Politico

If Matthew McConaughey Runs for Office, Which Role Should He Reprise for the Campaign Trail?


When Matthew McConaughey declared this month that he was seriously considering a run for governor of Texas, a thrill ran through the political world. It’s not that often an actual celebrity gets into actual politics, and when it happens, it can be explosive—the last time, the celebrity was Donald Trump, and he ended up as president. Movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of the largest state in America with no political experience at all. Even pro wrestler Jesse “the Body” Ventura won an election.

But when it comes to McConaughey, there’s another more subtle thrill at work: not knowing exactly which version of the actor we’ll get. Unlike Trump, who earned celebrity status by playing a version of himself on a reality show, or Schwarzenegger, who ran for office as basically the same muscular assassin he’d been playing for 25 years, McConaughey has real range as an actor, and is a political mystery. So there’s genuine anticipation as to what kind of candidate he’d be.

If Ronald Reagan’s experience is any example, a long Hollywood career can work both for and against you. To fans, Reagan was “the Gipper”—the inspiring young football player who led his Notre Dame team to a come-from-behind victory. But for his liberal critics, he never escaped his role in “Bedtime for Bonzo,” a lightweight who barely managed to hold his own in a B-level comedy with a chimpanzee.

McConaughey is in yet another category—a kind of chill A-lister with a record of civic engagement in Austin and a bordering-on-self-parody nonchalance, applied regularly to Lincoln car commercials. His party affiliation is unknown, though stances on police reform and gun control suggest he’s a moderate liberal. He has described himself in public as “aggressively centric.” As a politician, he’s a blank book in many ways—but his range of movies gives him a huge menu of potential roles to play off of.

And while his dreamy space cowboy in “Interstellar” might be his most overtly heroic role, the rest of McConaughey’s catalogue is a lot more interesting. Here’s a political reading of some of his top roles—and a snapshot of what they might do for him as a candidate.

Movie: Dazed and Confused (1993)
Character: David Wooderson
In Richard Linklater’s classic movie about 1970s teenagers, McConaughey steals scenes as a high school graduate who comes back to hang out with the stoner kids on the last day of school. There’s something objectively embarrassing about his situation, but Wooderson doesn’t care, or possibly doesn’t know—he exudes self-confidence and a kind of pride in stasis, wearing a mop of blond hair and a peach-fuzz moustache as badges of arrested development. Everything about him is laconic: His sentences don’t end so much as drift off into nothingness, delivered in what would become a trademark McConaughey growl. Wooderson is the ultimate anti-achiever—and while that attitude gives him Austin slacker cred, his disregard for grown-up rules occasionally shades into creep territory, or worse. “You know what I love about these high school girls?” he asks in a trademark line. “I get older; they stay the same age.”

But as recent political history has shown us, this screw-the-rules attitude, even if it becomes sleazy or potentially criminal, has a broad appeal. In a world where anti-politicians are often rewarded as much as the strivers, Wooderson could make a case for the power of ignoring norms and raising a middle finger to the establishment: Forget your rules, I’ll do what I want, and maybe some interesting policies will shake out. In America, there are plenty of people who want that sort of thing—and if he can do it without the scores of moral and legal improprieties, he might be unbeatable.
Political model: Donald Trump
Downside: Women march against men like this.
Wild card: What if a candidate finally, like, turned out the stoner vote?

Movie: A Time to Kill (1996)
Character: Jake Brigance
If McConaughey first won fame for playing the ultimate nihilist, his breakout role was a man consumed by high-minded purpose. In the movie version of the John Grisham novel/To Kill a Mockingbird knockoff, McConaughey plays Jake Brigance, a young, idealistic Mississippi lawyer who defends a Black man (played by Samuel L. Jackson) for a brutal but morally justified crime. Brigance thinks of himself as the good guy—as proof, he wears billowing white shirts and declines to have an affair with Sandra Bullock—but he’s oblivious to the dangers he’s created for his loved ones, who are terrorized by Ku Klux Klan attacks.

Eventually, Jackson knocks him off his hero-complex pedestal with a “you’re not my friend” speech, calling him out for white privilege and performative heroics, decades before those ideas would consume the public conversation. Brigance absorbs the critique, applies it to his closing argument and (spoiler alert) gets Jackson freed. He’s a model for the politician who is driven by principle, but can be blinded by single-mindedness. Even well-intentioned policies can lead to collateral damage and unintended consequences—just look at the current humanitarian crisis on the Mexican border.
Political models: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Tom Cotton
Downside: Communities don’t always want rich white guys to save them.
Wild card: Does he attract a broad coalition or polarize the electorate?

