IAR INTERVIEW: Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner Talk 'Dallas Buyers Club'

Thursday, 31 October 2013 09:43 Written by  iamrogue
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IAR INTERVIEW: Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner Talk 'Dallas Buyers Club'

Probably the most deceptive description of Dallas Buyers Club, in limited release this Friday, is that it's a Ghosts of Girlfriends Past reunion.

The acclaimed drama does indeed star Matthew McConaughey (Mud, Magic Mike) and Jennifer Garner (Juno, The Odd Life of Timothy Green), but Dallas Buyers Club is a far, far different film from that high concept comedy.

Dallas Buyers Club has earned almost unanimous acclaim on the festival circuit for its portrait of one man's response to an unprecedented modern plague and his own mortality.  McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a real-life Texas shitkicker, electrician, rodeo junkie, and ladies' man who was diagnosed with HIV and given one month to live in 1985.  During those prejudicial days when the virus was thought of almost exclusively as a homosexual disease, Woodroof found his assumptions upended, but more importantly, he endeavored to survive by any means necessary.  Seeking out treatments not yet approved by the FDA, Woodroof traveled the world securing non-toxic alternative therapies, which he then shared with his fellow HIV-positive patients via the titular "buyers club."

Garner, meanwhile, plays the supporting role of Dr. Eve Saks, a medical professional whose sympathy for Ron leads to an unconventional friendship.  It's just one of the standout performances in the film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria).  Also receiving a lot of attention is Jared Leto (Fight Club) as Rayon, an HIV-infected transsexual who becomes Ron's partner in crime and an invaluable ally.

Both Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner were in attendance at a recent Los Angeles press day for Dallas Buyers ClubIAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick was on hand to talk with the enthusiastic stars as they discussed their characters, different types of research, physically transforming for a role, playing off of Jared Leto, the production's unconventional methods, and the lessons to be learned from Dallas Buyers Club.

McConaughey has been earning no small amount of praise for a string of outstanding performances lately, and his work as Ron Woodroof represents a new artistic peak for the actor. "This character had – if we didn't make the movie until tomorrow, I could've had plenty of work to do from then all the way to now," McConaughey said of finding his groove in the role. "I didn't want to lose any more weight though. But the guy had such an identity, and he was fighting for...what's the highest common denominator you can fight for? Your life. So when you have someone doing that, when you have a bull-riding electrician with a seventh-grade education who becomes a scientist basically, becomes an expert on his own disease and how to maintain and continue his own life, which turns out to continue it for others, at the inception of a time when this disease came on – which nobody knew what to do, the doctors didn't know what to do."

"And he was all the things that I think we portrayed him to be. He was that bastard. He was selfish. He wanted to make money. He wasn't running around trying to crusade for the cause, he wanted to be Scarface, man," he continued. "What he had always wanted before he had HIV. He wanted money. He wasn't making any, and he didn't really have a purpose before he got HIV, which is a sad truth. And he found something to fight for. I don't know. I identified with that and I was very early in this process looking through this guy's eyes from the inside-out. I had felt like I wasn't looking in the rear-view mirror. It wasn't a character where I'm going, 'Oh you think?' Things were very clear and I had a lot of information to work off of from all the hours of tapes of his, and then I've said this before but his family gave me his diary. And that was incredibly informative because that let me know who the guy was before he got HIV, and it let me know who the guy was when he was sitting with himself and not selling something, not showing something, not trying to get something. Lonely Saturday nights when he was just doodling and actually getting high, trying to figure out if he could just get traction out of a little something. He couldn't finish anything. He couldn't finish a relationship with a woman. He couldn't finish a job. He was a wonderful electrician but people wouldn't hire him because he was so meticulous. Instead of somebody else could do it in eight hours, but you might have to call him back because it broke. He'd take fifty hours but you never had to call him back because it was set. And so first thing he was allowed to grab a hold of and say, 'I'm gonna finish' was 'I'm gonna finish figuring out how to stay alive.' So he found a line, ironically, through getting sick."

