them over our heads. The crowd cheers. It was over. For the rest of my stay in the village it was carte blanche, man. I got three or four peanuts, the best chair—meaning the one that had the fewest breaks in it. They caught a chicken, plucked it and cooked chicken and rice for me. They took me down to the water’s edge and gave me the cleanest spot in the river to bathe and wash my teeth.
PLAYBOY: You are good friends with Lance Armstrong. Could you take him in a wrestling match?
McCONAUGHEY: I think I would take him.
PLAYBOY: Why did you two connect so strongly?
McCONAUGHEY: Talk about a man of action. No one gets from point A to point B quicker or more deliberately with his head up than Lance. He doesn’t go, “Maybe we should….” I don’t even know if he ever says “maybe.” Just “What do you want to do?” Boom, we’re on our way. He gets so much stuff done, and he’s a positive, honest dude. He’ll tell you straight up if he doesn’t like something. He’s a hell of a lot of fun. We both live public lives, and we relate on that level. His house is mine; my house is his. Having a buddy to play sports and exercise with is cool.
PLAYBOY: Have you beaten him in any sport?
McCONAUGHEY: Ask him about our soccer games. I’ve held him scoreless.
PLAYBOY: One on one?
McCONAUGHEY: Usually. And he doesn’t like to lose, which I remind him of. We’re both bleeding when we come off the soccer field.
PLAYBOY: Have you ridden bikes with him?
McCONAUGHEY: Yeah, and if we do that or if we go for a run, I’m looking at his back pretty quickly. But he knows I’ll always finish. I bet I can surf better than him, though.
PLAYBOY: You are a big fan of the Ultimate Fighting Championship circuit. Explain the appeal.
McCONAUGHEY: It’s a great sport—man on man, no weapons, you and me. Let’s go. I’m not going to pull your nuts off or poke an eye out. I’m not going to bite you. Mano a mano with what God gave us. Is it bloody? Sure. But it’s actually one of the healthiest rituals for exorcising a lot of the violence and rage we have inside. America is the only place without rituals. Other countries have big rituals to burn out the devil. America, what’s our ritual? CSI: Miami? Video games?
PLAYBOY: What was the last fight you got into?
McCONAUGHEY: In a bar down on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles. Five guys jumped my buddy—pounced on him. I flew in there and took one out. Got in another swing. Next thing I knew I was pulled back. One of the guys had me in a choke hold; another was on top of me. Luckily, the bouncers came in and cleared it out. But I got one good shot in.
PLAYBOY: Have you ever been challenged because of your fame or looks?
McCONAUGHEY: Yeah. Like maybe I appealed to their girlfriend. I’ve had that before. But most of it is goofy stuff. One guy came up to me and said, “My wife is in love with you, man,” and offered her to me. I was incredulous.
PLAYBOY: How did you respond to the offer?
McCONAUGHEY: I pulled him aside and said, “Listen, man, you got to have a little more self-respect. Maybe the two of you need to take a trip together. This is not cool.”
PLAYBOY: Did you notice women looking at you differently after you began doing romantic comedies? For that matter, has fame made meeting girls much easier?
McCONAUGHEY: I don’t think there’s a difference. I always liked girls. In school I guess they thought I was cute and funny. They still do.
PLAYBOY: How old were you when you lost your virginity?
PLAYBOY: Was it a long relationship or a one-nighter?
McCONAUGHEY: None of your business. I don’t tell bedroom tales. Never have.
PLAYBOY: Since those days has it become harder to trust women? Do you worry they’re interested in you only because you’re famous?
McCONAUGHEY: No one wants to be anybody’s fool, but I have good intuition, man. I’m good at reading people. You can tell in their eyes. I’m out here in the land of the pros, so you check them out; you watch them, look between the lines.
PLAYBOY: You starred in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. What’s the quickest way for a woman to lose you?
McCONAUGHEY: By trying to change me. I work hard to be who I am. I ain’t perfect, but I’m a good man. I don’t leave crumbs.
McCONAUGHEY: Crumbs. I don’t owe anybody a dollar. I haven’t burned bridges. I can go anywhere and not have to look over my shoulder. So try to change me too much and I’ll just say, “Shhh, nope.”
