The Academy Award winning actor discusses his performance in the film Gold.
Actor Matthew McConaughey
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, Matthew McConaughey, the Academy Award-winning actor, joins us to discuss his latest film, “Gold”, inspired by actual events. It’s an epic tale of a man’s American dream and everything he’ll do to keep it from falling apart.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Matthew McConaughey in just a moment.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
Tavis: So pleased to welcome Academy Award-winning actor, Matthew McConaughey, to this program. He is, of course, known for outstanding and diverse roles that include films like “A Time to Kill”, “Dallas Buyers Club” and, of course, “The Wolf of Wall Street”.
Most recently, though, he voiced characters in two animated film projects, “Sing” and “Kubo and the Two Strings”, which was just nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Animated Feature Film. You can’t stop this guy. He’s also the star and produces his latest project. It’s called “Gold” in theaters tomorrow. Before our conversation starts with Mr. McConaughey, first a look at a scene from the film, “Gold”.
Tavis: I’ve been reading so much about this film in preparation for our conversation. This film has been — I don’t want to say maligned — but it certainly has been framed and talked about and critiqued as a film about greed.
We’ve seen many of those films. And there’s some greed in it, to be sure, no doubt about that. But to my mind, it is a film about outsized ambition and this drive to succeed at whatever cost. How do you see the film?
Matthew McConaughey: Well, I would agree with you. I don’t see it as much about greed. I mean, the second half, once Kenny gets the money…
Tavis: Kenny Wells.
McConaughey: Kenny Wells — gets the money or has found the gold, there’s a lot of greed. New York comes after him. The suits come after his money and just for the money. But for Kenny, there’s a great scene in here where he says, “Look, for me, it was about the gold. It was never about the money. Gold’s different.”
So what was the gold for Kenny Wells as we see in that scene there? Kenny’s a guy who inherited his grandfather’s company from his father and he inherited it in healthy shape and he rode into the ground and the economy went down. But he didn’t want to break that chain. By any means necessary, he was not gonna break that chain.
He hocks a watch, takes a one-way ticket to Indonesia to chase down a literal dream he has knowing where the gold is on a wing and a prayer and makes it happen. He almost wills it to happen. So the gold for him was the chasing of the dream, the chasing it down by any means necessary, whatever it takes. Prove them all wrong.
I never got a ticket to the American dream. I was never gonna get a ticket to the American dream like millions of people in the world, but I’m gonna make it happen by hook or by crook. I’m gonna out-hustle everybody else. I’m gonna will this thing to happen. That’s the gold, you know.
Tavis: I am not an actor and you should be glad that I’m not [laugh]. I’m not a thespian, but I love film. And the films I love the most are the ones that give me a clear route, a clear path into reveling in, celebrating, wrestling with the humanity of the character.
When you took this project on or decided to take it on, what route did you take into understanding, appreciating, embracing his humanity? Does that make sense?
McConaughey: It absolutely does. With Kenny, you know, his humanity came alive when I first read it. It was the second script I ever read where I said, “Oh, I know this guy from the inside out.” It hit me like a lightning bolt and even before I went and did the research on the real Kenny Wells who was named David Walsh — I had a lot of research and facts to find out about him — it hit me immediately.
Oh, I know this. This was part of who my dad was. It’s part of who my dad did business with. It’s the Chuck Buzans, it’s these Chicago Johns, these people that I saw my dad dealing with. They were pipe and coupling salesmen. They were not prospectors, but in a way they were prospectors.
They were peddling every day, waking up in the morning, throwing their legs over the side of the bed going “Today’s gonna be the day.” My dad’s line was “I’m gonna hit a lick. Boys, wish me luck. I’m gonna hit a lick.” And that means I’m gonna make a big sale.
Tavis: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yeah. yeah.
McConaughey: You know, he didn’t hit that lick and he got up again the next day and “The day’s gonna be today. I’m gonna hit a lick” and he didn’t for days, for weeks, for months, for years until he moved on. There’s millions of people like that.
This story with Kenny, he actually did find the gold. He actually did hit that lick. You know, a lot of it was research I did on the guy, David Walsh, the original name, the true character for Kenny Wells. And then a lot of it just instinctually.
