With an $8 million-per-film payday, a smokin’ Brazilian girlfriend, a baby boy named Levi, and throngs of adoring fans, Matthew McConaughey is ready to take on his biggest challenge yet: how to build a better flip-flop.
Matthew McConaughey was bouncing on his toes, waving one hand above his head, and laughing with great zeal and abandon. Shocking, I know. Five feet away stood two comely young women, utterly charmed and giggling along with him. Another weird twist.
A few more details: They were assembled in the reception area of the Venice Beach office of McConaughey’s production company, j. k. livin, the space recently redone to befit an actor who reportedly makes $8 million per film. With dark hardwood floors and exposed brick, the glassed-in offices looked down on an open lobby. The walls held framed script pages and large posters from McConaughey’s favorite movies—Dino De Laurentiis’s King Kong, S. R. Bindler’s Hands on a Hard Body, his own Sahara. A twenty-foot-tall screen on one side of the room showed a Cubs game.
Outside on the famous Venice Beach boardwalk, the daily circus boogied in high gear. Homeless guys squatting in front of toe-ring shops flirted with bikini girls on skateboards, begging for money specifically for pot. The craftsmen who’ll carve your name on a grain of rice yelled to be heard over deejays scratching old vinyl records and a guy playing Tom Waits songs on an upright piano parked on the edge of the sidewalk. There were professional sand-castle builders, break-dancers, jugglers, and drunks, not one of them eliciting so much as a “Honey, look at that man” from the tourists who’d come in search of exactly that scene. The tourists, by the way, were identifiable by the fact that they wore socks.
Inside, McConaughey had just shown up for work, at three o’clock sharp. The first order of business was for the two young women, j. k. livin employees Leslie and Diana, to show him a metal contraption shaped like half a cantaloupe. It had a handprint on top, and Leslie said it was a lie detector. Ever game, McConaughey took it for a test-drive. He put one of his oversized hands on the machine and said, “My name is Matthew.” Nothing. He looked up at Diana, cocked his head, and grinned. Then the machine sent a sharp jolt of electrical current through him that had him hopping around the room. So begin workdays at j. k. livin.
Oh, and his office attire? Flip-flops, cargo shorts, and a T-shirt, that last tidbit being one that might actually surprise a few people.
It was a Wednesday in mid-July, and the world of j. k. livin was particularly cheery. New son Levi had just turned 2 weeks old, and the 38-year-old McConaughey still wore a hospital admission bracelet on his left wrist. OK! magazine had paid $3 million for the exclusive first photos of son, father, and mother, Brazilian model Camila Alves. The pictures had hit the Internet that morning, and all the money went to his nonprofit, the j. k. livin foundation. But more immediately gratifying, the day was relatively paparazzi-free. The Discovery Channel, as he refers to the tabloid photographers who hound him, was on hiatus. “There’ve been, like, six cars camped outside my house for the past three weeks waiting to get that first shot of the baby,” he said as he settled down. “But this morning, after these came out on the information superhighway, there was nobody outside. We busted the bubble.”
The movie business was booming too. Entrenched as Hollywood’s favorite male lead in romantic comedies, he was now bringing in enough money to help fund his own films, and his nine-person staff was finishing preparations for the September premiere of the first such project, Surfer, Dude, back in Austin. That extra cash (and cachet) had also enabled him to get going in earnest on a long-considered project: a lifestyle brand built on his personal philosophy, called—you guessed it—j. k. livin.
The brand and philosophy were our topics for the day, and on the climb up the stairwell to his office, he assumed the role of tastemaker and empire builder. And what does that look like? In a small, sunlit room with just a coffee table and four low-slung leather chairs, he sat down, politely crossed his legs like the corporate titans do . . . and opened a cold beer.
“A flip-flop,” he began, “has gotta be malleable and form to your feet. But it can’t be too thick. Too much cushion takes away the beauty of the flip-flop. The whole point is that it’s not a shoe.
“No headbands. It’s got to be a bandanna. So you can mix it up. Sometimes I like to roll it thin, do like an Indian thing with it. Other times I wear it wider, or even flat on my head like a do-rag, Geronimo- or Tupac-style, with that ‘j. k. livin’ logo showing across the front.”
