The Gospel According to Matthew

McConaughey has staged a career comeback so unexpected and so impressive that it should be used as a how-to case study at the nation’s drama schools

McConaughey plays lead detective Rust Cohle in "True Detective."

Life is very sweet indeed for Matthew McConaughey these days and never so much as on this coming Sunday evening. He’s double dipping that night. He’s up for a Golden Globe as Best Actor in a Drama at the awards show (NBC, 8 p.m. EST), for his moving performance as an AIDS patient in “Dallas Buyers Club,” and his new TV series, “True Detective,” will have its premiere (HBO, 9 p.m. EST).

HBO has given the 8-episode show a coveted Sunday night slot (it’ll be followed by “Girls”). An atmospheric crime drama set in Louisiana, the series stars McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as a pair of mismatched police detectives trying to catch a serial killer in 1995, a case that is then reopened in 2012.

In a recent story about the show in the New York Times, the 44-year-old actor said he was drawn to the role of detective Rust Cohle because he was “a truly original character.” The actor added that the character was, “A man on the fringe, an outcast, a loner. And he’s the best at what he does. I like a man who keeps his own counsel.”

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It’s by playing men on the fringe or larger than life and sometimes the two combined that McConaughey has jump-started his acting career and finally gotten the respect and critical hosannas that long eluded him.

For those who missed class in McConaughey 101, the Texas-born actor got his start two decades ago with a featured role in “Dazed and Confused” (1993). He became a bona fide movie star three years later, when veteran Hollywood director Joel Schumacher (“Batman Forever”) picked the relative newcomer for the starring role as a young attorney in “A Time to Kill,” a hit movie based on a bestselling novel by John Grisham.

With his chiseled cheekbones, dirty blond locks and impressive physique, McConaughey quickly became a bankable though increasingly disrespected leading man. That’s because, while a few films he made over the next decade were ambitious efforts or appealingly quirky, by and large he starred in over-blown, second-rate action films (“Sahara” and “Reign of Fire”) and embarrassingly flaccid rom-coms (“Failure to Launch,” “Fool’s Gold” and “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”).

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He became better known for his tendency to doff his shirt at the flimsiest excuse, both on-screen and off, than for his acting. He seemed doomed to a career as a second-tier star, the sort of good-looking guy who will always work but whose name was never likely to be linked with the words “Oscar-nominated.”

All that changed in 2011. McConaughey, now 40, dazzled in three very different roles that year, memorably portraying a domineering psycho in “Killer Joe,” a conscience-stricken attorney in “The Lincoln Lawyer” and a wily law man in “Bernie.” In quick succession, he followed up with an attention-grabbing turn as the charismatic owner of a male strip club in “Magic Mike” and as a newspaper reporter with a secret in “The Paperboy.”

He scored an even more memorable triple play this past year, winning raves as an ex-con carrying a torch for his lady love in “Mud,” as an AIDS patient turned unlikely activist and entrepreneur in “Dallas Buyers Club” and, most recently, as a hard-drinking and hard-drugging stockbroker who briefly becomes a role model for the impressionable young reprobate at the center of “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

There are lessons in McConaughey’s comeback that other actors would be wise to follow. The roles that McConaughey is playing now require real dedication. (He lost nearly 50 pounds for his part in “Dallas Buyers Club.”)

After years of mostly coasting on his looks and charm, he is picking his roles more carefully, with an eye to developing distinctive characters.

Part of that has to do with age. He’s now old enough that the characters he’s playing are guys with pasts, often flawed ones that they carry with them. Most of his characters have learned from experience. Obviously, so has McConaughey.

Here’s wishing him luck on Sunday night.


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