Matthew McConaughey black and white (Photo by SGranitz/WireImage); Matthew McConaughey and wife Camila Alves-McConaughey (Photo by Jeff Vespa/Getty Images for PSIFF); Greenlights book jacket image; Matthew McConaughey in Rome, Italy (Photo by Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images
> The Big Read
Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey talks about his new book, Greenlights, and navigating lockdown with three generations under one roof / BY Nathalie Atkinson / December 1st, 2020
Last November, on his 50th birthday, Matthew McConaughey joined Instagram. At the time he promised a loose, freeform presence on the social platform and a year later, he has not disappointed. Over the course of the pandemic, you may have enjoyed some of the Oscar-winning actor’s impromptu small-screen roles—the heartwarming comedy of his Virtual Bingo Caller for a Senior Living Centre, say, or his goofy revisionist western hero Bobby Bandito in a PSA about how to improvise a face covering with coffee filters.
Today the actor’s familiar honeyed drawl is coming down the line from his home in Austin, Texas, where McConaughey has been spending the pandemic in lockdown with wife Camila, their three children (ages 12, 10, and 7), and his mother Kay, 88. Although the voice is as mellow as the Kentucky bourbon he makes with Wild Turkey, it’s often peppered with the trademark idiosyncratic enunciation the actor uses for effect. Especially when talk turns to his new book Greenlights. It’s an engrossing conversation, once I get past the cognitive dissonance of People magazine’s onetime Sexiest Man Alive speaking about life’s purpose with the same rousing, persuasive cadence as a preacher.
Under One Roof
Since the pandemic, McConaughey’s feisty mother Kay, 88, has been living at his sprawling Spanish-Mediterranean compound. “She’s with us because of COVID and our quarantine. We pulled her out of her retirement community where she had her friends. She would see [her grandkids] before once every two weeks, and that was good, but now it’s every day,” he says. “There’s gonna be great value for my kids and her in that.” Kay’s regular appearances on wife Camila’s @WomenofToday wellness Instagram have also proven popular. “She feels more relevant – Camila will share comments and it makes her feel good! … We’ll see if it’s gonna help with her maybe livin’ longer and happier.”
What it’s like having three generations under the same roof, all day every day? Like the rest of us, the cabin fever is real. “And we just have to say, ‘hey, we have to toe the line here we have to fight not just COVID but boredom as well.’ Sometimes it’s like havin’ four kids in the house,” McConaughey jokes: “One’s 88, one’s 12, one’s 10 and one’s 7. But for the most part she’s been a mensch.”
But What I Really Want to Do Is …Write
Published in late October, Greenlights swiftly became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. It’s got irreverence, heart, and some shamanistic philosophizing while also being a ribald celebrity tell-all. It helps, too, that McConaughey has been a pop-culture figure for nearly 30 years, across genres and generations. The book holds appeal to the 17 year olds who loved his stoner comedy The Beach Bum and 57 year olds who still rave about True Detective – and vice versa.
Greenlights is assembled in part from the journals McConaughey has kept since the age of 14. But it’s not so much a memoir as a philosophy of life workbook that happens to chronicle some of his life so far – he calls it an approach book. McConaughey studied with legendary acting coach Penny Allen, and what she taught him about how to break down a character held true as he found himself writing. “The more personal I got the more relatable the words and the stories seemed to be,” he explains.
Sharing personal stories wasn’t his original plan. “Initially I thought okay – little hard-back cover, thin, easy quick read of aphorisms, truisms, bumper stickers, little advice pops that every college student can take with them to college and sit on the top of their proverbial toilet,” he laughs, “or coffee table. Open up wherever you want, oh yeah this is nice little aspiration — cool, later.” Something like the self-help book The Greatest Salesman in The World he once stumbled on, which helped him realize he wanted to abandon law and pursue film studies instead.
Over the course of several solitary writing stints, seven categories were revealed. “Stories, people, places, pre-scribes, poems, prayers, and a whole lot of bumper stickers,” he enumerates of the mixed-media format that shapes the book and conveys his tools and strategies for living, and the central message of green lights, which he pronounces and writes as one word.
“Greenlights are things in our life that approve our way, that affirm the way we’re going, that say yes — they’re ‘atta boys’ keep doin’ what you’re doing,’ they’re freedom, we love ‘em,” he says. It’s a simple concept: red and yellow lights slow or stop that momentum. “They make us take pause or introspection or intervene with us – those are usually hardships and crises in our life and obstacles that we have to overcome.” Trickily, they can reveal what he calls green light assets, or a lesson learned with the benefit of hindsight and perspective.
