To really get to know Matthew McConaughey, you have to hear his tales from the road. Like about the KKK brisket guy in Waco, or the 7,200-mile trek in his Airstream. Because at heart he’s a vagabond.
To really get to know Matthew McConaughey, you have to hear his tales from the road. Like about the KKK brisket guy in Waco, or the 7,200-mile trek in his Airstream. Because at heart he’s a vagabond.
By Neal Pollack
It’s 9 am on a cloudy Tuesday. A pickup truck arrives in a remote parking lot in California’s Joshua Tree National Park, hauling a pristine vintage Airstream trailer. On the driver’s door is written “LP Ranch, Angus Cattle, Mertzon, TX.” Inside is a little two-room traveling boutique hotel. A dreamcatcher hangs over a high-quality bedspread. There’s a stainless-steel fridge. Bumper stickers say things like “Virginia Task Force 2 Urban Search and Rescue,” and “Solidarity/Unity — International Brotherhood of Boiler-makers.” A surfboard is marked “Malibu.”
Matthew McConaughey sits in the driver’s seat, wearing a plaid lumberjack-style shirt, chewing a cinnamon-scented toothpick. He owns that faraway Texas ranch and occasionally uses it as a “hideout,” he says, but he lets a cousin run it. McConaughey has more glamorous setups, either in Malibu with his Brazilian supermodel girlfriend and their baby son or in this Airstream, wherever his whims might take him.
He whips off his sunglasses and flashes a wry, slightly unhinged smile. “Let’s do this!” he says.
Like some Outward Bound Willy Wonka, he leads the way down a nature trail next to Cap Rock, an enormous pale boulder that sits amid the eerie Lorax vegetation like a bauble of the gods. The walk, safe for toddlers, seems beneath McConaughey. His aggro, shirtless exercise style, where everything is a triathlon-training session or a scramble up the steepest slope, has left many seemingly fit buddies gasping in the dirt. But not today, McConaughey says. He’s in conservation mode. Eight days ago, he hit the road for a 10-day fast, ending up in the middle of low-lying desert outside Joshua Tree, in a remote spot that he calls “nothing but a bunch of little pueblos.”
With his family back in Malibu, McConaughey is riding solo this trip. “It’s a good time to take a little inventory, work on some prudence,” he says. “I’ve been planning it since last year. You get started on the year, you get busy, and then you say, Dammit, I was gonna do that back in January.”
He’s spent most of his time entering old notebook diaries of his travels into his laptop — his chance to reflect and process and stare off aimlessly into the distance. Only water, tea, and broth have gone into his system since he started. Ten days is not a big deal. The human body has enough energy to last 40, he says.
“I’m high and clean and tight, man,” he says. “It’s good to feel hungry. If you keep filling up your tank when it’s three-quarters empty, you’re gonna run on old fuel. So you gotta drive it down to empty and let it work. I came here to check in, press a little reset, and then head back on down the road.”
McConaughey turns around, hocks a loogie into the brush, unzips his pants, and lets the piss fly. When that’s done, he pops in a piece of gum. He chews it lovingly.
“Dessert,” he says, his eyes opening wide. “Hah-hah! Not for long, baby! Just long enough.”
In addition to his film work, McConaughey has several businesses — a clothing line, a record label, an indie-film production company — but the road is where he finds meaning and purpose. No one who works for him, and he employs a lot of old buddies, ever lacks for road-trip money. In fact, he has a rule around the office: If somebody’s getting too stressed out, he can go up to McConaughey, look him in the eye, and say, “Man, I need a road trip.”
McConaughey knows the feeling. The trips he’s taken over the years have framed his life, have helped define him. “He’s always on the road,” says Mark Gustawes, his old frat brother from the University of Texas, who helps runs his production company, j. k. livin (as in “just keep livin’ ”). “I don’t think people actually believe that he does it, that it’s more of an image thing. But it’s the truth. He’s a total vagabond.”
It’s 1980, and Big Jim McConaughey, a traveling oil-pipe salesman based in Longview, Texas, has to collect a payment from a client in Houston, a good 210 miles away. He brings along the youngest of his three sons, 11-year-old Matthew. Big Jim asks Matthew to put on his nicest jeans and his shiniest boots. They make the trip in five hours, pulling up to an imposing high-rise. Big Jim calls upstairs. The client’s secretary says he’s not around.
But this dude’s been dodging calls for weeks, so Big Jim takes Matthew up the elevator. They walk past the secretary into the client’s office, where the guy’s sitting at his desk. Big Jim introduces his son. Big Jim is a physically imposing man — he played college football and was drafted by the Packers, though he never played a down — but he still figures that it’s going to be a lot easier to collect with the kid in the room.
