February 21, 2014
Guests: Alexander Payne - Matthew McConaughey
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our first guest, Alexander Payne, whose film "Nebraska" is nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for the performance of Bruce Dern. Payne is nominated in the Best Director category. "Nebraska" is out on DVD next week.
Payne's other films include "Election," "About Schmidt," "Sideways" and "The Descendents." He's directed Jack Nicholson and George Clooney in starring roles and has won two Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Terry interviewed Alexander Payne last year, when "Nebraska" was in theaters. In the film, Bruce Dern plays Woody, an old man who's beginning to show signs of dementia, which is maybe why he falls for one of those junk mail sweepstakes scams and actually believes he's won a million dollars. He can't drive, so he decides to walk from his home in Billings, Montana, to an address in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he thinks he can collect his prize.
Will Forte, a former cast member of "Saturday Night Live," plays his son, who eventually decides to humor his father and drive him to Lincoln. They make various stops along the way, including to his father's hometown. Here's a scene from early in the film, after a cop finds Woody walking on the highway, starting his trek to Nebraska. Woody's son has come to pick him up at the police station and wants to know what's going on.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEBRASKA")
WILL FORTE: (As David Grant) So you told the sheriff that you were walking to Nebraska.
BRUCE DERN: (As Woody Grant) That's right, to get my million dollars.
FORTE: (As David) What million dollars?
DERN: (As Woody) We are now authorized to pay one million dollars to Woodrow T. Grant of Billings, Montana.
FORTE: (As David) Let me see that.
DERN: (As Woody) And your mother won't take me.
FORTE: (As David) Mega Sweepstakes Marketing. Dad, this is a total come-on. It's one of the oldest gimmicks in the book. I didn't even know they still did it anymore.
DERN: (As Woody) Well, they can't say it if it's not true.
FORTE: (As David) They're just trying to sell you magazines.
DERN: (As Woody) This says I won.
FORTE: (As David) So, mail it in. I'll help you.
DERN: (As Woody) I'm not trusting the mail with a million dollars.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
That's a scene from "Nebraska." Alexander Payne, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the film.
ALEXANDER PAYNE: Thanks very much.
GROSS: So what interested you in the idea of somebody actually taking one of these sweepstakes come-ons at face value?
PAYNE: I thought it would be a nice premise for a little comedy. And I didn't come up with that premise. It came with the screenplay. It's the first one I've directed - it's the first film I've made with a screenplay I didn't originate. I did a re-write on it shortly before shooting. But it was the basic premise, the entryway into this whole story.
I actually thought it was a bit specious to begin with because the writer thought of it 10 years when he originally wrote the script, when Publisher's Clearing House was still more ubiquitous, and now it isn't. Now it's largely Nigerians emailing us with the scams. So I had to put a line of dialogue in, which is: I didn't know they still did this anymore.
GROSS: One of the - one of my favorite lines in the movie, on the way to Nebraska to redeem, you know, to, quote, redeem the million dollars, they stop at Mount Rushmore, because the son convinces his father, like, oh, let's just stop, it's on the way. And the father couldn't care less. And he's staring at it and thinking, like, oh, it's just a pile of rocks. It looks unfinished, Lincoln's ear isn't even finished. And then he says, OK, we've seen it. And like...
PAYNE: And before going there, he says: Why do you want to see Mount Rushmore? It's just a bunch of rocks.
GROSS: And that we've-seen-it thing, I thought, like, I know him.
GROSS: I could easily imagine my father saying that about certain - about certain things.
PAYNE: Yes, yes. Well, I think that dialogue is both like your father, you can imagine him having that attitude about something ostensibly sacred. And then also, the father - who is, to my mind, staring death in the face and fixing to die. And for me thematically, at a lower level, that's what the whole movie is about, is the father fixing to die and looking death in the face and the son offering to kind of help him do so or certainly try to give him some shred of dignity before the old man croaks.
Similarly toward the end of the film, the son takes the father to see the old house, now completely dilapidated, where the father had grown up. And the son says, well, dad, have you seen enough. And the father says oh, I suppose, it's just a bunch of sticks and some weeds.
GROSS: And also the son says to him let's see the house where you grew up, and he says what for.
PAYNE: Nothing in this material plane has much interest for him anymore is kind of what I'm getting out of it.
GROSS: A lot of people who you cast in "Nebraska" are from the area that you shot in.
PAYNE: Oh yeah, I do that on every film, though, but more - but I mean the casting director and I really, really took it seriously on this one.
GROSS: So were they people who were actors locally, like in regional theater or local theater, or were they just people you liked their faces, and you figured in the short scene that they were in they could make it work even though they had no acting experience?
