Ask Matthew McConaughey what convinced him to tackle his first ever television series, HBO’s True Detective, and he offers up two things: the sheer power of screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto’s scripts and the chance to start some drama with his longtime pal Woody Harrelson … if only onscreen.
“This is the third time we’ve worked together and it’s the first time not in a comedy, which I was really excited about,” says McConaughey. “The thing about Woody and I is that personally we’re such good friends that if he starts something, I end it. If I start something, he ends it. We pick up each other’s energy very easily and we like doing that. It’s good for the comedies we’ve done [1999’s Edtv and 2008’s Surfer, Dude] and it’s good for our friendship. What it was not going to be good for — which was very clear to me — is that, because our characters are so diametrically opposed as far as their points of view and their personal politics, we had to really make sure we didn’t get onto the other guy’s wavelength — meaning Woody and Matthew’s.”
In Pizzolatto’s atmospheric chiller, McConaughey and Harrelson play Louisiana detectives Rustin “Rust” Cohle and Martin Hart, whose newly formed partnership runs off the rails in 1995 when they are called to a remote field and find the nude body of a woman posed as artfully as a statue, a crown of branches and antlers encircling her head. Where Hart sees unimaginable human atrocity, Cohle sees science … and a strange salvation.
“The actual murder mystery becomes the track that these guys are on, but the real story is who these guys are — who they seem to be and who they’re not,” McConaughey says.
Divorced and deeply tormented by the loss of his young daughter, the urbane Cohle lives in a blank slate of a room, rarely sleeps and can find no reason other than his work to keep living a life he doesn’t have the constitution to end himself. Hart, a genial Everyman, is perfectly content to work his cases by the book, pay deference to the folks in power and go home at night to his pretty wife (Michelle Monaghan) and lively daughters … with the occasional extramarital field trip he insists is good for his union . When the oppressiveness of what lies before him leads Hart to try bonding with his partner, he realizes he’s in for more than he bargained for.
“We are creatures that shouldn’t exist under natural law,” Cohle says, staring out the window of the cruiser. “The honorable thing for our species to do is to stop reproducing and walk hand in hand, brothers and sisters, into extinction — one last midnight.” “Let’s make the car a place of silent reflection from now on,” Hart retorts.
“I’ve always loved philosophy,” McConaughey says of Cohle’s penchant for bleak observations that are bound to haunt viewers long after each episode ends. “I personally am a man who believes in God, but I love science and philosophy. I love reading the great agnostics and I love the self-reliance in it, so I latched right onto that. Didn’t want to be Cohle in my real life! But these things were like, ‘Whoa!’
“When I first read this thing, I couldn’t wait by page 40 — and there are 450 pages of script — to find out what came out of Rustin Cohle’s mouth next,” McConaughey continues, adding that he sees Cohle as a realist rather than a pessimist. “The reason I came on in the first place was I read two episodes and said, ‘I’m in — I want Rustin Cohle and I’m in!’ I’ve never done television; I’ve never done eight episodes. But the writing was so electric and the voice and the identity of the character was so clear. Never once did it get typical. Never once does it play out how you think a normal scenario will play out and how two people should interact.”
To compound the intrigue, the tale blends the ’95 case and its aftermath in 2012 when each man is asked to revisit what happened, ostensibly because the original files were lost in Hurricane Rita, but also because a similar murder casts doubt on the pair’s success. McConaughey says having such a broad understanding of his character was an uncommon treat.
“That was part of the real fun of this,” he explains. “In ’95, Rust is a guy who has to have a case, has to have something to be obsessed with, just to keep on the rails, to keep from boiling over, to keep from dying! Even if he does want to leave this life, he knows he’s too much of a chickens@#$. So he knows that this life is almost like his penance. In 2012, he’s back to trying to be a part of humanity, but he knows who the hell he is and he knows who he’s not. Now he’s shaking hands with his fate — ‘OK, this is my lot in life. Let it rip!’”
McConaughey, whose trademark molasses drawl pays homage to his Texas roots, says he was also drawn in by True Detective’s Deep South setting, brought to spine-tingling life by director Cary Fukunaga’s cinematic eye.
“It is a character — in the show and in real life,” McConaughey says. “What a rich place to put it in, man! Down there, Mother Nature is the queen — you let things lay where they lie! Down there, things don’t even grow straight; they grow in the wrong directions. And everyone knows it. Mother Nature is the Queen Bitch. She’s the ruler. There’s also that wonderful drama of superstition where nobody, nobody — not even after Katrina — really bitches at Mother Nature because they know she’ll come back and bite ’em even harder.”
Though the anthology series will have a new case and cast in its second season, McConaughey says telling Cohle’s story had a lasting impact.
“I’ve had quite a few detective stories, film scripts, since True Detective and I can barely make it through them,” he laughs. “I’m like, ‘Pfffftt! That doesn’t even scratch the surface!’”
Currently nominated for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards (and a virtual Oscar-nom shoo-in) for his stunning portrayal of controversial AIDS activist Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey says the path his career has taken in recent years has been particularly gratifying.
“The past few years, I’ve been finding some wonderful characters and some great directors — some great, singleminded directors — and characters that have real identity and that give me something to really latch onto,” he explains. “It’s been incredibly fun and quite the adventure, and I’ve had some wonderful experiences in all of these roles, which is really what I’ve been going for. The experience.”
With his next feature, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller Interstellar, in post-production, McConaughey says he’s already eyeing a pair of projects that he hopes will keep that streak intact.
“I’ve got a couple things that I’ve read in the last two months — I read them and I immediately started to see the men, ” he says. “They’re both great stories, but I really started to see the man and started to know his voice in my everyday life. It’s so fun when this happens — because it doesn’t always happen, but I’m going to do my best to afford myself this luxury — and that’s finding characters where you close the script and you drive around and they stick with you. Everything you see in the world, all the different things you see and do and the people you see sort of go through that character and you get an idea. You get an idea and you go, ‘Oh that’s him! That’s his walk. Oh that’s his opinion on this. That’s what he would buy if he was in here.’
“That’s when acting becomes super fun. That’s when I say as an actor, I can get the wings on and fly. When it’s not just the 12-hour work day that is informing the work — it’s the real world outside.”
True Detective airs Sundays beginning Jan. 12 on HBO.