This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Matthew McConaughey was at a crossroads in late 2008. He had just received an offer of $15 million against 15 percent of the backend to star in Universal and Imagine's big-screen take on Magnum, P.I.
But the actor, who first made an impression in Dazed and Confused and A Time to Kill, was coming off a list of underwhelming big studio movies: Sahara, Fool's Gold, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. After grossing more than $100 million domestically with the rom-com How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days five years earlier, McConaughey couldn't even break $60,000 in a friend's indie project, Surfer, Dude. Failure to launch, indeed. So he did what most actors in his position would think unimaginable: He turned down $15 million.
In doing so, he engineered one of the most humbling and effective career comebacks for an actor in recent times, especially in light of the Oscar buzz McConaughey, 43, is generating for Dallas Buyers Club. That's capping an indie run that began in 2011 with such movies as Richard Linklater's Bernie, William Friedkin's Killer Joe, Lee Daniels' The Paperboy, Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike and the acclaimed Mud from this spring.
"Taking a year and a half off and saying no to things in some form or fashion made me a new good idea," theorizes McConaughey. "Sometimes the target draws the arrow." Says one source familiar with McConaughey's career strategy: "He was bored. He didn't want to be seen as the shirtless guy anymore."
McConaughey admits there were a few moments when he had second thoughts about turning down Magnum. But the birth of his first son, Levi, cemented his strategy to change his path, says Dallas Buyers Club producer Robbie Brenner. "He had an illustrious career, and he made a very conscious decision to go in a different direction and turn the ship," says Brenner. "When you become a parent, when you have more life experience, you want to put an indelible mark on the world. That is ultimately what Matthew is doing. He's choosing great directors to work with and creating an amazing filmography for himself."
McConaughey was offered the Dallas part in 2010 and, according to sources, he received only an upfront fee in the low six figures (under $200,000), though he does have backend participation. Ironically, going the small-movie route made him ripe for rediscovery in a big-budget tentpole like his next project, Interstellar, the Christopher Nolan sci-fi co-production between Warner Bros. and Paramount that's shooting now. It's hard to imagine that McConaughey would have been on Nolan's shortlist six years ago if it weren't for his recent spate of prestige movies.
McConaughey says his focus now is on personal experience and the process over results. Before Dallas' strong reception, he was asked how he would feel if the AIDS drama, for which he lost 40 pounds, isn't accepted by audiences. "Do I want it to do well, to be received well? Damn right," he said. "But if it doesn't, would that take anything away from the experience? Absolutely not. I got my self-satisfaction from what I did."