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HBO's "True Detective" is the rare series that's completely ambitious on the outside — in scope, format and, yes, casting — but on viewing actually soars beyond expectations, and that's thanks in large part to its movie star duo of leading men.
Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson — who've previously appeared together in "EDtv" and "Surfer, Dude" — reunite to play Louisiana detectives and partners Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, respectively. Their partnership is a rocky one; even though they're working together in the hunt for a serial killer, they're very much at odds throughout the first season's eight-episode run.
But the drama was not just onscreen — keep reading to get a beat-by-beat reenactment of their biggest offscreen scuffle and to see who's mowing whose lawn, who's poking holes in things and why. Dark drama, these two keep the set lighthearted with sexual innuendo aplenty.
Also of note: McConaughey is not against returning for more TV if "True Detective's" anthology style goes the way of "American Horror Story," casting the same actors in new roles each season. But while Harrelson sings his busy pal's praises and predicts Oscar and Emmy nominations for him this year, you will not see McConaughey cutting an album or doing Broadway anytime soon. EGOT status be damned.
Matthew, you've never done TV, and Woody, it's been a while since "Cheers." What was the decision like for each of you to come to TV for this?
Matthew McConaughey: It's well written and it is a cool time to come to TV. I mean, there's been some better drama in TV then there's been across the board in films for a while — it's become a new platform for that. So that little demarcation or taboo of going from film to TV has kind of been erased for years now. I considered it because I'd never done TV … and someone actually said, "Are you sure? It's TV …"
Woody Harrelson: It's not TV. It's HBO.
MM: He's getting paid for this.
WH: Thank you — I'll be here all week, folks!
MM: But the material was there. I didn't give it much thought. I've seen some HBO shows, and they never feel like a cheapened version to me when it's done well. And this sure as hell is written well. And it's one season — it's not like you're signing on for a possible six months for the next five years, every year, if it gets picked up. So it was a finite thing. And the writing was just like, phew, yeah.
But it is a very rare scenario that every single episode of the season had the same writer [Nic Pizzolatto] and the same director [Cary Fukunaga]. Did it feel like a movie when you all were shooting it?
MM: Yeah, like a 450-page … as a whole, looking at it, before shooting it, it felt like a 450-page movie. But then we'd shoot episode for episode, so that broke it up a little bit. It felt like a long movie, but we have those chapters within that are continuous. But that's all I've ever known. You've done TV where you had different directors come in …
WH: Well we had the same … Jimmy Burrows did almost every episode of "Cheers." I think that's a cool way to go, but I know that's not how TV is now. Now they change it so much, and it's crazy how they keep that continuity. Like "Breaking Bad" — how many different directors did "Breaking Bad," and yet it keeps that consistency.
MM: I don't know … if I'd gotten started with one [director] and then they'd left and I had my man down, as far as the character, and then a new director would come in … I'd have real trouble not raising my arm to be like, "Watch it! Watch it. No, no, no, don't talk to me. You handle your sh-t." [Laughs.] I don't know if I would’ve done that, but I would be like, "A new guy now? We just got started!"
See that seems like a very Rust reaction.
WH: That would be a Rust reaction.
Let’s talk about these characters: They feel comfortable together, for viewers, because you two play nicely off each other, but they are just so at odds with each other, almost on every level.
WH: We don't feel comfortable together. There's no moment of comfort. He seems like he's in a constant state of … well, whatever that is. But my character is not feeling comfortable! [Laughs.] My character's trying to find an in-road to this guy. I can't find an in-road! There's nowhere where we can just meet and have a beer or watch a show … it's very frustrating for Martin Hart, my character.
MM: The identities are very clear though, and I think the opposition creates a tension that's comforting to watch. It's fun to see this tension between these two. It's off-putting, and then all of a sudden it gets kind of funny to see him continually get in his face. You keep thinking there's gonna be a respite — they’re gonna have a coming together, they’re gonna have a meeting of the minds, one of them is gonna say I'm sorry about something. No, they're not. [Laughs.] That pink bow will never show its face in this series.
WH: [Laughs.] Never.
You both laugh, but there’s a moment when Rust comes and mows Martin's lawn, and even that is seen as a calculated chess move, when it could've been and should've been an olive branch.
MM: That's all it was meant to be!
WH: No, I think that actually is one of the ultimate nice things that his character does. At that point, he's really doing a nice thing, and it just goes to show you, no good deed goes unpunished.
MM: But that was Cohle's olive branch. That was hard for Cohle to even put himself out like that, to say that would be a nice thing to do. Believe me, Cohle, offscreen, had a long time spent with himself where he went over it all. Should he go do that? And he's like, "Come on man, you're trying to be part of civilization, this guy's been trying to reach out, that would be a neighborly, nice thing to do for your partner." And he goes and does it, completely pure of heart. And then Hart comes home, and he's been dipping his wick outside his house … but mine was staying in my pants, man! I don't want nothing to do with that! [Laughs.] And you come and ask me, "You mowing my lawn?"
You said it — because he's been mowing someone else's lawn!
WH: Yep, mowing my shag rug a little bit.
We don't need to get into specifics about the type of rug, OK? [Laughs.]
MM and WH: [Laughs.]
But in the bigger picture, knowing this series has been set up to be anthology style — with a new cast and characters each season — is definitely intriguing, but the one current example of that on TV right now is "American Horror Story," and they actually keep a lot of the same cast.
