I am shirtless and Matthew McConaughey, a member of Delta Tau Delta Fraternity, is not.
It’s a sweltering day in the midst of the hottest May ever recorded in Austin, Texas, and the clothing-averse actor is wearing a wifebeater and backward ball cap, the very portrait of Texas decorum as we post up on stools at Ski Shores, a waterside burger-beer-and-taco joint, an impromptu stop on a four-hour-plus paddleboarding circuit of Lake Austin. When we pushed off from his boathouse in the morning, I didn’t see him tuck a shirt away in the waistband of his Just Keep Livin’ boardshorts. Hours later, as we drag our boards up onto the restaurant’s dock, he pulls out the shirt and slings it on. Now everybody in the place, other than me, is properly attired.
I ask McConaughey how much of a problem this is.
“Zeeee—ro,” the actor says, in that signature south Texas drawl. The o syllable has a long tail, trailing off reassuringly.
A problem? Ha. Such a thing is granted no quarter in the realm of McConaughey. An extended hang with the guy turns out to be exactly as weird and meandering as you might imagine. A brief paddle and Q&A session has evolved into something else entirely: part endurance test, part vision quest, and an opportunity to, the actor tells a guy named Rowdy, sitting at the bar next to us, “explore a bit, get some tans, get some tacos, make a Wednesday feel like a Saturday.”
He’s right about the shirt. No one pays attention to the near-naked reporter with a recorder. Everyone wants a piece of McConaughey, the local hero, sitting here with his wraparound shades on the counter, his roman nose flecked with high-SPF sunscreen. The bystanders chip in from the conversational rough.
Rowdy asks McConaughey about his current roster of Airstreams. (He’s been collecting them for years and now owns four.) A businessman playing hooky inquires about an appearance the actor made on the Golf Channel. A British woman apologizes for the interruption, then introduces her small, scruffy dog. She asks for a picture.
“No, no, no,” McConaughey says. “I’m local,” pointing across the lake. “You’ll see me again.” A man with arms and hands covered in white paint approaches from the back of the bar.
“Whoa!” He stops in his tracks.
“Yeah!” McConaughey says.
He says his name is Glenn Washington. New in town from Detroit. Has a gig painting a house down the road. Says he’s buddies with NFL players back home, but he’s never been this starstruck.
“Man. Oh dude. You gotta say one thing for me.”
McConaughey has a half smile; he knows what’s coming; he’s just waiting for it, hit me.
“You got a joint?” Washington says.
“Be a lot cooler if you diiiid,” McConaughey retorts.
Fist bump. Laughter.
“Oh man. Oh dude,” Washington says. “This is crazy. Mind blown.”
Washington makes the “exploding” hand motion at both of his temples, then staggers back and does it again. “Craziest moment in my life,” he says, walking away.
This kind of encounter is nothing new to McConaughey. He’s been repeating it for exactly 25 years, since Dazed and Confused hit theaters in the summer of 1993 and his character, David Wooderson, the hanger-on townie, the stoned philosopher-poet of the parking lot, uttered the actor’s most famous lines— “be a lot cooler if you did,” “just keep livin’,” “all right, all right, all right”—most of which he improvised.
I ask McConaughey if it’s fatiguing when fans shout out, or ask him to repeat, Wooderson’s lines from Dazed.
“No,” he says. “Look, ‘all right, all right, all right’ has become a national sort of moniker. People say it all the time, and they want me to say it. I’ve got no trouble giving it back to them. For me, it’s original and genuine because they’re the first three words I ever said in a job that I got, that hell, I didn’t know if it was gonna be a hobby. It could have been my only gig. It ended up being a careeeeer.”
Fifty feature films later, that career exhibits the twists and turns of a live oak, from early breakouts like A Time to Kill to the rom-com era and its quintet of big-paycheck films like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days to the turn toward serious fare known as the “McConnaissance,” the pinnacle of which was a best actor Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club. A trio of upcoming films represents yet another departure, a reinvention of sorts.