That run works so well that Big Jim brings Matthew on a half-dozen more trips. They drive to Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, and all over Texas. One time they stop in New Orleans for a shrimp festival. Another time, Big Jim slinks behind a low-rent Louisiana strip mall and buys a titanium Rolex from a guy selling appliances out of the back of his truck. “I thought that was cool, man,” McConaughey says now, decades later. “Getting out of the backyard and seeing these trails my dad cut. Seeing people he’d met along the way. He always said, ‘What’s out back? I know we’re way off road, and we’re dealing with some shady stuff, but I want to see stuff that’s even shadier.’ ”
Big Jim was 41 when Matthew was born — a surprise baby — and these trips bring them closer, some of the best times they have together as father and son. Big Jim lets Matthew play navigator. They get a 12-piece bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and eat the whole thing. When they’re done, they spray the dash with Windex and wipe off the grease with paper towels. They talk about “life and chicks,” and Big Jim, a passionate man who would divorce Matthew’s mother twice and remarry her twice, gives his son some advice.
“Now, you’re getting to the age where you’re gonna start messing around with girls,” he says. “So here’s what you’ve got to follow. You’re going to get close, you’re going to get intimate, whatever. If you ever make a move, whether it’s for a kiss or touching her down there, and you feel the slightest bit of resistance, stop. A lot of times, after you stop, they’re going to then say, now it’s okay. Don’t. That time, that day, that’s as far as you go.”
This advice will pay dividends for the future Sexiest Man Alive. “It’s a great lesson,” McConaughey says. “You do that, and you know what? Women do come back. They say, what? Nobody stops! They want to go out with you again. And eventually you don’t have to stop.” He looks forward to sharing this with his own son when the time is right. Road trip wisdom, he says, should be passed on.
It’s 1991, and McConaughey, now a University of Texas frat dude, has been making money on the side as a model and commercial actor. One morning in class, his beeper goes off. There’s a 2 pm audition in Dallas — it might have been for a Miller Lite spot — and he’s got to haul ass from Austin. This happens often, but somehow he’s worked out a deal with his professors where he gets a gentleman’s C just for showing up once in a while.
On his way home from the audition, he pulls off I-35 just outside Waco, to go on the side streets, because that stretch of the interstate sucks. While squirreling his way through Waco, he smells meat. He comes upon a little house with a sign out front and a barbecue pit out back. There, a 6-foot-4 muscle-bound guy, the kind of dude you don’t want to be messing with, is handling briskets as big as his torso. “It looked like he was open for something,” McConaughey says.
McConaughey asks for a sandwich. The guy says he usually just delivers whole briskets door-to-door, but he’ll slap some slices on some white bread if the kid’s willing to pay. They go inside to eat, and the guy starts telling McConaughey his life story. First, he’s just out of prison. Second, he’s from a family with generations of involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. This doesn’t bother McConaughey. Traveling with Big Jim, he’s met all kinds of characters.
The next time McConaughey goes to Dallas for an audition, and the time after that, he stops off at the brisket guy’s place. He brings a tape recorder and then later at home he transcribes the tapes, filling notebooks with the guy’s life story. McConaughey won’t take his first formal acting class for another decade. So for now, he prepares by studying people. “You don’t play characters who are celebrities,” he once said. “You play guys who know what to do when their septic tank’s blocked.” It’s all part of something he calls “localizing.”
“You know, when things are feeling homey,” he explains. “It’s one of my favorite things to do. You go someplace, and it’s like new new new new new. Then you say, Oh, I get it. They’re speaking a different language, but it’s the same vocabulary. I could hang here, I could live here, I understand these people. The sooner you do that, the better. When that happens, then it’s sort of all right to go back.”
Around this time McConaughey meets Don Phillips, a casting director, in a bar. They get drunk and get tossed out. Soon after that, he’s stealing the show in 1993’s Dazed and Confused as Wooderson, the guy with the wispy mustache who still hangs around the high school after he graduates to dispense wisdom and score chicks. (“That’s what I love about these high school girls,” Wooderson says with a cackle. “I get older. They stay the same age.”) But McConaughey’s father never sees the role that launches his son’s career. In 1992, five days into the filming of Dazed and Confused, Big Jim dies at age 64. Poetically enough, it happens while he’s having sex with McConaughey’s mother.
One morning in August 1993, just before the film’s release, McConaughey attaches a U-Haul to his Dodge truck and drives off from Austin. A few days later he pulls into Don Phillips’s driveway. He has arrived in Hollywood, and he’s about to localize like he’s never localized before.
It’s 1996. “Boom,” McConaughey says. “I get famous.”
Suddenly he’s being touted as the next Paul Newman and getting prestige roles in A Time to Kill and Amistad, movies that seem like a big deal at the time. Never mind that dour stares, awkward accents, and period costumes don’t suit McConaughey. The kid is big now. He’s flooded with scripts and offers. “It was a lot incoming,” he says. “Life had pressed turbo pretty quickly.”
