Despite spending years in the spotlight -- or, more often, the long lens of a camera whose owner is eager to catch him doing some beach side sit-ups -- Matthew McConaughey seems like someone whose Southern mama raised him right. Even when, for instance, this reporter's recorder entered its death throes near the end of our phone interview, McConaughey remained easygoing and cool, humming to himself while I fumbled for extra batteries.
McConaughey's character in 'The Lincoln Lawyer,' Mick Haller, is also pretty cool, but in a far shadier sort of way. As a defense attorney whose office is basically the back seat of his car, Haller works the seedier side of Los Angeles, and his livelihood -- and sometimes his safety -- depends on his ability to smooth-talk and grease the right palms. This is no less true when he finds himself representing a very rich and seemingly clean-cut young man accused of viciously attacking a prostitute. Haller has to use everything at his disposal to find out if his client, played by Ryan Phillippe, is as innocent as he says he is.
Although McConaughey started college with hopes of becoming a criminal defense attorney at the University of Texas, his interests turned towards writing and more creative work by his junior year. "I woke up scared, going, 'Oh my gosh, what about my twenties? What about my twenties? I don't want to just go get educated for my twenties. I want to go get some practical experience with whatever I'm going to do,'" the actor says.
His worries were for naught, as he's now been in well over 35 movies since starting his acting career in the early '90s. Now he admits, "I really like playing an attorney. I like playing an attorney more than I like attorneys."
Cinematical: As a Texan and someone who's made his home in Austin on and off for a long time, what do you think of South by Southwest and Austin's place in the indie film scene?
Matthew McConaughey: Well, you know, I've made it [to SXSW] the last couple of years, and actually went down there for musical reasons. I was possibly going to go this year, mainly because Richard Linklater, we just did a film together called 'Bernie' that will be out later after 'Lincoln Lawyer,' and he was thinking of premiering it there... That didn't happen, but I think South by Southwest is a really cool festival for films and music. Austin's got a really good combination of being very Texan and at the same time being very progressive, and I like it. There's a lot of things to like about Austin. I went to school there myself, and lived there off and on through my life.
This is your second time playing an attorney, and you've got another coming up in 'Bernie' --
Yeah, that's true. That guy's a prosecutor. That'll be the first time on the prosecution, not the defense.
Mick is a complicated character. He's got a strong sense of ethics, but he's also got a fast-talking, little bit shady thing happening.
Oh, he's shady. There's no doubt about it. Haller's shady.
It feels like it ends up biting him in the ass, personally, especially with his divorce and stuff. Do you think stuff like this is worth the real-life repercussions?
That's who Mick is. Mick is the guy who lives and works and dwells on the streets, you know? I mean, is he shady? Sure, he'll bend rules to his own good. As far as his child and his ex-wife, who's played by Marisa Tomei, [they're] two people that love each other [who] just can't live with each other. There's a lot of relationships like that out there... Mick is the outsider in the story -- in the system, too. The defense attorney in Mick's position who's trolling around town trying to make a buck here and there on the street defending people that can't defend themselves, defending people that don't have the money to pay him -- there's a lotta heart to the guy. He has his morality, but when that's who you work with and that's the place that you work, you better be street. You better be a gambler. You better be able to break and bend the rules to your advantage. That's the only way you've got a chance. That's where Mick's coming from.
There are some really intense scenes where you can tell from your face that Mick is doing things that go against every bone in his body but to the greater good, the long term.
Mick's worst nightmare comes true. That's the biggest challenge and conflict for him in the whole movie, is his worst nightmare, and I won't say what that is, his worst nightmare comes true, and now he's gotta deal with it. And he's gotta survive. He's gotta defend his family, he's gotta defend his client, he's gotta get an innocent man out of jail. He's got a lot of balls in the air, and he's got to work the system -- it doesn't work for him -- to pull all this off. So that's where it's a really good cat-and-mouse sort of legal thriller.... There's no way you would know where it's going. If someone says they knew where this movie was going, they're lying. I made the movie, and I've seen it three times, and I'm still watching it going, "Wait a minute. How the hell does Mick get out of this?"
As many people have noted, this is a real departure and more of a return to roles like 'A Time to Kill.' Does it feel more like these are things you're interested in because of where you are in your life as a father or a change in the scripts that you're seeing come to you?
This came to me, but I don't get a lot [of scripts like this]... Number one, they don't make a lot of these movies any more. They're hard to get made. They're hard to make good, and they're not making as many of them. It's a classic legal thriller, but this one's got a very modern-day pulp [feeling] to it, the killer soundtrack, and again, it's on the streets of L.A., so it's not your granddad's law movie. It's obviously a part of where I am in my life, because I think it's fair to say you attract certain things for a reason. You are attracted to things for a reason. I'd done a few romantic comedies in a row. Those are fun, but I just didn't really feel like doing one of those again. I was like, "Let's change this up."
The script, I saw [it] over four years ago and looked at it and thought it needed a little bit of work, and I just wasn't in the place for it. So now it came back, and as soon as I read it, I was like, "That's exactly the shoes I want to be it. That's what I want to do right now." You know, a good solid, thriller drama with real consequences, life and death going on, and a guy who's gonna win in the end. That's definitely, for me, where I wanted to be.
You're now attached to star in 'The Dallas Buyer's Club,' and that's got the same kind of thing where it's been floating around and it's been hard to pin down in Hollywood. Do you think Hollywood is finally ready to start investing in these smart, literate dramas again?
No. [Laughs] No, I don't. No, I don't think they're just about ready. They're making us work hard for it. You know, getting 'Lincoln Lawyer' made... We got it made, we drew a really good cast, me coming on board helped get it financed, but Hollywood wasn't just throwing money at the wall for this. 'Dallas Buyer's Club' -- difficult to get made. We'll get it made, but it'll be difficult to get made.
And 'Bernie' --
That's with Richard Linklater, who I did 'Dazed and Confused' and 'The Newton Boys' with.
Right, so it's based on a Texas Monthly piece. It's totally crazy, too bizarre to be real.
Yeah, it's like a long lens look behind the big thicket that is East Texas, where I'm from, where I was raised. Now, I'm not going to give you the whole premise, but it's based on a true story that was written in Texas Monthly about a guy named Bernie and his relationship with a woman in that town. Bernie's played by Jack Black, and the woman is Shirley MacLaine, and myself, I play the town prosecutor, Danny Buck. Really should be funny stuff. Rick [Linklater] seems to be very happy with it right now, so I'm very excited about that.