SxSW: Matthew McConaughey talks Bernie


“Dazed and Confused” duo  – director Richard Linklater and Matthew McConaughey reunite for “Bernie”, the small town Texas true story of a good man who had a bad day.

Taking part in a round table discussion at SxSW where the film premiered, Linklater and McConaughey talk small town gossip, working with your Mum, their partying lifestyles and where they’ve come from since “Dazed and Confused”.


How long ago did you find the article that inspired the movie?

Richard: I read it when it came out in the ‘Texas Monthly’ in 1998. I immediately called the writer, Skip, and we started talking about the story, and at that point there hadn’t been a trial. At that point it looked like Bernie was maybe going to get off. That was sort of the angle of the article that they weren’t going to be able to get a prosecution. So I went to the trial and went to the whole process. It’s all very personal to me, I saw what the jury looked like and a lot of the dialogue, what Matthew’s character says in the trial I saw that first hand.

Did the material from the townspeople come from actual interviews?

Richard: Skip, in his journalistic work doing that article, just had a big file full of interviews.

And were they actors who represented the townspeople in the movie?

Richard: The people are a floating mix of actors, people in the area who didn’t know Bernie personally but maybe knew of the story, and we liked their characters, and then there are people who were neighbours and knew them. But a lot of those jokes were actually in those transcripts of interviews Skip had done. I got that idea of ‘town gossips’ reading all that because if you think about it, Miss Nugent is not around, Bernie is in jail, so the story is absorbed through that way. And I thought, I’ve never seen a movie told its story through town gossips in that way, and that’s really strong in a small town. It’s a huge social element. I thought it was appropriate, and it kept our budget low [laughs].

How did your Mum get involved Matthew, did she just want to do the movie?

Richard: I’ve known her a long time now [laughs]. I called up Matthew first; I just said to Matthew ‘I’ve got a great part for Kay’, because you were in the movie, and I said is that okay? So he gave approval.

Matthew: I didn’t know the day she was filming. I saw my Mum on the set and I thought she was there to support me or something, and then she sat down I was like ‘You’re the person I’m talking to?’

Richard: It was a great scene I think! Because she could so easily be someone who gets in your business.

Matthew: She did good.

Matthew, your character I feel, is the voice of reason in this film, I wonder if you can talk about you know the importance of being the guy who tells everyone else they are nuts.

Matthew: That’s what was really interesting about the whole story. Cases are moved, they try to get them moved all the time, because they don’t think they can get an acquittal. This one was moved so they could try to get a guilty verdict. I don’t know any other cases like that. You talk about where you get the information from and Marjorie has already passed on, and Bernie’s in prison, so we get the impression of these people, and their responses are like ‘Well she must have had it coming’ or “It must have been self defence.’ And Danny’s like well he came in and said he did it. That’s clear. But they could only hear what they wanted to hear. That justification and Danny gets in there and as any good prosecutor would, paints a different picture that may or may not be true for the audience – the jury. Whether he believes that or not, that’s really not what prosecutors and defenders do, they work to get the verdict they are after. So he kind of exaggerated I think the real Bernie. Bernie wasn’t a serial killer but that was part of this ‘Angel of Death’ picture he was painting, you know, who knows how many corpses are in his past, you know, lock your doors at night. And it worked.

This is not really the kind of role people associate you with, were you seeking something different or was it just a great script?

Matthew: I’ve tried to stay fluid with my career choices; I was looking for something off beat, different, not straight down the line comedy. I love to work with Rick and when he’s got something I’ll always work something out. I’ve just done five independents. They’re better stories, more interesting stories for me right now. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to do more studio pictures or more romantic comedies down the line. They’re fun in a different way.

Do you feel like they challenge you more as an actor?

Matthew: Romantic comedies challenge me more [laughs].

Matthew a lot has changed since you first worked with Richard. You’ve fathered two children, about to get married, back in the day I can imagine what the parties were like, how has the party life changed now that you’re a father?

Matthew: Well they go an hour longer. [laughs]. I’m actually a practicing monk now. The kids dance with us now man.

Richard: We watch the Super Bowl together, there’s just kids incorporated into the fun and party.

Richard, when you first met Matthew on “Dazed and Confused” did you know, did you think he’s going to be a big star one day?

Richard: I actually don’t think that way about people. I definitely thought he was an interesting guy and I wanted to hang out with him, make a movie with him, but it was when Matthew came to me and said ‘I’ve been thinking about maybe going out to LA’, I was like oh, good. I had to hear your ambition, I didn’t know. When he drove out there and about 12 hours later and went to his first audition and got the part, was I surprised? No, because I knew that would happen. It was just what he wanted. I know a lot of people who go out there and struggle for years, but nothing Matthew has ever done has surprised me.

What is it like working together again?

Richard: It’s awesome.

Matthew: We’ve got real trust in each other. He brings out the best in me; I like to listen to him. I didn’t go study Danny Buck to play Danny Buck, I read it, had an impression, then got it from you [Richard] and I didn’t want to go and get it finite, and there was enough imagination going. It’s a very affirmative relationship. We have a real short hand. Its fluid, I’ve always said from the beginning, on “Dazed”, there’s not a demarcation from behind the camera to in front of the camera. It’s just an easy flow, and it’s very fun for an actor, and creative, to do it that way.

Richard: I love getting those calls from Matthew too, as he’s building up the character, it’s just fun.

In “Dazed and Confused”, Matthew’s character, how much of it was you, Richard, and how much of it was Matthew?

Richard: It was me, Matthew, and Matthew’s older brother [laughs]. He wasn’t scripted to be out at the beer bus much less at the end of the movie, but Matthew came in and just worked the script around it to include him.

Matthew: When you get a line as definitive as ‘That’s what I love about girls in High School, I get older but they stay the same age’, you go, well who is that guy? We could follow this guy for ten years and he could be the star of his own show. He thinks that way, he takes that line literally.

Richard: First thing you ever told me, you were like ‘I’m not this guy, but I know this guy’. In the audition he became that guy.

Thank you, you know I actually have written in my notes “Get Matthew to say that line from “Dazed and Confused”! Was there a moment like you for your character in this film?

Matthew:  The click with being a prosecutor was sitting this guy down, and it was all about justice. All the talk and all the rhetoric, it was all about right and wrong.

Is this fun for you since you studied law?

Matthew: Yeah it’s really fun. I usually agree with the opposite of what I am playing, I agree with the defence, so it was fun.

Do you think Bernie should be released now, not being a threat to society?

Richard: Based on what this was to me, clearly a domestic thing, Bernie’s not a psychopath, sociopath, more temporary insanity – and some people argue that there is no such thing – but I do think it was a case of a heightened onetime event, which you know, like the cases where a wife shoots her husband in his sleep you just go ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’ It’s so complex the psychology involved and it took me getting to know Bernie to put the last pieces of the puzzle together. I feel like I finally figured out their relationship, and we tried to say it in the movie, Bernie really is the nicest guy, and it would have hurt Miss Nugent too much for him to leave her, and he tried, he was the only person she had in the world. But there was another part of his psyche that clearly couldn’t go on. And you know people get 10 – 25 years for something like this, he clearly had to do time, but I think he went from potentially getting too light a sentence, which was how the magazine article was leading, to getting a really extremely harsh sentence.

“Bernie” will hit select theatres in New York and L.A. on Friday (April 27)!