While McConaughey dove into researching Woodroof himself, Garner focused more on the disease itself and the medical reaction to it, saying, "My research was much more about HIV and AIDs, and what Eve was in the middle of learning. So I just got all these medical journals, just every medical journal I could find from '81 to '88, and I read for an hour a day and hid away somewhere from kids and would read. And also, everything that the public was being fed as well. By the way, never once did I read about a Buyers Club in any of those. This truly was a hidden part of our history. But I loved watching the puzzle pieces getting put together. And I have so much respect, a whole new amount of respect for the medical minds in our country who are working on diseases. And you feel like, 'Wow if they can figure this out. I mean, this is tricky. I don't understand any of it,' but I read enough of it to say, 'Okay. In '85, something was discovered that they didn't know in '81, and in '88, they built on that, and look at what they found out.' And it was really cool actually. I really loved it."

Since Dallas Buyers Club is inspired by real individuals, the production could avail itself of the knowledge of individuals who were actually involved. "Now obviously, I've got a nice relationship with his daughter and his sister, and they were wide open," McConaughey said. "They were so gracious in letting me into his life and their life. And they were very honest. They weren't trying to ever sugarcoat who this guy was, that never came out of their mouth. 'But he was such a nice guy.' They're like, 'No, he was a son-of-a-bitch, but we loved him. You couldn't help but love him. He'd steal your car and, but you couldn't help but just love him 'cause of it 'cause it's kind of just who he was.' And that was a real approach with attacking this guy's blasphemic sort of P.O.V. And Jean-Marc and I talked about it a lot through the movie, and Jean would go, 'Are we going too far?' I was like, 'Trust it, man. I think we've got to trust that's who the guy is.' And if you see someone in life like that, you may not like him but there comes a point where you go, 'That's just who they are, man' and you kind of tolerate and go, 'Well, everyone's got a different walk. Everyone handles things differently.' So it was very human but yet I don't know that I 'know him,' but I sure was given plenty of insight into who he was."

Much has been made of the famously physical actor's dramatic weight-loss to play Woodruff as his body deteriorates.  McConaughey shed roughly fifty pounds for the role, but he was characteristically enthusiastic and upbeat in describing the process, saying, "You know how they say that we only use 10% of our brain so there's a 90% well of reserves that we haven't even tapped into, so to speak? The body's the same thing. There are certain parts on a cellular level that I could feel that because we're able to feed ourselves in our regular life where, on a cellular level, we've got a lot of cells sleeping in the dugout, a lot of those cells that are snoozing in the bullpen. And when you don't feed them, all of a sudden they kind of rustle awake and go, 'Hey, what's going on?' And then after another week or two they're like, 'Hey, I've gotta get up and get ready, huh?' and they go to work. And so regeneratively I found that we have a huge well of reserve energy, and that our body can live off itself for much longer than – and, mind you, I was eating good food. I was eating controlled, good food, but small amounts."

"Any time I got real hungry I was like, 'Well, you're not in a concentration camp.' Anytime I got really hungry I was like, 'Well, you're not starving over in Africa somewhere. Come on, it ain't no big deal.' And it really wasn't because my mind was made up," he continued. "What happened though, which was really cool and unexpected, all of the energy, say I lost 40% energy from my neck down, that 40% got added to the neck up. My brain became clinically sharp. I had to watch the edges. That's who Ron was, though, which informed that. But I had to watch the edges with people in my real life, because I was just like a surgeon. And also, like I said, I wasn't really going outside and getting sunshine because I needed to stay pale, so what was I doing? How many hours a day where I'd be out doing something, instead I come inside. Read, write, research. So the diet put up the structure for me to go do – and I asked myself, I was like, 'Well, this is kind of what Ron was doing. He was a meticulous researcher. He went and found out his own stuff. Okay, well this will inform. I don't know how it will inform but it will inform.' So it was a very sort of introverted five months, but it was wonderful."