PLAYBOY: You’ve dated several co-stars, including Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd and Penélope Cruz. What about movie sets is so conducive to hooking up?
McCONAUGHEY: A movie set is a circus, an immediate family from day one, and it’s your world for five months. There’s a lot of time to get close to people. I’ve run into people I’ve respected, found attractive, been turned on by. And they were turned on by me. Relationships form.
PLAYBOY: So that’s one of the perks of the job, an endless supply of women?
McCONAUGHEY: Hey, watch out. I’m not a big romancer. I’m no womanizer. I’m not a player.
McCONAUGHEY: I’m not going to steal a dude’s girl. You got something going and it’s working, man, I’m all for it. I’ve been in enough relationships to know how hard they are. I think there should be a better sense of fraternity among men, especially if someone is married.
PLAYBOY: What if a married woman propositioned you?
McCONAUGHEY: Are you kidding me? “Get your ass home. And what are you doing wearing that out?” That’s never been my style since I started liking girls.
PLAYBOY: What’s the most aggressive come-on you’ve encountered from a woman?
McCONAUGHEY: I had a woman barge into my trailer, grab a T-shirt and say, “Oh my God, I’ve got your T-shirt.” I had to help her out of the trailer and tell her, “Don’t you ever come onto a man’s property like that again.” Wackiest part was, once I got outside she had her three kids there.
PLAYBOY: George Clooney has made it clear he doesn’t want a wife or kids. How about you?
McCONAUGHEY: I believe I’ll have a family. I want children. The older I get, the more I look forward to being a dad, having some little McConaugheys running around.
PLAYBOY: What about the marriage part?
McCONAUGHEY: I’ve seen some great marriages work and some relationships that were great until marriage. I believe in the institution, but I don’t feel you have to marry. A kid just needs a mom and a dad. My parents, man—married three times, divorced twice. There’s a can’t-live-with-you-can’t live-without-you statement right there.
PLAYBOY: Do you envy anything about a relationship that would inspire three marriages and two divorces?
McCONAUGHEY: I like the three marriages. I don’t like the two divorces; that part I don’t envy.
PLAYBOY: Was it awkward running into Tom Cruise when you began dating Penélope Cruz after they split?
McCONAUGHEY: Not at all. In fact, I met him through her. I’ve run into him since. When a relationship ends, many people feel they have to white out that part of their life. I’ve never felt like that.
PLAYBOY: You called Sandra Bullock a woman you’ll always love. Were you at all heartbroken when she got married?
McCONAUGHEY: No, not at all. That’s not how I think. It’s not how I loved her or love her.
PLAYBOY: She’s not the one who got away?
McCONAUGHEY: No, and I hope she’s happy. She deserves to be.
PLAYBOY: Whether because of your romances with movie stars or comparisons made when you first began acting—at least after A Time to Kill—you were called the next Newman and Brando. Did you ever have a difficult time dealing with the attention and the life that came with it?
McCONAUGHEY: Yeah, you go from just trying to get a job, begging to be let into the game and, over one weekend, it’s like, boom! When everything started coming in, the most challenging part was saying no. It’s not easy today, and it sure as hell wasn’t easy at 24. You wonder, Do I deserve all this stuff that’s coming at me? But my stock dropped after a few films until about five years ago, when The Wedding Planner worked. Now it’s on a real nice level.
PLAYBOY: Did you ever worry that it might all be over?
McCONAUGHEY: I never lost sleep over it, even during a few years when it was hard to find a job. I never thought, My gosh, I’m failing. I always understood the idea of “lean horse, long ride.” If you just stay in the game, you’ll eventually get the cards you’re supposed to be dealt. One thing I did learn is that I’m better when I take risks. I had a year or two early on when I got real conservative in auditions. I’d reach the final callback but never get the job.
PLAYBOY: In what ways were you conservative?
McCONAUGHEY: This was before A Time to Kill, right before Lone Star. I was afraid to look foolish.
PLAYBOY: What changed?
McCONAUGHEY: I got fed up with myself. I thought, You know, you’ve got to shoot to score, bro.
PLAYBOY: When did you finally do so?
McCONAUGHEY: A Time to Kill, for sure.
