clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Matthew McConaughey, the Texas Minister of Culture, discusses his new book and more

The famous UT alum on “Greenlights,” family, and Texas football.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

By now, I imagine you have heard something about Matthew McConaughey’s new book, “Greenlights.”

The book, which hit shelves in late October and is atop The New York Times bestsellers list, chronicles the life experiences of UT’s most famous alum and fan.

McConaughey, a South Texas native who grew up in Longview, shares details about his family, his upbringing, his life experiences in Austin, making it big in Hollywood, and the trials and tribulations of everything along the way.

The book is written in a familiar cadence — filled with humorous anecdotes and punchlines that deliver. If you want to push back on the believability, you can, but you’d be missing the point.

I spoke with McConaughey on Tuesday night about “Greenlights.” We also talked about his love for Texas football, his time at UT, the pressure of being in the spotlight in your early 20s and why he throws the Horns up backwards.


Appreciate the time and really enjoyed the book. It has a very ‘Texas’ feel to it. Like these stories are clearly ones you’ve been telling for a long time and they deliver a good punchline. Where did these stories come from?

MM: Definitely. I’ve told these stories around many campfires and many dinner parties. But when I put it in the written word — in a book — it’s very different. I thought I could record my best version of the spoken word story, have it transcribed, and that would be the best thing on the page. But what I needed for me was to tighten it — on average 30 percent — shorter than my verbal story.

It’s about picking out the right words. When you read it, you don’t get to pick up on my nonverbal cues, right? You don’t hear my intonation or see my raising of an eyebrow. These stories — like the one about my mom and dad fighting — if you just looked at the facts, would feel like absolute horror stories. But when you see how I tell it, and hopefully how I wrote it, you see their love stories.

So you grew up in South Texas and East Texas, two very different places. Which would you say you’re from? Are you a South Texas guy or an East Texas guy?

MM: You know, I was born in Uvalde, but those formative years — nine to 18 — that’s East Texas. I have got a lot of East Texas in me. And I love East Texas. It’s barbecues and Baptist churches. It’s the shirt off their back. It’s blue collar. And, as most UT fans know, if you want to go recruit some dogs for your football team, there’s nowhere better than East Texas.

At the beginning of the book you highlight the four schools you applied to: Grambling, Duke, SMU, and Texas. One of those on the list is somewhat surprising, but there is also a pretty glaring omission. Being from East Texas, how did A&M not end up on the list?

MM: Well, I was always a Longhorns fan as a kid. And you were either a Longhorn or an Aggie fan.

East Texas, you’re right, has always had a big A&M draw. But, I was always a Longhorn — that was just the side I chose. And our enemy was those guys in maroon. So A&M was never going to be a real choice for me. And I have a lot of family cousins that are Aggies. I probably have more A&M grads in my family than Texas ones.

But that wasn’t me. I was always going to be a Longhorn, never an Aggie. But a lot more of my class went to A&M than went to Texas, I’ll tell you that.

That’s probably a big adjustment, going from Longview to Austin, right? I know there was the year in Australia that split some time from high school to college, but you’re still coming to a big city that’s unfamiliar. What was that like for you?

MM: Longview, it’s part of that pine curtain that we were talking about earlier, but you know, I’ve been all around the world and I’ll run into people that came from Longview. I’m like, ‘How the hell did you get out from behind the pine curtain?’

When I was there, most of the young men and women had dreams of going off to big schools like UT or even Michigan or Penn State. But a lot would end up staying and going to KJC (Kilgore Junior College), and five years later they are working for Stroh’s Brewing Company and end up never leaving. Never getting out. But I see more and more people that get out. And it’s not a bad place to live — it’s a great place to live — but I saw more and more people leave Longview and go fill their passports. And I continue to see it.

You talk a lot about growing up as the youngest of three boys and throughout this book, your brothers play a big part in it, showing up throughout your life as these foundational guys that keep you grounded. I would say the ultimate protagonist in this book ends up being your middle brother Pat. Every time he shows up in this book, it’s like an iconic scene.