He moved quickly from the product to the path. His buddy Lance Armstrong refers to him as a “redneck Buddha,” presumably because of ruminations like these. “We can talk about j. k. livin a lot of different ways. It’s a decision-making paradigm, not a rule book. It has structure, but it doesn’t put life in a box. It’s not all aphorisms. You take your own counsel with yourself on what it is. It’s a lyric, a philosophy, a bumper sticker. It’s a rap, a rhythm, a bass line. It’s not about treble, ’cause we got a lot of that out there. Let’s keep to our bass line.”
He sounded equal parts shaman and salesman, exactly the way he does when he goes on talk shows to promote new films, pronouncing ideas of varying depths that are plainly well mulled. The shouts of bums quarreling outside floated through a window, but McConaughey was oblivious. He’d scoot to the edge of his chair and slap the table for emphasis or give a quick whistle. Lots of gesticulating and a periodic stroll around the room.
“It’s a ‘conservative early, liberal late’ approach. First you determine your weather. For me that’s making sure that I’m working with friends. That way I don’t have to watch my back. They’re not going to lie to me, not going to steal. So I may get rained on, and I may get sunburned. But I won’t get earthquaked or tsunamied. Next you choose your direction: east, west, north, or south. That’s ‘conservative early.’
“Once you do that, that eight-lane autobahn opens up to you. That’s the ‘liberal late.’ You can swerve all over those eight lanes. Each lane may be a different decision you make. You can choose to exit. You can stop for gas and decide to stay for a couple weeks. You know where you’re going and that eventually you’ll get there. You can relax. No sweat, because you’re headed in the right direction.”
He talked increasingly faster, getting ahead of himself as he lit on new reference points. Only occasionally did he slow to connect the dots, but when he did, it was helpful. “No one wants to eat their broccoli, right? I’m not saying j. k. livin is broccoli. But it is good for you. I’m not selling you straight candy canes, because then your teeth are gonna fall out. So live right. Take care of yourself. And if you have a completely different opinion of what that means from me, the only way j. k. livin can disagree is if you’re harming yourself or others. Other than that, it’s your call.”
None of it seemed even slightly out of character, but by the time he got back to business, he’d quite possibly tired himself out. He leaned back in his chair and, for a moment, sounded summarily, surprisingly grounded.
“I’m starting this brand because it accents a positive. It spreads a good word, puts a smile on my face. And then, down to a real simple, fun thing, man: I think it’s cool.”
The authorities are split on Matthew McConaughey, not in their perceptions but in their reactions. Everybody sees the same fun-loving free spirit, impossibly handsome and charming. The cynical read is that he skates on those qualities, that he’s more interested in finding his way to the tailgate party than the Oscar podium. But a fan will wonder who wouldn’t want to go to that party and how anyone could find fault with the M&M’s scene in The Wedding Planner. The views aren’t really that different, but their by-products are. He is a gossip-blog punch line and a box office monster. If he merely marched to the beat of his own drum, he might gain wider respect. But he insists on dancing, sometimes after imbibing. And he looks as if he likes it. That he doesn’t give a flip about the way people see him only adds fuel to both camps.
I’ll confess up front to taking him more seriously than most folks I know. I trace it to an interview I did with him five years ago, for a story on the making of Dazed and Confused. We were sitting in the backyard of a Hollywood mansion he’d just bought and remodeled, by a pool that gave way to a mammoth view of the Hollywood Hills, and he rambled gleefully about Dazed for two full hours. The film had given birth to his career and made all that splendor possible.
As he began to detail the genesis and genius of his character, David Wooderson, the overage cad still trolling the high school parking lot for young ladies, his housekeeper brought out our lunch. I noticed him watching me pick up my water, so before taking a sip, I paused to look in the glass and make sure I had the right drink.
“You like that ice, don’t you?” he said in his blissed-out drawl.
“Uh, yeah,” I said, pulling the glass up to my nose. “It’s all flaky.”
“Dude, that’s Sonic ice!” he said, and slapped my leg.
I squinted into the glass.
“That’s the Manitowoc QF-400!”
“Uhhh . . .”
“The ice maker, man. The Manitowoc QF-400. I looked for years for the freezer that would make Sonic ice in your very own home, and that’s the only one that’ll pull it off. Best damn ice in the world!”
He went on for another ten minutes about Sonic, small-town Texas, and how fine life could be if you just had the right ice. He had the coolest house on the block and a view of half of California. And all he cared about was his ice maker.