PAYNE: Yeah, it's both, and it's a third. So I have - all my films, and this one even more so, are a combination of highly seasoned professional actors who typically live in Los Angeles or New York; local non-professional actors, as you say, community theater, local commercials, that sort of thing, local theater; and then non-actors, people really off the street or in this case off the farm.
For this film it took over a year of casting to find, for example, those retired farmers who play some of Bruce Dern's character's brothers and their wives. It was a long process of putting out casting notices on, for example, rural radio after the farm report.
PAYNE: In small-town newspapers.
GROSS: How would they read? What would they say?
PAYNE: Oh, I can't remember, you know, motion picture casting out of Omaha, we are seeking, you know, and we'd have the descriptions of people we were seeking. And, for example, for retired farmers we weren't so much expecting them to submit auditions.
So we were targeting their kids, in their 40s, 50s, 60s, who might go over to their folks' house on a Sunday and say hey, look at this, I read this, and come on - just for a hoot let me put you on my iPhone reading these lines of dialogue and let me email it in to Omaha.
And so slowly but surely, over months, some of those began to trickle in. And that's how we began to assemble the cast. And so there are many people in the film who have never even been in a high school play. And my job with John Jackson the casting director is to try to ensure from before that they're all going to be part of the fabric of the same film.
And then obviously directing on set, I have to make sure that the acting styles are sufficiently similar. I mean, at the same time that we're trying to find local non-actors who can reliably present an unselfconscious version of themselves when the camera is running, I also have to ensure that the professionals coming from the coasts are believable in that setting. So...
GROSS: That you can't tell the difference between the actors and the non-actors.
PAYNE: Correct, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: It probably helps that the lead actors were not, like, really big movie stars so that the non-actors weren't feeling like, you know...
PAYNE: But I went through it even with Jack Nicholson. I had him, for example, in a scene in "About Schmidt." He's ordering a Dilly Bar or something from a Dairy Queen in Omaha. And there he is acting in a 45-second scene up against the gal who actually worked at that Dairy Queen in Omaha. And I had to make sure that she was going to be bulletproof, that's the word I always use, bulletproof when the camera is running.
Sometimes it's - not sometimes, all the time, it's a matter of making sure that the non-actors are going to be, as I say, bulletproof when surrounded by the lights and the technicians and the trucks and all the movie-making machinery. But also having the highly seasoned professionals act flatter than they might act in other films, act - because real life is flatter than what we see in movies and theater, so - and that's the vibe I want in the films.
GROSS: So I have to ask you, there is a scene while - when Bruce Dern and Will Forte are on the road together, heading toward Nebraska, and they're passed on the highway by a bunch of bikers. Was than an homage to Bruce Dern's film "The Wild Angels"?
PAYNE: No, I hadn't thought about that until you mentioned it right now. That is - I was just thinking...
GROSS: Because he plays a biker in that.
PAYNE: Correct, yeah, yeah. No, that was trying to make South Dakota seem real because when you drive though South Dakota, you always see a lot of bikers.
GROSS: Fair enough.
PAYNE: And that was the single most expensive shot in the film.
PAYNE: It goes by quickly. Well, I thought, well, we're in South Dakota, we'll just get some bikers to drive by the car. And the studio said no way, Jose.
PAYNE: Insurance liability. You've got two moving parts, three moving parts. You've got the hero car, that is the car with the actors, a bunch of bikers, and we were in a moving vehicle behind shooting. And so they said you have to fly in stuntmen from Los Angeles and rent the bikes and rent the costumes, and they will pretend to be bikers.
And we did the numbers. That was about a $50,000 hit on a very small budget, which I couldn't afford from the budget. So I actually had to make a special appeal to the studio, will you give me $50,000 extra to get that one shot, and bless their hearts they said yes.
GROSS: I have a directing question for you. But in order to get to the question, we have to hear a clip. And the clip is an excerpt of an interview I did with Margo Martindale, the wonderful actress who a lot of people might know as Hilary Swank's mother in the Clint Eastwood movie - why am I blanking out on the name?
PAYNE: "Million Dollar Baby."
GROSS: Thank you. "Million Dollar Baby." And also she was terrific in "Justified," as this like Kentucky woman who runs this like kind of drug business.
GROSS: So anyway, so you were directing her. It's a film called "Paris, je t'aime." And this was like an anthology film. There are several sequences in it, several separate stories. Each story is directed and written by different people. So the one that you did stars Margo Martindale.
And the story here is she's taking like an adult education course in French. And she decides to go to France alone. And it's not the, like, exciting, romantic trip to France that everybody hopes for because she's still just alone and she doesn't really know French culture. She's not really sure how to get around.
