What the McConaissance tells us about acting

by Kate

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Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013)

We all have a great deal to learn from Matthew McConaughey, not just in terms of acting, but how to look at actors in new ways. Along with the rest of America, I’ve become interested in Matthew McConaughey and his recent string of roles, which have showed off a greater depth than anyone would have realized based on his previous work. Happy as I am that Mr. McConaughey has revived his career and taken it in a new direction, this event also gives me a good excuse to talk about some things that interest me about McConaughey and actors in general. Actors bring a certain amount of weight to a movie, and not just in terms of skill. They also bring their unique personas and even carry the ghosts of their other roles with them from film to film.

I’ve always been fascinated by movie stars – I mean, who isn’t? On the other hand, when you’re pursuing cinema as a serious academic discipline, you’re less encouraged to think about actors than the director, who appears to be the more important contributor to the overall artistic purpose of the film. As a result of my studies, I often felt divided in my experience of movie watching – perhaps the division I felt was the cinephile and the scholar within me and their sometimes conflicting views. There were films I wanted to see, and films I thought I should see. Often, when I had a fierce desire to watch something, it was because of the performers in it, but I never wanted to admit that to myself. The director was the author, as I’d been taught to believe. The actor, however talented, was just an interpreter of someone else’s vision. To be fair, no one ever explicitly told me that actors were unimportant, but we devoted little to no class time to talking about them. After class, though, my classmates and I would often gush about movie stars, and I would frequently rush to IMDB to check out an actresses’ entire body of work if I enjoyed watching her performance.

I now know that actors are just as worthy of analysis as directors are, as are any one of the other people who contribute to what a film inevitably becomes. Actors and actresses can also author their own personas, whether or not they do so consciously. Carefully curating roles is form of auteurism, as the McConaissance demonstrates.

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McConaughey and Juno Temple in Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011)

Through his transformative string of roles, the public has discovered the intuitive way McConaughey is able to balance the lighter and darker elements of the human psyche. There’s also something about his persona that recalls great classic stars like Robert Mitchum – another actor that combined disarming gentleness with something darker and more mysterious. This same characteristic has always made McConaughey likable, even in his more regrettable romantic comedies. He has an unflappable charisma, a je ne sai qua. The camera loves him, and I’m not talking about the soft blue eyes or the six pack. Even in Dazed and Confused (1993), one of the earliest roles anyone can remember, he shines in his small part – a deadbeat who leans against walls and has an eye for the young high school girls who seem to remain in stasis as he ages.

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McConaughey in Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012)

In Killer Joe (2011), arguably the inaugural film of the McConaissance, he plays just about the most disturbing character ever to grace the screen, and yet his soft veneer makes the character that much more terrifying. In Mud, he plays a drifter with a hazy past, and while he becomes a role model to a young boy, it’s unclear how benevolent he really is. In Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013), of course, he dropped to a skeletal weight to portray and AIDs stricken hustler. In movies like Magic Mike (2012) and Wolf of Wall Street (2013), he’s learned to parody himself – injecting the roles with a version of his upbeat romantic persona on steroids, or cocaine, as the case may be.

One thing is clear – McConaughey’s left his old romantic comedy persona far behind. You might think he’s playing against type, but I don’t think that’s it at all. He is very much in his essence (what it even means to play against type is another question entirely). In an interview, William Friedkin claimed to have never seen McConaughey in a movie before casting him in Mud. He had merely watched McConaughey on talk shows and liked what he saw. It was the persona that interested him.

One of the most fascinating parts of acting is one of the same things that bothered me about it for so long – The best performers bring something of themselves to the screen, which is what makes all stars so infectious. We get the tiniest glimpse of their aura before its subsumed by the role they are playing – but this aura resurfaces, now and again. It never entirely goes away. That tension between character and performer can make or break a performance, and it needs to be negotiated carefully. I’ve never loved actors who can “disappear” into a role. It often strikes me as disingenuous somehow and almost boring.

This is why I’ll never join the ranks of critics who laud the work of Daniel Day Lewis, who disappears so thoroughly into each role that the character ceases to seem real. I’ve always felt that when actors do this, they are longer playing a human being, but a character. It falls flat. On the other hand, there are certain scenarios where this ostentatious style works – There will be Blood required a caricature, and no one can do that quite like Lewis.

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McConaughey, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland in Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012)

The greatest actors have something (aside from good looks) that can’t be taught, which makes it an infuriating profession to the rest of us. Why does the camera love some faces and not others? Why do some beautiful people seem vacuous on the big screen, while others come alive? It’s sort of a mystery.

All I’m trying to say is that I think the McConaissance can teach us a lot about who contributes to a movie, and which voices give a film that essential something that makes it a vital piece of art. McConaughey has clearly self-authored his own image over the past several years, which begs the question – which other actors and actresses are doing the same? Are any actors and actress due for a renaissance? McConaughey’s recent resurgence teaches us that it’s just as worthwhile to follow the work of a performer as a director. And if you are a recovering auteurist like me, you don’t have to feel guilty about being a diehard fan of certain performers.

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