It was not an intellectual exercise. It instinctually took me back to impressions I had of my father and places that he took me when I was 12 years old when he took me around the country to go collect from people that owed him money.
Bringing along a 12-year-old would shame some of the men to paying him back. Behind the abandoned shopping mall deals to buy hot watches just because it was hot, you know [laugh]. Just because, and I remember him like he’d look in the sky like there were helicopters following us or something. Nobody gave a damn he was buying those hot watches. I knew better than to shut him up.
But that was what kind of turned him on. Yet he was larger than life. He was a consumer of life like Kenny Wells. Whether it was the food, the drink, the love, the joy, the smoke, he was larger than life in his spirit and his size.
Tavis: How did you process at that age watching all that your father was doing? How’d you process that?
McConaughey: One, I was happy to be along, to go along.
Tavis: Sure, sure.
McConaughey: My dad loved to set up the story. You know, hey, this day in the car, this is Chicago John, you know, why he leaves the car running [laugh]. You know, he gets out and Chicago John’s in a white van, five foot four, balding with a leather jacket on a cold southwest Houston day. And he goes to the back of the van and there’s hair dryers and washing machines and a glove box. And I’m just watching.
Whatever was in that glovebox that my dad paid for made my dad’s shoulders go like this. They walked away without a handshake or anything. It was like this is the deal we made. And my dad getting in the car handing me this wadded up roll of paper towels with something in it and saying, “Put it in the glovebox, buddy. Make sure it doesn’t get away.”
But I’m like, “Wow. What is it? This is great. What is it?” And then driving down the road for 10 minutes and him going, “Check the glovebox. See if it’s still there.” I open the glovebox and I pull it out and it’s a big silver watch.
And my dad’s like, “Damn, buddy, that’s a $22,000 Rolex, titanium, and I just bought it for $3 grand.” I was, wow. I was so happy to be along for the ride, to hear his stories on the way driving around the country to go collect from these people. So it was a big rite of passage that he took me along.
I had two older brothers that were doing business with him, so they got to be part of these stories. I got to be an observer. And it’s very interesting because a lot of it, like that story I just tell, that’s how I remember going down. But that’s 16-year-old eyes watching my dad. Did it go down exactly like that? I don’t know, but it should have.
Tavis: What’d you learn — and I say this. You’ll take my point. I say this in the affirmative, not the negative. What’d you learn from watching your father about how to get your hustle on?
McConaughey: How’d I get the hustle on?
Tavis: Yeah. What’d you learn about getting your hustle on? You’ve clearly done that in your career. Where’d you learn about hustling?
McConaughey: Sure. Self-reliance. Nobody’s gonna take care of you but you. Get up every day. If you get out of bed — he’d love to say that. “How’s the day?” “Well, I got out of bed this morning.” I couldn’t tell — we had times in the late 70s where we were high on the hog.
The oil boom had hit. We had a matching jet boat with the matching Lear jet, and that all just crashed and then we were broke. He wouldn’t go Chapter 11 and Chapter 13. He had too much pride to go bankrupt.
But you couldn’t tell in our family any difference from when we were rich or when we were broke from his attitude. You couldn’t tell. He was still the host of the day. He was still extremely positive, extremely physical, and was gonna go make it happen.
So I think I learned a lot of resilience from him because I didn’t find out until postmortem after he moved on how hard times were for our family that last five years before he moved on. So resilience, and our family preaches a pretty hardcore attitude as a means of survival, not just to be happy with the day, but you gotta go make it happen and get relative real quick.
My family’s very good about that. You better get relative. When you think you got it tough, you better get relative because there’s a whole lot of people that got it tougher. So I think we weren’t a family that allowed much drama and you couldn’t get dramatic in our family at all about much because they’d bring you to the ground and humble you real quick.
Tavis: Let me shift right quick and I promise I’ll come back. You and I were chatting before we came on the air about the speech I’d just given at Boise State up in Idaho and just seeing these young people who are ready to fight in this present political moment, but also a bit fearful about what their future is going to bring.
What would your dad be saying to those students right now who are in this moment and want to fight, but don’t want to be frozen by the fear of what the future might or might not bring?