But at the end, she's sitting on a bench in a park watching the children play and watching other people, you know, lovers go by and everything. She has this just like little emotional moment of just seeing the beauty of life. And I was asking her about that scene. And I just want to play you what she had to say about playing that scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARGO MARTINDALE: It was in a park in Paris in the 14th Arrondissement. And I was sitting on a park bench, and this was like being me, this thing. It was - I was sitting on a park bench, and I went from looking at some old people on a bench and thinking of my mother and all the people that were gone to panning over to seeing a playground full of children and thinking of my daughter growing up, and it just was there, just immediately.
GROSS: Oh. Well, I could see how it would be there because the emotion is still so there.
MARTINDALE: It's just, you know, it's all about life. It was so easy. I'm sorry. It was so easy to do.
GROSS: No. No. No.
MARTINDALE: MARTINDALE: Yeah. And so everything else was just, you know, and Alexander directed me as if he were directing a silent movie, which was fantastic. It was a perfect combination for me.
GROSS: That's the actress Margo Martindale talking about her scene, her final scene in the movie "Paris, je t'aime." And she was directed by my guest, Alexander Payne. And she had talked earlier in the interview about her mother dying, which is one of the things she was thinking about in that scene.
She obviously had this really, like, authentic moment of emotion while playing that scene. And even while just thinking about that scene she was very emotional. I was thinking about you directing her and wondering, like, say something happen so that you couldn't use that take. Say like somebody walked by unintentionally or something happened and you couldn't use that perfect take.
What would you do? Because you probably had a sense that she had went, like, so deep and was so fully experiencing the moment in character. It would have been hard, I think, for her to - maybe it wouldn't be hard for her to go there again. Can you talk about that?
PAYNE: You see in that clip that she has very ready access to emotion. And that's what...
PAYNE: And that's what the great actors have. And that's why life is often so difficult for them because they can't keep their emotions tamped down, as like...
GROSS: Oh, that's so interesting.
PAYNE: ...as you and I can. So then if you can put an oil pump on that spurting oil well of emotion, then you can be a professional actor. And so I think we did four or five takes, and she was equally good in all of them. And it was just a matter of making sure the camera was right and the timing with the voiceover and so forth.
But I clearly remember having three or four great takes to deal with. The good ones could keep it going. It's not just like, oh, one take where they really hit that emotion. Well, yeah, maybe, but let's try again, the cameraman missed it. You know, it's, you know, the assistant cameraman made your eyes out of focus, so we need to do it again.
Or I remember telling Paul Giamatti in "Sideways," he was really in a deep place, and I had to say, OK, stop, Paul, could you please rotate your head 12 degrees to the left? I mean we all have to understand that film is technical as well as emotional.
GROSS: So if it is true, that observation that you just made, that actors more readily tap into their emotions and that those emotions are always kind of gushing and...
GROSS: ...that's responsible for some of the problems they often have in life.
PAYNE: Oh yeah. And I think...
PAYNE: Sorry. Go ahead.
GROSS: Yeah. No. No. Go ahead.
PAYNE: No. I was just going to say, there's a way in which I've observed that actors and directors envy each other. I think a director envies an actor's ready access to emotion and how beautiful that is. And I think actors can envy directors dealing more clinically with emotions, ordering them about dispassionately.
GROSS: And a lot of actors want to become the directors.
PAYNE: Good for them.
DAVIES: Alexander Payne, speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with director Alexander Payne.
GROSS: I was re-watching "The Descendents" in preparation for our interview and arrived at the same conclusion I did the first time I saw it: it's really a terrific film. And it stars George Clooney, whose wife is in a coma after a boating accident.
And that leads him to find out a lot about her and about himself and about his children. And it's like other films of yours - it both has a lot of emotion and humor in it as well, and you manage to find a really nice balance.
But I love the opening narration. And I think the opening narration just tells you everything you kind of need to know to get in the right frame of mind for the movie. And I'd like to play that opening narration. And this is George Clooney.
And as we're hearing this opening narration onscreen, we're seeing shots of life in Hawaii. He's a Hawaiian who is descendent from a long line of important Hawaiians. So here is the opening voiceover from Alexander Payne's film "The Descendents."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DESCENDENTS")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GEORGE CLOONEY: (as Matt King) My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I'm in paradise. Like a permanent vacation, we're all just out here sipping Mai Tais, shaking our hips and catching waves. Are they insane? Do they think we're immune to life?
How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our cancers less fatal, our heartaches less painful? Hell, I haven't been on a surfboard in 15 years. For the last 23 days, I've been living in a paradise of IVs and urine bags and tracheal tubes. Paradise? Paradise can go (bleep) itself.