Later, when I e-mailed his business manager, I noticed that the address ended with [email protected] Then it hit me: “Just keep livin’” was more than a reference to a line in Dazed, albeit the funniest one; it really was the way he lived his life. And more to the point, Matthew McConaughey, rich and famous, was not that different from the person he’d be if Dazed and Hollywood had never happened. Everything I ever heard afterward—about Airstream trailers and push-ups on the beach, playing golf barefoot and brushing his teeth while driving—reinforced that conclusion.
That was in 2003, and McConaughey’s public persona was all the way into its gadfly phase. His press was produced by gossip wags, mostly jokes about bongo nights and shirtless afternoons. But prior to that, movie critics had written about the humble kid from Longview poised to take over Hollywood: a frat-boy film student who’d done some modeling while at the University of Texas. A chance encounter with a casting director at an Austin margarita bar that turned into a cameo in Dazed. The unmistakable star power that grew the bit-part player into the show-stealing co-star. John Grisham’s insistence that he play the lead in A Time to Kill. The next Brando. The next Newman. He even had a dog named Miss Hud. All people knew about his upbringing was that his mom, Kay, was a kindergarten teacher, and that his dad, Jim, had been drafted by the Green Bay Packers, run a gas station and an oil pipe yard, and died at 64 while having sex with Kay on a Monday morning. Talking in his office, McConaughey wanted to get into those earlier stories, particularly the ones about his dad and the birth of j. k. livin.
“He was a wild man, a big bear of a lovable man, and everybody who got to know him called him Pop,” McConaughey said. He described a beer-loving raconteur with a pet cockatiel and a pair of baby-blue shorts that he wore every day. His weeks revolved around having friends over to watch football on Sundays. McConaughey, who was born when his father was 41, remembered his dad playing game-day host, manning a gumbo pot and cooler on the back porch while he and the other kids were parked in front of the TV, commenting on how big the players’ biceps were. “Pop would come in and go, ‘Boys, do you know that that guy can’t wipe his own ass?’ We’d all laugh, and he’d say, ‘That one’s for show,’ and point at his bicep—he always had his shirt off—‘but that one’s for dough,’ pointing at his tricep. ‘This one makes the girls scream, but this is the work muscle. It puts food on the table.’
“He was a salesman and really pretty carny, man, in on a diamond mine in Ecuador and stuff that turned out to be bullshit. He’d take me on Saturdays to meet somebody, Chicago John, behind the strip mall”—McConaughey started to sail back in time—“who’s got a dishwasher and stuff in the back of his truck. But wait,” he whispered, “there’s a platinum watch wrapped up in a paper towel. Pop says to me, ‘Put it in the glove box, buddy.’ Five minutes down the road and he goes, ‘Check and make sure it’s still there.’ And it’s just him and me in the car. He loved that. He’d go, ‘Open up that paper. Goddam, that’s a good-looking watch.’”
He talked for twenty minutes just about his dad’s hands. He said if you met Pop once, you would remember them. “Mom always talks about his hands. They had a wild, wild relationship. Divorced twice, married three times. It was incredibly passionate, which is why her middle finger is bent four different ways, from doing this to him,” he said, showing me the bird.
He insisted that that was part of the love story, merely a description of the way the couple communicated. And it segued into the fact that Pop knew exactly how to rub Kay’s temples to ease her to sleep when her migraine pills failed her. Or McConaughey’s head when nagging childhood ear infections kept him awake. Or even better, the feet of his and his older brothers’ girlfriends. “He loved to give foot rubs to beautiful women. If a girl came over for a date and you were still getting ready, you’d come out and he’d be rubbing her feet on the couch. You’d say, ‘Time to go?’ and she’d say, ‘There’s no rush.’ Then you’d think, ‘Pop’s got ’em again, man.’”
Pop died five days into the filming of Dazed, and when McConaughey went home for the funeral, the movie’s director, Richard Linklater, wasn’t sure when he’d return. But he was back on the set two days later. “I remember walking around with Rick, trying to figure out how to take the time to mourn but also get to the future quicker. I told him, ‘I can still have a relationship with my dad, but I’ve got to keep him alive. He’s got to just keep livin’.”
