AUSTIN -- Matthew McConaughey didn't place an ad in the trade papers asking Hollywood to take him more seriously. He did not have his people draft a press release announcing that he would like to take his career in a different direction.
He simply started saying "no."
Call it a game plan of action by inaction.
After almost two decades filled primarily with legal dramas, romantic comedies, and broad action films, McConaughey thought the scripts he was getting seemed too apparent. He realized he had already appeared in multiple versions of the screenplays that continuously landed on his desk.
The renewed perspective preceded McConaughey's return to Austin last year with his growing family. And it makes sense that the desire to shift his career and challenge the stereotypes that defined the first half of it would coincide with his departure from Hollywood.
"It's easier to see myself objectively, or not at all," in Austin, McConaughey says. "Austin's not impressed. You don't get a lot of mirrors in Austin. L.A. is full of mirrors. Whether it's billboards or people that know you or who expect something from you, everything you run into is a certain kind of mirror for your image."
McConaughey says he wanted to break free from that smooth-talking, harmlessly charming image he'd built over the years with a litany of one-note characters that didn't give him much room to stretch.
He wanted new roles, ones that turned him on, scared him and inspired in him the belief that he could bring something original to the part.
So he and his agent crafted a "thanks-but-no-thanks" strategy.
"Let me hold out and keep an eye open and pursue some other things that I'm interested in," McConaughey said. "And if I don't get those things, let me just hold off on these other things for a while."
The chiseled actor with the drawl focused on his family, took some time to direct a music video, and unplugged from the Hollywood machine for a bit. After about a year, the calls eased from torrent to trickle. Eventually they stopped altogether. Hollywood had gotten the message.
Then, in some cosmic coincidence that McConaughey says he can't quite understand, the actor started attracting the kind of roles he wanted.
The French Connection director William Friedkin contacted McConaughey about appearing as the intense titular character in the pitch-black pulp comedy Killer Joe, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts.
Calls from Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike) and Precious director Lee Daniels (The Paperboy) followed. McConaughey also re-teamed with the man who gave him his start in the business.
Director Richard Linklater cast McConaughey as the tough-talking and pompous district attorney in the dark comedy Bernie. Almost two decades removed from his breakout as the creepy but hilarious lothario in Dazed and Confused, McConaughey's character in Bernie looked like David Wooderson, had he decided to put down the bong and pick up some law books.
And just as he had almost 20 years earlier, McConaughey collaborated with a promising young Austin director. The actor agreed to star in director Jeff Nichols' upcoming feature Mud, in which McConaughey plays a fugitive who befriends two adolescent boys.
Suddenly, the man who had made a name for himself as much for his easy, outsized swagger and impossible good looks as his acting chops had a roster of complex original characters in films from independent-minded directors with authentic points of view and had no interest in staying inside Hollywood's formulaic structure.
He speaks with a bit of humble wonderment about how the roles came to him and professes he can't "do the math" on how things added up for this new chapter in his career. But he believes that saying "no" did help get him to the place where he could start saying "yes."
"If you put yourself in the right place, I believe you attract what you should be getting," McConaughey says. "You can't put a science behind it. And I'm not too hoity-toity or hippy-dippy about that [expletive], but I mean, that's what happened. ... Then these things I attracted, I thought that all the characters were very arresting. I felt they didn't pander or placate. They were roles that kind of scared me a little bit."
Following on the heels of his performances as an oiled-up skin salesman in Magic Mike and a self-aggrandizing district attorney in Bernie, McConaughey takes a turn for the calmly sadistic as Joe Cooper in Friedkin's latest.
Cooper is a notorious Dallas policeman hired by a delinquent low-level criminal named Chris (Emile Hirsch) and his dunderheaded father (Thomas Haden Church) to kill their mother/ex-wife. The bloodless Cooper considers his murder-for-hire duties in strictly professional terms, works with a nonnegotiable set of rules and brings no emotion to the endeavor.
But when Cooper becomes infatuated with Chris' little sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), the dynamic takes a turn for the lascivious, as the predatory Joe charms the naive and neglected virgin. The harebrained murder plan eventually unravels, revealing a family fraught with deception, selfishness, and amorality.
Things do not end well, to put it very lightly. Imagine Winter's Bone, as directed by Quentin Tarantino.
"When I first read it, it disgusted me," McConaughey says. "I didn't like it; I didn't get it; I didn't see any humor in it. I wanted to take a steel brush and go get in the sauna and clean myself off."
But a McConaughey confidant clued him into the raffish humor under Cooper's antiseptic veneer, asked the actor to reread the script and recalibrated his thinking. The script that originally made McConaughey more than a little uncomfortable was suddenly leading to laughter.
"All of a sudden I sort of found the meter. ... I allowed myself to let the writing and the situations crack me up," McConaughey says. "Once I got the humor and caught the levity and the deliberate provocation of the whole piece, and the cheerfulness in the amorality and the absurdity, then something really clicked for me, and I allowed myself to kind of get into it."
Playing a sexually seductive but remorselessly violent character may have given other image-conscious movie stars pause. But McConaughey says he has never really been concerned with seeming unlikable on screen. He is too preoccupied with the actual work that goes into the performances.
Killer Joe marks McConaughey's third appearance on the big screen this year and precedes his appearances in the disturbing The Paperboy and emotionally complex Mud, two movies that bowed at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Despite the critical acclaim he is receiving for his colorful and nuanced performances, McConaughey does not see himself in a different light.
"I don't have any new perception of myself that I didn't know or understand before," McConaughey says. "I feel like I'm getting to exercise some things I always wanted to exercise, but I was never in a rush to exercise them."
Removed from the sometimes stultifying, paint-by-numbers rhythms of romantic comedies, McConaughey says he is having an incredible amount of fun while challenging himself.
"All of last year, not one day on one of those jobs in all five of those movies did I ever have to fight complacency," McConaughey says. "I was a little nervous every morning getting out of bed."
The meatier roles are not the only things helping to ground the star. He and his wife, Camila Alves, are expecting their third child and recently moved back to Austin, a town McConaughey says has "more gravity" than other places.
As he dissects his recent successes, McConaughey says his solid family life and his renewed professional vigor are not simply coincidences. He believes his family has helped make him more discerning and discriminating in his career choices.
''My time's more precious, man; I want it to mean something to me," McConaughey says. "I want to get something out of it. I want to have an experience. I want to grow. I want to be challenged. I want to be afraid."