Matthew McConaughey is an American original.
What does that even mean anymore?
It means that he is a living, breathing embodiment of America and all that comes with it. He resembles us and reflects us. It also means that Americans of all stripes like him and can relate to him. There are fewer and fewer people in that category.
I’ve been writing about some pretty heavy stuff lately—it’s been a heavy year—but as we head towards Thanksgiving, I thought I’d take a break from COVID-19 and election madness and check in with Matthew McConaughey, who’s out and about (virtually) promoting his new book “Greenlights,” which if you like McConaughey you will most certainly dig and if you’ve never heard of him (who are you?) you probably will too.
“Greenlights” is actually a big deal, (which speaks to my American original point). It’s No. 2 on Amazon’s Best Seller list, (after Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land”), and also No. 2 on the New York Times nonfiction list (nestled between No. 1 “Humans” and No. 3 “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man,” written by Emmanuel Acho, who like McConaughey is a University of Texas Longhorn — stay tuned for an upcoming conversation with Emmanuel!)
I wanted to talk to McConaughey about his business ventures and some bigger picture stuff too. So there’s a little Warren Buffett, Peter Thiel, and Marc Benioff in here, but hey this is Mathew McConaughey not Jay Powell, right?
As we got into our conversation though, and after noodling and re-noodling what he said, I realized we’d gone to another place. It’s kind of like when you see McConaughey do his thing on the screen and you smile at the lovable but annoying goofball stuff and then 20 minutes more into the movie you realize it’s a whole lot deeper than that.
Ain’t that America.
The conversation, was, for starters, fun, in part because as you can tell I’m a fan—sure going back to “Dazed and Confused” (and his improvised signature “alright alright alright”), and the rom-coms, but more of his later stuff like “Sea of Trees” and especially the first season of “True Detective,” one of the very best TV shows ever made. Further, McConaughey likes Wild Turkey, and so do I. He’s a Ford guy, and so am I. He’s a fan of the Washington football team, and so was I—until I gave up to preserve my self-respect. (It’s also the case that I’m a dweeb and he’s Matthew McConaughey.)
So let me take you through my talk with Matthew McConaughey, (I let the quotes go longer than usual, because, well, he’s kind of a trip.) And like some of his later movies, (in the McConaissance), the longer our conversation went, the better it got.
So I started with the book. It’s very much him, linear sometimes, but also stream of consciousness and elliptical in a what’s he talking about Keith Richards kind of way, and then a little bell goes off, and you’re like “ding!” ah that makes sense. (Sort of.) Some parts are also crazy as hell and some are funny as hell. (Really.)
“This is me writing my book,” McConaughey told me. “I went in and was very clear with my publishers and editors that, look, this is what I want. This is what I think the book will be. This is not a tell-all book. This is not a book of me telling stories out of school that are not my stories to tell.
“I learned something in the writing of this. If I stuck to the first person, with ‘I,’ just go personal and tell the subjective, how I saw it, it actually became more relatable. So the more personal I got, the more relatable to more people it became. People are somehow seeing themselves or circumstances in their lives that are similar to mine. I'm seeing where maybe they reacted and had a perspective that was similar or different. Seeing me approach certain situations that I've found, that maybe they could use in their life. And I think people will find it just plain funny.”
McConaughey is tapped into the world of business, but not so much, and on his own terms. Something jumped out at me on page 258 of his book. Writing about his time not accepting rom-com roles and not working, and waiting to get more substantive roles, he says: “I was, as Warren Buffett says, buying straw hats in the winter.”
Whoa. Does McConaughey know Buffett or own any Berkshire?
“I think I read that quote years ago,” he says. “I don't follow it much. I have a money man who follows it. I do follow cultural trends. I've always been someone who has kept sort of a docket—my own consumer reports—about products and how much do you want a product? Do you need a product? Also how much does a product that any of us put out, whether it's ourselves or what we create, invent or discover, how much are they in demand?”
So what’s catching McConaughey’s eye?
“Well, what we're doing right now is going to remain to some extent,” he says. “There are millions of people who are going to say, no thank you [to office life again.] I practice remotely doing business and having interactions this way. I prefer it. So how does this experience become more exclusive, more intimate, more customized? I look at my productivity, which I know many companies have looked at, which shows how adaptable their employees can be. What's the future of theaters? What's the future of all of these communal events? There's a version that I see that is of the world turning into, go live wherever you want on the planet, as long as you got 5G. We'll see how much that's the new normal, how much now is the future.”
When it comes to business and his films, McConaughey is most famous here for an iconic cameo as a twisted Wall Street executive in “Wolf of Wall Street.” It was just one scene, an insane-in-the-membrane, cocaine-fueled, lunchtime soliloquy/tutorial to protagonist Jordan Belfort played by Leonardo DiCaprio, but man, was it memorable.
