TORONTO —If physical transformation is the quickest way to an Oscar — think Robert De Niro, Charlize Theron — then Matthew McConaughey would be a shoo-in.
The Texas native dramatically altered his body, losing some 47 pounds, to play real-life working-class Texan Ron Woodroof in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Woodroof was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 and told he had 30 days to live. A heterosexual, he was ostracized by his peers at a time when AIDS was the “gay plague.” In the film, Woodroof embarks on a mission to bring non-Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs to patients like himself, traveling the globe and earning the wrath of doctors and the government. What starts out as a mercenary choice becomes a personal crusade that bonds him to a community he’d once reviled.
“Dallas Buyers Club” is the latest in a string of offbeat roles — in films ranging from “Magic Mike” to “Killer Joe” to “The Paperboy” and “Mud” (and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming “The Wolf of Wall Street) — that have turned McConaughey from likable but lightweight rom-com and action star to actor with portfolio.
The renaissance began, he says, “with what I said no to, not what I said yes to. And holding out and saying no to certain things and then sitting in neutral and not receiving anything. . . . All of a sudden I started getting calls [from] Jean-Marc Vallee, Lee Daniels, and Steven Soderbergh. So the target drew the arrow, in a weird way.”
McConaughey, interviewed at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, credited his career success (“You know, the rent was being paid”) and the support of his wife, Camila Alves, and their three young children with allowing him to seek more adventurous roles. “Before you have a family, too many Saturdays free, a man can get in trouble,” he says. “I’ve got to have something to do. I got to accomplish something, right? I’ve got to work.
McConaughey signed on for “Dallas Buyers Club” even before there was a director attached. Craig Borten’s script had been kicking around Hollywood for nearly 20 years. When McConaughey met Canadian director Vallee, the chemistry clicked. “I was a fan of C.R.A.Z.Y,” says McConaughey. “We were like, ‘let’s do this.’ But this script had been in that situation many, many times in the past. Even as we approached the start date, suddenly it was like, ‘Can we push it back’? And I was like, ‘Wait a minute, do you want me to drop to 110 [pounds]? C’mon, we have to do this.’ ”
McConaughey’s startling transformation isn’t just about weight loss, of course (he’s since gained 40 pounds back). The actor and Vallee attempted to do more than shock the audience and elicit tears. “Jean-Marc and I agreed to stay with the bigoted bastard who’s out for self-preservation. Stay with the guy who’s a businessman, who wants to be Scarface, man. Then the crusader and the activist will be revealed. But [Ron] is never conscious of it. If you show that this is who he is, then he’s human,” says McConaughey. “He can be a bastard, a homophobe, but you get who he is. Jean-Marc and I trusted that and stuck with that.”
The physical transformation and spartan diet (tapioca pudding was a staple) helped McConaughey connect deeply with a character living well inside the margins, a place rarely visited by mainstream movies.
“It outlined the sandbox I was going to play in. It was something regimented and it gave me singular focus. It changed my lifestyle. I measured how many hours of the day I would think about food. I love food and I love to cook about four hours a day. Well, I was like, ‘I’m not going to sit around and think about it, beat myself up.’ So I cut that desire out,” he says. “Also, I’m a guy who likes the outdoors, but Ron needed to be pale. I stayed inside. And what did I end up doing? I wrote a lot, I read a lot. I became much more of a hermit and isolated myself and it was fun. It became a nice spiritual journey for myself.”
Woodroof’s gradual humanizing comes through his unlikely friendship with Rayon (Jared Leto), a Texas drag queen battling both AIDS and drug addiction. Rayon becomes Woodroof’s business partner in distributing the then-unheard-of remedies to mostly gay clients.
With echoes of “Midnight Cowboy,” it is the odd-couple relationship that anchors “Dallas Buyers Club,” says McConaughey. “They bond as outcasts. They’re stuck together. He’s isolated, on his own island and stuck with himself.”
“I got seduced by Rayon,” says Leto. The actor had taken an unplanned five-year hiatus from movies while he toured and recorded with his band Thirty Seconds to Mars. “Rayon came from my imagination. That character has been represented in film so many times it’s become a stereotype. I did not want to put a cliche onscreen. Members of the transgender community were great teachers. . . . I sought them out; I wanted to do it right. It’s still a challenging choice, but in 1985 to walk through a Dallas supermarket dressed as a woman. . . .” His voice trails off but the effect on him is apparent.
Leto, whose physical transformation has sparked talk of a supporting actor Oscar nod, says he stopped counting after he lost 30 pounds for the role. “But I’ve done this before. I lost 25 pounds for ‘Requiem for a Dream’ and gained 60 pounds for ‘Chapter 27.’ It’s how it affects me on the inside that matters. It changes everything: how you walk, talk, laugh, breathe. It’s a transformative thing.”
Leto jumped at “the role of a lifetime” but it also mattered that Vallee was directing. “I’d seen ‘Cafe de Flore,’ which is a great little movie. And I like what Matthew has been doing. I thought, ‘If he’s betting on this, if he’s made the commitment to the project, then I’m in.’ I worked harder to make strong choices and to climb this mountain with him.”
With characteristic nonchalance, McConaughey shrugs off the talk of awards, saying he’s just enjoying the ride. But he’d transform himself again “for the right role.”
“That’s part of the fun of what we get to do,” he says. “There’s a singular focus. It’s fun to commit like that.”
Globe staffer Janice Page contributed to this article.