McConaughey: Well, here’s a way we were raised. I realized this in the last 15 years, and my father moved on in ’92. We were a very strict family and had rules. You better follow the rules and, hey, whoever’s in charge, you follow those. Dad’s in charge, those were the rules, and your government and what have you.
But all three, my two brothers and I, all had moments with my father where we busted the rules. We busted them out wide open in front of him and we thought, oh, man, this is it, and it wasn’t it. It turned out to be, “There you go, buddy.” It was a rite of passage.
Tavis: Right, right, right.
McConaughey: I’m testing you. I’m gonna test you until you — you ain’t gonna have your rite of passage, son, until you bust through my rules and go your own way. For me, I was gonna go to law school. Man, it was set I was going to law school.
Mom and dad were helping me pay my way through it and I, all of a sudden, had the change of heart to say I want to go into filmmaking. That phone call was a tough phone call for me and I remember making that call sweating and thinking my dad’s gonna be like, “You wanna do what?”
And I said, “Pop, I don’t want to go to law school anymore. I want to go to film school.” There was a long pause on the phone and he said, “Is that what you wanna do?” I went, “Yes, sir.” Long pause again and he goes, “Well, don’t half-ass it, buddy.” Then we were off, and he was with it.
So what would he say? Like I said, I mean, our family’s pretty self-reliant and there was a lot of times that the McConaughey family, the rules within our household were above being a Texan or above the federal government or anyone.
The one you listen to is our rules within our household. Everyone have a look in the mirror. He was not an anarchist, but he was an outlaw, all right? So he was not into anarchy or by any means necessary go get violent or anything like that, but he was…
Tavis: Was an outlaw, though.
McConaughey: Yeah, man up. Man up. Look in there, dude. Guess who’s gonna take care of you? You. That was sort of the self-reliance, I think. That was the underlying ingredient that we were raised with for sure.
Tavis: There’s a scene in this film. I asked you earlier how you found your way into his humanity. So I’m watching this thing and I’m just loving every scene of it, but there was a moment where it just grabbed me and pulled me in. I don’t want to give the film away, but it’s the scene where he wins the big award and he’s explaining what a prospector really is. I was like I got it, I got it!
McConaughey: And if you combine that scene with the scene we saw, that was one of the real windows into who this guy was for me. Here’s a guy who has no trouble turning down $300 million dollars, which is what happens right before the scene we just saw. He’s offered $300 million dollars and he came from nothing. He was broke.
Tavis: For those who have not heard this answer before, when you were dead set and the family was behind you going to law school and you made this left turn or right turn, whichever way you turned, to go to film school, what brought that on?
McConaughey: So I was getting to the end of my sophomore year, which is the year where you can take whatever credits you want, but now we better start funneling our credits towards our degree…
Tavis: This is UT Austin.
McConaughey: Yes, sir. UT Austin. I wasn’t sleeping that well at night with the idea of going to law school. I was sitting there going, well, I graduate, 22 I’m out, I go to 24. I’m really not making a mark. I haven’t a chance to make a mark in society until I’m 30. I was like I don’t want to spend my 20s just getting educated, blah, blah, blah.
I’d been writing a lot, always kept a diary. And I was sharing my diary with a good friend of mine, Rob Benler, who was at film school in NYU at the time. He said to me, he goes, “Well, I’ve been reading your writings for a long time, man, and you got a lot of character as a guy. Plus, you’re a good-looking guy. What about acting?”
I was like, “No, no, no, no. I’m not acting, but the storytelling side, I could get my hand around that a little bit.” That married with the fact that a book found me called “The Greatest Salesman in the World” — you know this book?
Tavis: I know the book.
McConaughey: Yeah, I’ve got it back out in front of me now.
Tavis: I know the text, yeah.
McConaughey: And that book found me at a time and it gave me the courage to say, hey, let’s pick a new path here. Now’s the time. So I made that call and I went into behind the camera, which did I want to be behind the camera? Yes, I did. Did I want to be an actor? Probably more. I know I did more now than I could even admit back then.
But I knew I wanted to be in the storytelling business. So that book and the confidence I got from my friend, Rob Benler, who was in film school who was really the only guy I could talk about it because I was a frat boy at University of Texas. I was the first and only frat boy going to film school, you know [laugh], that’s for sure.
