Editor’s note: Our interview with Matthew McConaughey, one of our staff favorites mentioned in City & Shore’s 15th Anniversary issue, first appeared in the June 2015 issue of the magazine. McConaughey’s new film, The Free State of Jones, opens on June 24.
By Eric Barton
City & Shore Magazine
Can you think back to a moment that defined you? Made you the way you are? More than the university you picked or the first job you accepted. A single conversation, one interaction. Something that led you to adulthood, to become a good person.
Matthew McConaughey has one. Actually he has a lot of them. Because he’s a storyteller, so he’s the type who is quick to fire off a tale about a lesson he learned as a kid. But one of them in particular happened in Florida, back when he was a kid.
It’s one of the few regrets McConaughey has from his 45 years. Through all those ups and downs and ups again in Hollywood. Through all the attention from his Lincoln commercials. It’s one of the few times when he maybe owes someone an apology. He doesn’t like to live that way, owing someone something, and that time he did wrong in Florida helped teach him that.
So in a way, Florida helped make McConaughey: Oscar winner, one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, big-time charitable fundraiser.
Now, on to his story.
We’re sitting in the VIP room upstairs at Austin City Limits, maybe the best music venue in Texas, maybe anywhere. McConaughey is in a straight-back chair at a table for two, and he’s leaning forward on his left arm, which puts him real close, and it makes me lean in, as if we’re about to share secrets.
He wears a slick charcoal suit with slightly darker vertical lines and trendy exposed stitching along the edges. His white shirt billows open for two buttons. He’s got a scraggly beard and hair that looks freshly washed, still wet and slicked back. He says it’s for his upcoming role as Newton Knight, the outlaw Confederate deserter who rejected slavery, in The Free State of Jones, opening June 24. He also smells great, fruity and herbal, like the air freshener at a good spa.
I ask him about his summers as a kid. He grew up in Texas but spent summers in Navarre Beach in the Florida Panhandle. He gets excited talking about it. Gleam in his eye, smile creeping up his cheeks, that sort of thing.
“We went every summer, from, since I was, oh geez, probably 4 to 19 or 20. Every summer,” he says. When he talks, sometimes he does this clicking noise with his hand, like putting an exclamation point at the end of his sentence, and he does it now.
His parents rented a place just this side of the Holiday Inn, the hotel where Jaws 2 was shot, the hotel that was wiped away by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. His mom liked the spot, so she ended up buying a place on the bay side.
“I miss the sugar beaches down there. Haven’t been down there in a long time,” McConaughey says.
Those days his family spent on that little barrier island were unstructured. McConaughey would set off in the morning. Navarre is just a dot between Pensacola and Fort Walton beaches. One side is the ocean, the other the bay, and left and right for 20 miles is preserve land. The two-story dunes on the beaches, the salt marshes full of crawfish and cattails and sandhill cranes, they became his playground.
“We grew up like that. You were outside until you heard Mom had dinner,” McConaughey says. “We were at the beach every single day. Sometimes we went fishing over in the bay. Other times we might pack up and go down to Destin and fish.”
One year the Holiday Inn showed Jaws 2 and another movie filmed there, Creature From the Black Lagoon, all summer long. “And I remember, 16 years old, sitting on the beach going like, ‘Why’s no one in the water?’ ”
So he went to the Holiday Inn manager with an answer to his own question. “It’s not the jellyfish, man. You run these two films all year long. I’m not sure that’s good for business.”
For a teenager, those beach trips became a party. “It was a good time and place to be a senior young man,” McConaughey says. “Seeing free concerts on the beach, 50,000 people, beautiful women running around. It was great.”
Just a couple hours after we sat down, McConaughey stood on stage in that same slick gray suit holding the hand of his wife, Camila Alves. She is, as you’ve seen and heard, a stunning Brazilian model and designer. They stood up there at Austin City Limits like the uncrowned king and queen of Texas.
Unlike monarchs, though, they were there to beg for money. And they did beg, a whole bunch of times. “Please, please give,” McConaughey said into a microphone more than once.
Thing is, McConaughey isn’t afraid to do a lot to raise money for his charity. If you don’t believe that, consider all that he did the weekend we met. It started out with a VIP reception for supporters of the foundation he helped create – Mack, Jack & McConaughey – with former University of Texas football coach Mack Brown and country-music singer Jack Ingram.
After golf, he took the stage at a “cowboy chic” gala with his wife and stood up there through the entire hourlong live auction. Many of the prizes were things McConaughey had gathered by calling in favors, like a Hollywood backstage tour that included behind-the-scenes visits to shows put on by his friends. One of the top prizes, a private showing of McConaughey’s 1993 movie Dazed and Confused with a couple hundred friends at the actor’s ranch, went for over $200,000.
Afterward was the big concert headlined by Toby Keith. And then the next night was a second concert, this one an acoustic, unplugged show with a ton of country stars. Through most of the show, McConaughey sat at the edge of the stage on a stool. As the king of Texas, he looked casual in his baseball cap and skate-style black-and-white sneakers. That night he did the auctioneering himself. At the end of all of it, the auctions and concerts and golf and putting himself out there two nights in a row, MJ&M raised $1.5 million for kid-focused charities.
Just before the gala started, McConaughey explained why he would spend this much time. Why he doesn’t just cut a check to some cause like a lot of celebrities.
“I had two parents that were there,” he says. “I had two brothers. I had a pretty stable home. Most of the kids that we work with don’t. They don’t really have a safe place after school, and they need a safe place to go after school. And they need the support they’re getting from the foundation that they didn’t have before.”
See that? This is the guy Florida helped create. Now, a bit more on how he got there.
While we talked about his summers in Florida, a story occurs to McConaughey, and he does that clicking thing with his hand. It’s not a snap like most people do. It’s more like thumb on palm, the very sound of something occurring to someone.