MM: [Laughs] Dude, I’m so glad you see that. When I was dealing with my editors, they were like, “I’m not sure these Pat stories hold.” And I said, “No, no, no, no, no. The Pat stories are like your favorite uncle that just shows up to the party sometimes. You know, the holidays where you are like ‘Oh shit, Pat’s here.’”

Did he enjoy these stories ending up in the book?

MM: [Laughs] He’s not a reader, he won’t read this book. He’s never seen any of my movies. It’s part of our relationship. He just loves me. You know, he’s not a media guy. He’s not a reader.

Here is how I’m going to hear from Pat. He’s going to call me up some time in the next couple months, “Man, did you have some conversation or tell someone about me telling the Delta State golf coach I was going to kill him if he called dad about me smoking marijuana? Did you write a book or something?” I mean, that’ll be the conversation.

And look, he knows I wrote a book. I told him, “I’m going to put these stories in this book.” And he says, “Yeah, fine.” But no chance he will ever read it. He will come to me confused, as he has for like the last 20 years.

I tell a story about how my character in “Dazed and Confused was based on an impression of how I saw Pat when I was eight years old. It wasn’t who Pat was, just how I saw him. And for years, he’s come up to me and said, “Yeah, thanks a lot, brother. Tell everybody you based the old guy chasing high school girls on your brother Pat. Thanks a lot, man.”

And I’ll explain that it isn’t who you were, it’s the image of you from when I was eight when I saw you at school.

He shows up often in this book, and each scene with Pat is worth a reread. From going to Vegas and losing money on the Bills to pretending to be blind in Palm Springs to get the dog in the hotel, it’s all gold.

MM: Pat’s a trip. He’s been my lucky charm throughout my life. And that’s probably not surprising to you — you seem to catch that from the book. Since my father passed away, I’m out in Hollywood doing my thing, [oldest brother] Rooster’s out in west Texas peddling pipe. You know, in that time, Mom moved three times. And without me or Rooster even noticing, Pat moved within 15 minutes of Mom every time she moved. She and him are close. They fight like siblings, but love each other like siblings.

And that’s who Pat is. He’s big on dedication, loyalty, and family. And he’s been my lucky charm.

You touch on parts of your UT experience as an upperclassmen in the book, but I’m curious what your first year was like in Austin. Where did you live? What were some things you were doing as a student prior to getting hooked on film school?

MM: Man, well you have to remember I was a year older than my classmates after spending a year abroad in Australia. And I wasn’t sure I even wanted to be in a fraternity. I didn’t want to tie myself down to any one group.

When I moved into the Castilian, neither of my roommates were from Texas. One was from Minnetonka, Minnesota and the other from Montgomery, Alabama. So, I’m just a kid from Longview, I’ve got my Minnesota friend and my Alabama friend, and we’re in Austin, Texas at UT.

Well, we had fun. We’d take those nice cool walks down the drag and go play final lap in the arcade.

And I was a fraternity guy, right. I was a Delt. But I was also the only fraternity guy in film school. I didn’t want to fit into one particular bucket.

Were you a bit of an odd man out being the “film guy?” How did people take it?

MM: No, I was established enough that it wasn’t a big deal. I had some good buddies.

Now, when I came into school, I kept the Australian accent for like, almost a year. And finally, one night, I just dropped it. And we were sitting having dinner in the Delt house. I was up talking to somebody and one of my fraternity brothers stands up and says, “Wait a minute. Anybody notice what the hell’s going on here? McConaughey, what happened to your accent?” I started laughing. I’d been screwing with them for nine months.

But I do keep up with these guys from time to time. Mark Norby, my roommate and pledge brother, he was the type of guy, when we’d be on a party bus, who would unscrew the roof air conditioner and go surf the top of the bus. So after I started working I’d asked him, “Do you want to get paid for some of this dumb shit you do?” And he said, “Well, yeah.” And after that, he moved to Hollywood and became a stunt man. He was my stunt man on Newton Boys in 1996 and has gone on to be one of the top three stunt guys in the business.

But yeah, I had some guys follow me out there.

