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We asked Matthew McConaughey about the soul of Austin — here’s what he said

Matthew Odam
Matthew McConaughey turned to decades of personal journals to help him piece together his bestselling memoir, "Greenlights."

You have sipped from the fountain of McConaughey over the years. You’ve taken in the casual stonerness of “Dazed and Confused,” the joy of his Texas Longhorns fandom, the sexy swagger of his character in “Magic Mike,” the salesy mysticism of his Lincoln ads, the subversive humor of “Killer Joe” and so much more.

Well, reading Matthew McConaughey’s New York Times bestselling new book, “Greenlights,” is like drinking the McConasauce from a fire hose. It’s all there: the self-mythologizing; the vivid storytelling, at times tender, at others ribald and sometimes both simultaneously; the excitement and in-your-face energy; the bare nakedness of it all (bongos not included). And it’s pretty damn spectacular.

He takes you inside the overturned kitchen scene of his childhood home. You follow him into the dark corners of self-doubt and witness him running downhill with a wild-eyed grin. There’s hubris and humility, all flowing in a way not often seen with a celebrity of his stature. And for a man who can sometimes seem like a nation unto himself, the quick and engaging read is a shotgun blast of aggressive vulnerability: I ain’t holdin’ back, world, so take me as I am.

But the nontraditional memoir doesn’t feel like an act of exhibitionism as much as a way for the Austinite, who pieced the book together after going through 36 years of personal notes and journal entries, to sort through the peaks and valleys of his personal hero’s journey in search of more green lights while finding meaning in the yellow and red ones. We’ll let him explain.

This conversation — ahead of the author’s appearance during the virtual Texas Book Festival on Saturday — has been edited for length and clarity. To watch our full conversation with McConaughey, go to noon on Friday.

American-Statesman:I remember seeing you at the Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards back in 2012. You had just moved back to Austin, and you gave a speech where you mentioned how you enjoyed moving back to Austin because there are more green lights here.

Matthew McConaughey: I said that then? Wow.

For people who haven’t read the book or didn’t hear the speech, what’s the metaphor?

We love green lights. They affirm our way; they say, “Go. Proceed. Attaboy. Continue.” We don’t like yellow and red lights because they slow us down and stop us from getting our way. We can engineer green lights in our life by the choices we make. Sometimes green lights just fall in our lap in good fortune. Sometimes a green light can be just what your perspective is in a certain situation. Sometimes you get a green light by denying there’s actually a crisis there. And, finally, the symbolism is about (this), and I found this going through my journals: Almost every red and yellow light I had in my life, every time I had a hardship or a crisis, it revealed itself to have green light assets or became a green light later in life.

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“Greenlights” is not about making everything a green light. “Greenlights” is also about understanding how red and yellow lights — interventions, hardships, pauses, introspections we have in our life where we need to recalibrate — how that’s how you engineer a red and a yellow light into a green light. Or sometimes they just reveal themselves to be green later on. I think we notice them in the moment; I think we notice them sometimes tomorrow, sometimes next week, next year; sometimes we notice them on our deathbed. I even believe that some red and yellow lights in our life will not be revealed green until our great-great-grandkids figure out what the lesson is. But it’s a constant process, and I do eventually believe all the yellows and reds do turn green.

You mention some specific people and books in your life. In New Mexico, you visit a monastery, and you mention a book you read in college called “The Greatest Salesman in the World.” Who do you go to, and to what foundational texts do you refer, to reaffirm your personal belief system?

I have a group of male friends who all get together and talk naturally about culture, who we are as men, how can we be better men individually. We talk about fatherhood. A lot of times, like in that Brother Christian story, you can share a problem, and just hearing somebody go, “Oh, yeah, me too,” (makes you think), “Ah! Woo! ‘Cause I thought I was the center of the world. I thought it was an original crisis I was going through. Oh, this is part of being who we are? Great.”

(Editor's note: McConaughey once visited a remote monastery in the New Mexico desert, where he "readjusted his perspective" with the help of a monk named Brother Christian. The story is told in "Greenlights.")

Other times, someone will share an experience of their own, which I hope is what a lot of people get out of this book. You’re not gonna have the exact same experience I had, but hopefully you can see an experience that’s similar to one you had in your own life.

I pray. I try to break a sweat once a day. And then my family. My wife and I are very close. She’s also my best friend, so she knows me very well and does everything she can to promote the best in me. And sometimes I find I work something out by actually helping somebody else out. Helping them get through something and realizing, “Oh, that’s kind of an answer you need, too, McConaughey.”

As much as the book is me-centric, it’s also about sharing what I describe as an aggressive vulnerability. Is part of the book not just to talk about your exploits and contemplate in a public forum, but to also elicit in other people a reaction to something they see in themselves?

I hope so. Something I found in the book that surprised me, but now that I saw it I think, “Of course,” because it’s the same way I think in most art: The more personal I got, the more aggressively vulnerable I got, the more relatable the stuff became. It’s surprising, but the more into the “I” that I go, the more into the “we” (it becomes). Richard Linklater and I were talking about how, of course, if I look back on all the roles I played, the more personal they get, the more relatable they become. There is a difference between art and self-expression. I wanted it to have a chance to be constructive, as I said: objectively taken from somebody, but subjectively used.