Movie: Failure to Launch (2006)
Character: Tripp
In one of a string of midcareer romantic comedy roles, McConaughey plays Tripp, a handsome, charismatic, gainfully employed 35-year-old who inexplicably still lives with his parents. Tripp is satisfied with his lot, which affords him a string of women and plenty of free time to play paintball with his man-child friends. But his parents are eager to get him out of the house already, so they hire a professional consultant (Sarah Jessica Parker) to feign romantic interest and nudge him to independence. When the two inevitably fall in love, Parker learns the deep, sympathetic reason he is unable to commit.

In political terms, Tripp is a natural who can win you over in an instant; even a dolphin he encounters on a surfing trip swims over as soon as he beckons. He’s also a slick talker, a salesman of fancy boats who can wiggle himself out of any jam. Most politicians would kill for his ability to sell an idea with a winning smile and torrent of words. But does he have an inner core, or just an abundance of outward charm?
Political models: Madison Cawthorn, Sarah Palin, Bill Clinton
Downside: One voter’s charm is another’s smarm.
Wild card: In politics, at some point, you’ve got to pick a side.

Movie: The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)
Character: Mick Haller
Imagine if Jake Brigance from A Time to Kill spent the next 15 years as a criminal defense attorney, got jaded, and decided to work the system instead. Mick Haller revels in knowing dark, shadowy truths about the legal world: the lies to be told, the corners to be cut, the deals you have to make to get things done. His only true worry is getting an actual innocent client, since then the stakes would be real. But when he finds himself saddled with a manipulative client who framed an innocent man, Mick discovers, to his own surprise, that he has a backbone after all.

Mick is the type who could easily work the halls of a state capitol, making deals and greasing compromises, focusing on what’s possible. There’s a place in politics for idealists, but there’s also a path for realists who can use a combination of skills, savvy and unsentimental gamesmanship to get things done. For better and worse, that’s how we got Obamacare, the Trump-era tax plan, and various stimulus bills.
Political models: Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer
Downside: This personality screams Washington insider—not exactly a winning campaign slogan.
Wild card: Right or left, everybody hates the system.

Movie: Magic Mike (2012)
Character: Dallas
As the owner and emcee of a low-rent male strip club in Tampa, McConaughey is fearless in this film — usually shirtless, occasionally pantsless, whooping and thrusting and banging on drums to prime an audience for his male-dancer revue. (McConaughey came up with the drums scene himself, in joking reference to a real-life event: In 1999, Austin police received a noise complaint and found the actor playing the bongos alone, a bong by his side, wearing a University of Texas bandana and nothing else.)

With his loose onstage theatrics and his anti-establishment talk, Dallas comes across as easygoing. But behind the scenes, he’s a ruthless and unsentimental businessman. He talks as if his dancers are family, but ultimately, they’re just props to serve his goal: to make it to Miami and the Florida stripper big leagues. As a politician, Dallas would be a guy with a vision, but a self-aggrandizing one—an exhibitionist who craves the spotlight, but is ultimately loyal to no one but himself. Politicians in this style often hit the big time, but they’re also susceptible to big, messy downfalls. See New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is currently facing widespread calls to resign after his pandemic-leadership media tour gave way to accusations that he had built a work environment riddled with harassment, bullying and abuse of staffers.
Political model: Andrew Cuomo, Ted Cruz
Downside: The downfall gets plenty of attention. And the memes can be brutal.
Wild card: In a campaign waged on the airwaves, showmanship works.

Movie: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Character: Ron Woodroof
McConaughey won an Oscar for playing real-life Texan Ron Woodroof, who became an unlikely hero during the 1980s AIDS crisis. When he’s diagnosed with a disease that was, at the time, a death sentence, Woodroof, a straight man drawn to rodeos and women, starts off in denial. But the brutal truth gives him a drive and creativity that propels him from Wooderson-style slacker to savvy operator. Within months, he’s figured out a way to game the system for his own enrichment and the greater good: He smuggles lifesaving drugs into the U.S., sometimes disguised as a doctor or a priest, and sells them outside the boundaries of the medical establishment and a slow-motion clinical trial. Along the way, he sheds deep prejudices: once gay and trans people become his business partners and customers, he comes to see their common humanity.