You also talk about your favorite hangout in the book, The Catfish Station on Sixth Street. It was a little off the beaten path right? How did that become your spot?

MM: Oh yes. That was a spot of mine. I am still close with the owner, Homer Hill.

Catfish Station wasn’t where you were finding the typical Texas fraternity guys, you know, chasing the sorority girls or whatever. I was going off the beaten path a little bit. Looking for a little more culture, you know? So I would go there and listen to jazz music and hang out.

And I talk about it in the book, but I pushed Homer to get me a job there. And I got one. I joined the waitstaff. It was me and then 27 black girls. But I loved it. I also talk a little bit in the book about Tammie.

Tammie was in charge, right? Not a huge fan of yours, though?

MM: No, she liked me. We got along great. Actually, I was doing a radio show the other day and they brought Tammie on the show. It was awesome. She’s now a professor in Houston.

But at Catfish Station, she was the queen bee. And she was happy to show me the ropes, you know? But then she’d point at a customer or a table and say, “See them over there? Don’t even think about serving them.” And it was because they were big tippers, right? Those were Tammie’s customers. I mean, it was mostly black males in there and they didn’t want some white guy serving them anyway.

Tammie reminded me the other day that after a while I did start to develop some regular customers. But I never beat Tammie out in tips. Not one night in probably 150 nights did I ever beat out Tammie.

Anyways, I love Catfish Station. Probably gives you a little more insight as to why I applied to Grambling. And it’s still around. It ended up getting really big.

Going to Los Angeles from Texas in 1992 had to be a pretty radical shift right? Not the traditional path to Houston or Dallas. How did people react? Did that matter?

MM: Yeah, I wasn’t asking permission from anybody. I had done “Dazed and Confused,” my first acting job, and I liked it. People told me I was good at it. I was making $320 a day. I was like shit, man, is this legal? I’d love to do this.

And so, once I graduated, I packed up all my stuff and put it in a U-Haul. Had about $2,000 to my name. I think most of my friends were like, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ But I really wasn’t asking anybody. You know what I mean? I was headed out there alone to give a shot. And it worked out.

With Texas football, I’ve seen you talk about Tom Herman’s push towards alignment. I agree that, on that front, Herman has made some serious strides. I think there is a lot of pushback on where Texas football is right now and that’s just because of the two losses. But, at Texas, you’re in a fishbowl. You’ve got a handful of pay sites and dozens of blogs that capitalize on good times and bad. And with 2020 and the pandemic, there are a lot of uncontrollable outside variables. With all that in mind, do you think Texas is where it needs to be?

MM: I don’t think we are where we need to be. But look, we are where we are. Let me just tell you about my position as both a UT fan and as the Minister of Culture. People ask me all the time: “Hey, can you help? Are you ready for the so-and-so hire? Or can you talk to so-and-so about this-and-that.” And I always tell people: “Look, man. That’s not my place.”

I want to do every single thing I can for every single coach we’ve ever had to help them succeed at this job. Whatever that might entail. However inclusive that is, whether it’s talking to the team or sharing notes or whatever. That’s where I’m coming from. I’m not the guy that goes and says, “Hey, you ought to do this.” I’m not that guy.

You probably have insight into this better than anyone, but how do you help shape and mold a guy, 18 to 22, who is not in a massive spotlight that there isn’t really a way to prepare for? What is that like for some of these players?

MM: I mean, look. Let’s admit it, you know, and [Athletics Director Chris] Del Conte says it. Football is our front porch at Texas. Amen. So if you’re going to come play here, you’re going to be in the fishbowl.

I remember, I had a director on the set of Killer Joe. He told us, “New rule — everybody gets one take.” I had done 54 films. Nobody had ever done this before.

It’s like, “Okay. One take. I’m on. I’m in. Let’s roll.”

If you come to Texas and you think you’re going to have an audition period? Wrong place. If you think you get a second or third take, there is somebody right behind you that is ready to come take your spot. Somebody that wants it — that wants the pressure of having one take and embraces it.