Tavis: Especially UT.
McConaughey: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. So I don’t want to betray any confidence, but when you sat down before we came on the air, first thing you did was put out your phone and you read something to me that had been sent to you. I only raise that because it seems to me that reading isn’t just fundamental for you, particularly referencing this book that you read, that reading is paramount. Am I overstating that?
McConaughey: Maybe, because I…
Tavis: Like what are you…
McConaughey: Because I’m not a big book reader.
Tavis: Not a big book reader, yeah.
Tavis: But that book got you, though.
McConaughey: Oh, that book got me and it still has me. Look, the word means a lot to me. The reason I don’t read that much is like I pick up Emerson’s essays. I can’t get past his poem on self-reliance. I’m like, whoa, how can I move on from that? I got to go back and re-read the first paragraph again. And I read one paragraph and I have to set it down and go, “Whoa. Let me go see if I can put that into action.”
So I never get through a book. This is why I’ve still got “The Greatest Salesman” in front of me since 1989. Because you don’t have this down yet. You don’t have it down yet [laugh].
Tavis: I feel that way about the Bible, you know.
Tavis: That’s my story. I’m still working on trying to…
McConaughey: All right. I’ve tried to get into the Bible. I’ve never gotten all the way through it. I get my Bible version each day on my phone. You know, I have a great pastor now, speaking of religion, which is a word I don’t think we should be so afraid to use as it seems that so many people are.
Tavis: That’s exactly right. Amen to that, brother.
McConaughey: Yes, sir. I found a church — my family found a church. I got back into the church once I had kids because we always went to church growing up as kids. And then I went off and didn’t really go. Anyway, having kids got me back into it. We got a pastor, man. My buddy’s a doctor and a pastor, Dave Haney.
I was like, “Man, you put the blackboard to the Bible for me.” That’s what I needed was the science, the steps that, look, this is what you can take into your week, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, that are gonna give you more satisfaction in your life today and tomorrow.
It’s also the first church I went to. After the first time I went there, I said, “You know why it feels so great about being here today?” He goes, “What?” I go, “First church I’ve been in where I didn’t walk out feeling guilty. Thank you.” [laugh]
Tavis: That’s why you liked it [laugh].
McConaughey: Oh, yeah. I still came out with responsibility, now.
Tavis: I got you, I got you [laugh].
McConaughey: I still came out with the toe to hoe now. I knew I had work to do.
Tavis: No, I got you, I got you [laugh]. You mentioned those Bible verses that come to your phone. A lot of people get that on their phones, and maybe this is the answer. But if it is, then tell me that. If there’s something else, tell me that. What do you use for motivation?
I ask that because it is impossible to even mention the name Matthew McConaughey without everybody doing their own impersonation one way or the other. I’m not gonna do it, but we all got our Matthew McConaughey. All right, all right, anyway…
McConaughey: First two words ever said…
Tavis: So everybody has their Matthew McConaughey moment, but those moments, whatever they are, they’re always rooted — talking about your personality, not the characters you play — they’re always rooted in a positivity, in an affirmation, in a fight, in a resistance. What motivates you? How do you sustain your hope? What do you hold onto every day?
McConaughey: Well, the best — as much as I’ve thought about it over the years, the best I could come up with, with what gives me happiness or satisfaction, is having something to look forward to. Having kids is a daily thing to look forward to until they’re out of the house, you know, I suppose.
But I’ve always needed a certain stake in the sand. I’m not too good with too many Saturdays in a row. I like my Saturdays, but too many Saturdays in a row, I get a little wobbly. So I like something to look forward to and chase down.
That’s what I meant when I get asked about that Oscar speech. What do you mean, your hero’s 10 years from now? Because it gives me something to chase, you know, to be the man I’m trying to be. I got to remind myself often, hey, just sit still.
Because my favorite thing in life where I find that I’m the most turned on was on the approach, on the approach, on the come. Moving in is a lot more fun than moving out [laugh]. Do you know what I mean? Do you know what I mean?
Tavis: Yeah, I got you [laugh]. So after films are done, do you crash and burn? If the approach is the fun part for you, when you wrap, like what do you do?