We see part of you come through in all of your roles, whether it’s the girls and weed in Wooderson (from “Dazed and Confused”), the sense of justice in Buddy Deeds (in “Lone Star”), or the charm and charisma of Dallas in “Magic Mike.” Do you find parts of yourself in these characters as written, or are you imbuing them with that essence? Because some of them seem like they’re deeply connected to a version of you.

Well, good. I hope that’s how they feel. Because my best work is when I can find that much more of myself in the character. I’ve said this for years: We’ve all got everybody in us. We’ve got every human trait in us. My job is to represent humanity through my characters. Not to judge them but to hang my hat on that character’s humanity. Now, where do I find that? First, I find out from the page: Who’s the person? But then I very quickly get into, “Who is that in me?” It’s like the old ’70s (sound) equalizers. You just re-equalize. It’s always a recalibration to find that part of myself integrated through the character. But the more of me I find in my characters, the better the performance, I think.

You talk about liking aphorisms and thinking in bumper stickers. One of the people you acknowledge in the book is your fraternity brother Roy Spence, co-founder of Austin ad agency GSD&M. What’s your affinity for advertising in the last few years, and how has that filled up your tank?

I’ve always considered myself a marketeer. I’m the one who created the “McConaissance.” I thought that time needed a lyric. It needed an album title. Have I been good at selling myself? I think I’ve been pretty good at that, but also I wanna know what the hell I’m selling. And I wanna be selling you something I can give you.

Roy and I really enjoy talking about life. Obviously, he loves to talk about purpose. I love to talk about values. The value of purpose and the purpose of values. I think we have a talent for breaking something down to one line, or even one word or a quote, a lyric, something that feels like a verb, an aspiration. So, “How do we make aspirations practical?” is a pursuit he and I are after.

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He’s also been helping me with a lot of the minister of culture work that I’m doing and that I want to do in the city of Austin. I’ve got a shared values campaign that I want to share with Austin. To sell Austin to Austinites. To remind us why we love it here and also to educate and initiate the newcomers as to who we are and who we’re not. Don’t be trying to turn here into why you left there. Because as we grow into this great metropolis — which we are becoming, that’s not stopping — how do we maintain our core values and our village values of why we love it here? Another Roy Spence line: Austin, a place where nobody’s too good and everybody’s good enough. We can’t lose that. And let’s make sure we don’t take on too much in the name of progress, where we look up in 10 years and say, “Who the hell are we? What did we become? Did we sacrifice our values just for the opportunity of affluence?”

Are you worried at all about losing the soul of Austin amid how much it’s changed?

I am concerned. We’ve got a lot more socialites in Austin than we used to have. I’m not sure what a socialite is. Another thing: We love to parade and amplify and talk about our great diversity in Austin. Well, we’re probably not as diverse as we like to believe we are. Also this: I think we sometimes suffer from being a tad indifferent. We’ve never looked outside of ourselves for applause or approval, but at the same time, I think we should take more ownership of our (intellectual property), of who we are. Let’s stake a claim and say, “We’re in a position to lead as a city.“

You write near the end of the book that it’s time to quit acting like you and just be you. What’s the next chapter for McConaughey look like?

I’ll act again. I’ll play some side of myself in another role, probably. But what about the big show — life? Where “action” was called one time when you were born and “cut” will be called one time when you die. The camera is always rolling. It’s happening. It’s live. Quit acting like one and just be one, McConaughey.

So what is my role gonna be? I’m interested in different leadership roles. I’m not really interested in politics, to use a line from Roy Spence, because I don’t see a purpose in the politics right now. This minister of culture work may be a slipstream, where it’s between partisan sides and is between denominations and is something we can all agree on — solid stepping stones of our values, on which we can step forward. And (it’s) something particularly we’re going to need coming out of this time, where we have great distrust in each other and even ourselves, where we lack belief in each other and ourselves, where our social contracts have been stripped with each other and we’re now even stripping them with ourselves.

The values that I’m for are not rocket science. They’re things our mamas taught us, that we (are) reminded of and say, “Hey, I need a solid stepping stone to move forward.” And if I do that for myself and say, “How can I be a little bit better,” and you do that for yourself, that’s how we start to make a collective change. Then we are a bright light on the globe called the Earth. Then we are a leading light that says, “See how they’re doing it down there? See how they treat each other and themselves?”

A lot of people come to Texas because (of) no taxes. A lot of people come to Austin because you can be yourself. Well, let’s ask not what Austin can do for you. Ask what you can do for Austin. We’ve got a special place on the globe, and it’s got special people in it.

Matthew McConaughey at the Texas Book Festival

Who: Matthew McConaughey will appear in conversation with actor/filmmaker/fellow Texan Ethan Hawke at the virtual Texas Book Festival

When: 4 pm. Nov. 7

Tickets: $41 tax-deductible donation to the Texas Book Festival includes a copy of “Greenlights”

The University of Texas' minister of culture holds up the "Hook 'Em Horns" sign to Texas fans before a 2019 Longhorns football game.