Earlier this month, when Matthew McConaughey announced that he would play the lead in Christopher Nolan's 2014 space epic "Interstellar," he acknowledged that it was a leap to another level.
"Let's be honest. Two years ago, no one necessarily had me on that top list in dramas," he said by phone from New Orleans. "Now I'm going to go do this Nolan film, which is as big of a thing in Hollywood as there is."
McConaughey was still savoring the experience of acting opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese's crime drama "The Wolf of Wall Street."
"I had this 20-year flashback to being in college, studying Martin Scorsese's films," he said in that unmistakable serpentine drawl. "And I was like, 'Oh, 20 years later, someone's driving me to go meet him at his house about a role. This is good.' "
Not long ago, McConaughey was a respectable box-office performer coasting through passable romantic comedies on the strength of his pearly grin, wavy hair and gym-toned physique. If you were looking for someone to cast opposite Jessica Biel as a squabbling divorced couple shipwrecked on a desert island, McConaughey was your go-to guy.
Now 43, he's a star reborn, rejecting stereotypical roles for an audacious career reinvention. He is delivering the best work of his career in a string of atmospheric, adventurous indie productions.
In "Mud," which goes into wide release this Friday, he plays a fugitive hiding on an island in the Mississippi after killing a rival for his beloved, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). With the help of two local boys, the charismatic desperado plans his escape from police and bounty hunters hired by the dead man's family. The well-written picture shows McConaughey doing something he's done a lot lately: having a terrific time being an actor.
You could sense the joy of performance in 2011's "Lincoln Lawyer," where the Texan played a bottom-feeding criminal-defense attorney. The film showed he wasn't afraid to make audiences queasy.
"It was a fun thriller," he said, "but there was drama to it that opened people's ideas about me bein' in certain roles that maybe they weren't' seein' me in."
In his movies since then, he's been on fire. He pivoted to Richard Linklater's "Bernie," with a small, scene-stealing role as a hot-dogging publicity-hound DA prosecuting a cherubic killer (Jack Black).
He went deep to the dark side in "Killer Joe," playing a slithery policeman/contract killer for director William Friedkin ("The French Connection," "The Exorcist"). He revealed striking vulnerability as a tormented journalist in the gothic melodrama "The Paperboy," the first film of his career to debut at Cannes.
As the owner of a male strip club in Steven Soderbergh's smash hit "Magic Mike," he flipped his old image as a shirtless-wonder girl-toy into raunchy comedy. And with "Mud," McConaughey got his second Cannes premiere.
"I'm enjoying my career more than I ever have," he said. "I never had a goal two years ago to go get down and dirty in some independent films and do some real good critical-acclaim work so then I can get a major blockbuster. I love the roles. I love the work. I happen to have the good fortune of workin' my butt off, and really havin' some great roles. Then if I can make a mark doing these, and people like what I did in them, that's gonna open up" important opportunities.
As McConaughey said of his career plan in the 1990s, "I figure I am in the third round of a 15-round fight."
He's joined the likes of Bradley Cooper, Channing Tatum and Johnny Depp, farsighted actors who refashioned themselves from handsome romantic leads to versatile character actors.
His next film, "Dallas Buyers Club," puts McConaughey in the ranks of physical chameleons like Robert De Niro and Christian Bale. To play a real-life homophobe who contracted HIV and extended his life with alternative treatments, he dropped from 182 pounds down to a skeletal 135. He avoided sunlight for three months to achieve the character's pallor, recording the physical, mental and spiritual changes he experienced in a journal that he hopes to publish.
"It's what the role needed," he said. "And I must say, really honestly, it turned into a wild and wonderful, enjoyable adventure for me as a person. It really did.
"Every single day you diet and until sundown you can't go outside. I had to maintain it while we were shooting, off the set, when I came home, on the weekends. I read more and wrote more than I ever have in my life, needed less sleep. To have something you can really commit to like that, that's part of the fun of what we get to do. It really is."