Matthew McConaughey for “U-571”

Matthew McConaughey was once poised to be the Hollywood’s next best thing, following an auspicious performance in A Time to Kill, but somehow he managed to take on films that were not necessarily skewed towards a mainstream audience. But that could change, as he gives an arresting performance, his best yet some would argue, as the flawed second-in-command naval officer aboard a submarine, the powerful World war 2 thriller U-571. Paul Fischer sat down one-on-one with the laid back Texan.

Matthew McConaughey doesn’t look like a movie star. Very casually attired, his legs sprawled on a chair in front of him; he’s clearly tired by the day of media interviews. His Texan accent is still prevalent, and his relaxed demeanour is punctuated by constant use of the word ‘man’. “Hey man, glad you liked the movie. It rocks, doesn’t it? He questions nonchalantly. Rocks it does, this action-packed World war 2 thriller that fictionalises events set in the early days of World War 2, during which time Nazi subs were destroying a multitude of ships across the Atlantic.

This film tells of an American sub crew whose mission it is to capture a German sub that contains a decoding device. McConaughey plays a young naval officer, passed over to captain his own submarine, forced, through dire circumstances, to make some hard choices and learn about leadership. It was a role he seemed born to play. “Subjectively speaking, I wanted to do this film because of the character whom I liked a lot. I wanted to play a leader of men, that heroic character. I wanted to go be ‘the man’, take care of business and get physical.” McConaughey liked the fact that it was “a physical role, set in the reality of World War 2, which is much more legitimate to me than doing something that is science fiction; it’s a basis that I can understand.” The actor revelled in the fact that this was a specific kind of film, one set in World War 2, “which meant going out, putting on the uniform and fighting for your country. That’s a great feeling and something I wanted to do.”

Donning that uniform and fighting on a sub with the likes of Bon Jovi and Harvey Keitel, is a far cry from his more humble beginnings. It was less than 10 years ago that a young Mr McConaughey gave up all chance of becoming a lawyer, to do this acting thing instead, and drove to Hollywood in search of a better life -or at least a different one. For the Texan, it was a time for some serious adjusting to the Hollywood life. “It was a huge adjustment period. Firstly there was the drive out with my U-Haul, going to my friend’s house and showing up at 11 at night. He shows up to the door naked, he’s in there with a lady friend, and that’s my introduction to Hollywood.” Those were the days, he recounts laughingly, “driving down Sunset Boulevard, listening to Madonna on the radio and thinking: Wow man, I wonder where she is now? Then you look over on the road and go: God, I’m in Hollywood, she’s probably right here.”

Now it’s McConaughey who graces the covers of the likes of Vanity Fair, and he’s having his brushes with fame. It began with his breakthrough role in A Time to Kill, and McConaughey had suddenly arrived, then as fast it happened, his star dimmed a little after that. Too much too soon perhaps? “I don’t think it was the wrong thing at that time. That was as big an immediate splash and intense kind of boom with: ‘Here’s the new guy!’ as there has been. I haven’t felt any unfairness about it. When I look back, there’s nothing I would really change as far as me, as Matthew McConaughey the product. The product value, as far as the market’s concern, dropped somewhat after that, yeah. Then you could say, ‘Did it have anywhere else to go?’ Well, I don’t know. But, yeah, sure it did. I went and did some films that I was real happy about doing and they were pretty successful. I was part of some stories that I was really happy to be a part of.” He cites the likes of Contact, Armistad, The Newton Boys and the satiric Edtv. McConaughey realises that fame was illusory, “and I feel more grounded now as a result of the fact that my success, my marketability, has levelled out.”

Before he came to Hollywood, McConaughey was set to become a lawyer. Studying for over five years was too much to bear, he recalls, but asked what kind of a lawyer he would have been, and he smiles and pauses before responding. “Man, it’s harder to say now than it probably would have been then, because there are a lot of things with the law that I’m confused about. In terms of justice, it’s not near as clear-cut as I always idealised it being. I would have gone in the criminal law direction, because I wanted to deal with people, and the life and death stakes that exist within criminal law.” McConaughey also adds that he would have made a good lawyer, “especially as a defense attorney.”

Now he gets to play lawyers and sea captains, admitting that he’s finally “in a good place right now; things are really burning.” Having spent more than 6 months on an all-male film set, it was a time for a change of pace, with the actor having completed The Wedding Singer with Jennifer Lopez. “She was great to work with, and I think that film has all the elements of the quintessential romantic comedy. It’s light and upbeat, a real change of pace for me.” It seems that McConaughey may be back on top where he belongs.