For “Dallas Buyers Club” stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, less ultimately did become more.
In the film – which dramatizes the real-life 80s-era story of Ron Woodruff, a homophobic, hard-partying cowboy and electrician who, after a terminal HIV diagnosis becomes a tireless activist bucking the prevailing medical stances to import new, unapproved anti-viral treatments for AIDS patients like himself – both actors pushed their physical commitments to their increasingly emaciated characters to the limits, and as a result delivered instant career-high performances.
“They’re big boys and they went wild by themselves,” says the film’s director Jean-Marc Valee, who admits he was stunned when both actors first revealed the lengths they’d gone to in their bid to embody their roles.
McConaughey, who’s experienced sex symbol status throughout his career and even sent up his image as strip club owner Dallas in “Magic Mike,” admits that he surprised even himself with just how much weight he lost in pursuit of Woodruff’s essence. Going even further than he initially expected, McConaughey discovered exactly how much his frail form affected his mental performance.
“Physically I just lost all leverage – I'm a physical guy, I like to move around. Contact sports, climbing, whatever activities would be much more fatiguing,” says McConaughey, who was 182 lbs. at the start of his preparation. “The hardest part mentally was just at the inception – it was like two days, and then it was easy. My goal was definitely get to 145 [lbs.], and then see where we are.' But I didn't know – I'd never been that low, so I think that's where the body's going to be.” Ultimately, though, he would drop down even further, to an almost skeletal 132 lbs.
He was also surprised to discover an unexpected side effect: the frailer he became physically, his mental facilities came into ever-sharper focus. “Say I lost 40% energy from my neck down – that 40% got added to the neck up,” he says. “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.”
“It was the kind of thing where you could say ‘Matthew, what is the square root of 400,568?’ and he would know,” marvels co-star Jennifer Garner. “He was sharp. He was really on top of his game. If you said, 'Could you do the monologue from scene 15 of ‘A Time to Kill,' he could have done it. He was really clear about everything. And we just didn't spend energy on anything but the actual task at hand.”
Much like Woodruff, McConaughey channeled much of the energy he previously devoted to physical pursuits to mental stimulation. “I wasn't really going outside and getting sunshine because I needed to stay pale,” he says. “However many hours a day where I'd be out doing something, instead I came inside: read, write, research. 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.”
When Leto arrived to shoot his scenes – after five years away from film to focus on his band 30 Seconds to Mars – he demonstrated that he, too, was aiming for something ambitious. As the HIV-positive transvestite Rayon, he not only had to shed a significant amount of weight – earlier in his career the actor gained 67 lbs. to play John Lennon’s killer Mark David Chapman in “Lonely Hearts” – but chose to remain in character throughout the shooting schedule. Remembers Garner: “Jared came in, and we all kind of went, 'Oh, he's doing this. Okay. He's not joking around.'”
“I never met Jared before [a few weeks ago] – he was always Rayon,” adds Valee. “The first time I Skyped with him he had a wig on, red lipstick, a dress, and he was talking like Rayon and he never got out of it.”
“For this, the severity of the transformation was so extreme, I had to hold onto as much as I could,” says Leto (below). “Maybe a better actor would have been able to let go of the voice and the dialect and the behavior, the movement, the circumstances, and the emotional condition and been able to recall that at a moment's notice when the director yelled, 'action.' But that doesn't really work for me. I had to stay as close as possible, really, just so I could do a good job. That was the motivation, so I could contribute in the best way possible.”
“Sometimes you can find a way in through the outside, and that's interesting,” Leto adds of immersing himself the look of a character. “But in this case, there wasn't one part of it that was frivolous. Everything kind of had its purpose, from waxing my eyebrows to losing 30, 40 pounds. It all played a part…[And] It's kind of hard to let go because you make an enormous commitment, and any time you commit like that, at least for me, it's hard to stop.”
“It's still weird to be with Jared,” confirms Garner. “I like Rayon a lot. I miss her. With 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.”
“They got me out of my comfort zone,” admits Valee of his stars’ extreme approaches. “I’m a less-is-more director and I’m aiming for “Hey guys, let’s make it real.’ And here I am in front of these two actors. A homophobic, racist cowboy and a transvestite, colorful drag queen and so they were doing almost more-is-more.” Even though he sought to mitigate some of the intensity of the actors by shooting scenes at lower energy or from a cinematic distance, “in the cutting room I was surprised to use the takes where they were doing more-is-more. So it was a lesson.”
Now earning critical acclaim and early Oscar buzz alongside Leto, McConaughey admits his choices in “Dallas Buyers Club,” as well as other redefining performances in “Mud,” “Killer Joe” and “Magic Mike,” were consciously designed to challenge his own expectations, telling himself. “’Let's shake things up a little bit. Let's scare yourself, McConaughey, and jump in pools that we don't know what's on the other side.’"
"Dallas Buyers Club" opens in select theaters on Nov. 1.