A week and a half later, McConaughey was lighting up scenes, and Linklater was referring to him as the cast’s team captain. So when a crisis arose on one of the last nights of shooting, the director turned to McConaughey. The movie was being made in Linklater’s loosey-goosey style, filmed chronologically, with lots of improvised dialogue. That meant the resolution of the plot’s primary conceit—quarterback Randall “Pink” Floyd’s internal debate on whether to sign an antidrug pledge—had yet to be nailed down. With the sun coming up and no money in the budget to extend filming, the crew hustled to shoot the climactic scene, a pot-fogged after-party held at the 50-yard line of the football stadium. Linklater asked McConaughey what advice Wooderson would give Pink.
“I remember saying it to Rick, and then it came out while we were improv’ing on the field: ‘You gotta do what Randall “Pink” Floyd wants to do, man. Let me tell you this: The older you get, the more rules they’re gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin’, man, l-i-v-i-n.’” And there it was, the line that saved the movie and launched the career.
Four years later, McConaughey was a Hollywood A-lister looking to start his own production company. He had only one name and image in mind for the logo. “I had this photo, the last picture taken of Pop, coming off Navarre Beach, in Florida, wearing those baby-blue shorts and this hat,” he said. “An artist friend of mine made a sort of silhouette out of it, and when she handed it to me, I went, ‘Wow, that’s it. That’s j. k. livin.’”
He pointed at the logo on the front of his T-shirt. “See his hands, how he’s holding them there?”
You’d have to be online all day every day just to have heard of all the celebrities who have felt that their fashion sense was sufficiently remarkable to merit its own clothing line. J-Lo, Jessica, Christina, and Justin. Britney, Pharrell, Diddy, and Reba. Members of Mötley Crüe, Run-D.M.C., and blink-182. The great Jimmy Buffett and even an Isley Brother. Those are just the musicians, and by no means all. Every celebrity’s line is intended to reflect that star’s style, to make a grand and singular statement. Actual involvement should never be assumed. Venus and Serena Williams studied design and created their own clothes. Gwen Stefani licensed her name but stayed involved in the design process. Michael Jordan invited Nike into his closet to see what he liked. Others stamped their names on whatever they were handed.
They’re not all successful. Onetime swimsuit model Kathy Ireland built a billion-dollar empire selling clothing and bedding at Kmart. Russell Simmons all but invented the urban-apparel industry. But you may not recall the last time you admired a pair of Victoria Beckham jeans in a shop window.
The particulars of both fashion and fame explain why so few lines make it. “If it’s not in stores on time, or it doesn’t fit, it’s not going to sell,” said David Coury, who helped Bono and his wife launch their Edun line. “And there has to be a correlation between the celebrity and the clothes.” Evan Morgenstein, a brand steward who works with Mark Spitz and Nastia Liukin, keyed on sincerity. “You cannot appear to be cashing in on your celebrity.” A spokesman for another line applied that rule to McConaughey. “The fact that he picked up this philosophy from his father, and that it helped him through that, has an authenticity to it. That is different from J-Lo saying, ‘Buy my jeans. I have a nice butt.’”
McConaughey, who talked to a number of fashion and branding consultants before starting his line, stressed his role in the process. “We’ve been Ralph Nader in our consumer reporting on this thing,” he said. “I wore fifty or sixty T-shirts before I found the right one. It’s not so weathered that you’d say, ‘Dude, let me wear it ten years and see what it looks like then,’ but not so crispy that you have to wear it a year before it feels right.” Discussing R & D, he sounded nothing if not genuine.
On sweatbands: “They’re being worn over the wrist, but you got a gland there. I tested a thick one and was overheating. Gonna have to bring that down.”
On hoodies: “We tested for the ability to skooch up the sleeves and not have the elastic get too loose. And you don’t want that front pocket too high, to where you look like a kangaroo.”
On golf shirts: “I noticed a few years ago that they always have too much material. They’re too long down low. You show up to play all tucked in, looking sharp. But after a couple holes, you’re blousing real big and look like a slob.”
On koozies: “We want ’em thin, so you can fold it up and put it in your back pocket.”
He’s been equally involved in the marketing, and he calls his strategy homegrown. Unlike his famous contemporaries, whose splashy launches with partnering department stores have been noted in EW and WWD, he’ll be rolling out his product gradually and selling it only online. That will save great sums on inventory and remove both the need to rush next season’s line and the threat of being considered dead in the water if the clothes don’t immediately sell. His Web site traffic is already strong—two million hits in a typical month, spiking to seven million when he announced that Alves was pregnant and four million when Levi was born. The line became available in September, and he’s expecting some of those fans to buy his merchandise. If shoppers buy the message as well, eventually the traffic will be driven by j. k. livin as much as by him.
