On Movies: Steven Rea: McConaughey and 'Dallas Buyers Club'

Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, the real-life Texas figure who established the "Dallas Buyers Club" after contracting HIV and taking an unorthodox route to treatment. ANNE MARIE FOX / Focus Features
Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, the real-life Texas figure who established the "Dallas Buyers Club" after contracting HIV and taking an unorthodox route to treatment. ANNE MARIE FOX / Focus Features
Posted: November 18, 2013

'I just wanted to get full ownership of my man, Ron, and see him from the inside out," says Matthew McConaughey, speaking of Ron Woodroof, the real-life figure he plays in Dallas Buyers Club. A cowboy, a cutup, a cokehead, a womanizer, Woodroof worked as an electrician, partying furiously, hanging with the rodeo crowd, a guy "without a purpose," McConaughey says.

And then Woodroof is told he has HIV, and has, at most, 30 days to live. "Frankly, we're surprised you're even alive," the doctors in the hospital say.

For McConaughey, understanding who Woodroof was became an obsession. And it wasn't just about losing weight - close to 40 pounds - to approximate the look of an HIV patient. A defiant, determined Woodroof lived seven years beyond that initial diagnosis, researching treatments and new drugs, smuggling unapproved meds from Mexico and Japan, setting up a one-stop shop to sell his wares to other patients battling AIDS.

The Woodroof family gave McConaughey journals to read. He listened to Woodroof interviews, watched videos of the man.

"And I got his diary, and that was a huge thing," says McConaughey, in Toronto in late summer, where Dallas Buyers Club had its premiere.

"The diary gave me his monologue. And it's the same with any character: If you begin with the monologue, then the dialogue is a lot easier. So I knew what was going through his head before he had HIV, and after. . . .

"I saw a guy who was a talented electrician, who respected Monday mornings . . . . A guy who gets up, made his coffee, pressed his shirt, pressed his pants, put his belt on, socks, shoes, got ready for the day, made sure his battery was charged in his pager, got his little book out, made some calls, the 10 o'clock appointment to fix that stereo got canceled, so he was biding time . . . . Ended up going to the drive-through for lunch, and then make the best out of having a Sonic cheeseburger.

" . . . 'Sherry, the manager over there, she's kind of cute, I like going by on Tuesday afternoons, I like going by and seeing Sherry inside. Two months later Sherry and I hooked up in Room 62 - my lucky number . . . .' Things like that."

McConaughey read the entries, and read some more. The actor found a man who was "kind of lost, trying to find a reason for each day."

And a man "who never finished anything. Didn't finish anything with his relationships with women, didn't finish anything pertaining to projects and inventions that he had . . . he'd get into it and he'd abandon it.

"And a guy who in a cruel but true way, found purpose when he got HIV."

Dallas Buyers Club - which costars Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto and which opened Friday at the Ambler Theater, County Theater, Ritz East, and Carmike at the Ritz Center/NJ - appealed to McConaughey for a number of reasons.

Here are two: It was the first time an AIDS story had been told from the perspective of a heterosexual, and it wasn't a self-important "message movie," the lone crusader fighting a valiant cause.

"He's still essentially the same bastard after he got HIV," McConaughey says, laughing. "Still a businessman. Still saying, 'You got $350? I'm not running a goddamn charity.' "

And there's no phony Hollywood redemption, McConaughey insists, no third-act moment when "he sees God and recognizes his mistakes and vows he's going to change - that was not this guy."

Dallas Buyers Club took 20 years to make its way from screenplay to screen. Three stars - Brad Pitt, Woody Harrelson, Ryan Gosling - were attached at various points before McConaughey. But the studios, the big money producers, always balked.

"Look at the log line - '1980s period piece, redneck gets HIV' - well, that sounds grim," McConaughey says.

"But I always thought the script was wildly entertaining. Its humanity was frickin' hilarious. . . . These wild outcasts. And underneath, a life-threatening disease."

A screenwriter's lunch. Speaking of that script, here's Craig Borten - the Philly native who met with Woodroof, and then went and wrote Dallas Buyers Club - on his first meeting with McConaughey.

"I got a call one day from his agent, and he said, 'Matthew wants to meet. . . . He just wants to, like, say hello,' " Borten recounted in a recent phone interview.

"So I drove up to Malibu and we had this lunch. And I should have known he was on a diet. So, a few ounces of salmon and some baby greens with no dressing, and that was it - lunch was seven minutes.

"And so after the seven-minute lunch . . . he looked up at me and he said, 'Do you have your script?' and I said, 'No, I thought we were just saying hello.'

"He said, 'Well, yeah, but let me just go over a few things.' And he pulled out his screenplay - which I have, and I can tell you that there were notes on every page, from the title page to the last page. And he asked questions. Questions about Ron Woodroof and the FDA and about AIDS and about buyers clubs . . . and when I looked at my watch it was almost 6 p.m.

"We had spent almost six hours together, and when I left . . . he looked at me and he said, 'We're going to get this thing done, Craig. We're going to get this film made.'

"So I left his house and I was driving along the Pacific Coast Highway from Malibu, and I'm looking out at the ocean, and something felt different from the other three actors. . . . I said to myself, 'This is a filmmaker. I didn't just meet with an actor, I actually met with a filmmaker. This is somebody who is concerned about getting every aspect right.

" 'This is someone who has been losing weight for three months without a locked-in budget, without the money in the bank.'

"I don't think it would have happened without someone like Matthew and his dedication. It wasn't just, 'I'm attached to this movie, and let's see what happens.' It was, 'I'm attached to this film, and I'm going to make this film.'

"And it never would have happened without that drive, that passion.

"Matthew was like, 'We're making this film, no matter what.' "


srea@phillynews.com

215-854-5629

@Steven_Rea

www.inquirer.com/onmovies

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