Byline: Hilary de Vries

LOS ANGELES — Matthew McConaughey was somewhere into his seventh month of downtime, just hanging at his house back in Austin last year, when it hit him — the distance his brief but remarkable career had traveled in the past four years. “It’s like my buddy John Mellencamp says,” the actor explains, recalling the epiphany. “‘When you get over in the shadows, it’s a little easier to see what happened back in the sunlight. Yeah man, when it’s all on you, you’re going, ‘Huh?’ But over in the shadows, there’s room to breathe.”
It seems a harsh metaphor, but the actor’s sky has been awfully cloudy lately. There’s talk that his career is on the ropes after one-too-many disappointments. (Also making the rounds is the somewhat sunnier rumor that he’s dating his old flame Sandra Bullock.) Meanwhile, his arrest last year in Texas, after cops responding to a noise complaint arrived at his home to find McConaughey nude, blissed-out and playing the conga drums amid a haze of marijuana smoke, suggests there’s some serious Woody Harrelson-type weirdness going on.
But the actor projects nothing but radiant self-confidence as he ambles through the lobby of Los Angeles’s Chateau Marmont. He’s got the requisite uniform on: the black leather jacket, the faded jeans and unkempt hair dyed whatever color the latest role demands, in this case a dull ochre for “The Wedding Planner,” a romantic comedy co-starring Jennifer Lopez.
“Hey, man,” he says, flopping down into a corner sofa. “I’m ready to make some hay.”
After some eight months off and almost a year without a film — his last was “EDtv,” the modest Ron Howard comedy last March — McConaughey is back, however improbably, with what looks to be the summer’s kickoff popcorn flick, “U-571,” a World War II action thriller that opens tomorrow. He stars alongside Bill Paxton and Harvey Keitel as U.S. Navy officers on a covert spy mission to sabotage a German U-boat.
“How did it come up, man?” he muses, slumping into the sofa. “I wasn’t looking to do a quote-unquote action film, but I wanted to play a hero. I was wanting to play a hero, a patriot. ‘EDtv’ was more of a weekend character, and I was wanting to switch to a weekday guy.”
For those wondering exactly what this means, a brief lesson in the McConaughey school of linguistics. McConaughey characterizes his film roles — which have ranged, astonishingly, from stoner (“Dazed and Confused”) to lawyer (“A Time to Kill”) to New Age theologian (“Contact”) back to lawyer again (“Amistad”) — as either passive, “weekend” characters or active “weekday” types.
“‘U-571’? Weekday. ‘Amistad’? Weekday. ‘EDtv’? Weekend. My favorite is when you can mix the two, like Jake Brigance [in ‘A Time to Kill’] was a weekday character, but he wasn’t so structured that he didn’t get to have his weekends,” he says, flashing a smile. “I mean, there were pleasures along the way.”
In fact, McConaughey wasn’t all that keen to saddle up another weekday character when “U-571” first came his way. But Jonathan Mostow, director of “Breakdown,” was intent on having McConaughey play the sulky Lieutenant Tyler, who’s passed over for promotion but winds up commandeering a German sub.
“There are only so many actors who are old enough to play wartime Navy officers and even fewer that have the star charisma that Matt has,” says Mostow. “It was pretty obvious.”
McConaughey doesn’t say it, but the assumption is that if “U-571” can open the way he hopes it does, kick off the summer as the number-one movie, he might just have found the road back into the sunlight. Already he’s developing another action film, a “Lethal Weapon”-type comedy that he hopes to get rolling at Paramount this summer.
So how, in the space of four short years, did McConaughey go from Vanity Fair cover boy — heralded as “The Next Big Thing” and compared with Newman and Brando — to wannabe comeback kid? If he weren’t so cocksure, so damn mellow, the story might be sort of sad, a cautionary tale about the inherent limits of charisma. But to hear him tell it — and he’s happy to — it’s water off a duck’s back. Gravity, man. You know, what goes up, must come down.
