'Dallas Buyers Club' puts Matthew McConaughey on Oscar track

02/06/2014 2:23 PM

02/06/2014 2:29 PM

There’s a little private thing that Matthew McConaughey likes to do to relax, a sort of call and response with his own body, a chest-thumping, masculine-humming rhythmic trance that he finds centering.

“It works,” he said. “It does get the voice down a little lower.”

It was a private thing, anyway, until Leonardo DiCaprio witnessed him doing it on the set of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and suggested that he do it in character, on screen, in that dark finance-fraud comedy directed by Martin Scorsese. The result is a scene (and trailer) stealer, as DiCaprio’s wide-eyed stockbroker is schooled by McConaughey’s chest thumper, setting the unbridled, anything-goes tone for the film.

It “helps me,” he said, and other people wonder what he’s doing, “which is freeing.”

He worked for hardly more than a day on “The Wolf of Wall Street.” But it’s one of several full-throated performances, of varying sizes, that McConaughey has given over the last few years, since he made the rare decision to stop being a rom-com leading man. That choice, to say no to big box-office paychecks and oversize-trailer perks, wound, eventually, to his Oscar-nominated turn in the indie “Dallas Buyers Club.” He plays Ron Woodroof, a real-life AIDS patient who became an activist for medical care in the 1980s, when the disease was little understood. Along with the 40-plus pounds he lost for the role, McConaughey’s portrayal of a homophobic rodeo cowboy who outlives his dire prognosis and his outdated attitude has made him the man to beat in the best actor race at the Academy Awards on March 2.

The physical transformation (long a harbinger of Oscar gold) underpinned the performance, McConaughey said in a recent interview. “What was great is this was not one of those roles where you go, ‘Maybe it’d be interesting if I lost a bunch of weight.’ No, it was necessary.”

“I didn’t know how much weight I needed to lose either,” he added. “I thought, probably 30, and I got to 30, and some people were like, ‘You’re a little thin.’ And I knew, ‘Well, this isn’t enough,' because Ron Woodroof looked more than a little thin. And then I just kept going.” After he lost 43 pounds, and people became concerned about his health – “I told him, ‘You’re crazy man, 30 is enough!” the film’s director, Jean-Marc Vallée, said – he found what he calls his man.

“It did so much to inform me of who the man was,” McConaughey said. “It actually changed my whole lifestyle. I became a hermit” and homed in on his character. “I was becoming a scientist on Ron Woodroof,” he said, just as Woodroof was singularly focused on survival, starting a buyers club for the treatments that were at the time illegal, and going to court to keep them available.

The story for “Dallas Buyers Club” had knocked around Hollywood for decades, at one point as a big-budget studio film with everyone from Brad Pitt on down attached to star. But the subject matter, a medical drama that by definition ends with the death of its star, was not always considered palatable. “Everyone was afraid of it,” said Craig Borten, the screenwriter who came up with the idea. “No one thought it could make money.”

He spent hours interviewing the real Woodroof – who died in 1992, some seven years after he was told he had 30 days to live – and had written 50 versions of the script before his writing partner, Melisa Wallack, arrived and helped polish up 10 or 15 more. They rewrote it yet again, after McConaughey signed on, fixing it more firmly in his voice, before it was slated to go into production in fall 2012.

“Matthew became the engine that brought the train to the destination,” said Vallée, a French Canadian filmmaker who was hired after McConaughey. “He made it happen.”

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