In the last few years, Matthew McConaughey has come to be known for tackling deeply philosophical and emotionally complex roles. Namely he played introspective Detective Rust Cohle, alongside the brusque yet charismatic Woody Harrelson, in the critically successful True Detective. Later in the year he played the space-bound pilot and torn father Cooper in Interstellar.
Both of these characters remain concerned with humankind and its relation to the unknown, and speculated differently on humankind’s place in the future. These roles are a far cry from his debut role, that of ageing stoner David Wooderson, who whilst in his twenties still delighted in socialising with high school students, in Dazed and Confused in 1993.
Born in Uvalde in Texas, McConaughey initially had brief plans to become a lawyer. However, after earning his degree in Radio, Television, and Film from the University of Texas at Austin College of Communication and starring in a few television commercials, he soon came to realise his path lay with acting.
After graduating in 1993, he was subsequently cast as David Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. With his skinny moustache, tight pink trousers, and iconic t-shirt with one sleeve rolled up, McConaughey was ‘alright, alright, alright’ in this breakthrough role at the age of 24. The character of Wooderson with his beguiling catchphrase and laid back attitude proved so popular McConaughey would later reprise this role in the music video for the Butch Walker and the Black Widows song Synthesisers.
This tied in neatly with the 20th anniversary of Dazed and Confused and depicted a (slightly) older Wooderson prowling a bar with two women, lip-synching to the song, playing a trumpet and dancing, and finally leaving with a wink via the female toiles with the two women he arrived with.
His next most successful film after Dazed and Confused, however, was the more serious Contact in which he played a priest of sorts alongside the atheist scientist Jodie Foster. Foster is the real one to watch in this sci-fi film but McConaughey garners interest via his priestly role.
It is McConaughey’s more serious films that have brought him to the public’s attention and earned him critical praise. In 2011 he played a sociopathic cop and hit man for hire in the filmic adaptation of Killer Joe. Although little known, this serious role portrays McConaughey’s skill at rapidly portraying a range of emotions, as during the climactic finale his character lunges between psychotic, supposedly caring, and controlling.
In 2012 McConaughey took on the less serious role of a male stripper in Magic Mike and the emotionally stubborn eponymous protagonist in Mud. During 2013 he starred alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street and later as a man dying from AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club. It was his portrayal in Dallas Buyers Club that won him both the Academy award for Best Actor and the Golden Globe award for Best Actor.
In 2014 he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame before starring alongside Woody Harrelson in the critically acclaimed True Detective. Later he played the protagonist Cooper in Christopher Nolan’s hugely successful Interstellar.
Although recently he has parodied his more serious roles in a string of Lincoln Car Commercials in which he muses ‘sometimes you gotta go back to actually move forward’ a line that seems reminiscent of his musings in True Detective, it has been these more serious roles that have earned him the reputation as one of the most desirable actors in Hollywood.
12. Bernie (2011) Dir. Richard Linklater
For the first film in this list, McConaughey played a detective trying to unravel the mystery of who killed the rich sour widow Marjorie Nugent. Based on true events, Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth adapted the story of this murder for the 2011 film Bernie, and included talking head interviews from non-actors who actually knew the real Bernie.
Jack Black secured the titular role as protagonist Bernie, an intensely amicable mortician, is loved by all the members of his Texan community in Carthage. In his list of impressive attributes and skills, in which singing, volunteer work, and community outreach fill up the majority of his spare time, Bernie chose to reach out to recently windowed Marjorie Nugent.
Following months of possessiveness Bernie killed Nugent and subsequently confessed to the police. McConaughey played the leading detective on the case, whom despite a solid confession from the guilty Bernie, struggled to secure a fair trial given the community’s love for Bernie.
McConaughey only appears in Bernie briefly but his soft-speaking detective does not whet the appetite for much more. He muses upon criminality in his trawling Texan accent, before trying to convince his co-workers of Bernie’s guilt, and eventually mildly chastising a priest for his biased sermon seemingly promoting Bernie’s innocence. His detective is flat and underdeveloped and uncharacteristic of his later emotionally complex roles.
11. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003) Dir. Donald Petrie
The director Donald Petrie, known for Miss Congeniality and Mystic Pizza, directed McConaughey alongside Kate Hudson in the 2003 romantic comedy. Hudson plays a career driven journalist who resolves to write an article after being inspired by her friend’s poor luck with love. Hudson resolves to begin dating a man before deliberately pushing him away using a number of her friend’s romantic flaws.
Meanwhile McConaughey plays Ben, who is unable to convince his boss that he knows about love and so therefore is able to properly advertise diamonds, resolves to make a woman, any woman, fall in love with him in 10 days. So begins the countdown. A number of comedic mishaps eventually lead to the leading characters deeply caring for each other.