And whether the fashion world knows it or not, the j. k. livin brand is already among us. McConaughey has been wearing prototype T-shirts and bandannas for more than a year, so the logo has appeared on Web sites like Pink Is the New Blog and Perez Hilton. So far the bloggers have been too busy lamenting that he’s wearing a shirt to note that he’s modeling his line.
The first step in the j. k. livin advertising campaign is to use McConaughey’s media presence to publicize the brand for free, to let him be the brand’s billboard. If j. k. livin is about being yourself, and the media likes to watch McConaughey being himself, then advertising will be as fun as building a better koozie. It’s meta-guerrilla marketing. So McConaughey, who just happens to carry j. k. livin stickers with him wherever he goes, can insert a scene in Surfer, Dude where the protagonist, a top surfer strapped for funds, approaches his sponsor with a plan to sell stickers displaying his credo. (In the movie the credo is “Under the Sun,” but the soulless promoter does not see the wisdom.) Or, as happened this June in Nicaragua, he can get so, as he puts it, “sufficiently lubricated” at a beachfront bar that he enlists the other patrons to help him find a lost flip-flop. When photos from that night hit the tabloids, he issued a statement on his devotion to the footwear—he’d had that specific pair for eleven years—and set a lucrative bounty. Suddenly he was established as the flip-flop guy.
When I asked Gus Gustawes, McConaughey’s longtime business manager and onetime Delta Tau Delta fraternity brother, if the flip-flop incident was a lucky accident or a well-choreographed stunt, he said simply, “No comment, bro.”
The boys plan to branch out as far as the market allows: board shorts, baby slings, diapers, dog bowls, Brazilian bikinis. Celebrity aside, the Life Is Good model might be the most instructive comparison. Bert and John Jacobs, brothers from Boston, turned a simple stick-figure drawing and a life-affirming message into a nine-hundred-product catalog and a $100-million-a-year business without, it’s worth noting, $1 spent on traditional advertising.
“The Life Is Good guys had just a cool, one-line slogan,” McConaughey said. “Everyone could communicate with that and make it their own, how their life was good. I think they started selling T-shirts out of the back of their car. It worked for them.”
People forget that McConaughey is on his third act. Though A Time to Kill grossed $108 million in 1996, he had ceased to be the next Newman barely a year later. He took supporting roles in Robert Zemeckis’s Contact and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, but those proved to be disappointments, and his characters—a religious guru advising the president and a nineteenth-century attorney defending rebel slaves—were poor fits for his Texas accent and charm. Though his star was dimming, he was still expected to carry his next two films, Linklater’s 1998 Old West caper, The Newton Boys, and Ron Howard’s reality-show satire, EDtv, in 1999. When they clunked on their opening weekends, Hollywood stopped returning his calls.
Hindsight might suggest that he chose the wrong projects, but that’s not a fair take. Young actors don’t say no to Zemeckis, Spielberg, or Howard. And they don’t snub the director of the movie that launched their careers when he’s working on his first big-budget picture. McConaughey did have discussions about some films that could have helped him maintain his initial trajectory—with Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, for example—but those opportunities didn’t work out. “I don’t remember saying no to much, because I didn’t have much to say no to,” he said.
The years on either side of EDtv were, to use Gustawes’s word, “scary,” but McConaughey adjusted. “That whole ‘guy who saves the movies’ thing? I got a hoot out of that,” he said. “But I was never like, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ So I never felt like I’d been done wrong, like I’d gotten hood-scooped. You gotta understand yourself in between both the highs and the lows, that there’s a partial illusion in both. So I took some road trips to hop out, look back, and have a giggle. If I ever did get sad, I would just tell myself, ‘Dude, you’re just lazy because you’re bored. So realign. Spin around three times and take a risk, then go embarrass yourself. Do something to shake it up.’”
That would be about the time the world became aware of his affinity for UT football and bongos. Career-wise, he was feeling around for a formula that fit. He played a submarine commander in the 2000 war movie U-571 and signed on to make Reign of Fire, a dragon-slayer film with Christian Bale. In between the two was The Wedding Planner, opposite Jennifer Lopez. The film opened at a respectable $13 million and went on to gross $64 million.