For instance, when that director told us about the one take rule, we had certain people in the cast that squeezed up and got tight. I was somebody who went and laid it all out on every single line the first time, because it was the only time you get.

You know, with all the eyes on you in the fishbowl at Texas, and in today’s world of social media, we have to look outside ourselves to get approval of what we do. And, if the world tells us we did really good, we feel incredible. When the world tells us we suck, we feel worse than we probably should. As 18-to-22 young men and women, our emotions are reliant on other people’s approval or disapproval.

I call this a version of playing in the third person looking at the “proverbial jumbotron.” Like a player returning a kick who looks up at the jumbotron to check out how they look. Caring about the objective of how you look? That isn’t in the ingredients of being a championship-caliber player.

You have to play in the first person. So in the moment, when that game is over at the end of the fourth quarter, you’re running down to the other end of the field because you think it’s the end of the third quarter. You’re ready to keep playing.

In the book, I use a metaphor about Bo Jackson. Bo didn’t just run across the goal line, he ran across the goal line, through the end zone and into the fucking tunnel, you feel me? That’s the mentality everyone needs to have play by play, quarter by quarter, game by game, practice by practice, season by season.

When you play that way, in the first person, the sooner you’ll be able to look up and say, “Oh, we’re Big 12 champions,” or “Oh, we’re national champions.”

I’d imagine that’s the ultimate challenge now. With all the outside noise and distractions, finding a way to manage that and live in the first person is harder than just playing football.

MM: Man, it’s more of a mental game now than it has ever been. And you have to manage playing in the third person to some extent. You can’t just take everyone’s phones or pull their social media accounts, not let them watch TV and force them into a bubble. That’s not going to happen. But the players have to understand that they need to keep their heads down and trust the process. Have a coach say, “Hey, I’ll let you know when the game is over. I’ll let you know.”

In the Alamo Bowl last year against Utah, I remember [Texas defensive tackle] Keondre Coburn getting his helmet ripped off on a play, and then continuing to chase after the man with the ball. Well, TV cuts over to him on the sideline the next play, and you can read his lips, “I didn’t know that was a fucking rule.”

Ha! That’s the mentality, man. Play until it’s over.

I know you include the family, including your three kids (two young boys) in your Texas football experience. What’s it like having kids following something you’re passionate about?

MM: Well, you know, I don’t pressure them into it. It’s fun, though. They get to follow their dad’s passion. They see my passion. They hear me talk about my favorite stories. They’ve met some of the players and met some of the coaches, right?

My youngest, Livingston, has really good athletic ability. His favorite guy was Lil’Jordan Humphrey. That was his guy, man. He loves Lil’Jordan. He always finds some guys on the team to follow that may not be the traditional stars or what have you. But he always likes these guys for the right reasons.

Levi, my oldest, looks at the game more like an architect. He loves watching plays unfold. Livingston loves the players, the guys that go catch the ball in the middle of traffic, run over some guys or take a big hit and hop right back up. He loves that.

They are around it — it’s getting ingrained. They’ll make their choice at some point but they are already heavy-duty Longhorn fans. The whole family is heavy duty.

One last thing, and I don’t mean for this to be a ‘gotcha’ question. People have noticed that you throw the Horns up backwards. Why is that?

MM: They are not backwards! I am so glad you asked me this. They are not backwards.

And look, some people are going to go, “What? I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

OK, look man. Let me give an example. I’ve got a wedding ring, man. It’s a symbol for my wife and it’s got my favorite bible verse on it, Matthew 6:22. “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” Now, I wear that 6:22, where I can read it. It’s for me, not you. You follow?

This is the other thing about the Horns, okay. It’s a four-dimensional symbol! It’s for me and everybody behind me as well.

Well, that is a good point. There are people behind you as well. I hadn’t considered that.

Yes. It’s four dimensional. It’s not two dimensional. It’s from every angle, man. It has a front and a back side. I don’t have it up backwards, though. You may be looking at it from the backside of it, but it’s the front side to me and everyone else behind me. You know, the other half of the world.

You can find out more about McConaughey’s book at www.greenlights.com. You should read it — it’s good.