The often shirtless Matthew McConaughey puts on a suit and tie to practice law onscreen for the second time in The Lincoln Lawyer. He tells us how fatherhood has changed his perspective, how he originally wanted to be a criminal defense attorney, and what he learned about the justice system by making this movie.
Emmanuel Itier: Have you had a long day?
Matthew McConaughey: No, not really, I’m not as exhausted as I usually feel after doing these interviews at this point.
EI: How come?
MM: There’s probably more to talk about with this film that’s engaging and interesting, and people are more interested. I’m not getting a lot of the same questions. There are a lot of different questions that people are asking, which makes it more fun.
EI: This movie was a lovely surprise to watch. Were you going back to your roots, acting-wise?
MM: It kind of harps back to people's memory of me in A Time to Kill, which was a lawyer role. The movie did well. It made an impression on people. People still, to this day, that I run into, go: “Time to Kill, man. I loved it when so and so happened. I loved it when you did this...” So I think being back in the courtroom, being back as a lawyer made that link. This is a much more complex character in a lot of ways. This story is about the system--how it works and how you work it. My character in A Time to Kill was much more of an idealist at the beginning of his career. Mick Haller understands how the system works and pragmatically makes it work for him. He works on both sides of the law. He’s a mover and a shaker, and he is dealing with the underbelly of society. The system does not like people like Mick Haller. They don’t like him at all. He’s a thorn in their side. He’s an underdog like the people he represents. He’s an outsider, and he’s getting what he can. And he comes across a case which is huge and it isn’t what he thought it would be.
EI: Can you criticize the American Justice system in the movie?
MM: I don’t think it criticizes it so much as I think it shows how it works. Most people don’t know that it works as you find out that it works in this film. I didn’t know. Not that I read Law magazine or anything, but I didn’t know. When I first read it, you find out that you put an innocent man in jail five years ago, you find out that the man you are defending now who says he’s innocent is 100% guilty of not only this crime but that crime too. Well, the layman in all of us says, “Go forward, turn this guy in, and get that guy released.” Now I knew it wasn’t that simple, but I didn’t know, number one, you lose your license; number two, if you did come forward with the information...I knew you couldn’t come forward with the information but I didn’t know with whatever information you do come up with will be inadmissible for the prosecution for the future. I was like, "What?" Now that cliental privilege has been set up for a reason to protect the client and the attorney, but it’s a tricky system. And lawyers do a damn good job of making something really simple complicated anyway. America is a sue-happy place. Insurance companies have their things, and there are all kinds of cases that you look at and you go, "That doesn’t make common sense." And now tax dollars have to go out to handle that case, but it doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand it. There has been a bunch, like if your hot coffee spills, you can sue for the burns. If a woman uses Maybelline mascara and sticks it in her eye, a woman sues because it didn’t say, "Don’t stick it in your eye." Some things should be dismissed because that’s just the risk of walking out the door.
EI: Is it true you studied to be a lawyer?
MM: That’s what I thought I was going to do. That’s where I thought I was headed. I loved debate at home and I debated in school, and then when I went to college, the idea was that I wanted to become a criminal defense attorney. I was taking all of my classes in that direction, and I woke up one morning early in my junior year, and I just wasn’t sleeping well with the fact that I was going to take two more years to graduate and have to go to law school, then get out and maybe be able to practice and have my imprint in society when I was 28. Well what about my 20s? I didn’t want to spend my 20s just being educated. I felt like I had some things I wanted to try and say and do now. Experience-wise too, instead of just schooling for another six years. So I changed my course direction. I remember that call to mom and dad telling them I was going to do that, and they were very supportive after about a 20-second pause. I told them I was going to film school, so I went there and studied behind the camera, and fell into acting a year later.
EI: It’s amazing they were that supportive. They were behind you no matter what?
MM: I don’t know how it is for most people--for me, as I grew older, I found that my parents were more accepting of different ways. They were happy that their son would call and on his own say, “I’d like to change my career path.” They just liked the hope. They liked that individuality that I took. They knew I was nervous making that call and to have their respect and to tell them that this has been weighing on me. They heard my voice. But then I found things… I had never thought of acting. But then, after my dad passed away, I found all this old pottery he had done, all these old paintings he had done. I was like, “Mom, when was he doing this?” So there was something artistic in the bloodline that I didn’t know about. He collected art, so it was neat to find out those things.
EI: Can you imagine you would react the same way when your son tells you he wants to change careers?
MM: I would hope and believe that I would react the same way. If you hear a sibling or someone come to you and say something they’d like to do, there’s a certain pleasure, which I’m sure you get as a parent when hearing a child taking their life in their own hands and saying, “I know you’re helping me with this tuition, so I’m asking you this favor, mom, dad, but this is what I really want to do.” I think that’s what most parents want to have, is to hear our children go and pursue something that they want to do. My father passed a week into my first job acting on Dazed and Confused. He was around for me to start something for the first time in my life that would become a career. Everything before that was a fad. Everything else before that was a hobby. So that was serendipitous.
EI: In the movie, the lawyer lives in his car. Is it true you lived in a trailer?
MM: I have many times. One time for two years, and another time for a year and off and on. I like customizing small spaces. We have a home now, so we customize that. I’m very relaxed in having one and only one of each thing I need. It’s relaxing to not have the options, and in the back of a car you have to have an AC plug because you have a fax machine, you've got a coffee maker, you've got an electric shaver... You just think from pragmatism, functionality, and figure it out. Where in the office space for something to hang–you’ve got the windows, you’ve got the seats but you also have the ceiling. Just using all the space.
EI: What kind of car do you drive, and do you use it as an office?
