Going for ‘Gold’: McConaughey talks shady deals, stringy hair

Austin spirit animal Matthew David McConaughey would like to share with the readers of the Austin American-Statesman an exclusive piece of information about “Gold,” his new, inspired-by-true-events film about a 1980s precious metals prospector named Kenny Wells who, with a geologist partner, heads to Indonesia to make his proverbial fortune.

Specifically, he would like to discuss his hair.

Sure, McConaughey reportedly put on more than 40 pounds to get into character as Wells, the somewhat sketchy fellow at the heart of “Gold.” He hit the cheeseburgers, and he hit them hard.

But what really jumps out at you is his hair, a comb-over with that sort of half-halo thing about the back that some men get. It is … not the most flattering look. It is extremely unexpected to see on a movie star.

So where did it come from?

“My dad was always around a lot of guys who looked like Kenny,” McConaughey said in an interview. “They were great consumers of life — whatever they could eat, drink, smoke, kiss and slobber on, they did it.”

He pauses. “But you know where it really came from? I haven’t told anyone else this. I went to the hair lady, said, ‘It’s this guy’s hair,’ and handed her a picture of Dana Holgorsen,” McConaughey said, laughing uproariously.

Holgorsen, for those not versed in the ins and outs of college football, is the current head coach at West Virginia. He did time in various offensive coordinator gigs at Oklahoma State, Houston and Texas Tech.

Google him — you’ll see the resemblance in about two seconds.

McConaughey unpacked his “Gold” character further a few days before our chat at an invite-only cocktail party and “Gold” screening at the Highball and Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, introducing the film with a tremendous story about his father.

When McConaughey was 17 years old, he and his dad went out to get “stocking stuffers” for the holiday season. They headed off to a parking lot, at which McConaughey Senior introduced his son to a man named “Chicago John” who had a variety of items in the back of a van (“microwaves, hair dryers”).

McConaughey said his father purchased an item from this gentleman. McConaughey couldn’t see what it was, but it was the sort of thing for which one peels off stacks of bills. The elder McConaughey wrapped the item in a bunch of paper towels and headed back to the car.

“I don’t know if it’s a ferret or what,” McConaughey said. Dad and Matthew leave, the item stuffed in the glove box. Said McConaughey Senior to son, “See if it’s still in there.”

McConaughey unwraps it. It’s a watch. “‘That’s a $22,000 titanium Rolex I just bought for $3,000,’ Dad said.”

“Now, that watch was probably not worth $500,” McConaughey said, “but my dad loved a shady deal,” the sort that captures the spirit of Kenny Wells, who McConaughey said is his favorite character he has ever played.

When I mention that I saw him tell this story, McConaughey adds to it. “Yeah, I remember my dad sort of peeking up in the sky like there might be helicopters in the air,” McConaughey said. “He just bought a hot watch, there was nobody following us! But that’s the fun of something like that.”

“You know, you can’t really moralize a guy like Kenny,” McConaughey said. “Kenny lives in this survivor, underbelly world, and there are millions of guys like him that weren’t born into the American dream. My dad got out of bed every morning, threw his legs over the side and said, ‘Today’s gonna be the day that I hit a lick.’ He never did it, but he got out of bed every day thinking it was going to happen and trying to make it happen. Kenny is that kind of guy.”

In “Gold,” Wells, whose prospecting company is the family business, has hit hard times. The business, which once had its own office, is operating out of a bar. He is practically living in his car when he seeks out Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramírez), a geologist who is similarly down on his luck. Together, they head to Indonesia on a hunch of Acsota’s and find — well, one can guess what they find. Wall Street becomes very interested, and Wells becomes very rich, very fast.

The project had been floating around Hollywood since the early 2010s, with Michael Mann and Spike Lee mentioned at various points as possible directors. Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the still-incredible “Traffic” and wrote and directed the still-bizarrely underrated “Syriana,” signed on as a director in 2015.

The production shot in Albuquerque, N.M. (which played Reno), Thailand (which played Indonesia) and New York City (which played itself). Thailand was by far the hardest part of the shoot. The monsoons came early, so the Indonesia scenes ended up being shot in little bits.

“It would rain two or three times a day,” McConaughey said, “so if it was dry, you shoot a scene that’s supposed to be dry. If it started raining, you’d go to a completely different scene that was set up for rain and work on that. All of that was pretty from the hip.”

One day, the rains erased the set entirely. “We walked out to where we left the set the night before, and Gaghan and I are like, ‘I know we’re in the same spot,’” McConaughey said. “Gaghan said, ‘What’s that down there?’ and the set had been blown way down the mountain.”

The language barrier was also a bit of a bump. “There was the director saying ‘Action!,’ then the assistant director translating ‘Action!’ to the Thai assistant director who translates it to all of his departments, so there’s about this eight-second delay after action before you actually could start doing something,” McConaughey said.

But the effort resulted in a fun picture. There’s a wonderful scene where Wells breaks down the difference between having lots of money, which is fine, and gold, which has a magic of its own and must be dug out of the ground, obsessively. He makes the latter sound a whole lot more fun.

“The shadiness of the deal is part of the turn-on for guys like Wells,” McConaughey said. “The gold is pulling it off, the gold is ‘See if we can make it happen,’ the gold is ‘I’m gonna stick it to the man.’ My dad used to say he would much rather do a shady deal with some fun people than a good deal with a bunch of straight asses.”

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