GROSS: That's George Clooney's voiceover from the opening of "The Descendents," directed by my guest, Alexander Payne. So you wrote that line, do they think we're immune to life?
GROSS: I was wondering if you think some people have that thought about people in Hollywood, that they're immune to life because they make these, like, fabulous films and they live in a fabulous world and they have money and fabulous homes.
PAYNE: I don't know. I can't give a very good answer to that. I don't know.
GROSS: What did you think when you were wanting to make movies and you were young?
PAYNE: I actually wasn't looking forward to it. But now that I do live part of the time in Los Angeles, I also live in Omaha, I like it. I've come to see it as a great, great city. And older Hollywood, because I'm a film buff, is fantastic. And, you know, you can trash living in Los Angeles or living in Hollywood, but I'm driving down the street and I turn and, oh look, there's Vendom(ph). There's the stairs that Laurel and Hardy carried the piano up in "The Music Box."
PAYNE: And here's the, here I'm in Los Feliz, there's the house that was used in "Double Indemnity." And it's just, it's delightful, and you think of what creation of culture for the world was created there in the teens and '20s and '30s and '40s. But I think about silent comedy a lot and what was done, the brilliance of what our comic actors did in the '20s, and I'm just, I'm filled with pride.
GROSS: What do you love about silent movies?
PAYNE: First of all, let me say, I'm no expert. I like silent films a lot, but I know people who are experts, and I'm no expert. But my line about it is that, for example, they say that often a filmmaker's first film can be his or her best. Why? Because he or she has been waiting 30, 35 years to tell that story. So a lifetime of whatever it is, frustration or observation, that all comes out. I feel the same way about cinema. I think that mankind had been looking for this magnificently verisimilar art form which really mirrors life.
And that the first 30 years of it, it all came out. And before it was harnessed to be really industrial and present a more reliable, predictable, marketable product, silent film from the get-go was just all over the place, and often much more oneiric, more dreamlike in its imagery and taps into how cinema's relationship with dream and the excitement of creating cinema, creating a new art form.
GROSS: Margo Martindale said you directed the scene that we were discussing earlier on the park bench as if it were a silent film. What does that mean?
PAYNE: I don't know exactly what she meant but probably - and I direct a lot like this, which is talking through takes. So.
GROSS: What does that mean?
PAYNE: The actor is acting, and I'm coaching them the performance moment by moment like they used to do, you know, in that cliche with the director with the jodhpurs and the megaphone. So I'm saying, oh, do this now. Do this now. Look left. Look right. Look up. Feel sad. Cry. I might say, if they don't get a line quite right, I might tell the camera, OK, keep rolling. Now try that line again, but do it this way. Stick to your guns a little bit more or whatever it is. I talk through takes a lot.
GROSS: Alexander Payne, this has been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
PAYNE: I feel the same. Thanks a lot, Terry.
DAVIES: Alexander Payne, speaking with Terry Gross. His film "Nebraska" has been nominated for six Academy Awards. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. In the film "Dallas Buyers Club," Matthew McConaughey plays a homophobic man who's diagnosed as HIV positive and given 30 days to live. He begins non-approved pharmaceuticals into the country from abroad after learning about the ineffectiveness and side-effects of the drugs being prescribed in the U.S. He not only treats himself with the drugs, but also distributes them to other patients through a buyer's club, a way to skirt the FDA rules which prohibited the use of those medications.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DALLAS BUYERS CLUB")
JENNIFER GARNER: (As Dr. Eve Saks) This is my patient. You treating these people?
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Woodroof) They're treating themselves.
GARNER: (As Saks) With what?
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Woodroof) Vitamins, peptide T, DDC, anything but that poison you're hawking.
DAVIES: McConaughey's performance in "Dallas Buyer's Club" has earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He also makes a notable appearance in the opening scene of Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," and is now starring in the HBO series "True Detective," which is set in a remote area of Louisiana. McConaughey plays Detective Rut Cohle. He's prone to dark and enigmatic monologue, sometimes to the annoyance of his more straightforward partner played by Woody Harrelson.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRUE DETECTIVE")
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Rust Cohle) I think human consciousness is a misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.
WOODY HARRELSON: (As Martin Hart) That sounds god (bleep) awful, Rust.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Rust Cohle) We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody's nobody.
HARRELSON: (As Martin Hart) I wouldn't go around spouting that (bleep) if I was you. People around here don't think that way. I don't think that way.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Rust Cohle) Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.
HARRELSON: (As Martin Hart) So, what's the point of getting out of bed in the morning?
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Rust Cohle) I tell myself I bear witness. The real answer is that it's obviously my programming. And I lack the constitution for suicide.
