For Matthew McConaughey, as someone whose name escapes me once said, the handsome lessons have definitely paid off. Chiselled of jaw, glittering of eye, radioactive of tan, McConaughey has spent the best part of the past decade nailing down a rugged-yet-sensitive screen persona that has seen him crowned as the smirking prince of the romantic comedy, the repository of apparently inexhaustible yearnings for a tamed alpha-male mate. His screen foils read like a rollcall of the rom-com damned: Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Garner. For all his crimes against motion pictures - The Wedding Planner, Failure to Launch, Fool's Gold - McConaughey is despised as much as he is envied. He is, after all, an actor who, way back at the dawn of his career, shot to fame by working for such titans as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. He was once the muse of such intriguing talents as John Sayles and Richard Linklater. He could have been the new Brad Pitt, a stand-by of the Oscar nomination sheet; instead he became the young George Hamilton.
But things seems to be changing in McConaughey-world. Exhibit A is his new film Killer Joe, adapted from a Tracy Letts play, and a veritable poke in the eye of all that bluff, hale rom-commery. The title is itself a bit of a clue: Joe isn't a thirtysomething architect who can't commit, but a very nasty cop-and-contract-killer with an unhealthy interest in messed-up teenage girls. It's not too much of a stretch to compare McConaughey's performance with Casey Affleck's in The Killer Inside Me.
Magic Mike, the new Steven Soderbergh film, doesn't exactly tear up the rulebook by casting McConaughey as a thong-waggling male stripper, but the likes of Hudson and SJP are conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps most amazingly, in The Paperboy, an adaptation of Pete Dexter's blood-heat thriller, McConaughey dabbles in some serious gay S&M. Somewhat improbably, The Paperboy was one of two McConaughey films selected for competition at last month's Cannes film festival - along with the admittedly more conventional Mud, a sort of modern-day Huck Finn. What price the star of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past becoming the toast of the world's premier art-cinema showcase?
So what's going on? Is he really leaving the rom-coms behind? You hardly dare ask. In the flesh, the full McConaughey affect is undeniably leonine. Manly charm exudes out of every pore. The Texan drawl oozes like room-temperature honey. Graciousness fails to desert him for a single moment. "I appreciate your honesty," he says.
"Rom-coms are hard in a lot of ways: they're built to be buoyant. It's easy to demean them. I did a few romantic comedies. I enjoyed them. They paid well; they were fun. I didn't know if I wanted to do any more. I decided to sit out, and I had to endure for a while. Another one comes with a big old paycheck; I had to say no. I was looking for something to be turned on by."
For a moment it seems as if McConaughey is talking about a parallel career as a gentleman escort of rich, lonely women. But no. "Somewhere in that endurance, after a year or two, other films started coming. I didn't go after Killer Joe, Billy Friedkin came to me for it. Soderbergh called me. Lee Daniels called me on Paperboy. I saw these as very determined, singular-willed fringe characters, arresting and kind of scary. I'm hanging my hat on reality and humanity, not morality. Not placating or pandering to any convention."
McConaughey cites The Lincoln Lawyer, the 2011 thriller about a car-bound attorney, as the turning point - "at least re-tilting how I was perceived" - but his quest for edge may have not involved quite as much straining at the leash as he suggests. He admits, for example, that he "didn't get" Killer Joe when he first read the script. "It made me sick. I didn't like it all. I felt it was gross. I wanted to get a steel brush and clean myself off. But afterwards I called up someone I work with, who had read it simultaneously, and they tapped me into looking at it a different way. Then Friedkin talked to me about how absurdly funny he thought Tracy Letts was, so I reread it and it clicked."
Killer Joe, with it copious nudity, suggestions of incest and paedophilia and - let's be careful not to give too much away here - one particularly eye-watering scene involving Gina Gershon and a chicken drumstick, may well be steel-brush-worthy, but McConaughey turns out to be quite the theorist when it comes to acting technique.
"The key with a scene like the chicken one is: it's really gotta build. It's scary to do, but it was a real go-for-it scene. It was a biggie: everyone knew when it was coming in the shooting schedule. I got in there, no warm-up, let's blow the top off of this thing. After the first take I think I blacked out or was seeing stars, or something. I was excited to go to work that day. I had the chance to do one of those scenes that could go down in cult history."