Then came How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, in 2003. He played a handsome ad exec; Kate Hudson played a pretty how-to columnist. He bets his buddies he can make a woman fall in love and so makes her dinner; she has to write a column about making a man hate her and so coaxes her dog into peeing on his pool table. If you haven’t seen the movie, nothing is given away by saying the ending is happy or that McConaughey had found what he calls his fastball. How to grossed $105 million, and his next two rom-coms, 2006’s Failure to Launch, with Sarah Jessica Parker, and a 2008 Hudson reunion, in Fool’s Gold, would make $88 million and $70 million, respectively.
“For romantic comedies right now, I’m the dude to go to,” said McConaughey. “The one rule is keep it light. And the hard part is that everybody knows from the first frame what’s going to happen. Usually the man is the foil. But that can’t mean I have to cut off my balls. Got to be manly, not macho, and keep my character’s integrity. You wouldn’t believe the girl at the end if she’s picking some tool she’s drug around on a leash the whole film.”
But even in Hollywood, few people equate making money with making art, and for McConaughey to be credible as a handsome man whom a woman might fall in love with does not seem to require much stretching by actor or audience. Linklater, for one, disagrees: “No one will ever give a good-looking guy, especially a leading man, credit for acting ability. The advantage that a Philip Seymour Hoffman would have is that he can just disappear in the character. But people don’t want Matthew to disappear. They want to look at him.”
David Edelstein, who reviews movies for New York magazine and is pound for pound the best film critic in the country, sided with Linklater: “People don’t appreciate the level of wit in his characterizations. He has a kind of wildness, a way of laughing at himself, a touch of gonzo. Now, I’ve not seen him in a heavyweight role, but in what he’s doing he’s pitch-perfect.”
Edelstein said he doesn’t always look forward to a McConaughey movie, but he always looks forward to McConaughey. “You never catch him acting, and when you can’t see the acting, you miss the craftsmanship,” he said. “If that actor is male, critics say, ‘He can’t emote.’ Matthew would have to play a deaf, dumb, and blind guy with one leg and brain damage to get good reviews. He’d have to star in a remake of Flowers for Algernon to get nominated for anything.”
But the Rain Man—Sling Blade—Forrest Gump route is not the only way to critical acclaim (though that is one of the key jokes in his current movie, Tropic Thunder). He could also throw a curveball, like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction and Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights. McConaughey actually has projects on the back burner that could grow into those kinds of phenomena. One is a biopic of Billy Carter, the ne’er-do-well brother of President Jimmy Carter. It’s an idea that he and Linklater have bounced back and forth for years, and McConaughey’s eyes light up at the mention of it.
But come to think of it, that film wouldn’t change some people’s perceptions. The role sounds like too much fun.
A typical celebrity interview lasts roughly half an hour. Four hours after we started, McConaughey was still talking. The sun was no longer lighting the room, and the scraping sound of skateboard traffic had quit rising up from the alley. Venice was taking a nap. McConaughey was finishing a second beer and finally moving on to his next two projects, Surfer, Dude and Levi.
Surfer, Dude, which opened in two hundred theaters in mid-September, is the first film j. k. livin has created entirely in-house. McConaughey plays Steve “ADD-Man” Addington, a surfer who is suddenly landlocked, stuck in his Malibu cabin during a summer with no waves. While he struggles to make sense of that, his sponsor is pushing him to create a surfing video game and appear in a surfing reality-TV show. The projects strike Addington as less than honorable, but the lack of surf has left him vulnerable. ADD-Man needs the money. It’s a classic tale of surfer versus himself.
But it’s not your typical McConaughey chick flick. Though he’s shirtless for all but a few fleeting moments, there are ample scenes of ladies’ bare boobs and near-constant dope smoking, with a sense that the cameras were never stopped so a stunt joint could be brought in to double for a real one. As far as stoner comedies go, it will be hard-pressed to match the reviews of this summer’s Pineapple Express. But that’s beside the point. “You always want the movie you’re in to be great,” said Woody Harrelson, who plays Jack, a wake-and-bake yardman who moonlights as ADD-Man’s manager. “But in the end the most important factor may be, Did you have a great time making it? And we had a ball.” Of course they did. Willie Nelson made a couple brief appearances, along with folks from the j. k. livin office. The film was directed by S. R. Bindler, who has shot mostly music documentaries and commercials since making the 1996 documentary Hands on a Hard Body, one of the few truly great Texas films. Bindler has been friends with McConaughey since they sat across from each other in a high school art class.