On the heels of his work in films like Bernie and Killer Joe, Garner was eager to once again collaborate with her Ghosts of Girlfriends Past co-star. "It was a big part of why I wanted to do the film was to work with him again," she said. "I had such a great experience before, and I knew – I mean, he had this kind of crazy work ethic and dedication and charisma and openness in a scene in this little fluffy, romantic comedy. So I could only imagine what it would be like to work with him now, especially with the way that his work has been. It reminded that we really should all be working in repertory companies because that comfort on day one, was so nice. It just felt like I could relax into him, and I knew that he knew that I was there for him. And I did feel that. I felt like I was there for him in a really big way in the whole movie. I was there to support him, and Jared came in, and we all kind of went, 'Oh, he's doing this. Okay. He's not joking around.'"

So complete was the 30 Seconds to Mars frontman's transformation as Rayon that Garner has been thrown by her subsequent encounters since filming, when he stayed in character. "It's still weird to be with Jared. I like Rayon a lot. I miss her," she said. "But Jared, I always thought staying in character always sounded a little ooga-booga, but it was not at all. It felt totally organic and natural. And he wasn't doing it to try to get attention. To have that voice come out of you and to have the dialect come out of you, his whole body, he just was her. It absolutely made sense, and it felt much more strange to try to talk to him. I didn't know what to say to him. I felt like, 'So, how have you been?' 'Good.' We're just now starting to feel like, 'Oh, right. We can still joke around.' But yeah, the first time that I hung out with Jared, in Toronto, and last night, we were doing a Q & A, and I would watch him talk. And every now and then, I'd be like, 'Oh, that's Rayon under there.' Because now, he has a beard. 'Oh, there's Rayon. I miss Rayon.'"

Their director's approach facilitated these powerful performances, building the production around immediacy, stripping away much of the pomp and circumstance that typically accompanies films with such recognizable movie stars. As Garner explained, "I've never had a more pure experience because we didn't have to wait for the lights to be turned around. We didn't have to wait for camera to set up. It was on Eve's shoulder. The only way, when we did that scene in the restaurant together, there were four candles and votives on the table. And it was a dark restaurant. And this new camera, this Alexa camera can pick up any kind of light. So they said, 'Okay. We're ready to go.' And Matthew and I were like, 'Well, they have to light this scene. Definitely, we're going to light.' And they just pushed the lights in front of the candles, kind of around Matthew, four in a kind of semicircle. And said, 'Okay. Rolling.' We did the scene, and before they ever said, 'Cut.' He went and stood behind Matthew, pushed the lights over to me, and said, 'Okay. Keep going.' And so it had this real intimacy and it felt like just people out to dinner because there weren't all these people behind Matthew. There was just one dude, standing there with a camera on his shoulder. No lights. No flags. No bounces. Nothing. That was it."

Though Dallas Buyers Club takes place nearly three decades ago, Garner pointed to its contemporary relevance in answering a question from our man Philbrick, saying the film highlights "the fact that AIDs needs to be part of the conversation in America. It has not gone away. Fifty thousand people a year still contracting AIDs in the United States. Two million people die a year in the world. It is definitely education and prevention and research that all need to be ongoing. So that it is true, and then the other thing that's just interesting historically is before the AIDs crisis, if this doctor told you to do something, they were God, and you did it. But because of people like Ron Woodroof, this was the beginning of patient empowerment."

On a more personal note, McConaughey was asked what he learned in playing Ron Woodroof.  He replied, "It reminded when you want something done right, do it yourself. Don't wait around for someone to help you out. Just rattle the tree. Not that he questioned authority. He condemned certain authority. And he loved this phrase, he always said – he says it in the movie I think – he goes, 'They're not illegal. They're just not approved.' And he goes, 'It's not disproven. It's just unproven.' So he had a pretty commonsensical take on 'Why the hell wouldn't you allow us, me to take these, all of us to take these drugs that are working.' He kept going, 'Look at my research. Look at my research.' And so, what happened? What does he do? If you look at it historically, I'd say he shook the tree well enough to where, you know – I mean, the government's got a stack of special interest to people trying to get stuff done. Well, you shake that tree loud enough and you succeed in your own black market, HIV medication is going to move to the top of the stack to shut this guy off."

Dallas Buyers Club opens in limited release this Friday, November 1st, and will expand to more theaters over the weeks to come.

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