McConaughey is at pains to suggest his past commitment to rom-coms has been somewhat overstated, and in fact the stats bear him out: of his 40 or so significant screen credits, only five really qualify as unambiguous roms. "Truth is, I was in a colder part of my career at the time. I was coming off, what was it, U-571? I had to try different things. I did action movies, crime; and then I did Wedding Planner. I thought, let's go see what it's like to just be light; never done that before. And then, shit ... it made a whole bunch of money, and they came back, and offered me more."
"See, A Time to Kill was the one I got famous off. Big ka-boom, over one weekend. After that, I did films that I really wanted to do. Amistad and Contact. Spielberg and Zemeckis. Director and story meant most to me, even more than character. But the studios offered me fewer dramas after those two than they did before. Doing films like The Newton Boys or Two for the Money didn't make the Hollywood system come to me. I loved the experience, but no matter how good they are, for the studio system it has to do a certain amount of business."
This is the Hollywood actor as entrepreneur, as career strategist, and McConaughey suddenly sounds like the most hardheaded ball-buster in town. He is certainly correct to say that he never really connected with the action-movie audience, an aspiration abruptly ended by the disastrous Sahara, one of Hollywood's legendary all-time loss-makers. And it's also fair to conclude that the late 90s was a wobbly period for his career. After a steady succession of eye-catching roles, beginning with the sleazy Wooderson in Dazed and Confused ("That's what I love about these high-school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age"), his gilded ascent was slowed by a flurry of underwhelming films: period gangster flick The Newton Boys, Edtv (a reality-show satire that ran second to The Truman Show), and U-571, a World War II sub yarn. After The Wedding Planner restored his box-office clout, he still made plenty of non-rom-coms (Reign of Fire, We Are Marshall, Surfer Dude), but none even nearly approached the popularity of the likes of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
Nothing if not a pragmatist, McConaughey even now enthusiastically lectures me about his rom-com chops, an unlikely philosopher of the genre. "I take the comedy real seriously. There's a whole plan behind it. Even though those characters look like I'm just skating through, there's a design behind it. They look easy-breezy, but if you go digging too deep into character, you sink the ship.
"The male is always the pawn in a romantic comedy. Come together, break up, go chase her, get her, roll credits. That's what happens in all of them. Some of the scripts have the man coming back on all fours - but I'm like, 'What woman wants that guy?' The guy's gotta maintain his integrity, he's gotta maintain his balls. The guy's got to come back and go: 'I screwed up.' It's got to be a choice, not just desperation. The humour that I want to do is this: the guy's really self-assured and thinks he's got it all figured out, but then the door shuts, and the audience knows I don't have it figured out. You're getting a laugh because you get to watch me lying through my teeth and trying to be cool about the situation, but you know I'm going to eat crow in a minute.
"I'm always a guy's guy, even in a rom-com. The girl always takes the guy to see them, but I always did my best to make him feel like it wasn't a complete dead loss. I was saying: if you don't like rom-coms, I'll help you make it through. If you do like 'em, I'll try to give you the beats that are inherently built in and hope you can enjoy it."
Matthew McConaughey as a spy in the house of love, a secret agent for the boys' team? It's not the most far-fetched theory of all time. Be that as it may, McConaughey seems to be emerging blinking into the light, ready to stake some kind of claim as an actual thespian, albeit a well-rewarded one. "I'm enjoying acting. I want to go act. Right now I want to be an actor for hire, and I want some piece of the back end. I'm really into the acting." I think the message is getting through.
The hunks who got serious
Even before ER, was a staple of the bedroom wall thanks to roles in Red Surf and Sunset Beat. Career is a model of how to progress from poster boy to heavyweight A-lister.
Shedding clothes in a Levi's ad and Thelma and Louise made him catnip for the Diet Coke crowd. At 48, still hasn't removed the himbo yoke, but he wears it with cred.
Begun film career as the hottie in Drew Barrymore vehicle Never Been Kissed and teen Cyrano update Whatever It Takes. Now hipster himbo numero uno.
Lunkish jock parts gave way to mum-bait in The Mummy and George of the Jungle. And then: arthouse for Gods and Monsters and The Quiet American.