WH: It’s new characters every season? But don't they have the same actors?
Yep! So you've finished these eight episodes with these specific characters, but would you consider coming back for another season to play something and someone new if it was as compelling as this?
WH: I can't see that happening. It's great the way it was — it's one of those things you don't need to revisit, I don't think. Well I don't know, what do you think?
MM: I mean, I'd consider it, but … it's not calling for a repeat. Part of the allure was that it was a finite exposition.
WH: It was also meant to be even a little more finite. It’ll be three, three and a half months, max. It’s gonna be four … five … no, nevermind, it's gonna be six months. But you, man, you don't mind working all the time. He works 24/7 and he's happy as a clam. Me, I'm a lazy bastard. I don't even like to get out of bed unless it's absolutely mandatory.
[Laughs.] I mean, you can say that because "Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is one of the biggest movies of the year, but yes, Matthew puts everyone to shame. Golden Globe and SAG nominations for "Dallas Buyers Club," that new "Interstellar" trailer just launched, and now this … it's crazy.
WH: Yeah, he's going at juggernaut speed.
MM: Gettin’ after it.
WH: Gettin’ after it, man. Jesus Christ, your work ethic is really pissing me off! [Laughs.] What the f--k? Put the kickstand down, man.
MM: It's too much fun!
Seriously though — are you going for the full EGOT? Doing a rap album or some Broadway soon?
MM: Don't plan on it.
WH: Well he's going to at least get nominated for an Academy Award and an Emmy Award in the same year … so I wouldn't be surprised if he made an album, got nominated for a Grammy. God knows what else he's going to do. He's so greedy. [Laughs.]
I love that you all have this kind of playful friendship with each other. Was it more fun doing this show together having worked together before and having this level of comfort with each other?
MM: Yeah. Way, way more fun.
WH: Well he's one of the funnest guys on the planet, without question. When he's working, he's serious as a Benedictine monk, but outside of work, so f--king fun.
MM: You have a familiarity, but we're pros in the way that … let me give you a good example. This is a real good example about Woody and I that's not a happy, happy story. Hospital scene, near the end of shooting, and I'm getting asked a question and in the rehearsal, he had interjected something. In the scene, I jumped on it and answered the question right away, and he was like, "Hey man, are you gonna let me find the spot to get that in?" I was like, "Man, I really feel like I've gotta answer this now." And he had a good point then. He said, "Man we're so generous with each other, anytime I've ever asked or you've ever asked, I always give you that room." But we get outside and I could tell he was pissed at me. I can tell by the way Woody's shoulders sit from 10 miles away.
[Editor’s note: At this point, McConaughey stands up to imitate Harrelson's "angry" stance and to reenact the rest of the story. And it's good.]
So he's huffing, walking away from me, and we had a really big scene coming up where we have to really come together, and I was like, this is gonna be hell. And it's five and a half months into shooting, everybody's deep dog dogsh-t tired, we've been working 18-hour days. And we're not getting on each other's nerves, but we just had a moment where he's like, basically, without saying it, f--k you McConaughey.
So I knew he was pissed off and I went up to him and said, "Hey man — what's up, what's up, what's up, what's up?” And he turned around and wouldn't look me in the eye, and said, "I think that's bullsh-t, man. Bullsh-t." So he said his side, I said my side, he zeroed down and looked me in the eye, and he goes, "OK. I don't like it, but I understand it." I told him where I was coming from, and once he heard from me, he was like "OK."
Wait, so no fistfight? That whole story, that whole reenactment … and it was just "OK"?
MM: Yep. Did a bearhug and "I love you buddy" and that was it. It's over.
WH: And then we went and knocked out that scene.
MM: Knocked it out.
WH: But I admire that about him, because sometimes I get pissed at stuff, and I should directly express it … with him, he doesn't mess around. If he sees something is going on, he walks directly to you and you can't look away. That's what's so refreshing — this guy, there's no bullsh-t. He's totally honest and pure. It's a refreshing thing to see. You don't see it that much.
MM: So yeah, that's part of the fun of going to work with someone you know. We want each time we’re gonna go work together to be a new experience. I've grown, you've grown, we're gonna bring different things. But we’re big boys. That doesn't mean we gotta get along and all be just perfect the whole time — we need some opposition between us. We'll ask each other's opinion.
And that definitely comes through in these roles. Apparently someone ends up in the hospital, if the beginning of your story teases anything, but without spoiling, what else can we expect from this season?
MM: The first three episodes is more talk, finding out who we are and talking about the case. We get into the line of fire here shortly. It gets hairy. I think that's a fair way to put it without giving away too much.
WH: That’s the beauty of the way Nic has constructed this thing. You keep getting these little teaser things. Here's something, we ain't gonna tell you yet, but … it's very exciting. I've only seen five episodes, but I really love what Cary, Nic, and this guy did. I love how it turned out.
And the feel of it — you really feel Louisiana. You feel the heat and the humidity and the slower way of life.
MM: Louisiana’s a character in this thing. We talk about it. We poke holes in the superstition, we poke holes in Mother Nature, we poke holes in how things go sideways.
WH: Yeah, there's a lot of hole-poking.
MM and WH: [Laughs.]
WH: On that note … !
MM: And please close this interview out in print with that last line by Woodrow Harrelson in bold print, please. Hole poking. (Laughs.) Yes please.
Watch the trailer:
“True Detective” premieres Sunday, Jan. 12 at 9 p.m. on HBO.