But in Hollywood, boom is almost always followed by bust. The Newton Boys and Edtv flop hard. He’s not the next Paul Newman. Disappointment sets in; he has a little fame hangover. In 1999, Austin cops catch him playing the bongos butt-naked, with a bong on the coffee table and smoke in the air. About that night, he later says, it “was real enjoyable until I looked up and saw someone in the house who I knew I hadn’t invited. Less enjoyable when he was tryin’ to pin me to the ground and I was fightin’ back. It sucked when I was goin’ into the jail, and once I got in jail it became enjoyable again because there were some real fun cellmates. We were singin’ songs.” Even in jail, McConaughey localizes.
In 2001, while in Ireland making Reign of Fire, a highly entertaining but definitely B-grade dragon apocalypse picture, he’s listening to a CD by the musician Ali Farka Touré. One song in particular moves him to tears. Who is this guy? he wonders. He opens the liner notes and finds out that Touré lives in Niafunké, a small village in Mali. A few weeks later McConaughey takes off with his backpack for Africa.
He hires a guide there and heads up the Niger River to Niafunké, where he finds Touré living at his second wife’s house. They have dinner together, then listen to some of his recordings, including McConaughey’s favorite song, Ai Du. He’d thought it was a love song, but Touré explains that the lyrics actually go “trust in your fellow man. If you cannot trust yourself, you cannot trust others.” McConaughey doesn’t often hear this sentiment in Hollywood. “It was a love song to community,” he says.
Inspired, McConaughey hauls into the middle of the Sahara Desert in an Isuzu Trooper. He attends a music festival north of Timbuktu, then spends weeks living among the Bozo people in beehive huts along the banks of the Niger. They feed him and take care of him as if he’s one of their own.
“I’ve always yearned for that,” he says. “But you know how we are over here. We’re not near to a trusting society. There are too many people with false ambitions, looking for an opportunity that may not be the best for you. But you get over there, man, they’re not thinking that far in the future. They’re not thinking about how this person can be an opportunity for them. When the trip started, I always had an arm through a strap of my backpack, but by the end, I’d be sleeping in a stranger’s house, and the backpack would be across the room.”
He returns from Africa after 22 days, clear-eyed and direct, a guy pal Woody Harrelson describes as “connected to some other sort of power source. When he does go on a stream-of-consciousness thing, it is incredible. It’s almost like he’s speaking in tongues or something.” McConaughey says that, post-trip, his “bullshit meter is zero.” If anything, he says, “I come back here and I’m an even better businessman, because I’m real clear about what I want. That trip was tending to the garden of the way I’ve always felt.”
It’s 2004, and McConaughey buys his Airstream. He’s been traveling around the previous three years in a GMC Savana van he calls Cosmo, sleeping in the back. He can afford an upgrade. Wally Byam, the creator of the Airstream, has long been one of McConaughey’s heroes. “There was this perception that trailer-park living and RVers were all like gypsies. He was like, No, we’re not gypsies. Gypsies have no home. We find a home wherever we go. We’re ambassadors. He went all over the world, places that no one else was going, from Cairo to Johannesburg, and he did it all in an Airstream carrier.” McConaughey has a dream of owning eight or nine Airstreams and driving them with all his friends around the country in a caravan. If that doesn’t work, he figures at least he can park them all in one place, “like a corral,” and in the evenings everyone can gather around the fire.
It’s not a coincidence that McConaughey’s Airstream period runs concurrent with his coming into his own professionally. He’s eased into a life of starring in romantic comedies that critics hate but women love — films such as The Wedding Planner and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. He’s got a killer smile, a great tan, a knowing wink, and an easy way with people. Plus, he looks good with his shirt off. “Romantic comedies aren’t the first movies I hop out to go see,” says McConaughey, whose next movie in that genre, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, comes out May 1. “But those are the ones that have done really well with the public. They’re supposed to be like an easy Saturday afternoon. Keep it afloat, keep it buoyant. Bring some balls to it, but don’t go too deep to sink the thing. Move it forward, have a good time, and tell the truth when you can. Wages are good, and they’re enjoyable to do, man.”
Best of all, they fund a vagabond lifestyle. After McConaughey buys the Airstream, he takes it to a trailer park near Golden, Colorado. He drives from there to the Squamish Indian Reservation, near Vancouver, where he’s filming Two for the Money. It’s 30 miles outside of town, but he decides to settle there along the Coho River and localizes with the Squamish. “I cooked them a rib eye,” he says.
Soon after, he moves the Airstream into a trailer park near downtown Austin, a little community of weirdos that he’s admired since college. His neighbors include a professional clown and a guy who makes balloon animals for a living. “I had plenty in the account,” he says. “It was by choice.”