The difficult, lonely gap year McConaughey spent in Australia? A red light. “If our life is all greenlights then what’s it all for, what’s life for—straight entertainment?” he says now. “I mean, there would be no evolution, we wouldn’t grow. If it’s all greenlights, we’re just gonna go ride around full speed in circles.”
In the Driver’s Seat
Admittedly, some of the Post-it note aphorisms peppered throughout Greenlights recall the musings McConaughey delivers in his ongoing commercials as longtime brand ambassador for Lincoln. (Not to be confused with his turn in The Lincoln Lawyer, the 2011 thriller that kick-started his comeback.) You know the ones: as deadpan as March Hare riddles, and such notorious cultural vignettes that Jim Carrey has parodied them on SNL.
A message around the unifying theme of traffic lights makes sense when you consider just how often he’s heeded the call of the open road. For example, Greenlights details the benefits of that wanderlust. It began in earnest when the actor sought to escape the overnight celebrity in 1996, when A Time to Kill catapulted him to stardom, and continued constructively between major movie projects when he would recalibrate by taking backpacking around Mali or Peru.
At the height of his fame, McConaughey also spent several peripatetic years living out of his customized 28-foot Airstream, including several months on a Squamish Nation reserve during a shoot in Vancouver. When the actor left, Chief Mike Hunt and his brothers presented him with a hand-carved canoe paddle featuring the nation’s thunderbird symbol. “That paddle is hanging up in the Canoe right now here in my backyard,” McConaughey says of the parting gift that inspired the Airstream’s affectionate nickname. “That metaphor, that this thunderbird is what gives us direction on the rivers as we cross and as we fish, may this paddle steer you in the right direction – I loved that. Until he said that, the highways that I was traveling and living on for four years of my life, I never thought of them as rivers,” he says. “But that’s exactly what they are.”
Don’t Mess with Texas
In the book, the actor chronicles formative experiences, like his upbringing in East Texas as the youngest of three boys and his parents’ loving but physically volatile relationship (they divorced twice and married three times), and being the only frat boy among the art-house goths in film school before he broke into Hollywood. McConaughey covers the infamous naked bongo incident – when he was arrested in 1999 while dancing, high, and playing the bongos naked late one night at his downtown Austin home – as well as the two debauched bachelor years he spent living at L.A.’s Chateau Marmont. “I partook,” is how he sums it up.
Chapters include both circular proverbs (“the arrow doesn’t’t seek the target, the target draws the arrow”) and bumper stickers (“Truth’s like a jalapeño, the closer to the root, the hotter it gets”) with lengthy reminiscences about the devastating effect of his father’s unexpected death in 1993, a years-long estrangement from his mother when he first became famous, and his experiences becoming a husband and parent.
Naturally, he also performs the audiobook with the same laid-back Texas charm and gusto. In some sentences you can practically hear those dimples framing his vulpine grin. And why not? McConaughey’s soothing voice narrates enormously popular sleep stories for adults on the meditation and relaxation app Calm.
Learn As You Go
In addition to being a mantra, Just keep livin – jk livin (no capitals, and no ‘g’ either) – is also the name of the McConaugheys’ philanthropic foundation for at-risk high school students. As wildly entertaining as some of his stories can be, they serve a larger conversation McConaughey wants to have on how to live: about values, consequence, and responsibility in a time when there is a lot of distrust, he says.
That conversation has evolved since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and since Greenlights was published a few weeks ago. “Talking about this book and hearing from other people how it’s related to them, I am sort of crystallizing to a more enriched understanding of what I wrote,” the author admits. “And even what may be the next thing that I write.”
“The book is about relationships,” McConaughey continues, “and there’s a lot of tools in the book about to keep those in shape.” “In this time right now, where we’re looking for a redefinition of our relationship with others, ourselves, the world around us. I believe that some simple values are where we find the simple stepping stone for us to move out of this. Where we can reconnect our social contracts with each other, which are so broken right now. We can reconnect our self.”
Don’t Call it a Comeback
Greenlights explores the uncertain years when McConaughey stopped making commercial mainstream Hollywood movies, the hiatus that eventually took his career in a different direction. He has no snobbish qualms about his lucrative reign as the wisecracking man candy in hit romantic comedies like The Wedding Planner and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, but as an actor, he was ready to move on. Few readers will face the option of turning down $15-million rom-com paydays while waiting for more challenging roles, but the point, he says, is the how and the why of taking risks and making sacrifices. “Not all of ‘em worked out, but a lot of them did.”