PLAYBOY: Initially you were considered for a smaller part in the movie—the role of a redneck.
McCONAUGHEY: Yeah, and I remember the meeting. I sat down with the director, Joel Schumacher, to talk about one of the redneck parts. I asked who was playing the role of Jake Brigance, the lead character. “Nobody yet.” He asked, “Who do you think should play it?” I was nervous still. My stomach went up into my throat, and I looked him in the eye and said, “I think I should.” He just laughed and said, “It’s a great idea, but I got to be honest with you. It’s never going to happen.”
PLAYBOY: Were they looking for a star of the caliber of Pitt or Cruise?
McCONAUGHEY: I think it started with Kevin Costner, but Joel thought the role should go to a younger guy. They scoured the A-list. But Joel thought about my suggestion, called me and said, “I’m going to give you a test.” I was excited. I decided to go for broke because all they could do was say no. Joel did a very cool thing. I worked my ass off and did a full reading of each scene. I got a call in the middle of the night from Joel and John Grisham, who had cast approval. They liked the test. The story goes that Grisham’s wife said, “That’s you. That’s the guy.” Because that character was based on Grisham himself.
PLAYBOY: How did you react when you got the job?
McCONAUGHEY: I howled at the moon that night. Cloud nine. I just dropped the phone and sprinted into the desert. I went a couple of miles out. I put a hand up to the sky and shook hands with the moon and said “Thank you.” I did a dance and came running back beaming.
PLAYBOY: Your first break was in Dazed and Confused. The timing was unfortunate.
McCONAUGHEY: I started Dazed and Confused, and a week in, Pa passed away.
PLAYBOY: Were you saddened he never saw you become successful?
McCONAUGHEY: Dazed and Confused was the first thing I did in my life while Dad was alive that was not a fad. So he was alive to see me start my first job in what would become my career. It wasn’t like the time I asked him, “Can you please help me buy some skateboarding elbow pads and knee pads?” He asked, “Do you really want to skateboard?” And I was like, “Yes!” I talked him into it and always regretted not wearing out those elbow and knee pads.
PLAYBOY: How did your father die?
McCONAUGHEY: He had a heart fibrillation making love to my mother on a Monday morning.
PLAYBOY: Is that more information than a son wants to know? How did his death affect you?
McCONAUGHEY: I got the call that afternoon. I got in the car immediately and drove three and a half hours to Houston. It was unanimous in the family that after a couple of days I needed to get back and finish the job I’d started. Something positive happened when I went back. Losing your father brings huge sobriety. You look at the world in a level way. That’s really the day I became a man. It was easy to focus on the job at hand, which sticks with me to this day. If I’m in a rush, not concentrating as well as I need to or not as relaxed as I need to be, I think of him.
PLAYBOY: Your dad played for the Green Bay Packers and raised you in a football-obsessed state. Did he push you into playing?
McCONAUGHEY: I remember you could hear him walking down the hallway, his knees, back and ankles popping. You knew when Pa was coming to your room, because you could hear him. He didn’t push much. I have two older brothers. We all played football, but he told us, “You guys want to play football, I’m behind you all the way. But you don’t have to.” When we tried out for things like golf, he was happy. He told me, “This is a game you can play until you go down. The other game you can’t.” I think he was kind of happy we didn’t try to take up football as a career. When I called my parents and said, “Mom, Dad, I’m not going to law school. I want to go to film school,” there was a five-second pause. I thought I’d get, “You want to do what?” We’d been brought up to get a nine-to-five job, work your way up the ladder. But he said, “Is that what you want to do?” I said, “Yes, sir.” And he went, “Well, don’t half-ass it.” They put up the money for me to go to film school.
PLAYBOY: Did your father have an interest in the arts?
McCONAUGHEY: I never understood the artistic side of Dad while he was alive, but I have pictures he painted. He painted all these faces, and he made vases and bowls out of clay. They’re all out in the garage. I didn’t know what he was doing out there. Now I realize why Dad understood and was excited about my going into the storytelling business, which was all I knew I wanted to do when I enrolled in film school. At the time, I didn’t know I would become an actor. I thought I wanted to direct. He would be having such a ball with what’s going on in my life now. We’d have connected on that level. He would have been the guy I called a lot, the guy I sent scripts to, asking, “What do you think about this, Pa?” He’d be the guy I’d sit down and look at these movies with and say, “Well, how do you think I did there?” We just didn’t have that chance, but I would have loved it, and he would have loved it.
