Matthew McConaughey has broken out of his romcom hero bubble to star in a string of against type films that have really showcased the actor’s range, with “Bernie”, “Magic Mike” and now “Killer Joe”.
In Tracy Letts’ play turned film, when a debt puts a young man’s life in danger (Emile Hirsch), he turns to putting a hit out on his evil mother in order to collect the insurance. Enter Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) in this NC-17 rated Cinderella story, and one of the most memorable films of 2012.
We caught up with Matthew McConaughey and playwright Tracy Letts at a roundtable when the film premiered at SxSW to talk about “that” chicken bone scene with Gina Gershon, what makes a great director, and the pressure of only being given one take.
There is this really interesting dichotomy to Joe where you see this calm and coolness about him, but he is also very much an animal. And you see him being polite, did you and Friedken talk about that? That he was the only one with rules in the movie, yet he could be an absolute animal.
MATTHEW: Yes we talked about it – order, structure and family were the three major things for Joe. What he does can be very horrific or animalistic, but it’s a business. This is what he does and this is the rules and when things get thrown out of order he has to re-tilt the scale to get in back in order, or try to. And in a very destructive way. The first two acts he keeps things very internal, and then when it’s time to become really animal and go outward, he steamrolls that all the way through, which all happens in the trailer in one long scene really.
What made you decide to translate this from the stage to film?
TRACY: I wanted to see the movie made! I wanted to work with Billy again, we had such a good time with “Bug”, we enjoyed each other’s company and found that we were like-minds and like-tastes. This had been kicking around for 20 years, the play is more than 20 years old, and people had been talking for a long time about making this into a movie, it had been through the ringer in Hollywood, but Billy is the kind of guy who does what he says he’s going to do. He said ‘I want to make a movie of this’ and boom it happened. He’s a man of his word and got it put together. I wanted to see the movie happen so I could see this thing reach a larger audience than I can reach in the theatre.
Were you on set while it was being filmed?
TRACY: Never. I was doing a play at the time, but I was never on set for “Bug” either and I think it’s probably better in a way, I would just be pulling on Billy’s sleave saying ‘he didn’t say that line properly’. Writers can be precious [laughs]
Usually in films fight scenes are paired by gender – guys with guys and girls with girls
TRACY: What are those films? [laughs]
Did you talk with Gina before the fight scene, it very much looks like her and not a stunt double
MATTHEW: Yes no stunt doubles. Those scenes are partially a spacial thing. Let’s get the distance right, where do I need to end up, do I flip the table, then I need to get over to the counter, you go through where the problems are going to be. There are spots there where my shins were going to get hacked up so I had things for that, but you don’t want to get too technical about it because then you’re aiming for it and thinking about it. But you protect the spaces. You walk through it, make it look real, and there’s little tricks that you learn along the way that I find fun. And a similar kind of violence, domestic violence, have you ever seen “Once Were Warriors”? It’s a couple of shots, that’s how fights really are, it’s a couple of good blows and that’s it. It’s not the big street fights that go on for 20 minutes. And there’s great ways to edit. When Joe hits her, then it really takes a turn, but that’s a lot of things, it’s sound, it’s the edit.
Can you continue that on to the chicken bone scene? How did you feel about it as an actor?
MATTHEW: It was definitely one of those ‘go-for-it’ scenes, it was really scary and really fun. It wasn’t a scene where you put a ceiling on it, we wanted to blow the top off. We knew it was coming up but we hadn’t really talked about it, and when the time came we shot it and as soon as Billy yelled ‘cut’ everyone was howling and laughing. And then you drop down and you go ‘Gina are you okay?’ [laughs].
There were really long scenes in this movie, and Billy is very much a one take director, had you worked like this before?
MATTHEW: No, this was the beginning for me, well I had worked like that before but not at this level, and that’s intimidating if you haven’t done it before. Now it’s become a preference for me. If you know you’ve got five takes, there’s just something in the human body that strolls through the first couple to find your way, but if you don’t have that option, you get up to speed, it’s that survival mechanism. It was a good lesson, because I’ll do 50 takes, I’ll go all day. If the director is like ‘Do you want another take’ I’m like ‘Yeah I’ll do another one’. But it’s not necessary, and if people know what they’re doing, have a few rehearsals, the first one’s usually the best. Unless you lose yourself and they say it’s great but you’re like ‘No, I caught myself acting, can I get one more.’ But it’s fun doing one, it’s vital, and there’s an energy on the set, let’s all get it right – the camera, the lighting. It’s on, it’s live. This is our one time.
You have an athletic background. Did it feel like playing a sport, with similar levels of adrenaline?
MATTHEW: I try to get it right and I like to win, but I learned very early that doesn’t mean you hit grand slams every time. I’ve had some performances where I was like ‘Geez, it feels like I’m hitting a grand slam with every one of them’, and my lady is like ‘Yeah hun, you need to just get some bunts and some singles’ [laughs]. But the athletic part goes to those fight scenes, which is the spacial sense to sell those, and I enjoy that. It’s movement, even fight scenes can be done with grace yet still seem out of control.
You’ve worked with some really great filmmakers, Jeff Nichols, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, now Billy Friedkin, is there one through line that you’ve noticed that makes for a good collaboration and also a good film?
MATTHEW: As Billy has said, if you’ve got the right material, got the right people, if it’s working back out of the way, let it run. Every actor wants to be on fire, feel like they’ve got 16 lanes in the right direction, and if you have an actor that’s doing this then let them go. The best directors I’ve worked with let that happen. I’ve worked with directors where it’s going great, but they just feel like they have to implement themselves or they’re not directing. The ‘I’ve got to go interrupt this thing’ and come and say something intellectual or actor farty kind of thing, and if it’s working, and maybe it’s a little different to what they’ve conceived in their head, but if it gets you from A to B, and you buy it, it’s true, go with it. Of all those ones you brought up, Jeff Nichols would be the most linear, this adds up to this, Soderbergh is also very much one take, next, and Rick [Linklater] is like ‘Yeah, do you want another one?’ or if you’re like this didn’t quite hit the screws then ‘Yeah we’ll talk about it’ or he’ll write a comment if he wants something different. Billy would throw in certain things, but Billy and I didn’t have a lot of conversation. We got that done before we started shooting, we got that done in rehearsal. And I think by the time you’re there shooting, I suppose every good director would want to be telling their actors ‘You got it, it’s you.’ Because you already did that work.
I’ve read that many actors, when they sit down and watch the completed version of their film, it doesn’t really match up to what they had envisioned. But with this film, with so many one shot takes, one go through, there isn’t really a lot of options to take the film in a different direction.
MATTHEW: Oh yes, absolutely, if you work with someone who’s doing ten takes, suppose you’re working with [David] Fincher you’re doing a lot more than that, you’re knowing wow, what movie are they going to make? We weren’t laying out a bunch of options, Billy didn’t have four films he could go back to the editing room and make. I’ve been on movies, like with “Ed TV” Ron Howard was like ‘I could make four films’. The first cut was four and a half hours. So which one are you going to make? The thing with acting in them is when you first go see it, no matter what it’s tough because every frame is a history lesson. You go back in time, and you remember everything that day, and you’re doing the math and then you hit the next frame. So you’re not really a voyeur sitting back watching. But this one, that’s a good point, it was laid down, there weren’t too many options. We didn’t do it in Spanish [laughs].
“Killer Joe” recently screened at the Sydney International Film Festival, and is now showing in limited release in New York and L.A. Go see it if you can.