HARRELSON: (As Martin Hart) My luck, I pick today to get to know you and, what? Three months, I don't hear a word from you and.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Rust Cohle) You asked.
HARRELSON: (As Martin Hart) Yeah. And now I'm begging you to shut the (bleep) up.
DAVIES: Earlier in his career, McConaughey starred in lighter films, including romantic comedies, like "The Wedding Planner" and "Failure to Launch." But for the past several years, he gravitated towards more dramatic and darker roles. He played a sinister and perverted police detective and hit man in "Killer Joe," the owner and MC of a male review in a strip club in the film "Magic Mike" and a mysterious loner in the film "Mud."
Terry interviewed McConaughey last year. Here's an excerpt of their conversation
TERRY GROSS, HOST: You had been famous for romantic comedies for several years and now you're using your good looks for a different effect. In "Mud" your good looks help further the charisma that you have and the kind of romantic story that's at the heart of who you are and what motivates you. In "Killer Joe" your good looks kind of add to this character's magnetism and charisma, even though it's a kind of evil charisma. And in "Bernie," which is a comedy, your good looks are kind of played down, but everybody, but you're the kind of like heartthrob in the local town but it's all very comic.
So was there a point in your career where you said I'm kind of done with the straightforward romantic comedies, I'm looking for something different now? And if so, what was behind the change?
MCCONAUGHEY: You know, I've been asked this question a lot and I've thought about it a lot and I don't have a clear clean-cut answer, because actually these roles, these last six films I've done, they came to me. I didn't go out and chase them. There was a time where I was reading some more romantic comedies, I was reading some more action scripts, and there were quite a few I liked, but most all of them I felt like I could do them tomorrow. I think that was where I just said wait a minute, there's nothing wrong with that. That's great to have something you feel like you could do tomorrow. It's great to have your so-called fastball and you like doing them. There's a lightness that you are able to keep and maintain in those that they need because they need a buoyancy, and then I call them Saturday character, the romantic comedy, it's a Saturday character. You're not supposed to get, you know, Hamletian about it. You're not supposed to go deep. You go deep on those, you sink the ship. I had fun doing that and also trying to do those without emasculating the male, which can be done in those romantic comedies often. But I just felt like I could do them tomorrow or the next day. So I said I want to wait. I don't know what I want to do. I want to wait till something really turns me on - moves my floor, as I said, makes me question it and go I don't know what I'll do with that material. And what I had in my life at that time was something really special which allowed me to take pause and back away and not do the romantic comedies or not do the other scripts that were coming in. And that's what, and I had a son, so I said I'm going to be a dad, I've got something to take up my time. That helped a lot, to have, to say I'm going to be a father for a while and I'm not going to rush into work. Let the work come find me and just be patient, McConaughey, it'll come. And so if I didn't have that project, which was raising my son or getting to know him in his earliest years, I would've become much more restless than I was.
MCCONAUGHEY: So I was able to be very patient, and what happened is I got the call from Billy Friedkin, then Richard Linklater came to me with the "Bernie" script, and then I got the call from Soderbergh, then Lee Daniels gave me a call on "Paperboy" and then Jeff Nichols came. So they came to me and that was just really one of those wonderful ways the world works. By saying no, I don't want to do these other things, I'm going to sit and press pause and let some things come to me and sort of - as I said - let the target draw the arrow, the arrows came my way.
DAVIES: Matthew McConaughey speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and we're listening to Terry's interview with actor Matthew McConaughey. He's earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance in the film "Dallas Buyer's Club."
GROSS: In high school you were voted Most Handsome...
GROSS: ...in the school. So did you have to be knocked down at home after that?
MCCONAUGHEY: Oh, I think they still, I mean my brother still jives me about it. I have a wonderful story, though...
MCCONAUGHEY: ...about that most handsome thing. You want to hear it?
GROSS: Sure, go ahead. Yeah.
MCCONAUGHEY: Oil is mink was a product. By mother became an in-house salesman for, it was a mink oil that you put on your face and my mom was turned on to it by my father's secretary and it was one of these kind of like an Avon lady, you go door-to-door and you sell this oil of mink. Well, I'm 15 years old and my mom's got these tubes of mink oil and she says, you know, you've got these adolescent pimples and stuff. Maybe you should put the oil of mink on your face and do these masks and stuff at night. I'm like, that's a great idea, mom. And we read the label and one of them says it pulls out the impurities and then you'll be clean and you'll never have another blemish in your life. And I'm like, well, this is great, man. If I can get through these, you know, 15-year-old pimply faced stuff, it'd be great. So I start putting these oil of mink masks on my face. Well, quickly my face is beginning to swell up and I'm forming acne and really bad acne. And I talk to my dad's secretary who turned my mom onto it. She comes over the house and I'm really concerned and the lady is like, wow, well, you do sure have a whole lot of impurities, Matthew. Keep it up.