PLAYBOY: We have read that your mother, not your father, encouraged you to go off on what became your earliest crazy adventure, a trip to Australia when you were a teenager. What sent you there?
McCONAUGHEY: I had finished high school and didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do. Mom had the idea I should go to school somewhere else for a year. I chose Australia because it was an English-speaking country and it sounded like a wild adventure. Two weeks out of high school I was on a plane. I did this high school thing that was like an exchange program. Over the year, I worked 11 jobs. I was a barrister’s assistant, watching the jury during a murder trial. I worked in boat marine service. I was an assistant golf pro. I worked construction. The year was full of things that made me a man and made me love adventure and travel. I was going a bit crazy, mostly in my mind. I started creating disciplines for myself just to get a track on the day. I went vegetarian, but I didn’t know how. I was eating big old heads of iceberg lettuce but still running six miles a day. I weighed 144 pounds—super thinned out. I abstained from sex—for a year.
PLAYBOY: Would you recommend it?
McCONAUGHEY: I laugh about it now, but you appreciate things all the more when you get back into them. It was great for me. I still do miniature versions of it—fasting two times a year for a week or so.
PLAYBOY: What do you get from fasting?
McCONAUGHEY: You can get too much of things—booze, nicotine, women, your BlackBerry, attention, fame, needing people around, TV, the Internet. Fasting is a way to pull back, go without and check on what you really need.
PLAYBOY: Do you actually forgo sex?
McCONAUGHEY: It’s mainly food, drink, nicotine. I’ll stay in. That’s what the trips I take are about too—Peru, Mali and other places in Africa. The first nine days in Australia I was going bonkers. Days take so long. You’re always looking at your clock. Take someone out of America and put them over there in the middle of a desert. You wake up at six, you’re sitting there going, “Man, it’s got to be lunchtime,” and it’s 9:45. You’re without so many things you fill your time with. You’re stuck with yourself. By the end of that trip my body clock was right on time with nature. I like to get back on that time now and then.
PLAYBOY: Do you prefer being in a tent in the middle of a forest or a four-star hotel?
McCONAUGHEY: I like both, but that tent in the forest makes you love the Four Seasons. I fly economy to the jungle but first class back. You backpack on the trip, come back and get room service. You got ESPN, and there’s a game on. In color. In English. Oh my!
PLAYBOY: What perks do you want when you make a movie?
McCONAUGHEY: I need an assistant. I didn’t know what to do with an assistant when I first got one, but it frees up three extra hours a day for me to relax and focus on my work. What else? I’m more of an outside, go-do-it guy, and if I get a couple of dumbbells and exercise machines, I can break a sweat. I don’t have to have a gym, but it’s a cool thing to have. Security? Yeah, I’ve got stalkers, death threats and all kinds of shit. If I fly in the U.S., I prefer to fly private. I don’t need a lot. I’m about as bare-bones as it gets. I have a go-to guy, John Chaney, who has been my main man for 14 years. Driver, security, assistant. He knows my rhythms, what I need. I go to a place, maybe he shows up first, scopes it out. Anybody there we’ve been receiving letters from?
PLAYBOY: You listed private planes. That’s a fairly lavish perk, no?
McCONAUGHEY: Here’s the thing with private flight. It’s just the heads and tails of the trip; that’s what you pay for. Regular first class is awesome—the food. But I just flew back from Europe, 10 and a half hours. Before we were up in the air I was asleep. A person woke me up because we were 45 minutes from landing. I don’t need to spend $260,000 on sleep; I can do that in economy. But people pay for the time saved in not dealing with security and not getting bugged. You pull up, have a door open for you, step out, shake a pilot’s hand, walk up five steps onto a G5 and go. That’s the difference between 20 seconds and two hours, plus two more on the tail end. Is it worth $100-something thousand? I’m no-frills once it’s time to work. I’m saving money because I’m on time, I show up ready and I put in 12 hours without complaint.