“We were living in a trailer park, and I would go hiking every day, just do whatever a kid does,” he begins, looking off, as if seeing the forest spread out in front of him again. One day he’s wandering through the woods and finds an oak tree. It’s huge. Twenty stories or more. He keeps walking, and 50 yards beyond the tree is a lumber yard that backs up to the woods. “So I got this idea,” he says. He pauses for dramatic effect, making eye contact again.
That night, McConaughey returned with wire cutters. He clipped a hole in the bottom of the lumber yard’s fence. Working over the course of weeks at nights and early mornings, he hauled out as much wood as he could carry.
He dragged a nail gun out there too. He had long belts of nails he’d wear crossed across his chest like bandoliers, like a Texas hill-country bandit.
He built himself a treehouse, which he recalls standing 13 stories up. “It took me all summer long. I got so excited I would be there every morning at daybreak, all day long, for three months.”
Nobody came out there. Nobody else was invited. Except his Pop. He had him out there a few times. They took out lunch with them and would haul it up by rope. McConaughey the man, the star of True Detective and Mud and Dallas Buyers Club, hasn’t been back to the tree house. But he knows what he’d find.
“I bet some part of it is still right there. I took my time on that thing.”
That treehouse is somewhere in the woods of Texas. But that story we’ve hinted about a few times now, about his regret, that happened in Florida. We’ll go into it now, with a bit of a spoiler: There’s redemption at the end.
Back when McConaughey was a kid, the Holiday Inn was jammed, full of college kids and vacationing parents who complained about beer cans in the pool.
Just to the west was Navarre Towers, a luxury condo building with a pool out back. Not wanting all those spring breakers in the pool, Navarre Towers would hire kids to stand guard and kick out non-residents. And man, did McConaughey want one of those jobs.
He approached a girl who was head lifeguard one summer when he was maybe 14 or 15. She was short and brunette, that’s all he can remember.
“And all of a sudden I said, ‘Hey, I’d like to work here.’ And she goes, ‘Well, look, no, I only got locals, and you’re not from here. I don’t know if you’ll come down.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no. If I have a job next summer. I’m coming down.’ ”
The girl relented and offered him the job. It was a victory that would carry McConaughey over to the next time his family would drive over from Texas to the beach in Florida. He would spend his summer getting paid to sit under the Florida summer sun by a pool.
When the next summer started, McConaughey didn’t head down to his mom’s place on the beach right away. He doesn’t remember why now, but just something came up. He didn’t have the head lifeguard’s number, so he figured he ought to drive down there, just to let her know he wouldn’t be there.
“Life happened in between. My interests changed. I went off and did something else. It hit me that, oh my gosh, I had stood this lady up. I’m pretty doggone sure she held that job for me, and I let her down.”
Two weeks went by, and he realized he had missed his time to let her know. She probably had to scramble to hire someone else. He let it slide.
“That’s what I call leaving crumbs,” he says.
There’s passion in his voice now, the kind of emotion an actor with an Oscar and a People’s Choice Award and an Emmy nomination can just pull out when needed. It’s the kind of enthusiasm that makes other people in the room look over.
Leaving crumbs, he says, is leaving something unfinished.
“There’s different things people do, to people. Lie, cheat, steal, whatever. You could say I stole because I told her I was coming and I didn’t come. You know? Unfinished business.”
No, it doesn’t keep him up at night. No, it’s not the single thing that defined him. But it is one piece of a puzzle that led him to become the kind of guy who despises the very thought of burning a bridge.
“I don’t like to leave unfinished business,” McConaughey says. “Whether it’s relationships or work or what have you. I don’t owe anybody money. I don’t talk down on people behind their back. And I don’t have anybody out there I have intentionally scarred. So when I walk into a place I don’t necessarily have to look over my shoulder and say, ‘Wait, I hope so-and-so is not here.’ That’s called leaving crumbs. I left crumbs there. I left crumbs there in Navarre Beach.”
Back home in South Florida, I figured maybe I could help make things right for McConaughey. Maybe find that short brunette head lifeguard from Navarre Beach. There are still some 1,200 people in the town, so maybe a few phone calls will turn her up.
Someone from the Chamber of Commerce suggests calling a real-estate agent who knows everybody. He does. He sends me to another broker, a woman named Carol Hudson. She’s not the short brunette lifeguard.
But the crumbs McConaughey left, he left them with her.
Back in the mid-’80s, Hudson worked as the general manager of Navarre Towers. It was her job to staff the pool with attendants, to keep the non-resident college kids out. Usually, she’d have a head attendant who would bring her potential new hires, and one of them must have been that short brunette.
She doesn’t remember McConaughey and has really only heard rumors about the days his family spent in town. “He’s so darn cute,” Hudson jokes,” I can’t believe I don’t remember him.”
As far as McConaughey not showing up, as far as him leaving crumbs back in Navarre Beach, Hudson has a message for him.
“Tell him not to let it bug him,” she says.
See there, Matthew? Florida doesn’t mind that you left some crumbs behind.
The Lincoln Lawyer’s ride
Maybe the question Matthew McConaughey hears most often these days in interviews: Did you really drive a Lincoln before those commercials? His answer goes back to the filming of the 2011 movie The Lincoln Lawyer, based on the book by Fort Lauderdale’s own Michael Connelly. McConaughey’s character in the film, Mickey Haller, practices law from the back seat of a black 1988 Lincoln Town Car. McConaughey, who graduated high school in 1988, says he liked the car so much he took it home to Texas. He doesn’t own the car anymore, but now he owns an MKC and an MKZ.
For a review of Lincoln’s MKC and MKZ, head to cityandshore.com/on-the-shore/lincolns-new-luxury-sedan-nice-mkz-does-it.