MCCONAUGHEY: And we'll just pull all the impurities out, because once they're out, you're clean forever. So I stick with another three weeks. It's almost two months now and I have, I mean my whole face - I going to look like myself. I have full-blown really bad acne. Go to a dermatologist. He's like, what are you putting on your face? We show them the product. He's says this is a mink oil base. This is for; this is the last thing an adolescent oily-faced kid should be using. This has clogged up your pores. You are about 10 days before you're going to have those ice picks holes in your face from that acne. And we're like, well, geez, how do we help? He got me on medication. It ended up being Accutane, which really worked, it was a year and a half sort of just took the acne away and we learned our lesson. Anyway, during...
MCCONAUGHEY: During that time, somebody in the family got the idea of, yeah, you know what? We need to follow a lawsuit against oil of mink. That's right. Our son Matthew, I mean you've been - look at you. I mean you are emotionally pounded and psychologically this really had to hurt, and everyone started feeling all of these, you know, ideas. But, yeah, I was emotionally done. Yeah, my confidence was lower. Well, there's a lawsuit filed.
MCCONAUGHEY: I think it was for like $30,000 or something. And as lawsuits go, they take a while. So remember, that was when I was 15. Cut to now 18, senior in high school. I get called in for a deposition by the defense. And he sits me down and he goes through all this, you know, emotionally this must've been so tough for you. And look at these pictures of the acne you had. Oh my God. I mean your face is almost bleeding. You look like a monster. This is so bad. Man, it must've really been tough on you. And I'm like, yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir. And he goes through this for about 45 minutes. And I'm thinking this is great. Man, this is the defense is talking to me and he's saying all the problems that I had. And then he stops and he reaches down under the table and he pulls up this yearbook and he opens up this page, turns around to me and slides over and he goes, what's this picture here, this award you won? I looked down at it and it says Most Handsome.
MCCONAUGHEY: And he goes, yeah, it was just really tough, that oil of mink episode, wasn't it? And I shut that book and started laughing. My dad jacked with me and my brothers jacked with me for years after that, going, man, we almost won a $30,000 lawsuit and you got to go win most handsome. You son of a bitch. Man, what are you doing? Trying to make some money in a lawsuit and what's little brother do? Got to go win most handsome. Thanks a lot, man. You're just screwed it up for all of us.
MCCONAUGHEY: So I still get hell about that.
GROSS: So was being on the stand useful in playing a lawyer, which you've done?
MCCONAUGHEY: Well, actually, that was in a law office. But I was very interested in law back then. And actually I thought my path was going to be, I was going to be the family lawyer. I was going to SMU, is where I was going to go to school.
GROSS: Why didn't you become the family lawyer?
MCCONAUGHEY: I was going to go to SMU. I was going to - because I felt I could get a job in a law firm easier in Dallas than anywhere else that I was going to go to school. And I got a call from my middle brother and he said, you know, what about University of Texas? And I said no, I don't want to. You know, I want to go to SMU because it's Dallas, and I think that's where I can get into the workforce sooner and in a law office. And he goes, well look, Dad's not going to tell you this but I'm going to tell you this. It's going to cost 16 grand to put you in SMU because it's a private school but if you go to the University of Texas, it's going to cost six, and Dad's not going to tell you, but the oil business is not good right now, and Dad - business is really tough. It would help him out a lot. Because, of course, Dad wouldn't say, you know, I can't afford to send you to SMU.
So I called Dad and I said you know what? I had a change of mind. I want to be a Longhorn. He goes, god, dog, buddy, I like the sound of that. And I went to the University of Texas. And as soon as I got to Austin I fit into it and it fit with me, the first two years I was still thinking about going to law school but it's where I got - it's a time where I got really creative.
And decided, you know what? That's not for me. And that's when I decided to get in the storytelling business. And I didn't think I was going to be acting. I went to film school.
GROSS: So how did you become an actor then?
MCCONAUGHEY: In film school I started - when I would be directing something or the photographer or even the AD, I will always found myself jumping on the other side of the camera and acting it out what I meant, if I was trying to give direction or saying, well, let me do that.
And then actually, when I went to Hollywood I had a production assistant job that I went out there for. And I was interested in acting but I still wasn't able to shake hands with - even with myself, that was really going to be a possible career. And somebody liked what I did in "Dazed and Confused," an agent said I want to meet you and sent me out on a read, and the first read I ever had in Hollywood, two weeks after I've been out there was with a cast director named Hank McCann and it was for a film called "Boys on the Side," which I ended up getting the part. I never had to take that production assistant job.
