Three Great Things: Matthew McConaughey

The Oscar-winning actor, who's currently teaming with Wild Turkey for a give-back campaign, talks family, Survivor and solo writing time.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the fifth year of the charitable give-back campaign partnership between Matthew McConaughey and Wild Turkey – which this year is recognizing individuals who supported their local music scene during a time of unprecedented challenges by donating $10,000 to each person’s music charity of choice – the Oscar-winning actor shared some of the things that matter most to him. Regarding this year’s campaign, he said, “Music can heal, inspire, transform and take us on time-traveling trips to where we’ve already been and where we want to go. With a rhythm, a rhyme, a hook and a beat, music is a soundtrack to our lives individually, as groups, and as a people. Musicians are outlaws, poets, performers, and prognosticators – and we need them to keep taking the stage.” – N.D.

My Family
The one thing I knew I always wanted to be was a father. And when my wife Camila got pregnant and we had Levi, that dream came true. I’ve got three kids now – 13, 11 and eight. Like most parents, my life got richer when I had kids. I even think my work has gotten better because of parenthood, and part of that is because I come home from work and they ask me what I’m doing. I have to explain the project to them differently than I would explain it to an adult. I noticed that I started to speak in parables and it became a really good way to reach an almost impressionistic way of understanding what I do, through the very innocent lens of my children. I think it’s made me a better storyteller, a better artist, a better actor. My children see things for the first time, every time, and so they remind me that I’m maybe walking down the same damn path to school or to church I’ve been on a thousand times before, but to them it’s new.

I’m very detail oriented. I like to get down to the literal and look it in the eye, no matter how much pain or pleasure it has. When I was explaining what True Detective is about to my children, I had to talk about it in PG or G terms, so it’s about good versus evil and bad guys and good guys? It helps me abbreviate the overall arc of the story. I can study and deconstruct and strip a character down to the infinite detail and the finite detail, but when I have to explain to my kids, it’s about the overarching, it’s a fuzzy picture – it’s an age-old, mythic story I’m telling. It’s going from a 120 mm lens to a 12 mm lens, it’s backing up and getting in the Google eye in the sky and saying, “Just give me the broad strokes here.” It’s the magic-hour shot, the silhouette, and it’s good for my awareness. It makes me be more objective about my work, which as a performer is usually so subjective.

The time we spend together as a family is definitely one of my favorite things, and my latest goal is that one day my three children can count their father as one of their best friends. My kids know I work hard, but I always see them first thing in the morning. They get up earlier than I do, so it’s either at breakfast or when they come by to see me in bed and I get a good hug from them. I ask them how they slept and try to slow them down a little bit and have a human experience with them before they get on with their busy day. It also helps me get on with my day. Sometimes I can grab lunch with them, but we always have dinner together. A lot of times we cook it ourselves, and that’s a really fun time when we do that in the kitchen. That’s exceptional. One of my favorite things is when we cook together and then we all talk about our day. My kids are getting older now, so we can talk about grown-up subjects and their opinions on them. And then we say, “OK, let’s go have some fun,” which leads me to my second thing …

In this pandemic, just like everyone else, I’ve gotten to watch more TV shows than ever before. But I’d never seen Survivor, so our family – that’s my three kids, me, Camila, and my mother, who’s about to turn 90 – started Survivor from season one. And oh my gosh, do we love it!

We’ve seen every season of American Survivor now, so we’re on to Australian Survivor. We pick out the characters, debate who we want off and talk about how it’s a social experiment. It’s great for the kids, who can talk about the choices contestants made, why a person lied, and was that OK within the game? And can you do that in life? It’s been a really fun show to watch that has led to a lot of great conversations between me and the kids. We watch five nights a week, two episodes per night, and that’s our ritual. It’s been a really fun escape for us, because as a family we’ve been quarantining more conservatively than most I know of, especially because of my mom’s age.

I think part of the reason we’ve connected with Survivor is because we’re an adventurous, outdoorsy, athletic family. But it’s also fascinating for us to see these people from different walks of life, who are different shapes and sizes, with different plans for how they’re going to win, with alliances, which often collapse. My kids get to see that it’s a game alliance, and that in real life you have friends now that may not be your best friends later on in life. And then there’s little consistencies, like the man or woman who’s the best at all the physical challenges never wins. For my athletic sons, that’s usually their favorite contestant – Whoa, they’ll win it! They won another immunity challenge! – but they never end up winning it. It’s usually the ones that are kind of quiet, and you’re not sure who they’re aligned with. They’re in the background, maybe even a little boring, and then all of a sudden, they emerge when all the top dogs and cats are out.

If I were invited, I wouldn’t necessarily be interested in going on a celebrity version of Survivor. I’d be more interested in going on the show itself, being just one of the cast who happened to be Matthew McConaughey.

Solo Writing Time
Every few weeks, my family gives me time to take off for a few days and I stay somewhere where I’m unplugged and can write every day. What I do then is go back and look at what I’ve written recently, at what themes my mind has been exploring, how I’ve been seeing the world, what’s turned me on, what’s turned me off. Sometimes it’s social commentary; a lot of the time, it’s philosophies that I can try to apply to the world, things that are hopefully good for me and others. I then try to find a story in them and log them. That personal solo time is so important to me, as I come back so much more relaxed, because I’ve given order to all the thoughts that I’ve been randomly writing down. I’m now in sync with themes from the past month, the month before that, and so on.

I’ve been writing a daily journal since I was 14, but the formal idea of looking at what I’ve written and seeing if I can shape it into something bigger is something I only had the courage to do three years ago, when I went away to write what turned out to be Greenlights. I’d never done that before. But after that, I said, “Let’s do that on a monthly or even weekly basis – log what I’ve got, find what columns of thinking and approaches to life are there.” So now it’s a formal thing that I calendar in my life. I say, “Let’s get it all together and look to see if there’s something larger that’s worth sharing.” It may be a book or a story or a script or a one-man show. I’m aware of certain stories that could be a different form of content, so I think about those things.

My solo writing time is just as important for my personal life as it is for my creative life, and it’s basically designed to erase the boundary between the two. Because it is deeply personal, and that’s the part of our lives where we get our greatest creativity from.

Mainly, though, this time is personal, an opportunity to see what’s going on with me, what’s making me tick right now. And the coolest thing, which kind of surprised me, is that the same stuff that interested me when I was 14, is the same stuff that interests me today, at 51.

Matthew McConaughey is an Oscar-winning actor, producer, writer and philanthropist who lives in Austin, Texas. He is a creative director at Wild Turkey, and has partnered with the company for the fifth year for its annual give-back campaign, this year recognizing those who have kept the spirit of music alive in their communities during the pandemic. In 2020, his memoir, Greenlights, was published.