No more than five years ago, the news that Matthew McConaughey would be starring in Interstellar, playing a former military pilot who agrees to take on a mission to save mankind in a sci-fi epic from the director of the Dark Knight superhero franchise, would not be news. But then came the McConaissance. In a few short years McConaughey casually transformed himself from the lazy star of rom-coms and action movies into one of our most revered actors—a process helped along by roles in Bernie, Mud, Magic Mike, etc., before culminating in an Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyer’s Club and a career-defining role as detective Rust Cohle in HBO’s True Detective earlier this year. And now that directors like Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and Gus Van Sant are lining line up to work with McConaughey, his return to sci-fi blockbuster work almost seems to be beneath him. (It’s “like doing a car commercial after winning an Oscar,” as Jim Carrey put it on Saturday Night Live a couple of weeks ago, in a dead-on parody of McConaughey’s spots for Lincoln).
But “sci-fi blockbuster” doesn’t adequately describe Interstellar, the much-anticipated new film from Christopher Nolan—one of the few directors working right now who manages to straddle sci-fi/superhero genre film work with the prestige of Oscar-contender dramas—which McConaughey leads. It’s both a blockbuster and a prestige film, which means that it’s the perfect opportunity to see how McConaughey has evolved as an actor. How do the subtlety and intensity that McConaughey has brought to his McConaissance-era work play in a movie that has fight scenes and shots of him in a spacesuit, staring intently in the frame and pretending that he’s trying to slingshot around black holes to avoid [enter some sci-fi mumbo jumbo here]?
For the most part, McConaughey is terrific in Interstellar, because for the most part, the film is built to do what he does best. McConaughey plays “Coop,” a former military pilot-turned-farmer in a future somewhere around 40 years from now, where food shortages have made engineers superfluous and farmers vital to survival. As crops continue to die, it becomes clear to Coop and his daughter, the pre-teen Murph, that people aren’t long for Earth. Coop is then recruited through mysterious means into a program helmed by what remains of NASA, and tasked with piloting a spacecraft through a wormhole to a galaxy with a handful of potentially-habitable planets.
McConaughey is at his best in character moments, and—as a doting father, a brash pilot buddying up with his ship’s friendly robots, or the deciding vote on how to proceed with the mission (opposite Anne Hathaway and David Gyasi)—Interstellar gives him plenty of those. In some ways, Interstellar is a blockbuster designed very specifically to take advantage of McConaughey. He’s all big grins or bigger grimaces and cool charm when he needs to be, but with enough subtlety to carry the sadness of a man who’s left Earth to try to find a way to ensure the survival of his children.
That’s not an easy task: Early on in the film, Coop has to explain to Murph that when he returns from the mission, because of relativity after passing through the wormhole, he and his young daughter might be the same age. Motivations like “I want to stay alive” or “I want to catch the killer” are fairly simple to convey, but McConaughey is charged with depicting some pretty abstract emotions and fears in Interstellar.
In other words, McConaughey in Interstellar is the McConaughey of the past few years, not the McConaughey of Sahara or Reign Of Fire—still weathered and haunted, even as he goes on big adventures to exotic worlds. And if you’re wondering if the skill he’s brought to his McConaissance roles was present in those films, check out Stephen Harrigan’s Texas Monthly story from April, Before the McConassaince, where he went through the pre-2010 roles to see how much (if any) of the stuff that’s made him an icon is on display there.