Although Christian Bale lost an inordinate amount of weight for his role in 2004's The Machinist and Michael Fassbender shed just a little less for 2008's Hunger, nobody would have expected romantic beefcake Matthew McConaughey to ever become scrawny. Yet in an astounding transformation, the 43-year-old actor lost 21 kilos, dropping down to 61 kilos for Dallas Buyers Club. Bale had dropped to 55 kilos, while Fassbender was 59 kilos in roles that had gained much attention for the stars on the rise.
At the end of the '90s, Brad Pitt was attached to the project with Ryan Gosling
McConaughey was, of course, already a star of romantic comedies yet over the past two years the one-time law student and surprisingly smart cookie has emerged as an acting talent to be reckoned with. Gradually reaching a crescendo, after stand-out roles in The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, The Paperboy and Mud, McConaughey has delivered a tour de force in his portrayal as the lovable real life Ron Woodroof, a homophobic, rodeo-loving, substance-abusing loudmouth who defied the US medical system after he was told he was dying from AIDS in 1986. The therapies he was illicitly importing from Mexico as well as from around the world—and distributing via his Dallas Buyers Club—prolonged many lives. Personally, after being given a month to live, he managed to hang around for another seven years.
McConaughey was astounded by how good he felt after the weight loss. “I actually had a lot of energy at that weight. My wife wasn't too fond of it,” he chuckles, “but it was what was needed for the role. It took four months out of my life. The dieting was relatively easy compared to dealing with the different variations of rage the guy was going through. It was difficult to understand because I'm much more of a diplomat. So it was a great challenge to conjure the despair, the fear and the isolation that he felt.”
“It all seemed like one big long day,” McConaughey notes. “There were 27 of them in a row until I finally caught my breath. But I had so much fun being this guy from the inside out.”
McConaughey's enthusiasm is obvious in his performance. In acting terms, the role is a gift as we follow the action from Woodroof's point of view. “You want the audience to be inside his head, to hear what he hears, to see what he sees,” Vallée says.
Now McConaughey and Jared Leto (unrecognisable as Woodroof's unlikely ally, the HIV-infected transsexual Rayon) deservedly are emerging as strong awards contenders, while Jennifer Garner, McConaughey's co-star in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, gives her best performance in years as the doctor caring for the ailing men.
“The first time I saw the film was on a computer screen,” Garner recalls. “It wasn't finished yet and I couldn't believe how big it was. I kept thinking if people could only see how this tiny crew scrambled around and how we just never stopped shooting. The only time we stopped was to change me from one colour scrubs to another or to change Matthew's make-up or to put plumpers in his cheeks so he would look like he was healthier than he looked in real life. And if you could just see Matthew with the bull! It was like we were making the most guerrilla-style, itsy-bitsy movie, but the heart around it was so big.
“I remember very well the days that were hard and I remember the moments with these two actors, these two gorgeous men, looking terrifying and just having every emotion so right behind their skin. We never knew what they were going to do next—and not only in a good way, but sometimes in a scary, is-there-security-around way. I was totally inspired.”
Vallée, an effusive French Canadian, couldn't believe what he was witnessing either.
“I was on the set and saying, 'Thank you God. Wow, I'm the lucky guy directing these two crazy actors who are going to these places'. I had a hard time saying 'cut' sometimes, I was so moved. Then I looked back and saw the crew crying.”
Understandably, such a provocative story of an AIDS-afflicted man living on society's fringes and taking on the medical system was never an easy sell.
“That's the reason it took so long,” Vallée admits. “In '92 people were like, 'Let's talk about it'. At the end of the '90s, Brad Pitt was attached to the project with Ryan Gosling after the 1996 breakthrough when they found the combination of meds to help stabilise, though not cure, AIDS. So people were thinking about it. But then it took another 12 years. Now we're looking back 28 years and there's a nice distance between the time of the story so we can digest what happened and have a clearer take on it.”
Craig Borten, who wrote the screenplay with Melisa Wallack (they have just been nominated for a Writers Guild Award), had been with the project for 20 years before Vallée came on board. “It started when a friend sent this amazing article from The Independent about Ron and his Buyers Club,” Borten recalls. “I wrote a letter to Ron that was unreturned and I called him a few times. One day, he picked up the phone and said, 'If you can be here tomorrow you can interview me'. I got in my car and went to Texas and spent three days with him and recorded more than 20 hours of interviews. That was the start of a very long journey.” Woodroof died a month later.
Ultimately, the screenwriters created a fiction around Woodroof's life. “Ron is the only character that is real and all the other characters were created… But we were true to the facts,” notes Borten.
McConaughey's involvement became a major part of the film's financing. Borten says the Texan actor was perfect casting. “Ron was a very charismatic, funny and persuasive, a real salesman. Even if he was making fun of you, you wanted him to continue because he was so charming. Matthew possesses a lot of those same qualities.”
McConaughey, now 44, who will soon be seen as the lead in Christopher Nolan's sci-fi blockbuster, Interstellar (and is still skinny and all-knowing advising Leonardo DiCaprio in the first act of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street), isn't the only asset in the cast. Leto, the frontman for the band, Seconds to Mars, has a legion of young fans eager to see their idol in drag.
“I've never had such effusive support and praise for anything I've ever done in my life,” the astoundingly youthful—and beautiful—42-year-old admits. “I had no expectations going into it and hadn't made a film in almost six years. I've always loved Daniel Day-Lewis. He went off and made shoes for a few years and is always so patient between projects and takes his time waiting for the right script. I'd been doing other things, travelling and touring the world—then this happens. I can't believe it.”
Above all, Leto was inspired to work with McConaughey. “I knew that Matthew was really pushing himself and was determined to walk down a different path. I thought that if he's willing to bet on this, I'm willing to join him. I knew he'd made a commitment already and was losing weight and, of course, I'd done that before for Requiem for a Dream and I'd gained weight as well [for Chapter 27 as John Lennon's murderer, Mark David Chapman]. I thought Matthew was incredible, because I'm sure he doesn't have to work very much, I'm sure he's filthy rich and he can sit back and just enjoy his family. But he really has a desire to say something and to do something great and I respect that.”
Watch 'Dallas Buyers Club'
Wednesday 13 January, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn, Jennifer Garner