GROSS: So you had - so "Dazed and Confused" seemed like an aberration to you 'cause what? Did you know the director, Richard Linklater, where you friends or something.
MCCONAUGHEY: No, I didn't. I met the casting director, Don Philips on that film in a bar one night. Top of the Hyatt Thursday night with my girlfriend at the time, Toni Sideros(ph). We went to that bar because I knew the bartender and he'd give me free drinks. And he said - he was in film school with me. He goes; the guy at the end of the bar is a producer. He's in town producing a film. I went down and introduced myself. Four hours later we're kicked out of the bar.
And he says have you ever acted before? And I said, man, I was in a Miller Lite commercial for, mmm, that long. And he goes, well, you might be right for this role. Come to this address tomorrow morning, 9:00. At this time it was already 3:00 A.M. And I went down there six hours later and there was a script with a handwritten note on the top of it.
And it had - this character's name was Wooderson. There was - had a few great, great lines.
GROSS: Some of them are famous. You want to recite the famous ones?
MCCONAUGHEY: Oh, well, the one that was like that sent me off - and I was just like, who is this guy? - is when they're out front of the billiards joint and the ladies were walking by, and Wooderson's checking them out, and he's there with the character played by Sasha Jenson, and Sasha's like you better stop that or you're going to end up in jail.
Wooderson's like, no, man. That's what I like about those high-school girls, man; I get older, but they stay the same age. And it's a great - that was the piece for Wooderson that I was like, that's not a line, that's his being. That's his philosophy.
MCCONAUGHEY: He wasn't - there was no attitude to it. This was this guy's DNA and he had it figured out.
GROSS: So let's play the actual scene, which we have ready to go. This is "Dazed and Confused," which his set in 1976 on the last day of high school. Matthew McConaughey plays somebody who's already out of high school. He's kind of too old for this but is still hanging with the high school kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAZED AND CONFUSED")
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Dave) So you're a freshman, right?
SASHA JENSON: (as Don) Yeah.
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Dave) So tell me, man. How's this year's crop of freshman chicks looking?
JENSON: (as Don) Wood, you're going to end up in jail sometime really soon, I know that for a fact.
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Dave) Nah, man.
JENSON: (as Don) Yeah.
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Dave) Nah, man. I'll tell you. That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older; they stay the same age.
JENSON: (as Don) Yes, they do. God.
MCCONAUGHEY: Yes, they do.
GROSS: A much younger Matthew McConaughey in a scene from "Dazed and Confused" which was directed by Richard Linklater. So I've read that your parents were married and divorced, and married and divorced. Was that confusing for you?
MCCONAUGHEY: I didn't know. Again, those things you find out after, after your father passes away. I thought Mom was on some extended vacations. You know, I thought she was down in Florida and I didn't know, you know, but I didn't question why Dad and I moved into a trailer park outside of town, and it was just he and I for the whole summer. I didn't question it.
Again, my older brothers were probably went through and understood what was happening. It wasn't really confusing. I mean, there were never times where I remember, like, oh, my god. Where is Mom? I mean, the summer I had with my dad when my mom was gone, boy, that was neat.
I'm going to spend it with Dad. You know? So it wasn't ever confusing. I mean, I never questioned, oh, our mom and dad split up. Does one love me more or love me less? We didn't have - none of that.
GROSS: What was high school like for you?
MCCONAUGHEY: I had a very good time in high school. I took care of my business. I made my A's for Mom and Dad. I was socially active. I was emotionally very extroverted. I had a good friend, though, who has a lot to do with why I'm going what I'm doing today named Rob Benler(ph). He was the introvert, so to speak, and he was the one who introduced me to, hey, you don't have to go party Friday and Saturday night.
I'll go party with you Friday night but Saturday night let's go to my place and watch a movie. And so he introduced me to films. He introduced me to art. He introduced me to storytelling. He was writing scripts and he went to NYU and he was the one who said why don't you go try and act? He was the one - when I couldn't even dream about it, he was saying, no, you can do this and do it really well.
GROSS: What's one of the films that you fell in love with that made you fall in love with movies?
MCCONAUGHEY: Oh, I mean, you know, at the time I think it was like "Angel Heart," that Alan Parker film I loved, with Mickey Rourke and DeNiro and Lisa Bonet. I really loved that film. "Hud" was always a favorite of mine, the Marty Ritt directed film with Paul Newman. Later on, "Indian Runner," Sean Penn's film, a wonderful film that Viggo Mortensen and David Morse were in.
You know, "Raising Arizona" was my comedy. You know, the most quotable that I've watched over and over and over. And then again, the only movie I saw before I was, like, 15 was "King Kong." And I must say...
