Matthew McConaughey didn’t want to wait any longer. So he set a date. October 2012. That’s when they’d start shooting “Dallas Buyers Club.” He seemed to be the only one prepared to launch at that time, but the charismatic Uvalde native was tired of riding the roller coaster.
The script about Ron Woodroof, the heterosexual Dallas man who started a black market drug and supplement ring after contracting HIV in the mid-’80s, had sat on his desk for years. But a lack of financing and other movies kept pulling him away. Maybe you’ve heard of them? “Magic Mike,” “Mud,” “Killer Joe,” “Bernie.”
So McConaughey decided that if he stuck a flag in the ground for last October, and waived off other projects, “Dallas Buyers Club” would gather some much-needed momentum. He pretty much willed it to happen. (The movie comes out in Austin on Friday.)
Of course, there was the weight. When Woodroof discovers early in the movie that he has contracted the virus and already has full-blown AIDS, doctors give him a month to live. He’s shocked, but you can see the disease taking hold of his frail and withered body.
Once McConaughey decided to prepare in earnest for the role about the struggling electrician and amateur rodeo cowboy, he started shedding pounds. Fast.
At first he used a combination of an intense cardio workout, burning 1,800 calories a day, and a “pretty out-of-control diet.” During a busy stretch, he missed two weeks of workouts, but the weight kept coming off. That’s when McConaughey backed off the crazy exercise regimen and approached the drastic weight loss solely through diet. He dropped 47 pounds in about three months, getting down to 135 pounds. He wasn’t pushing this nonsense to the spring.
“I had many calls while I was losing weight that said, ‘Stop it. It’s not gonna happen,’” McConaughey said.
The naysayers didn’t dissuade McConaughey, who is almost unrecognizable in the film.
“I had five ounces of fish twice a day, a couple vegetables, maybe a little bit of oatmeal in the morning,” McConaughey said. “And I always had my wine at night.”
Ron Woodroof would’ve liked that last part.
Woodroof was a hard-living charmer and con man, using his mouth to get himself in and out of trouble. McConaughey had never heard of him before reading the script, but he found the character on the page hilarious. He also thought telling an HIV drama through a heterosexual’s point of view was a unique idea, especially considering the heterosexual in question. Woodroof was no saintly martyr.
McConaughey refers to Woodroof as a man restless and alone, trying to make ends meet, seeing opportunity where other might see despair.
“He was charming. He was fun. But, man, he could be an ass,” McConaughey said.
McConaughey met the character of Woodroof through the script but also through spending time with the deceased Woodroof’s family outside Dallas.
“They were very realistic about him,” McConaughey said. “There was a lot of love in that family, but they had these wild stories.”
The actor pored over scrapbooks and watched old home videos, getting a sense of Woodroof’s voice and sense of humor, hearing him “as a salesman.”
But the secret to unlocking the character came from Woodroof’s personal diaries.
“That’s where I got his monologue. Then I understood the dialogue.,” McConaughey said. “Then I had the full-on secret.”
The diaries revealed a restless man. Before he contracted HIV, Woodroof would scheme and plot his days, preparing for success but almost always stumbling into failure.
“A guy who was kinda aimless and was itchin’ to get out of there and get on to something else,” McConaughey said.
His illness gave him that motivation and helped him turn his destructive energy into something positive. As the movie details, Woodroof turned his low-rolling, scheming ways into a fine-tuned but shaggy operation that helped the lives of hundreds of people with HIV. He evaded the authorities, quarreled with his cross-dressing attaché (played with gusto by an unrecognizable Jared Leto) and still found time to indulge his womanizing.
McConaughey loved the anarchy and raucousness of it all. He liked that the character was rough-hewn, portrayed warts-and-all on screen, using homophobic slurs and never attempting to be something he wasn’t.
The actor realized that some people in the movie-making chain may have wanted to “sand down the edges” in hopes of making a safer movie (read: one that could appeal to more people and make more money). But McConaughey, whose love for the characters he plays always seems to keep them from becoming too unlikable, didn’t want a gauzy crusader piece.
“My feeling is, and I really felt strongly about this, the more we stick with him being a (jerk) throughout, his humanity will emerge somehow,” McConaughey said. “I felt like the guy was incredibly human.”
McConaughey’s instincts proved correct. His role in “Dallas Buyers Club” has earned him universal praise and could lead to his first Oscar nomination. This after a 2012 that saw the actor’s career undergo a total transformation.
So, does the football-loving McConaughey feel like he’s in “the zone” that athletes like to talk about?
“I feel like I’m on the front edge, the cusp of the front end of the wave … clawin’. I don’t feel like I’m riding anything,” McConaughey said. “I’m real aware and hungry, and my instincts are pretty well aligned with my nugget right now, which is cool.”
(For those not well-versed in the language of McConaughey, “nugget” means “head.”)