“It’s a j. k. livin movie that I made with my buddies,” said McConaughey, “and it’s got a j. k. livin message. It’s about fun in the sun, brotherhood, and not selling out just to become a more marketable item. The Man tells Addington to do it one way, and he tells the Man, ‘Not feelin’ it.’ That’s his decision-making paradigm. Yeah, that’s au natural.”
So Surfer, Dude won’t change anyone’s image of McConaughey either. But to Bindler, the movie represents something more. “Matthew is a shrewd businessman, salesman, and thinker, three things ADD-Man is not,” he wrote in an e-mail. “He also has a big heart and big passions, but that’s all Addington is.”
But why not some dark indie film with an unhappy ending, something ambiguous for the critics to interpret? McConaughey started laughing so hard I thought he’d swallow his tongue. “We’re just not unhappy people!” he said.
“Look, there’s a misconception of me that I have never stepped out or recoordinated. People think I just go be myself, and it’s easy. I work my ass off. I do my work and my homework. To make it look easy. And it’s funny how the image precedes the reality, how the two aren’t always on track. It almost depends on what movie somebody just saw you in. People like to say, ‘You’re going to be such a great dad . . . will the kid have any rules?’ Uhhh . . . quick answer: Yes.”
The thought took him back to his dad. “You lose a crutch when you lose a parent. It’s that thing, a place to go, a strong spot to lean on. I was already becoming a man before Pop moved on, but at that point I learned ‘less impressed, more involved.’ Respect situations, but don’t be in awe of anything more than that.”
He’s cool with being that crutch. “It’s not frightening, it’s liberating. It’s an opportunity. But it’s already more real than that. This is a great world we live in, and Levi’s gonna go out and engage it. Now, there’s rules to survive. There are people that will pickpocket, hoodwink, and pull a Vegas foul on your ass. But this kid’s passport’s gonna be full quickly. Culture and travel would be the two best educators in my life.”
He says that when Alves started showing, he got a feeling that solidified the moment Levi was born. “You start seeing the future, a little further, a little wider. Your peripheral vision gets better. You’re responsible for taking care of that kid. So I was lying down having a dream the other night, and I woke up and wrote it down: ‘It’s like being a courier, and you’ve got the Holy Grail strapped to your side.’ Wherever you are, you’re on constant delivery. There’s this jewel in your pocket. You start living less for me, more for we.”
That wider view has him sounding like a lot of first-time parents, or at least expressing the same concerns. Violence on TV. Too much time on the computer. Not surprisingly, McConaughey plans to raise Levi outdoors. “I’m not worried about the hurricane or the tornado or the shark bite in the Pacific Ocean or the water moccasin in the creek or the bear in the woods. It’s the passionate act of that guy who doesn’t know if he’s talking to you, me, or the wall. Chaos theory. Wrong place, wrong time, it happened. No rhyme or reason to it. That’s what concerns me. The natural stuff has a rhyme, reason, and a rhythm, if you’re not foolish with it. So we got a natural spot. This kid’s going to have some grass under his feet.
“I’ve got such a great woman. Our rhythm is so similar, and we both understand that we got to be completely a team, a unified front. We’ve already had a j. k. livin moment. I was changing his diaper, and he shit straight on my belly. I leaned over and said, ‘Levi . . .’ And he peed in my face. I said, ‘You just enjoy this, because there comes a time when you gotta start aiming that stuff. So you just have a ball, right there. ’Cause this is a privilege.’”
That seemed a fine place to stop. We picked up our empties, threw them away, then headed down to the lobby. It was nearly eight-thirty, and the j. k. livin employees were long gone. “We’ll go out the back door. You’ll get some entertainment if the paparazzi’s out there.”
He walked through the kitchen to a large metal door and put his hand on the knob. He stopped and turned around. “If you show up in their photo, they’ll follow you home. Find out where you live. Do a history check. Find out who you are.”
He turned the handle and leaned into the door. “This is a bit of a jigsaw.” But when we stepped outside, no one was there. “Or maybe not,” he said. He looked down both ends of the alley, then gave an understanding nod. “The boys must be off waiting to catch somebody else doing something.”