The Australian trip that bolstered Matthew McConaughey to reject deals worth millions

To hear Matthew McConaughey talk about the “shame” and “embarrassment” in his past is jarring. Not because he’s looked back at his life with his hands covering his face – who hasn’t? – but because he’s so buoyant and joyous in the telling of it.

“I stepped in s… and ate crow,” says the actor, leaning towards his computer screen before letting out a Christmas morning smile revealing teeth so bright they’re nearly fluorescent. “And [I] was like, ‘Ooooh!’ And so [then], the embarrassment goes to humour, when I go, ‘well, if you weren’t so damn arrogant back then, you wouldn’t have had the confidence or the false confidence to put yourself in a position to get humble.’ So thank goodness for the arrogance. Put you in a position to learn a lesson.”

McConaughey, speaking from his home office in Austin, Texas – his hair slicked back in a ponytail and his sunburnt chest peeking out from a partially unbuttoned navy shirt – is reflecting broadly on numerous experiences in his life.

One of those is a gruelling exchange trip he took to rural Australia in 1988 when he was 18, which, he says, significantly shaped the rest of his life and helped lead him to winning an Oscar.

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Living in Warnervale, a small Australian town of then about 300 people on the central coast of New South Wales, McConaughey was stripped of all the “crutches” he enjoyed at home in Texas.

They included being voted “most handsome” in school, scoring straight As and dating the “best-looking girl at school”. (Home was also where he witnessed his parents’ turbulent but loving relationship, but more on that later.) In Australia, he had no friends, was working six jobs – including as a bank teller for ANZ – and, as he once put it, “the chicks were not digging me”. It plunged him into a “crisis”.

But it was the resilience he gained by sticking out the year-long exchange instead of returning home, he says, that helped him around 2007, when he gambled with his Hollywood success by refusing all offers (including one of US$14.5 million (NZ$21.2m)) for the kind of light romantic comedies that made him a star – like The Wedding Planner and How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days – in order to launch himself as a serious dramatic actor. His wife, Camila Alves, was pregnant with their first child – they now have three – and he was desperate for roles that matched the new “vitality” in his life.

It was a terrifying two years without work, when, as he’s put it, “Hollywood’s saying, no – well, no thank you. You stay in your lane over there as rom-com guy”.

“Did I get scared over those two years? You’re damn right I did,” he says, the veins popping on his neck. “Did I ever think I’d made the wrong decision, no. But I did think, ‘Buddy, you just may have written a cheque that you just can’t cash.’ And I said, ‘Well, maybe I gotta find another vocation.’”

In those two years, McConaughey – who has just collaborated with a Melbourne camping startup, Homecamp, on a tent – thought back to his time in Australia.

“One hundred per cent,” he says, shaking his head from side to side, of a time he described in his recently-released memoir as “tread[ing] water until I crossed the finish line”. “I’d begun to realise how valuable and enduring that year in Australia was for me, how I wouldn’t be the man I am today, unless I had taken that year. How I wouldn’t have learnt the lessons if I would’ve come home early.”

Matthew McConaughey (right) plays cracker Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, a heartbreaking reminder of the fight against HIV/AIDS in the early days.


Matthew McConaughey (right) plays cracker Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, a heartbreaking reminder of the fight against HIV/AIDS in the early days.

How is it that the rest of us, when we find ourselves trembling with uncertainty and fear, fall on the usual trifecta of coping strategies – blaming our parents, shopping, bitching at the sky – while McConaughey reflects on times of crisis and digs his heels in deeper to achieve his dreams? Which, in his case, led to an Oscar-winning performance as a cowboy stricken with AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club and dramatic roles in projects like True Detective and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street?

It’s especially remarkable given the trauma that McConaughey, now 52, has weathered, having been “blackmailed” into having sex for the first time at 15, and “molested” by a man in the back of a van, while knocked unconscious, at 18. Not to mention witnessing, at the age of five, his parents fight savagely – his mother wielding a 12-inch knife and his father a tomato sauce bottle – before making love on the kitchen floor.

Much of his resolve and the clarity of his ambition, he says, has to do with the time he has spent outdoors. It has, he puts simply, helped allay all kinds of anxieties and fears he’s had in his lifetime.

“That’s part of the value of it.” He runs a hand across the top of his head, smoothing down his hair, and looks off to the side. “It’s so hard to find places and time to have space without so much stimulus coming at us, in our work world, in our family world, in the city … The first few hours or days are hard because you’re programmed to look for these extensions, to look for your phone, car, friend, you start to wonder what to do with yourself.”

He pats himself down, up and down his chest, as though he’s looking for his phone, before smiling wide: “It’s good, this is good. And don’t pull the parachute and go back home yet. Stay there … It’s good to stick with it. And then what happens is it gives us our minds and our spirits room to let one memory catch up. We don’t notice how much we actually may have forgotten, or experiences we didn’t really feel while we were doing them, until we go away and all of a sudden the feeling of that experience, what that meant, what that relationship meant, what that job meant, and what that experience was, can come floating and be very clear. Oh that’s what that was. We don’t get it until we get away.”

This helps explain why his bourbon company, Wild Turkey, of which McConaughey is creative director, has paired with Homecamp on a limited edition canvas tent, which goes on sale on Wednesday. A proportion of proceeds from each tent will go towards the Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife, to aid bushfire regeneration efforts.

“He really pared down the tent design,” says Homecamp co-owner Doron Francis, adding that the actor nixed side windows and an extra flap on the tent’s awning that were in the original design.

This is, perhaps, to be expected from an actor who once carved the words “less impressed, more involved” into a tree, following the wake celebrating his father, James, who died in 1992. The phrase sums up a value that his father taught him, he has said. And it’s a simplicity reflected in the “campfire stories” read by McConaughey that tent purchasers will be able to listen to on their phones through a QR code on the tent.

“Oh-kay!” he says in his honeyed drawl, in one of them. “Well, you might have set up your tent by now. You might have had to give it a few goes as well. But hey. It’s standing.” He chuckles. “And that’s all that matters.”

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