PLAYBOY: One odd fact about you comes from your admission that you haven’t worn deodorant in 20 years. Has a co-star ever complained?
McCONAUGHEY: Kate Hudson can’t stand it.
PLAYBOY: What does she say?
McCONAUGHEY: She always brings a salt rock, which is some natural deodorant, and says, “Would you please put this on?”
PLAYBOY: The average guy would smell like a corpse without deodorant. How do you get away with it?
McCONAUGHEY: I don’t know, dude. I’ll tell you what: Diet matters.
PLAYBOY: How about showers?
McCONAUGHEY: I take a few a day.
PLAYBOY: What do you have against deodorant?
McCONAUGHEY: I just never wore it. No cologne, no deodorant.
PLAYBOY: In addition to Hudson, you have been paired with lots of beautiful women in films. Would you have taken roles opposite men, too? Specifically, would you have taken on Brokeback Mountain, as your friend Jake Gyllenhaal did? If you had been offered that role and read the explicit gay sex scene in the tent, could you have done it?
PLAYBOY: Would you worry about what it would do to your image, or would you be uncomfortable getting it on with a guy?
McCONAUGHEY: I thought the movie was real good. And if it’s got that, then as an actor it’s hard to say, “I’m not doing it, because I’m not gay.” Or “I’ll do it, but we’re not kissing.” That isn’t the basis of why I would say no. I wouldn’t be fearful. I wouldn’t say, “That’s going to mess with my image.” It doesn’t make sense to me.
PLAYBOY: Owen Wilson is another laidback Texan with a charming, easygoing screen presence. Were you shocked last year to hear he tried to commit suicide?
McCONAUGHEY: We met a couple of times, but I don’t know Owen that well. First thing, when you hear that about someone in Hollywood, you wonder if it’s true. At first I didn’t think it was. But the more we heard—well, it seems as if it was true. I asked friends of his who know him better than I do to check in and see how he was doing. When I work with Ben Stiller later this month we’ll give Owen a call. That ought to be pretty cool. I put the guy in my prayers; that’s my main thought about that.
PLAYBOY: You’ll be working with Stiller in Tropic Thunder, replacing Wilson. How did that come about?
McCONAUGHEY: I got a call from Ben. I wasn’t really looking to work for the rest of this year. I wanted to make sure I had time to finish producing Surfer, Dude, which was in postproduction, because producing is a whole new thing for me. But Ben said it was a couple of days, and the script was laugh-out-loud funny. I talked to him a few times, took the job and headed to Hawaii.
PLAYBOY: Is doing that role a gesture to help out Ben, who was suddenly left adrift when Wilson couldn’t do the movie?
McCONAUGHEY: I didn’t think of it that way. If anything, it’s a privilege. It’s not the best circumstances for a job to open up, sure. But it’s open and it’s a good idea, so let’s rock it.
PLAYBOY: Now that you’re getting older, do you worry about the changes that often come with aging? What happens to all the bare-chested shots when you put on a gut?
McCONAUGHEY: Oh, that will be coming, bro, and soon. That’s how I’ll look in The Grackle, a movie I’m going to produce about a barroom brawler who’ll settle any dispute and deliver a beat-down for 200 bucks. It’s a game I haven’t played yet—R-rated, balls-out comedy, the stuff Jim Carrey does.
PLAYBOY: Are you losing the six-pack for the movie?
McCONAUGHEY: Woo, baby! Yeah, my character in The Grackle needs to be bull strong but meaty. Watching it happen will be fun. There should be some funny stories in the tabloids because I’ll still have to go out and get my belly tan.
PLAYBOY: Are you as able to take care of yourself now that you’re approaching 40? Has aging begun to catch up with you?
McCONAUGHEY: I’ve started to notice it, man. I’m 38 now and in good mental and physical shape, but it’s different from when you’re 20, bro. I think I’m faster and stronger now. I can do an activity and not even notice it. But the next day, I go, “Ow, my back!” That’s what happens with age.
PLAYBOY: Will it be a comedown when you no longer qualify as People’s Sexiest Man Alive?
McCONAUGHEY: Yeah, they’ll put me on the cover anyway: WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM? They’ll make up a story about some drama in my life where things have gone awry. I can’t wait.