That fallow period led to what the media dubbed the McConnaissance – a term the marketing-savvy actor reveals he sneakily came up with himself. The career resurgence (or “unbrand,” as he calls it) began with a run of acclaimed, unexpectedly character-driven parts in The Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie, Magic Mike, The Wolf of Wall Street and Mud. The streak culminated with a turn in the breakout prestige TV crime series True Detective and with his 2014 Academy Award-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club.
What’s My Line?
Over the decade, eclectic choices have continued with roles in movies like Gold (loosely inspired by the Canadian Bre-X mining scandal) and the twisty neo-noir Serenity. Most recently, McConaughey donned bespoke English suits to play the dapper cannabis kingpin in Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen; like many of his movies lately, it features a character who has a philosophy of life and a signature McConaughey line. A rival gangster is dispatched with enunciative glee as he utters the phrase: “When the lion is hungry, he eats.”
In Greenlights, the actor identifies certain script moments as “launch pad lines” that decode and embody the character he’s playing. The earliest were, “They get younger, I stay the same age” and “Alright alright alright,” spoken by McConaughey’s indelible stoner, Wooderson, in his feature debut Dazed and Confused. As the actor has explained many times over the years, the iconic catchphrase was an ad lib he came up with himself. (For fans of the Gen X movie, it’s also the name of former Rolling Stone editor Melissa Maerz’s lively new oral history of the coming-of-age classic.)
From Book Tours to Oscar Campaigns
I’ve tuned in to several of the Oscar winner’s appearances as he makes the Zoom rounds promoting Greenlights on talk shows and virtual book festival stages, often in conversation with pals and past co-stars like Reese Witherspoon, Woody Harrelson, Idris Elba, and Kate Hudson. He’s all in: engaged and curious, asking as many questions as he answers. I tell him the digressive conversations seem much more satisfying than a honed five-minute anecdote on late night TV.
“I loooove the long form,” McConaughey enthuses. “I love the hour-and-a-half podcast, the conversation with somebody else for an hour – much prefer that over a five-minute clip. But that’s a different art. And I’ve learned that over the years. It’s the bumper-sticker version.” The book tour’s more expansive storytelling allows for sense of place and con-text (for emphasis, the actor separates and draws out both syllables): “That’s really fun for me.”
“And it’s much more honest,” he adds. “I’ve had many times where I’ve been asked questions in a very short-version show, a five-minute show, a late-night clip, and they’re asking me somethin’ about, ‘What do you think about Trump or What do you think about [the] election?’ And I’m like, you know what? Not in this format am I answering this question because it’s not the format for it. There’s context – I don’t have a short answer. And I’m privy enough and aware enough of how the media works. After every single conversation I’m pretty damn clear on what the headline’s gonna be to get people to click on it. So I don’t want to tee up something that would lead a reader down a false avenue that the book is not. It’s the reason [in the book] I didn’t go into details about when I was molested, or [was] blackmailed into first having sex—I didn’t see anything constructive in it.”
The Family Business
The photo credit on one official Greenlights author photo is “Vida Alves McConaughey,” because 10-year-old daughter Vida took the pensive portrait. (“She’s always had an interesting eye,” he says). Once COVID came along, McConaughey says he didn’t want a production crew coming to the house and initially tried to fulfill promotional photo shoots himself, but he soon had junior helpers.
The kids have their own cameras, “because we think that’s creative and constructive for them,” and they even know all about magic hour. “We had seen they could frame something up and each had a particular eye. That picture, that’s the day we went out in the boat and I pulled up with the Pennybacker Bridge behind me and said, ‘Well that’s a symbol that you’ll know we’re in Austin.’ That shot that’s depicted? That’s actually all her. She’s the one that told me now look up in the left ‘cause the sun was comin’ in and the shadow was right. She saw that in her own eye, clicked, and we looked at it and were like, that’s it. So they’ve become my little production crew.”
“Cause they’re all wanting to be employed and they’re starting to get to that age where they understand the value of money.” McConaughey explains how he told them, “I’ll personally give you 20 bucks if somebody runs a photo inside the magazine, 50 bucks if you get the cover. So they all got excited and all take pictures. I go through and edit them with them, and send a big quiver of pictures off and I say, ‘Well now whatever the magazine comes back and chooses, that’s the finally tally.’”
“And now, he adds with a chuckle, “I’m trying to get ‘em where I’m going to the magazines goin,’ Hey, I got a McConaughey production crew over here and I got real photographers and forget their age, what are you gonna pay ‘em!”
The lifelong Longhorn returned home to Texas several years ago for good. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a film degree in 1993 and has been a visiting instructor of screenwriting practice there for the past few years, as well as part owner of Austin FC soccer club. Everything else may be on hold, but McConaughey’s book tour continues unabated, hitting green lights and coming soon to a podcast or Zoom screen near you.