“That character was awesome,” McConaughey says. “I try to find what's called a launchpad line with every character, meaning it's a line that you read and you go, ‘Oh, if that character means this, then there's an encyclopedia I could write and I'll make a whole rap on that character.’ With ‘Wolf of Wall Street,’ I'm reading this line where he's telling the Belfort character that Leonardo played, ‘the secret to this business is cocaine and hookers.’ And I went, who is that? I go, if this person really believes that, well, there was a rap. So I just started writing and interviewing different brokers about how it was then. How do you create a mirage and keep it going? And, I wrote a lot of that rap and pitched it to [director, Martin] Scorsese. He was all for it and we just laid it down in that scene. It was a wonderful classic scene. It was so much fun to do.”
NB: McConaughey, now 50, is only four years older than DiCaprio, but was able to appear as an older exec, in part because of make-up of course, but also because McConaughey was rail-thin for his role as an AIDs-infected electrician turned activist in “Dallas Buyers Club.”
Not ‘just a face’
As for endorsements, celebrities like McConaughey are inundated with requests. Usually these relationships are transparently transactional, sometimes it’s even worse. McConaughey has obviously picked with care, not only aligning himself with products and services that he likes and uses, but also getting involved in the conceptualization and production of the campaigns.
“I partake of these products,” he says. “All of these entities, my investments, are things that I look forward to dealing with on my proverbial Monday morning at my office desk.”
McConaughey’s been pitching for Lincoln, his highest-profile commercial affiliation, since 2014. No doubt the ads, which have been parodied by the likes of Ellen Degeneres, South Park and Jim Carrey, have made this stodgy brand cooler (I know, low bar), and sold vehicles too.
Here’s McConaughey: “So myself, Lincoln Ford and the ad company, we're all very aligned in what we wanted to do. We came out with the first ads and I was coming off of ‘True Detective.’ And so I riffed on a bunch of those things, and those got parodied. Some of the parodies were actually very good. Some were better than others. I don't mind impersonating me, just be really good at it. And some of them did some good work. Well, that sort of got attention and eyeballs on it.”
“We said, early on, there's so many loud commercials out there. All the ads are like, who can turn up the volume the most? Well, what if we make such an intentional and deliberate commercial, that's so quiet that it actually cuts through the noise. And I saw it happen. I was in sports bars on Sunday afternoons with loud males and females screaming at the game. And then the ad would come on and they'd go and their head would turn to the TV to see the ad. So it worked. We've maintained a very consistent tone, and where we've gotten to is where you want to get to, I believe is, where I become synonymous with Lincoln and Lincoln has become synonymous with me. I'm especially particularly fond of the Navigator that I've had, which is a really, really, really good product.”
Similar story with Wild Turkey. Go to WildTurkey.com—you have to enter your date etc., (dear U.S. government, does that really do anything?)—and there’s McConaughey donned in a red and black checkered wool jacket walking the Kentucky woods in a 6:14 filmvertorial about his favorite brand of bourbon.
“I go to meet the Russells [father/son master distillers of Wild Turkey—the brand is owned by the Italian spirits company Campari],” he tells me. “I want to be in business with people that I believe in what they do, that we're both authentic in what we do and why we do it. I didn't want to be just a face. I talked with them and shared stories. So I became the creative director with them and helped them with the ad campaign. Who's our audience? Who do we want to keep? Who's the new generation that we have to introduce Wild Turkey to?”
Note that McConaughey first wanted to be on the production side of the movie business back at the University of Texas.
“I also co-created my own bourbon, Longbranch, with Eddie Russell, which was always a dream of mine to have my own, favorite bourbon on the planet, which is what we have in that bottle.”
It’s not such a bad thing to be Matthew McConaughey.
‘A for-profit living with a nonprofit idea’
And there’s sports. First and foremost McConaughey is a Texas Longhorn fan, (and is now a professor there too): “When you come to UT you are expected to compete for national championships in that sport, especially football. Um, we're not doing that right now. I do believe we're on our way,” he says.
But McConaughey is also helping to bring soccer to his hometown of Austin after becoming a minority stakeholder in the MLS team Austin FC, scheduled to begin playing next spring.
“The grass got put in last week on the pitch and it made it all feel a whole lot more real,” he tells me. “And yes, as of right now, we are still on track to do a kickoff next season.”
He has some big picture thoughts on “the beautiful game.”
“I'm betting on the international sport of soccer. I think that's a real riser as a game in our future. We have the World Cup coming in a few years. So we're going to be the front porch for the international game of football right here in North America. Austin, perfect city for the international game of soccer, a town that's never had a pro team. Austin used to be a college town, a government town, and a music town. It’s now a banker town, a tech town and an international destination. It's a very diverse community for the most diverse game in the world.”