Their opposing goals lead to a number of humorous situations and McConaughey’s Ben is at times charismatic, and often humorous in attempting to hide his chagrin for the deliberately needy, manipulative Hudson. When both their ulterior motives are uncovered McConaughey is skilled at portraying a no longer slick and clinical Ben, but a heartbroken man burdened by the loss of Hudson.
10. Contact (1997) Dir. Robert Zemmeckis
In this science fiction film, a somewhat precursor to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in terms of space travel, McConaughey plays a blonde curly-haired priest. After meeting and romantically entwining with Jodie Foster’s Dr Ellie Arroway, McConaughey disappears for a portion of the film. Dr Ellie Arroway meanwhile continues her life’s work of searching the sky for evidence of extra-terrestrial contact.
Upon finding this evidence, Dr Ellie Arroway is called into the White House to work with the government teams in understanding this message from space. She is reunited with McConaughey for the first time since their tryst several years ago and it is revealed McConaughey now offers spiritual guidance to the President of the United States.
Dr Ellie Arroway eventually meets the extra-terrestrial senders of the message only to return with no empirical evidence to prove the meeting took place. Yet McConaughey believes her.
McConaughey’s portrayal of the quietly spiritual priest is endearing, and he subtly portrays his conflicting feelings for the atheist Dr Ellie with controlled skill. He maintains a calm demeanour for the majority of his screen time to portray the spiritual sureness of the priest, but aptly represents the fear his character acutely fears when watching his love interest Dr Ellie at the mercy of the extra-terrestrial machine.
9. Magic Mike (2012) Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Reportedly based on Channing Tatum’s own life experiences as a stripper, Tatum plays Mike, an experienced stripper guiding apprentice Adam (Alex Pettyfer) in his introduction to the male stripping world. Mike truly longs to begin his own business making wooden furniture but due to low funds resorts to performing at the strip club Xquisite, run by Dallas (McConaughey).
After Adam begins taking drugs and sleeping with many of the women he dances for, Mike begins to really tire of the male stripping lifestyle. Following a ruined drug deal (which Mike ultimately resolves by relinquishing his life savings), Mike leaves behind Dallas and his male stripping days thus forcing Dallas to replace him with Adam as a male dancer.
McConaughey plays the charismatic yet ultimately greedy Dallas, owner of the Xquisite club. He is first introduced wearing a cowboy hat, leather trousers, and a leather vest worn open to show off a deliberately oiled and golden body, as he grins and charms the crowing audience.
Although most of the dancing is done by Tatum and the fellow dancers, McConaughey reportedly requested the stripping scene that appears in the film. The characters are complex and McConaughey reveals he can dance, play the guitar, and captivate as the magnetic yet underhand Dallas.
8. Mud (2011) Dir. Jeff Nichols
In this lengthy entry to this film list, McConaughey plays the eponymous Mud, a mysterious bedraggled man who seems to temporarily live on a boat on an small isolated island in Arkansas. Two fourteen year olds and best friends Ellis and Neckbone discover this boat one day and long to claim it as their own.
McConaughey offers them a deal, if they provide him with food and help to reunite him with his old love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), he will hand over the boat. Ellis becomes attached to Mud and his story of waiting for Juniper, and whilst Ellis’ parents muddle through a divorce, he continues to put more faith in Mud’s story.
Mud is revealed to be wanted by the police for the murder of Juniper’s ex-boyfriend, and on the run from the deceased ex-boyfriend’s vengeful family. Ending with a climactic shoot-out on a river-boat, this southern gothic offers McConaughey an ideal platform to showcase his acting talents.
Slipping between evasive, manipulative, and genuinely remorseful, McConaughey proves his handle of a range of emotions. Particularly of note, is the closing scene in which a wounded McConaughey, now free of the police and his love for Juniper, stands in awe of an opening river mouth.
7. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) Dir. Martin Scorsese
This is another film on this list in which McConaughey only has a small role. He appears briefly at the beginning of the film as Leonardo DiCaprio’s boss and bizarre mentor. Whilst out at an expensive dinner, McConaughey’s Mark Hanna, high on a cocaine binge, begins rhythmically beating his chest and humming and encouraging a bemused and intimidated DiCaprio to join in.
This ‘money chant’ defines McConaughey‘s role throughout this film as a drug-fuelled highly strung wall street stock broker. This drug binge is typical of the extreme drug use and extreme behaviour depicted throughout the film. Martin Scorsese directed this adaptation of the true events of Jordan Belfort’s memoir, a criminal stock-broker who after being caught breaking the law and committing fraud, was sent to prison for 22 months.
While Leonardo DiCaprio expertly plays the titular role, McConaughey’s brief performance is memorable and believable. McConaughey’s wild cocaine eyes, darting movements, sloping eyelids, and captivating command of the screen results in an unforgettable role despite the brevity of his character’s on screen time.