McConaughey: Oh, I take a 19-hour nap. I usually catch a cold because when the defense system went down, I go kick back and press reset for a couple of weeks. I mean, I grew up, like I said earlier, about the family, you know, optimism and resilience, and almost to too much degree.
I tell my mom today. I say, “Mom, you told us to get up and dust ourselves off so quickly, we forgot to even take inventory in why the hell we had to dust ourselves off.” We repeated the action. It was like we never had a wintertime in our household. It was summertime 12 months a year. I’ve learned and I give my mom heck about it.
She’s 85. It’s like to have a little repose during the year. Take a little inventory on the year so we can evolve. I need a little bit of wintertime. She’s 85. I can’t argue with her. She’s like, “Oh, why would you want to do that?” She’s still getting away with it.
Tavis: What is the coolest thing about having your mom here at 85 to see all that you have and are doing?
McConaughey: Well, now, look. When I first started, when I first got in this business and became somewhat successful, got my first film, it was hard with my mom because she wanted what I had. She always wanted to be the Golden Girls and she wanted to be that. So the first thing I did…
Tavis: Which one is the question.
McConaughey: Whichever one kicks their leg the highest…
Tavis: Okay [laugh].
McConaughey: So she would always be like, you know, I remember when I was just getting my footing under me and figuring out what I’m doing, and she would come in and go, “I know where you get it. I know that thing you did. That’s straight from me.” I’d be like, “Come on, mom. Let me have a little bit.”
But then we went through and, as you know, when you grow older with your mother and all of a sudden you get a little more confident with what your craft is, I was like, “You know what? Trying to hold the reins on my mother is senseless. I’m not gonna change her. She’s already 65, man. No way, so go for it, Mom.”
And soon as I let the reins off of her, she actually became more of a buddy with me and we became more friends and she appreciates what I do. She’s my biggest fan, you know, and I’ve got Richard Linklater, director of “The Newton Boys” and “Dazed and Confused” and “Bernie” has snuck her in a few movies and two of them that I’ve been in snuck her in. So she’s getting her time onscreen.
Tavis: Oh, she’s loving that.
McConaughey: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: She’s getting her Golden Girl moment.
McConaughey: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Last question. I know from reading this, which I was fascinated by the moment in “The Wolf of Wall Street”, you got it. Of course you got it. You did it. I heard that was like you.
McConaughey: That was like me.
Tavis: Yeah, you improvised that thing. Was there some of that in “Gold”? Is there a scene in “Gold” that I’m gonna learn eventually that you just threw in like that?
McConaughey: Well, I got in there and I didn’t know where. It’ll be years before I am reminded what was on the script and what I improvised in there. I was quite loose. This was one of those characters, verbose, and I could be.
What happened in “The Wolf of Wall Street”, that something that I’ll do when I’m nervous before a scene. I’m stepping in a scene there, working with Leonardo and Martin Scorsese. They’ve been working for months. I have a two-day part. You want to get the voice down, find a rhythm, get out of the head.
So I was doing that before the scene and then they yell action, I’d stop and we’d go into the scene. So we did five takes and I was happy, director was happy, Martin Scorsese and Leonard were happy. We were about to move on.
That was it, and it was Leonardo’s idea. He goes, “Hey, what’s that thing you’re doing before the take?” I said, “Oh, it keeps my voice low. It’s a little thing to get out of my head.” He goes, “Can you do that in the scene?” I was like, “Sure.” So he said, “Roll it!”
So I did it at the beginning of the scene and then can’t find a way and came out of it and went into my spiel, you know, teaching him what Wall Street’s about. Then we got to the end and soon as I was like, “You understand what I’m talking about” and went back into the rhythm to see like if he was on my frequency. And then he does his and it bookended the scene. And that was the one take we used.
Tavis: Wow. It’s amazing. These behind-the-scene stories are the most fascinating for me [laugh].
McConaughey: They are fun.
Tavis: Matthew McConaughey is the man and I have so enjoyed this conversation with him. I’m sure you enjoyed it as well and would have loved to be here. But anyway, I was here. Sorry. The film is called “Gold”. It is a powerful, powerful film and I think you’ll enjoy it. Matthew, thank you for coming by to see us, my friend.
McConaughey: My pleasure, Tavis.
Tavis: Pleasure’s mine. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.