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.