Matthew McConaughey wants you to know that Greenlights isn’t your typical celebrity autobiography. In fact, he’s so serious about this, it’s the very first line in his book. “This isn’t your traditional memoir,” he writes.
He’s not wrong. Written over the course of a 52-day self-imposed exile in the West Texas desert with 36 years’ worth of journals, the book is a collage of memories, photographs, poems, notes to self, and bumper stickers that make up the past 50 years of his life. It’s part biography, part playbook—a recollection of crucial moments in the actor’s life punctuated by life lessons and colorful aphorisms that can only be found in the South. “Truth’s like a jalapeño,” he writes at one point. “The closer to the root the hotter it gets.”
I was born and raised in Texas, same as McConaughey, and I went to the University of Texas at Austin, cheering on the Longhorns, too. His career and his presence have been inescapable for most of my life, so if you’d asked me prior to reading the book if I knew pretty much all there was to know about the actor, I’d have said yes. But reading Greenlights was a delightful surprise, full of stories that hadn’t been shared on late night talk shows or made headlines over the years. It’s a wild ride to be sure, but if you enjoy McConaughey and all of the eccentricities and contradictions that come with him, it’s one you won’t want to miss.
For years, an entire mythos has surrounded McConaughey: he’s a Texas icon, an Academy Award winner, and a Minister of Culture who is no stranger to being the subject of parodies, memes, and SNL skits. McConaughey’s grin endeared viewers of more than a few blockbuster rom-coms, and his intensity kept them watching as he transitioned toward more dramatic roles in critically acclaimed films and TV shows, Dallas Buyers Club and True Detective included.
Greenlights doesn’t necessarily set out to destroy the mythology of McConaughey or his “McConaissance,” but it does challenge these preconceptions. For starters, the memoir gets unexpectedly dark at several points. Even before the first chapter of the book begins, the actor confides that he was blackmailed into sex at fifteen and “molested by a man at eighteen,” though he says that he’s never felt like a victim. (The Cut asked McConaughey about this never-before-discussed abuse in a recent interview, and he insisted that the experiences didn’t affect him long term, nor did he “need or pursue” help afterward.) He also dives into the complex but loving relationship that his parents, Jim and Kay McConaughey, shared with each other. Divorced twice and remarried to each other three times, the actor’s parents are introduced in an early scene getting into a bloody scrap over dinner that ultimately ended with them dropping to their knees and having sex on the kitchen floor.
McConaughey also admits that fame made his relationship with his mother more difficult later in his life. She’s now quarantined with him and his family in Austin during the pandemic and they’ve long patched up their wounds, but after his initial taste of stardom, the actor writes that his mother seemed to be “a woman more enamored with [his] fame than [he] was.”
None of this fits squarely with the easygoing image that McConaughey has become known for. But as his book makes clear, his upbringing shaped him as a storyteller.
McConaughey’s original plan was to become a lawyer, but during his sophomore year of college at the University of Texas, he began to consider film school instead. The chance discovery of his fraternity brother’s copy of The Greatest Salesman in the World pushed him to commit to the change. It can feel like these pivotal moments are fated for McConaughey, from his first big break in Dazed and Confused (he ran into the film’s casting director and producer while getting drinks at a bar) to his breakout role in A Time to Kill.
But as he explains throughout the book, his entire life philosophy is about setting himself up for these “greenlights.” The rejections and setbacks that crop up are, to him, nudges in the right direction or clues that he needs to recalculate his course before setting sail again. By way of example, he tells one story about how, in the mid-1990s, he wanted to stop overthinking things and take some risks. So he signed on to the 1995 thriller Scorpion Spring, deciding he’d rely on instincts to prepare for his role. What he didn’t realize until minutes before shooting was that his character had a four-page monologue entirely in Spanish (McConaughey does not speak Spanish). As he tells it, the experience taught him a lesson but also left him embarrassed enough to feel like he didn’t have much to lose. He put himself forward for the lead role in A Time to Kill a few months later. If he wanted the part, he’d need to plant the seed in the director’s mind first. Then he’d actually need to deliver.
Years later, when he decided to leave the lucrative world of romantic comedies behind and reach for the kinds of roles that would challenge him, it wasn’t just a rebranding. It was a complete transformation, one that he pored over, talked to his wife and his agent about, one that he says cost him sleep and took complete commitment—and that paid off. In the book, he also admits that the “McConaissance,” as it’s come to be known, was a term he made up himself before telling it to a reporter in 2013. It’s just one more example of success coming his way in part because he willed it to.
In between these nuggets of information and deep dives into the thought process behind his career moves, there are also the stories that make the book unpredictable. Greenlights is full of tall tales, ones you might not believe if someone other than McConaughey was telling them. They’re also where the audiobook really shines. Narrated by McConaughey himself, the audiobook might just be the performance of his lifetime. There’s just nothing quite like hearing the stories told in the particular lilt of his Texas twang (though he does briefly slip into an Australian accent when talking about his host family during his year as an exchange student).
These tall tales also largely take place away from the spotlight. Over the course of his nearly thirty-year career, the Texan’s life has been marked by periods where he’s basked in success, spent time and money on what he describes as an “18-month hedonism tour” at the Chateau Marmont, and others where he’s left Hollywood behind for the comfort of a 28-foot airstream and campsites where people might not know his name.
He decided to embark on life-changing journeys (one to Peru and one to Mali) after he had two separate vivid nightmares of him floating naked down the Amazon River. Both of those nightmares ended in wet dreams. (Yes, you read that right.) Later, he describes another wet dream in which he was 88 years old, surrounded by the 22 mothers of his 88 children.
It’s this final dream that he credits with helping him to stop looking for the perfect woman and wait for her to appear when she was ready. Enter Camila Alves. The final chapters of the book are marked by touching stories of his relationship with Alves, their budding family, and their eventual marriage in 2012.
Ultimately the book is a love letter to life, a call to see the good in the bad. As McConaughey acknowledges, “We cannot fully appreciate the light without the shadows. We have to be thrown off balance to find our footing.”