The Airstream becomes an extension of him. “With technology today,” McConaughey says, “I can communicate just as well from the Airstream, run everything right there. I can do it better. My thoughts are better when I’m on the road. I’m more creative. And I can get to anyone at any time. If I need to meet someone — I’ve done this before — ‘Well, here’s where I am. I’m going east coming up here out of Idaho. I’ll be in Missoula in about five hours. Why don’t you fly up to Missoula, I’ll pick you up, we’ll drive east from there, we’ll do our thing on the road, and I’ll drop you off at the next airport.’ It works like a charm.”
There seems to be plenty of business. He goes to Jamaica to hang out with “this cat Mishka,” a “conscious reggae” artist whose music he once heard in a bar. Mishka agrees to let McConaughey produce his next album. McConaughey also produces an independent movie, Surfer, Dude, which opens in a grand total of 69 theaters in September 2008. It stars McConaughey as an old-school Malibu surfer who’s pressured to take part in a reality TV show, along with Harrelson, Willie Nelson, and copious amounts of weed. In real life McConaughey has been doing some surfing himself, though just for a couple of years, so he’s a little opaque on the topic: “I connected with the surfing philosophy. Riding the wave. No wide turns. It’s how I go about living life. It always takes you to a different place. But that’s what I like about living out there in Malibu. Even if there’s no surf, you’re in some great spot with a beach.”
The movie doesn’t go over so well with critics, one of whom refers to McConaughey as a “bland, bargain-basement Siddhartha.” The film is panned as “crushingly unfunny,” “a shapeless slog,” “limp and rambling,” “a lackluster vanity production.” But none of this really gets to McConaughey. “It’s just a movie I made with my buddies,” he says.
Sometimes things go your way, sometimes not. Still, the success he has had, he says, “is not all by happenstance. There’s been good fortune and luck and fun and blowin’ in the wind and whimsy, but, you know, you work to create your own weather so you can blow in that wind.”
It’s November 2008, and McConaughey gets into his pickup carrying the Airstream, with his girlfriend Camila Alves and their infant son Levi. They log 7,206 miles visiting all of his family in Texas and Louisiana, swinging up to Colorado for a while, and camping at the Grand Canyon for McConaughey’s 39th birthday. Nothing’s changed, he says, except that it takes a lot longer to load up the truck with all the baby stuff.
Alves had never road-tripped before she met McConaughey. “I don’t know anybody who’s better to travel with than him,” she says. “He knows how to do things, and if he doesn’t, he can take a deep breath and try to figure out how to handle it. He can pretty much deal with every situation.”
On New Year’s Eve, McConaughey’s friend Mark Gustawes catches up with them, camping by an obscure river in East Texas. “He could pack up his family and get on a jet and go to the South of France, but he chooses to be in the middle of nowhere,” Gustawes says. “He finds the beauty in real simple things, rocks and twigs, armadillo and deer. That’s his heaven, on the road.”
Gustawes, who has been on countless road trips with McConaughey, says it’s hard to stick to the highway with him. He prefers the feeder roads — the more obscure, the better — the same way it was with Big Jim. “He enjoys pulling in to the worst motel possible, just to have the experience,” Gustawes says. “We get out and wander around in the town and connect the dots. You go out to dinner, ask what’s happening, and then you end up at a weird carnival.”
During one trip Gustawes joined him on, from Texas to L.A., McConaughey decided he was sick of seeing El Paso, so they took a long detour through rural New Mexico. This was 1999, well after McConaughey had become famous. They pulled into a motel and saw a flyer for the New Mexico Karaoke championships. McConaughey just had to see what that was about. They ended up competing, but not winning, and then the town’s sheriff bought them dinner at 3 am.
It’s all part of what Woody Harrelson describes as McConaughey’s “never-ending quest” to absorb as much of humanity as he can. “A lot of people obtain his type of success, and they just retreat,” Harrelson says. “They run for shelter. He hasn’t let that amount of notoriety mess with his ability to connect with people. He’s always going out, seeing the world, meeting chiefs from some remote tribe in Tanzania.”
It’s January, and we’ve finished our jaunt through Joshua Tree. As he starts packing up the Airstream to leave, McConaughey mostly wants to talk about people he’s met on his travels. There’s the woman at a bar in Montana who’d blown through town, met a guy, shagged him, and ended up getting saddled the next day with a 10-year-old Labrador and an unwanted pregnancy. Then there’s the dude who calls every woman “sugar” instead of by her first name because his wife left him and then 14 days later his best friend died in his arms after a hunting accident.
“Everybody’s got a different path to where they are,” he says, shaking his head sadly. “Everybody’s got some shit going on.”
He gets into the cab of his truck. It’s time, yet again, to haul his Airstream down the highway. Soon he’ll be localizing at his undisclosed fasting pueblo.
“Enjoy the road, man,” he says, as he pulls out of the parking lot. “Enjoy the road.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.