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.