x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Matthew McConaughey: Family man

Feature Matthew McConaughey may have branched out from formulaic romcoms, but he tells a tale not dissimilar to the most saccharine love story.

Matthew McConaughey is an uber-successful movie star, king of the romantic comedy.
Matthew McConaughey is an uber-successful movie star, king of the romantic comedy.

Though in his latest film, Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past, Matthew McConaughey has branched out from formulaic romcoms, the actor tells Chrissy Iley a tale not dissimilar to the most saccharine love story: the film star who is no longer a committed bachelor, but a loving father in a serious relationship. Matthew McConaughey is sitting cross-legged in his cabana at the rooftop pool of a hotel in Los Angeles. His skin is a burnt brown, the kind of skin that you get from hiking on the beach or surfing every day. He's wearing a denim shirt, jeans and old brown boots that look like they've walked across Texas already. Everything about his look says free spirit, nonconformist. Yet he is an uber-successful movie star, king of the romantic comedy. Box-office gold.

His new movie is Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past, which opens here this week. It's clever and funny: "It's a movie with chutzpah," he beams, showing his perfect, white teeth. He plays a celebrity photographer, Connor Mead, a committed bachelor who is cruel and charming in equal parts. A man that loves women and loves to break their hearts. On the night of his brother's wedding he is visited by the ghosts of his former discarded girlfriends to bring him to a catharsis. The movie features a wonderful cameo from Michael Douglas as Uncle Wayne, who is a cold but brilliant player. A seasoned romcom audience will quickly assume that McConaughey and his character are much the same person.

"Hmmm, well he wasn't me, but I love women," he says in his enchantingly slow Texas tones. "This guy loved women. That was easy to go with. He's a photographer. I take lots of pictures. Not really fashion photography but lots of travel pictures. He sees the world in pictures and women are visual. All the senses are delights for this guy. And me? Do I like beauty around me? Sure I do. And I can be turned on by it.

"But this guy also has a real love for his family. He's about to ruin his brother's wedding and he has to save it. I think that's an interesting twist for a romantic comedy. He's not just chasing down the girl, he's chasing down his brother's girl. But he's chasing down love itself. With all those ghosts scaring him, he has a change of heart. He's a lost guy who finds himself. But is he me? No. But he's such a guy, such a lady lover, with opinions that make you go 'son of a *****'. He's strong," he says, his blue-green eyes narrowing in a kind of part-admiration, part-despair of the character.

Matthew McConaughey plays the brutal charmer with such aplomb, of course, you wonder how much of Mead there is in him. But McConaughey also has a rare warmth and honesty. He has a baby son, Levi, with the Brazilian model Camilla Alves. He has had a string of gorgeous actress girlfriends - Sandra Bullock, Penélope Cruz, Ashley Judd - but finally seems settled as a team, a family unit. He says, "I've got such a great woman and our rhythms are so similar."

He's wearing a green and yellow evil eye bracelet. "My lady and my mum went to Turkey and they brought this back in my two favourite colours. There's a line in the Bible in Matthew 6:22: 'If thine eye be single the whole body is full of light.'" He named his son Levi, he says, because it's Hebrew for Matthew and he was born at 6.22pm, the same number as the verse in the Bible that means so much to him.

If Matthew McConaughey was ever lost, it certainly seems as if he has found himself now. He talks with confidence and self-assuredness, but in a relaxed bohemian sort of way. There's a line in the movie that says the person that cares the least has the most power. "It's true. But should you care about power? Do I care about power? Sure. But that's a maxim that measures how to win the game, and we all play certain games in relationships, but I quit playing games about 10 years ago. It got exhausting, because you can't live up to it. It's too much work and people shouldn't act like they're someone they're not. That's a bad corner to put yourself in. Take me as I am. I make sure in the beginning of a relationship, even if it's the honeymoon period, to do that. You can't keep that 1,000 watt bulb burning forever, it's exhausting.

"That said, it's still fun to play, even if you're in a relationship that goes on for years, you can still play 'catch me if you can'. You want little tweaks to keep things lively. My girl plays little games with me and catches me off guard. It keeps it alive. But nothing is in a malicious way. That quote still works in business. If you can walk away with something, you've got the power. But it's also scary to get into something that you don't want to walk away from."

The way that McConaughey weaves his philosophies with his characters is impressive. It isn't clear where one begins and the other ends. "The film doesn't get soft or sentimental. I've done a lot of romantic comedies, they've been successful for me. But this was by far the best male role for me. It had real heart but it had a hard edge." The name Matthew McConaughey has become synonymous with successful romantic comedies. The Wedding Planner with Jennifer Lopez and How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days and Fool's Gold, both with Kate Hudson, had amazing on screen chemistry and did extremely well at the box office.