Woodroof’s call to service invokes figures like Lucy McBath, Cori Bush, and John McCain, who entered politics in the wake of personal trauma. And it suggests a path that should appeal to Texas Democrats, looking to bridge red state values and the party’s more progressive sensibilities. Hot-button issues like gun laws, immigration, and health care could use someone with Woodroof’s brand of relentlessness—and his ability to cut deals with the other side in a way that clears a path for actual progress.
Political models: John McCain, Lucy McBath
Downside: A “third way” is easier in theory than in practice.
Wild card: How big is the Democratic tent in Texas?

Movie: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Character: Mark Hanna
As a real-life broker and salesman named Mark Hanna, McConaughey represents the greed-is-good Wall Street ethos of 1980s with a shock of puffy hair and a gangly, manic energy. He initiates Leonardo DiCaprio’s young, eager protege at a fancy restaurant lunch where he snorts cocaine at the table, orders multiple martinis, and lays out a vision for making mega-money, built on a foundation of cocaine and lies. The scene is bookended by a caveman chant that wasn’t part of the original script—McConaughey used it as a real-life ritual to prepare for shooting scenes, and DiCaprio suggested it be added to the film.

It adds up to a character who is driven by impulse, unsentimental and prone to brutal honesty that, even in its corruption, has a weird integrity to it; he might be blowing up the rules and screwing the little guy, but he’s not exactly hiding his motivations. The real life Hanna spent five years in prison for conspiracy, stock fraud, and money laundering — his personal website notes that “he served semi-peacefully and mostly without issue” — and now pitches himself as a New-Age-y motivational speaker. The movie version, venal as he is, is still intoxicating to watch and even has a weird appeal: With this guy, there will be no false piety, no triangulation, and no hypocrisy. You get what you get.
Political models: Chris Collins, Tom DeLay
Upside: Could sweet-talk potential donors out of a fortune.
Wild card: Everybody loves a redemption story.

TV Show: True Detective (2014)
Character: Rust Cohle
In HBO’s dark, aggressively gritty, deeply male TV crime fantasia, McConaughey toggles between a slender, clean-cut 1990s detective and his future self, a grizzled alcoholic with an unbecoming mullet and an unkempt mustache. Rust is a prolific talker, prone to philosophizing (a typical line: “We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self”). He drives his partner batty with his over-deep thoughts, oversteps his boundaries in destructive ways, but eventually becomes the key to solving the case. At one point, during a car ride through the Louisiana backwoods, Rust even lays out what could, in other circumstances, be a political philosophy: “I consider myself a realist, all right, but in philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessimist.” (Asked to explain what that means, he replies: “I’m bad at parties.”) The public isn’t always open to high-minded lectures or overt intellectuals, but voters have been known to rally around a smart, slick talker who sees the world for what it is, and occasionally gets something very right.
Political models: Pete Buttigieg, Ben Sasse
Downside: The smartest guy in the room is sometimes the least likable.
Wild card: Deep thoughts have sold a lot of Lincolns. Could they sell legislation, too?

Movie: Sing (2016)
Character: Buster Moon
If you want to apply big vision to politics—without too much concern for practicality—there are few better models than Buster Moon, an animated koala voiced by McConaughey. Buster grew up dreaming of becoming a theater mogul, and when his ramshackle theater hits a financial rough patch, he isn’t fazed. He just cooks up another scheme to make money by hosting a talent competition. Then, when a flyer-printing snafu leads him to promising more prize money than he can afford, he goes bigger, hoping to avoid the need to tear down the whole thing.

Buster is slippery, yes, but he’s also unfailingly optimistic and appealingly sincere—like a politician who sees the big picture, with all of its challenges, and remains undeterred by pesky details. When it comes down to it, he can rally an unlikely coalition (a pig, a mouse, an elephant and a gorilla) and sell his vision to those with the means to make it happen, such as an elderly sheep who once was an opera diva. With the right showcase, he could change some minds. And his true believers will always stick by him.
Political models: Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang
Downside: Texas needs more than one big idea.
Wild card: In 2021, moonshots are all the rage.

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