GROSS: Which version? The remake or the original?
MCCONAUGHEY: The remake, introducing Jessica Lange.
GROSS: Jeff Bridges.
MCCONAUGHEY: Yes. And I cried.
GROSS: That's a terrible film, I think. Really? OK, you cried.
MCCONAUGHEY: Oh, I loved it.
MCCONAUGHEY: I absolutely loved it. And I'm very interested in this measurement across the board. I was whatever age I was - 12, 13, 14 - and I've never had more enjoyment in a film-going experience than that hour and a half that I was in for that movie, at that age. I cried because I knew Jessica Lange and King Kong could have made it.
MCCONAUGHEY: I knew that they could have made it. Yeah.
DAVIES: Matthew McConaughey speaking with Terry Gross. McConaughey is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the film "Dallas Buyers Club" and he stars in the HBO drama "True Detective." Coming up, David Edelstein on the new film by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: The new film from acclaimed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki is called "The Wind Rises." It centers on a young man who, in the early 1930s, dreams of designing the perfect airplane. The film's been nominated for Best Animated Feature at this year's Academy Awards. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The 73-year-old Japanese animation titan Hayao Miyazaki says "The Wind Rises" is his final film, and if that's true - and I hope it's not but fear it is, since he's not the type to make rash declarations - if that's true, he's going out on a high.
The movie won't, I'm afraid, appeal to kids the way "Ponyo" or "Spirited Away" does. It's monster, ghost and mermaid-free. It centers on grown-ups and it's gently paced - maybe 15 minutes too long, I'd say, but you can forgive those longueurs when the work is this exquisite.
It's romantic, tragic and inexorably strange, a portrait of a young Japanese man who dreams of creating flying machines and the Imperial Empire that funds his research. His country will take those machines and send them off to rain death and destruction on its enemies - but that's not something to which the young designer gives too much thought. It's not part of the dream of flight.
The young man's name is Jiro, a composite of engineer Jiro Horikoshi and writer Tatsuo Hori, who wrote a novel called, also, "The Wind Rises." From an early age, Jiro pores over drawings in English-language aeronautical magazines and communes in his fantasies with a visionary Italian aircraft designer called Caproni.
There's only a whisper of distinction between Jiro's so-called reality and his dreams. In his visions, the young enthusiast - voiced in Disney's English-language version by Joseph Gordon-Levitt - stands on the wing of a plane under pink and gold cumulus clouds. Caproni, voiced by Stanley Tucci, is there too, and they gaze in awe on an approaching flying machine.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WIND RISES")
STANLEY TUCCI: (as Caproni) Which world will you choose?
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: (as Jiro) I just want to create beautiful airplanes.
TUCCI: (as Caproni) Like that? Very graceful.
GORDON-LEVITT: (as Jiro) I have a long way to go. I don't even have an engine or a cockpit yet.
TUCCI: (as Caproni) Bravo! A beautiful dream.
EDELSTEIN: The machine spoken of by Jiro and his Obi-Wan Caproni looks like a mechanically enhanced bird - there's barely any border between objects that are natural and engineered. Jiro's chief design is inspired by the curve of a mackerel bone; he takes his cues from living creatures. Miyazaki has given us living machines before, among them the mythical bus in "My Neighbor Totoro," but here they're a mix of inorganic and organic. Everything has a spirit - levers, flaps, and of course the wind.
The title comes from a line by poet Paul Valery: The wind is rising, we must try to live. It's the Buddhist carpe diem - go with the flow. The wind carries off the parasol of a fragile girl, Nahoko, voiced by Emily Blunt, and into the hands of Jiro - who'll fall in love with her. Their love is idealized, but what an ideal. Though she's obviously dying of TB, she's plucky. She faces into the wind.
The movie's central contradiction is between the purity of Jiro's dreams and the deadly uses to which his plane - the legendary Zero fighter - is put. Does Miyazaki downplay the evil? Some critics say yes. One even stopped an awards meeting of a Boston critics society to say that anyone who voted for the movie was accepting the whitewash of atrocities. I don't see it that way.
Miyazaki's irony isn't as broad as, say, Bertolt Brecht's in "Galileo," the tragedy of a man whose appetite for science and lack of regard for its consequences lead inevitably - in Brecht's formulation - to weapons of mass destruction. But it's hard to imagine Miyazaki being that on-the-nose. The terrible implications are there, but underplayed.
It's the underplaying and the evenness of tone that's the key to his greatness, the way he transforms mundane sensations from real to surreal in barely perceptible puffs. And he puts so much individuality and soul into these anime characters with their standard button eyes and tiny noses that it's uncanny. He makes the human spirit seem as fleeting yet as eternal as the wind itself.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
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