NEW YORK — Five years ago, Matthew McConaughey generated headlines mostly for his bongo-drumming playboy persona, frequent state of shirtless-ness, and famously sculpted physique.
Today, the man who has materialized inside a Manhattan hotel suite to talk about his new film, “Mud,” has been radically transformed from his former party-boy days. After flaunting his chiseled body in hot pants and a half shirt in 2012’s “Magic Mike,” the actor underwent a dramatic physical change last year — shedding more than 45 pounds — to portray Ron Woodroof, an AIDS-stricken, drug treatment crusader in the forthcoming drama “Dallas Buyers Club,” due out in the fall. Gone are the once-sprawling set of pecs, cascading locks, and facial scruff that helped land him the title of People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2005.
McConaughey, who has gained back some of the weight, still cuts a handsome figure, but he sports a slimmer build and a leaner, clean-shaven mug. Yet his dreamy Texas drawl and unfussy introspection remain, as does his easygoing bonhomie and the thousand-watt smile that could charm the habit off a Benedictine nun.
McConaughey’s physical transformation also reflects the onscreen reinvention that he’s been busy crafting over the past several years. He was once best known for his breakthrough role as skirt-chasing stoner Wooderson in the cult classic “Dazed and Confused,” and for dramas like “A Time to Kill,” “Lone Star,” “Contact,” and “We Are Marshall,” But the 43-year-old actor had become mired in empty-calorie rom-coms — “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Failure to Launch,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” — playing his signature role of the roguish yet charming womanizer.
Then, last year, McConaughey began popping up in intriguing little indie gems like “Bernie,” “Killer Joe,” and “The Paperboy,” in parts ranging from a scarily sadistic cop with a fried chicken fetish to a closeted journalist with a dangerous yen for S&M. He even tweaked his own beefcake persona, creating a fully fleshed portrait of a sleazy-yet-seductive male strip club impresario in “Magic Mike,” a performance that earned him a best supporting actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle.
His latest film, “Mud,” finds McConaughey as a heartsick fugitive-drifter hiding out on an island in the Mississippi River, inside an old power boat that somehow came to rest high in the branches of a tree. When his title character is discovered by two teenage boys, he befriends them and enlists their help to reunite with the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and to elude capture by some very bad men.
“The McConaissance,” as one glossy magazine dubbed his reinvention, even extends to his formerly free-spirited personal life. The actor, who’d once been arrested in Austin after cops found him at home loudly banging on his bongos in the buff, is now the married father of three children, all under the age of 5. There’s little time these days for impromptu road trips in his Airstream trailer or surfing sessions with buddies like Kelly Slater.
Of the career shift, McConaughey says it wasn’t about wanting to shed certain perceptions that the public had of him or fears of Hollywood pigeonholing. It was simply a desire to challenge himself as an actor.
“I was still receiving scripts that I liked. But it was stuff that I felt like I could do tomorrow or next week. There were some action films. There were some romantic comedies. But then I felt like, ‘You know what? I’m starting a family. I’m going to be a dad and hang around and get a homestead going. So I’m going to wait for something else to come my way,’” says McConaughey, in town on a short break from filming a new HBO series, “True Detective,” in New Orleans with his buddy Woody Harrelson.
“I was looking for something that was going to move the floor a little bit. Shake me. Scare me a little bit. Make me go, ‘Whoa! I don’t know what I’ll do with that role, but it’s turned me on. I’m attracted to it. Let’s go do it and find out.’ . . . And what happened is, because I said ‘no’ to some things that I probably would have taken before, all of a sudden, cyclically, these other things came back to me, and I started getting calls from [directors] Billy Friedkin, Steven Soderbergh, and Lee Daniels about these roles.”
When those parts did come his way, McConaughey credits his wife, Brazilian model Camila Alves, with pushing him to take the leap of faith — because he was reluctant to put his young family through the stress of shooting a bunch of films back-to-back.
“My wife was the one who goes, ‘Well, if you really want to do them, grab your cojones and let’s do it. I got your back,’ ” says the actor, flashing a blissful smile, clad in a snug, camel-colored leather jacket over a white T-shirt. “So we said, ‘Well, let’s get it on.’ And the family packed up and came around wherever dad went. . . . It’s hard to keep career, your love life, your parenthood life, your health, and your friendships all at a good level. Family life would be moving down into the debit section if I didn’t have them with me.”
Ever since director Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter”) saw McConaughey’s performance as the mythic sheriff Buddy Deeds in the 1996 John Sayles film “Lone Star,” he had always pictured the actor playing Mud in the moody coming-of-age story that he was envisioning.
“It’s in the boys’ hands to decide whether or not they want to go back to the island to help Mud. So I needed somebody that was extremely likable. He had to be a compelling figure. And Matthew’s an innately likable guy,” says Nichols.
McConaughey says that he became enchanted with the mangy mysticism and mythic qualities of Mud, as well as with the film’s thematic explorations of the transition into manhood and the influence of male mentors, both true and false. To tap into Mud’s enduring love for Juniper, the actor thought back to when he was 14, the age of the two boys in the film — “before I knew better or knew worse about love, before I had my heart broken,” he says. “Because that’s where Mud lives.”
Does he identify with Mud’s perspective? “Matthew is much more pragmatic than Mud,” McConaughey responds. “But I know that side of Mud — and I know that side of myself.”
When the actor arrived on set halfway through production in Arkansas, having coming straight from filming “Magic Mike,” he asked the crew for a tent and a sleeping bag, so that he could camp out on the island. “He just wanted to be there by himself for a few nights, thinking about his character and the script,” Nichols says. “You always hear horror stories about actors wanting to go back to their trailer and not knowing their lines and all that. . . . So I was like, that’s rad. I knew then he was definitely the right guy for the job.”
McConaughey, who will be seen this fall in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” might be in the middle of a career reinvention, but he’s still an actor with a clearly defined (albeit shifting) public persona — one who many moviegoers feel that they know intimately. So what’s the biggest misconception that we have about this likably mellow dude?
He considers the question for a moment, then leans forward and says, “Sometimes I’ll hear people say, ‘Oh, but that’s just you. You just rolled out of bed this morning and did that — just kind of off-the-cuff, you gave that performance.’ And I’m like, no, I work my butt off to make it appear that I rolled out of bed and just did that.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg