Alight, alight, alight: On Matthew McConaughey’s ‘Greenlights’

When I was growing up there was a long-standing rumour around my hometown that the Texas-born actor Matthew McConaughey had gone to my high school. The likelihood of this being true was slim at best. Gorokan High School, after all, is settled in the low-socioeconomic lakeside suburb of the Central Coast, a two-hour drive north of Sydney. It would have been an unlikely spot for an Australian celebrity to call their alma mater, let alone a movie star of McConaughey’s stature

The story, as I had heard it, was that McConaughey had been a Rotary exchange student, living with what Rotary calls a ‘host family’ out in the bush, and that he still sent letters and presents for birthdays to everyone in the family. There was, however, little way to confirm all this detail back then. Even at the height of his mid-90s fame ― when you could see his lithe face floating around video stores on VHS covers ― it didn’t seem to hold much weight. After McConaughey’s fame took a dip when he failed to capitalise on the success of his breakout role in Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of a John Grisham courtroom potboiler, A Time to Kill (1996), the chance for some form of confirmation seemed long gone.

 Then came what New Yorker critic Rachel Syme handily summarised as the McConaissance ― a career renaissance for the actor. The McConaissance arguably took hold in 2011 with another legal thriller ― The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) ― and reached its peak in 2014, when McConaughey came out with the buzzy HBO limited series True Detective (2014 –) and won his Best Actor Oscar for the prestige play of the Dallas Buyers Club (2013).

Rachel Syme figured that the McConaissance had an “unusually organic quality” to it, and perhaps that quality was what drove journalists to try and decode its origins. It certainly meant that there was enough intense and sustained interest for Australian journalists to go digging into his rumoured local connections and so there, at last, was that longed for confirmation: McConaughey had indeed attended my shithole of a public high school (I use shithole with the utmost affection ― it’s a shithole, but it’s my shithole and it’s a proudly public shithole too).

McConaughey had attended Gorokan High (Goro to the locals) for about five months in our bicentennial year ― 1988 ― while living in glorious Warnevale (Warnies to the locals). I knew Warnies intimately, largely for its train station ― it was my gateway to Sydney throughout young adulthood ― and for the fact it was basically one large failed real estate development. McConaughey looked the part, too, in photographic evidence of his stay uncovered by news sites. The proof shows an impossibly tanned McConaughey smiling into the camera, holding a can of Fosters (the famous Australian beer that no Australian drinks), while a friend clutching a can of Tooheys Draft grins drunkenly at the future movie star.

McConaughey in Australia, holding a can of Fosters.

Now McConaughey has written down his experiences of going to Goro and living in Warnies as part of a slick new memoir titled Greenlights. The first sentence of the book boldly states “This is not a traditional memoir” ― although it becomes just that, largely chronological and overwhelmingly anecdotal. McConaughey quickly adds another caveat: “This is not an advice book, either”. I am not quite sure what an “advice book” constitutes ― maybe he means self-help ― but, whatever its true genre, Greenlights is filled with pages upon pages of homespun philosophy and poetry, which dogleg like little alleyways from the mainstreets of the memoir. The book is named for McConaughey’s simplistic philosophy that one should take the signal of the greenlight to go forward when one can (McConaughey must have been listening to a lot of Lorde in 2017 when the singer dropped her transformative single).

The desire to resist literary form is immensely admirable, but most first time authors cannot achieve a radical tear away from tradition ― why does McConaughey think he’s the exception here? The intention sidetracks the book in many ways. It’s an overly fussy production. The author allegedly pushed for some of the more complicated design elements in the book ― including the over-literal instruction that any appearance of the word ‘Greenlight’ be printed in green ― running up the retail price of the book with it. But that classic McConaughey voice still cuts through, despite the self-generated noise around it. He is an incredibly relaxed narrator and it is easy to imagine him sitting on a barstool whispering the book to you in his sweet southern drawl.

McConaughey was born in Uvalde, Texas ― a small town with a population of about 15,000 and about an hour and a half away from the Mexico border and roughly the same distance from San Antonio. McConaughey was well primed to spend Rotary exchange in a small town like Warnevale, but, as he makes clear in Greenlights, he was certain he was promised Sydney. The family he was to settle with in Australia misled him about his true destination, including for the majority of the drive from Sydney airport heading north, as the outskirts of the city faded behind them. They started out saying that they lived in Sydney, then just outside of Sydney, then Gosford, then Toukley, before they finally came clean and admitted they lived in Warnevale as they pulled up into their driveway.

It is surprising that so much of the book is devoted to this sole year in Australia,  but McConaughey does appear to view it as a pivotal time. There is unpacking to do. The only part of the rumour about McConaughey having gone to Gorokan High, which was ever doubtable, was whether McConaughey had stayed in contact with his family. Greenlights puts that idea to rest. It is a shock to read that the experience of his cultural exchange sounds largely traumatic. The father of the host family was overbearing and hectoring ― demanding about food and policing McConaughey’s language. The mother was overly needy and intrusive, wanting McConaughey to call her ‘mum’ for the entire stay and demanding that he kiss her son’s girlfriend on the lips in front of a crowd of onlookers.

For his part, McConaughey appears to be genuinely distressed throughout, and it reads as if he came extremely close to developing a serious eating disorder. In deciding to go vegetarian for his stay, he only eats a head of lettuce with tomato sauce at night. He exercises obsessively. He appears gripped by hypergraphia, writing compulsive letters home. The entire experience reads like a teenager’s remake of Wake in Fright (1971), largely landing as an argument against Rotary exchanges.

“McConaughey has some of the same sauntering energy as his Texan contemporaries ― Tommy Lee Jones, Kris Kristofferson and his brother from another mother Woody Harrelson ― but he shares with Flynn a sense of recklessness pulled from some Australian playbook (add to that his surfer chic and bong-ripping skills and it’s pretty irrefutable).”

Perhaps anticipating legal issues, McConaughey appears to have given his host family pseudonymous names. In McConaissance-era publicity, the father was outed as Ray Crocker. But in Greenlights he’s Norvel Dooley, which, proving McConaughey’s skill in the creative side of writing, is about as perfect a made-up Australian name as one could imagine. McConaughey eventually attempts to escape the Dooleys by requesting to stay with a different family, which Norvel initially accepts, before at the last possible minute telling McConaughey he won’t be leaving the Dooley home. McConaughey punches his hand through a bedroom door, pulling it out “bloody and pierced from shards of plywood”.

Norvel Dooley let him leave the family following this interaction, and McConaughey didn’t stay at Gorokan High School for long either. The principal of the school, noticing poor reports of his academic performance, suggested he might prefer to do work placement instead. Before he departs, however, McConaughey has time to visit the school library ― a place where I bunkered for many afternoons discovering the usual under-undergraduate Americana (Salinger, Heller etc) ― to find a copy of the poems of Lord Byron. McConaughey is frank about a number of things in the memoir ― wet dreams, hair loss ― but none more so than jerking off to Byron’s poems at night in bed. What it would be to track down that copy of the book ― hopefully some school librarian at Gorokan is sequestering it away for future reference (in all likelihood, knowing the value placed on analogue libraries in the digital era, it probably got chucked, or McConaughey never returned it).

McConaughey returned to Australia to film the 2008 Kate Hudson-starring treasure-hunting adventure Fool’s Gold in Port Douglas and later still to market bourbon, as part of his promotional duties as a spokesman for Wild Turkey. As part of that unusual deal, he invented an ‘eco-cabin’ known as The Reserve, which launched in Sydney but eventually followed McConaughey’s ’88 trail, making its way up to the Central Coast. In puffed-up copy published on the website for bottle shop Dan Murphy’s, the cabin’s final location is described as a “place dear to McConaughey” and that the actor thought of Australia as a “second home”. Greenlights makes that reading of the situation near impossible.

McConaughey in Fool’s Gold (2008).

After countless promotional television and digital Zoom broadcasts shown in Australia (COVID-19 restrictions simultaneously contracting and expanding publicity’s reach), Greenlights has secured that sweet green tinge that McConaughey was seeking out. It is selling handsomely. McConaughey has been doing so much publicity, in fact, that he’s been veering into strange territory, including arguing for “aggressive centrism” and sympathy for Trump voters (in an interview with Russell Brand of all people) and teasing a potential run for the Governor of Texas (if he did run in 2022, he’d practically be the same age Arnold Schwarzenegger was when he was elected as Governor of California in 2003).

All this noise has kept Greenlights in the headlines and it’s surely helped with those strong sales numbers because it is generally assumed that books about film do not sell well. Memoirs written by actors, however, do occupy a different space. They come with built-in selling points and easy paths towards publicity.

Still, as works of autobiography, they are curious. Their authors (often assisted by ghost writers) do not aim to act as film critics but they naturally cannot completely avoid touching on the films that they starred. For writers and readers interested in film history, however, they can be frustratingly averse to reflecting on their chosen artform. Actors often treat their own lives like character studies. Some don’t even get beyond writing about both childhood and young adulthood (see Peter O’Toole’s wonderfully lyrical two volume Loitering With Intent, subtitled The Child and The Apprentice). This is not to say that Matthew McConaughey does not write of his found profession without insight. He does, but he largely keeps it to broad strokes about career progression.

“You have to wonder if McConaughey’s projection of his larger than life livin’ hides a similar ambition for Greenlights to stay on shelves.”

In life, actors understandably reject intrusions into their personal lives, and yet, in writing, they need to create narratives that revere confessions. McConaughey may have found a workaround by spinning philosophy, but not wholly. That he spends so much time reflecting on a period of his time spent livin’ (the actor’s preference is to drop the g) on the Central Coast shows that he isn’t overly invested in relating a sense of film history (despite becoming a professor of practice at the University of Texas in 2019 to lecture on this very subject). Actors, on the whole, seem ill-equipped to write insightfully about their craft. In a review of the tennis prodigy Tracy Austin’s memoir, David Foster Wallace wanted the ‘obvious point’ out of the way: “great athletes tend to be stunningly inarticulate about just those qualities and experiences that constitute their fascination”. This genre of literature, for Wallace, had the same quality of post-game interviews with sportspeople ― rote questions followed by clichéd answers. It’s no knock. They shouldn’t be expected to be so eloquent about their achievements on the field.

Like many sports memoirs, most autobiographies written by actors don’t commercially outlive the year of their release. There are rare exceptions; Errol Flynn’s posthumously published memoir My Wicked, Wicked Ways has never fallen out of print, largely because of its notorious reputation and canny title. You have to wonder if McConaughey’s projection of his larger than life livin’ hides a similar ambition for Greenlights to stay on shelves. Errol Flynn is, after all, a good comparative point for McConaughey. The actors shared pretty boy good looks and it was dumb luck that either of them stumbled into securing their first films (both practically locked these in while in a bar). They both, obviously, spent parts of their youth in Australia (Flynn had his own adventures in Papua New Guinea before decamping to Hollywood, never returning to his country of birth). When they made it on screen, they were both propelled by their own innate charm.

McConaughey has some of the same sauntering energy as his Texan contemporaries ― Tommy Lee Jones, Kris Kristofferson and his brother from another mother Woody Harrelson ― but he shares with Flynn a sense of recklessness pulled from some Australian playbook (add to that his surfer chic and bong-ripping skills and it’s pretty irrefutable). Their own books share significant similarities, too, with Flynn seeming distinctly uninterested in writing about his film work. My Wicked, Wicked Ways dedicates barely any space to his most well-known role as Robin Hood, instead obsessing over the little remembered The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), largely because, during shooting, Bette Davis kept repeatedly striking Flynn across the face for real in a scene, sending him back to his dressing room to dry retch.   

Like Flynn, McConaughey practically skips over some of his more famous roles in order to dedicate the biggest page count to a long forgotten entry in his filmography. The Nu-metal-era dragon slaying thriller Reign of Fire (2002) takes up so much space partly because he dramatically shaved his head for the role, addressing his male pattern baldness ― and was harassed by a studio head for doing so ― and developed an insane sixty-day workout routine to get in character (which involved pushing over cows for no obvious reason). You feel the reason we are marooned with so much writing on Reign of Fire is mostly because McConaughey is besotted with the character he played, Denton Van Zan, the military leader of a group of irregulars. McConaughey’s dedication to capturing fond memories of the role echo Roger Ebert’s assessment of the film in question as “vast enterprise marshaled in the service of such a minute idea”.

McConaughey in Reign of Fire (2002).

McConaughey understands some of what distinuishes him as an actor. He is understandably proud of his improvisations (the only part of Greenlights I don’t buy is McConaughey’s suggestion that he himself came up with the term McConaissance while chatting to a journalist). The first time he ever prepared to step in front of a camera wielded a small miracle. In Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), McConaughey so perfectly embodied the character Wooderson, that he comfortably riffed his way into producing (off-screen) his iconic line “Alright, alright, alright”. It’s a moment so magic that McConaughey convinced himself it could be recreated, and decided he didn’t need to fully prepare for most roles. He walked on the set of the road movie thriller Scorpion Spring (1995) not having learned a line of dialogue, only to be warned moments before shooting that he had a whole monologue in Spanish he needed to deliver.

Those insights are rare in Greenlights. McCounaugey spends most of the book on pivot points in his career ― the logistical backstories of being cast in Dazed and Confused, A Time To Kill and Dallas Buyers Club are his key focuses ― but then, like Errol Flynn, he skips over stretches of their filmographies in a single sentence. Flynn sums up a run of his later films flatly:

I made The Adventures of Don Juan, Montana, Mara Maru… I completed Adventures of Captain Fabian, Against All Flags, Master of Ballantrae…”

McConaughey picks up Flynn’s fast-forward remote and runs with it:

I made more films: How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Tiptoes, Sahara, Two for the Money, Failure to Launch and We are Marshall”.

McCounaughey brushes past these films because they form a stretch of time when he was agreeing to act largely for the paycheck. That list is a creative desert in his eyes. Flynn moaned throughout his memoir that he wished he was offered better roles and had had the chance to become a better actor. McConaughey, on the other hand, actually did something about it; he comes up with a strategy to get out of his typecasting in romantic comedies by simply turning them down.

His path towards winning the Academy Award for Best Actor reads like some combination of strategy and workout routine, if only because so much of the effort involved sustained and dramatic weight loss. McConaughey eventually got his reward, and the gamble of turning down the romantic comedy paid off. The Oscars coronation marked the end of the McConaissance (alongside his digital immortalisation as a sobbing meme lifted from one of the most harrowing scenes in Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar [2014]). It was a level of attention that could not realistically be sustained. He has continued making films but few of them have landed like those that came before.

The sobbing Interstellar meme.

Five years after the tapering-out of the McConaissance, however, McConaughey landed a role most adjacent to his public persona. In Harmony Korine’s love letter to the sun-kissed aesthetics of Florida, The Beach Bum (2019), McConaughey plays Moon Dog, a poet with chronic hard-partying problems portrayed in a series of strung together scenes (this isn’t a criticism ― the tatty quality of the film is part of its immense McConaughey-like charm). The plot ― such as it is ― comes into focus after Moon Dog’s wife dies and she refuses him access to her multi-million dollar estate until he finishes and publishes his debut novel.

So the act of writing was on McConaughey’s mind when he was playing the role, and parts of Greenlights could just as well have been authored by mad Moon Dog. After all, the memoir features a gripping retelling of the time McConaughey was arrested in his Austin apartment, nude, high and playing the bongo drums at 2AM, and the police brutality that ensued. In scenes like this one, Greenlights does a solid job of recounting McConaughey’s life to date but ― unlike the actor himself, unlike most actors writing about their lives ― it’s hard not to see his films as building the more convincing portrait of his life. And for an actor like McConaughey, who so often lets his real life persona directly inform his characters, you’ve got to say that’s alright.


Sam Twyford-Moore is the author of The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania, which was released by NewSouth Publishing in 2018 and through North America and the UK by the University of Toronto Press in 2020.

Sam Twyford-Moore