Now, however, he wants to do a different sort of comedy - The Grackle. "I'm a bar fighter for hire. Somebody's messing you around? Don't call the cops, for 200 bucks I'll give them a beat-down. After that I'm going to do something called Lincoln Lawyer, which is more like A Time To Kill, so no romantic comedies in the pipeline." In person McConaughey is gentlemanly and sexy. It's relaxing to talk to him even when I ask personal questions. Has he ever had the experience of an ex-girlfriend coming back to haunt him, reminding him of mistakes he doesn't want to make again?

"No, thankfully, I can say I haven't. I've done a pretty good job of not leaving crumbs. I never have broken up with someone in a text message - that would be leaving crumbs." That doesn't mean that he is close friends with all of his previous girlfriends. "The ones I had good relations with I'm still friends with. We're happy for each other, getting on with our lives. Some I'm closer to than others. One ex-girlfriend - I'm proud to say - I spoke at her wedding. I don't want to use her name but we dated for about three years. Her husband is awesome and they have two kids. I've never been someone who wants to delete time and I don't want a woman who would want me to do that either. I wouldn't want a woman to do that with her life.

"I'm not saying you sit there and advertise it when you see a picture of them and you go, 'Isn't she so great?' But at the same time, how the hell do you get where you are unless you've been where you've been? So sure, you say, I loved them. What do you think I was doing there for three years?" Was having a baby a conscious decision to change his life or a happy accident? "Well, it's an actual act. It really happened... I'm not going to get personal and say how and why Levi was conceived, whether he was planned or not. That would be mine and Camilla's secret."

Like every new parent, life with a new baby has changed McConaughey. "Life is more full and more fun. I'm doing a lot of the same things I did before. I'm still travelling with him. He's got five stamps on his passport, and he's only eight months old. We took a 7,200 mile road trip with him in the Airstream." He refers to another of the loves of his life - his Airstream trailer. "We camped out, we slept in tents, we slept in hotels. You look in your kid's eyes and it's a mirror and that can be scary because it is brutally honest. My peripheral vision is better now. My overall existential and intellectual viewpoint is more in tune because now I'm travelling with precious cargo. I'm living for me but also living for we. For instance, never at any time in my life would I ever discuss a movie in terms of 'where?' I would go fully on creative impulse. But now it's to do with can we pick up the family to go there? What's Camilla doing? It's more of a family discussion."

He and Camilla are flexible about how often they see each other. There is no "three week" rule, for example. "We have never been into that kind of thing. In fact, if you give me those rules I'll break them. I'd make sure it was 22 days, bust it by a day. We are much easier on each other than that. If we don't have rules we'd probably go to the end of time without being apart more than two weeks. But if there's a rule we'd bust it. I am proud to say I have become more of a free spirit, but a free spirit with responsibility."

While the changes in his life have been his own choice and a slow evolution, it is the experience of one night that changes his latest character Connor Mead. The girl next to me in the screening cried her eyes out and I assume it is because she had a boyfriend whom she couldn't change. McConaughey sees a difference between choosing to learn and grow and being changed by the woman in your life. "I've seen those relationships where the guy's been emasculated and been turned into the opposite of what the woman wanted in the first place."

He gives the impression that his own relationships are much more easy-going and relaxed, but with intensity and thoughtfulness at their centre. "I am not the guy in the movie. I am in a relationship and I am a monogamous man. In some ways I have changed. If she doesn't like me doing something, it might give her more displeasure than I get pleasure. If I do it and she's in a bad mood then I don't get pleasure anyway so I'll turn it all around, I'll be selfish and not do it. See, I'm making my life better by doing something she likes."

It's all very contrary, but not as up and down as his parents' relationship. They got married three times and divorced twice. "They loved the hell out of each other. There was always wild evenings and wild mornings, but there was always love." He believes that their marriage worked for them. His father died 16 years ago, but he is still extremely close to his mother. It is easy to assume that such a model of parenthood and marriage would affect him - either to emulate the same kind of passion or to achieve more stability.

"I don't want to get married and divorced. It's too topsy-turvy for my mind." McConaughey does not rule out marriage for himself, although he and Alves have not yet tied the knot. "I'm not against the institution. I've seen it work and I've seen it not work. My father taught me early on, he was a wild ass, but he taught me: respect a woman. And I do. Always." His big blue-green eyes seem to brim with passion as he says that. It's time for him to go. He will drive himself off back to the beach. No flunky. No limo. "I've got an office, a production company and a record company. We've got brands and I do a lot of stuff. I'm always working on something. I check in to the office daily. But I also go to the beach every day for a swim or a hike. I just got to get that salt water."

And off he goes, free spirit with responsibility. Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past opens in the UAE on June 25.