Speaking of sports, McConaughey has also invested in The Athletic, a subscription sports website featuring long-form and original reporting that now covers dozens of cities in the U.S. Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund is also an investor and McConaughey says he and Thiel talked about the investment, which McConaughey made through Plus Capital, “a venture fund backed by top influencers from entertainment, TV, film, music, and sports,” according to Axios.
“I like a good story told, and they have really great writers over there and I'm a storyteller,” he says. “They're about the story and all the different mechanisms that go into sports, from the business side to the personal side, to the players, to the love of the game, they cover all of those. And so once again, I partake of this product.”
Last, there’s Forward, a high-tech health care company founded by former Google executive Adrian Aoun, which also has Ashton Kutcher, Bono and The Edge as investors. Some thought McConaughey was taking a page out of the “Dallas Buyers Club,” because Forward employs a monthly membership model.
“No, there's no real connection,” says McConaughey. He was attracted to the fact that Forward let’s people “self maintain their health and communicate with their doctor, remotely. That was something that sounds evolutionary. That sounds like that could be real, that could be more than a convenience. That could be a need. That could be more than just a luxury. That could be something that could be good for a lot of people who, who were not as privileged as others to have that capacity and immediate response with their doctor through a remote device. That just sounded to me as a really good idea for the future.”
Is it all about the Benjamins though Matthew?
“I'm all for making money,” he says. “I have good money. I'm all for fame. I'm happy to be famous, but I'm inspired by looking at people like a John Mackey with Whole Foods or Marc Benioff at Salesforce that go, ‘Hey, I have an idea that's really good to do, even if it was for nonprofit, but let's make profit off of it.’
“So what are those things that we can ask ourselves? I want to sell this. I want to make money off this. I want to get rich off this. How could it also be, oh, and it's good for the most amount of people. Those two don't have to be a contradiction. And I hope that more of us invest in those kinds of things. Cause you can make a really good living, a for-profit living with a nonprofit idea.”
Like most Americans, McConaughey sees the good and evil of social media.
“I just got on Instagram I think a year ago, he says. “Hmm. It’s a platform for me to share parts of myself out as a direct line of communication and not through someone else's filter. It's been good for my business. People check now how many followers, for advertisers and things like that.”
“The scary part is for the first time, we, especially children and millennials are getting their entire sense of self based on something. They put a picture, a phrase, something that they both send out to the world and they anxiously wait to see what everyone’s going to say about it. And if the thumbs come back up, I'm going to have a great day. Look at me, I'm popular. If the thumbs come back down, I drop into a depression. Well, that's not healthy.”
“And where's the responsibility lie? Make sure you're not getting your, all your sense of wealth and identity and significance based on just approval or disapproval of the rest of the world. Because understand that there's a lot of folks out there that are putting the thumb down or writing something negative and they didn't even read or look at what you wrote. All right. So where to where again? Where are we allowing a value and where are we allotting what our kids do?”
And then McConaughey continues in a singsongy whisper: “Kiddos, millennials, all of us at the thing you type in there, that comment what you say, it's going to outlive you. It's going to outlive all of us.’ So think about it before you press send. And before you write it. It's short money, short money to think that to put you down, raises me up.”
McConaughey has tried assiduously to avoid politics lately. But towing the middle is increasingly like tip-toeing through a minefield. Almost impossible to do forever. (As for those who think he’ll run for Governor of Texas some day, all I can say is I hope not. That’s a waste of this man’s time.)
And so finally I asked him, Matthew McConaughey, can America come together again?
“I know we can, but we're not going to become kumbaya,” he says. “There's not going to be perfect justice across society. We're not going to have a utopia. And I think that it's irrational to think that we are. It's actually arrogant to think that about this specie s. We could go into who voted what, where we are evolving, but we're never going to be our best. We're not going to get there. And I think that's the point.
“If we could just do a little bit better, have a small Ascension to the quality of our lives and who we are and how we treat ourselves and others in it, then there's a small Ascension in our life and in society and in America. America is an aspiration constantly chasing, but we got to realize we ain't never going to get to it. Trying to get a little bit better is as good as it gets. So join the party—and try to be a little bit better.”
And so the son of a brawling, hard-drinking, Texas pipe salesman and a vociferous mother he feuded with for years, has become a shaman movie star married to Brazilian model and designer, Camila Alves. But McConaughey, his wife and three kids (and reconciled 88-year-old mom) don’t live in Hollywood; they live in Austin, a fast-growing blue city, put on the map in part by McConaughey himself, in a reddish purple state—like America itself a swirling mix of progressive and reactionary, cerebral and visceral, poetic and raw.
McConaughey above spoke of an Ascension, a small Ascension really, the act of rising up, and how that’s what America needs.
But he also talked about us never really achieving perfect, (“...we ain't never going to get to it.”) About us always having differences, about us needing to accept that.
And it reminded me in fact of the Book of Matthew (7:1-2): “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”
America could use some of that too.
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on November 21, 2020. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.