“Yeah, I liked it, but did I know what the hell was really going on?” he says of that first rush of publicity surrounding “A Time to Kill,” after director Joel Schumacher hand-picked the virtually unknown 25-year-old, best known for playing a dope-smoking slacker in “Dazed and Confused,” when he was still a student at the University of Texas. And not only picked him, but picked him over proven stars like Brad Pitt and Val Kilmer. It was a gamble that paid off and landed McConaughey solidly in the winner’s circle, with a three-picture deal at Warner’s and rival studios vying for his services. Off camera, McConaughey was equally visible, squiring Bullock and Ashley Judd (his “A Time to Kill” co-stars), as well as Patricia Arquette and other Hollywood debs.
And then, just as quickly, it started to unravel when his next films — the big-budget “Contact” with Jodie Foster and Steven Speilberg’s “Amistad” — didn’t make the kind of waves everyone expected. “The Newton Boys,” McConaughey’s first real starring role, tanked the following year. “‘Contact’ and ‘Amistad’ weren’t my movies, but as far as my value, it went down, like the stock market,” he says.
Given his brush with Austin’s law-enforcement officials last October, which resulted in McConaughey’s spending the night in the local pokey, some might argue that his equanimity about life in the shadows owes something to controlled substances.
“The police were called on a noise violation,” he says. “I was playing conga drums, just jamming, playing along to some African music. I don’t know if I’m that good at it, but I sure like percussion. So, I look up, and — boom — the cops were there.”
As for the nudity, he still doesn’t know what all the fuss was about. “I’m in my own house minding my own business.” (While it’s true that, as was widely reported, a male friend was in the house, McConaughey says he was in another room sleeping.) He continues, laughing, “Then the cop sees the bong that was sitting on a table, and that kind of set him off.” McConaughey was charged with “resisting transportation.” “I spent nine hours in jail,” he says, “and five is enough to appreciate it.”
McConaughey talks about the congas-heard-round-the-world with the same easy humor he brings to most subjects. It’s an attitude he learned growing up in Longview, Tex., the youngest and arguably the most promising of three sons born to Jim and Kay McConaughey, a pipe salesman and a kindergarten teacher.
“It was never said, but it was always expected: ‘Matt’s going to do something else instead of go work for Dad and the family pipe business,”‘ says McConaughey, who originally enrolled at the University of Texas, intent on becoming a lawyer. “And I would have been a damn good lawyer,” he adds, “but I was into more things.”
Three years later, a chance meeting with a casting director in an Austin bar led to a supporting role in “Dazed and Confused.” He’d already decided acting was his gig, hustling up to Dallas to audition for Miller beer ads and music videos. “They weren’t speaking roles, just ‘stand there and be a handsome man,”‘ he recalls with a laugh. But the chance to play a bit part, Wooderson, the skirt-chasing pothead, was the real deal, and McConaughey went after it, turning three days of work into three weeks. “People were coming up to me on the set telling me that what I was doing was really cool,” he says. “So I figure, I’m not going to make a straight line crooked. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Now McConaughey lives alone in a rented house in the Hollywood Hills. He gave up the Austin place, but he still has his van, his twilight blue ’71 Corvette and his own furniture for the first time in his life — all of it jammed into one room of the house. As for those rumors that he’s back with Bullock, McConaughey seems bored by the suggestion.
“Look, I want to find the love of my life and have a family, but right now I’m single,” he says. “I don’t understand the whole time-clock thing. Maybe for women, but not for men. And the one thing I’ve learned about myself is that if there’s expectations about when I need to do something, that’s the one sure way of getting me not to do it.”
McConaughey has killed off a couple of cups of coffee and nearly two hours when Miss Hud, his border collie, unexpectedly lunges toward a group of twentysomethings crossing the hotel lobby. “I know this guy and I know her and I’m working with that guy,” McConaughey says, sotto voce, eyeing the clutch of rail-thin, black-clad types — actors, it turns out — heading his way. “Hey, man,” he says rising for the obligatory back slapping of colleagues, the fraternity of Young Hollywood. Suddenly, the afternoon, which had yawned before him with work, turns into something more leisurely, more weekend.
“You can roll,” he tells me with a smile as he settles back into the couch, Miss Hud at his feet, his crowd assembled. “I’m going to hang.”