MM: I drive a GMC Denali. [Laughs] My back seat is littered with… Anytime I’m out and I think, "I wish I had this…" Trust me, it’s in here somewhere. I have everything in my truck.
EI: The kids’ seats?
MM: The kids’ seats are in there too.
EI: How do you combine your love of traveling with having kids?
MM: We are doing good. We took everyone to Brazil for five weeks, which was a nice long haul. We took all of my family and all of my lady’s family. Their kids and our kids. That was a great trip. That’s where she and her mother are from, so we wanted to make sure we were getting a bit of that culture and whatever rhythm that’s different there to pick up. My son speaks much better Portuguese than his father!
EI: How did fatherhood change you?
MM: More to live for and more to look forward to. Part of my happiness has always been something to look forward to. I’ve always just wanted something, even if it doesn’t work out, something to be approaching. I love the approach. And now I have a constant approach, because every single day it’s a brand new thing for them. The kids do a great job of reminding you, if you’ve travelled the road a thousand times, they remind you to look at things with fresh eyes again, even if you’ve been there. Because they are looking at it with fresh eyes all the time. It’s a first for them all the time. As you grew older, there doesn’t seem to be that many firsts. You can travel the same road and go to the same place, but you look at it differently.
EI: How was it working with the director, Brad Furman?
MM: I met him because we were talking about another project that my company, JK Livin, is developing, so I met him on that project, and then I watched his film, The Take, and about a week after watching that and thinking about this other film, it struck me that he may be just right for The Lincoln Lawyer, and we were presently looking for the right director on The Lincoln Lawyer. So I talked to him about that and got him the script. He went to meet with the producers. They liked his take on it, and then we all met and he was on. So that’s how that happened.
EI: What was it about his first film...?
MM: He did it on a budget. He did it for less than a million dollars. I liked the way he handled the relationship in the movie. The second thing he did, which was glaringly right for me, was that you felt downtown LA as a character in this film. There are some simple shots which are not easy to get, but it makes you feel like you’re in downtown LA. You were not in an LA that you usually see, and LA needed to be a central character in this film. I had never been to 90% of those places, and I’ve been out here 16 years.
EI: Was that a shot of the Metropolitan hotel opposite Channel 5, where you go down the elevator?
MM: Down the elevator with the girl who says, "F* You"? That gets the big laugh. It was like take two. We had two takes, and she improvised that. It was great. We had to wait, and it was hot in there and we were sweating, but we had to wait, as the dialogue had to try and fit where it finished the line, ‘bing,’ and we exit. The first time we did it, we finished and we rode and we rode, and I was like: "This doesn’t work.” Second time, we landed and she says, “F*ck You,” and I go, “After you.” And it worked good.
EI: What attracted you to the project itself?
MM: I think the consequences that the character is dealing with and the traps, and how the hell is he going to get out of them. That was exciting to me. I love to handle situations. I thought I could play this character who could handle these situations. I love getting out of traps. He’s very good at his job, and he’s one step ahead in many ways, and there are many times where he just doesn’t have a plan and he throws his cards on the table and he says, “Bring it on.” So I like that part too. It’s a full on gamble, and Will (H. Macy) saying, “You want to put your life on the line, I will go toe to toe with you and put it on the line." That sort of conflict and self-preseveration, defending and keeping his family safe, getting an innocent man who he wrongly put there out of jail, getting a guilty man who gets off put in... You've got a lot of balls in the air. I like that thriller aspect of it, that challenge of it.
EI: Do you prefer to do light comedy or heavy drama?
MM: Right now I’m into the more dramatic stuff, but I like the comedies too. It’s a different challenge. This is heavy. Real consequences. Life or death. The blows count. People bleed. People die. In, say, a romantic comedy, you know nobody is going to die, you know the girl and the guy are going to get together in the end, but how can we be entertained in seeing these two get there? You’ve got to know the outcome. You’re pretty sure they are going to get together in the end, so how can you tell it in an entertaining way? The challenge there is quite the opposite. They are built to be poignant. If you go deep, if you hit too hard, if you love too hard and hate too hard, get too mad, you sink those. If you drop the anchor in a romantic comedy, the boat sinks. If you drop the anchor anywhere in this movie, the chain is still running. The floor is as far as you want to go. So the reactions in something like this are much more realistic, and potentially there is more acting to do than in a romantic comedy! [Laughs]
EI: Is it more rewarding for an actor to do drama?
MM: It’s a different game. I'd said, early on in my career, that there are Monday morning characters and there are Saturday afternoon characters. A rom-com is a Saturday afternoon character. You keep it light, you don’t have a lot of responsibilities. But this is a Monday morning--there are a lot of responsibilities. There are people who can get hurt. There is innocence and guilt, life and death, and a lot of trickery. Making this was quite rewarding. Every day, I was excited to go to work. I felt challenged by the scene. I felt excited to go and do what I wanted to do. I felt a tad bit scared of what it needed, so I was very turned on everyday. There was never complacency.
EI: You’re going in full circle, as you’re working with Richard Linklater next, which, with Dazed and Confused, you have a long history with him...
MM: We did Dazed and then we did The Newton Boys, and now we’re doing a new film called Bernie.
EI: How does that feel?
MM: You reckon I’m always looking for something to do right, and he called on me as he got this story, and he said, "I think you might be right for this character," just as he did at the very beginning with Dazed and Confused. I have so much fun creating with Rick. I have a 100% trust in him. When we workshop a character, he really loves that process, and I do too. There is no right or wrong, we just go at it and we always create something that is particular, original, and something I hadn’t done before and something that he helps me create. That’s already done. And then it’s Killer Joe after that.
Lionsgate's 'The Lincoln Lawyer' is released on March 18, 2011.