Q&A: True Detective’s Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, the Laurel and Hardy of Existential Despair
If you’re looking to further chill the cockles of your heart this snow-swept January, HBO has something frosty mixing in its cocktail shaker: brutal, ritualistic murder with a dash of nihilist buddy comedy. True Detective premieres this weekend, the latest offering in so-dark-you-need–high beams–just-to-see-it prestige television. Intended as a possible American Horror Story–like anthology series, True Detective intrigues on several levels. Namely, novelist and The Killing alum Nic Pizzolatto wrote the whole eight hours himself, which was then entirely directed by up-and-coming auteur Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre). So, it’s pretty much an eight-hour genre mega-movie. But the most intriguing element by far? Real-life movie star BFFs Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are together at last as Louisiana detectives Martin Hart and Rust Cohle, respectively.
Some will be disappointed this isn’t the Point Break–inspired passion project they’ve been yearning for. But McConaughey is high off his hot streak playing any role but what you’d expect; and Harrelson, well, he’s Woody Harrelson. Judging solely from the preview episodes HBO doled out, the show’s worth watching if only for these two stuck in a car driving across endless Louisiana horizons. The genre’s well served, and there’s plenty of crisscrossing flashbacks to boggle you; but as you watch, what you appreciate most is the bleak odd-couple routine at its heart. So, we couldn’t turn down a two-on-one interview with McConaughey and Harrelson in person, and they didn’t disappoint. Harrelson plodded into the well-appointed Four Seasons suite rumpled and grinning, chewing on some quinoa-beet concoction while McConaughey practically danced on the couches with his now iconic exuberance. What followed was equal parts manic and meandering — and wholly entertaining.
For all the genre twists and story beats, what I enjoyed most about the first three episodes was the chemistry between you two. You guys are like the Laurel and Hardy of existential thriller despair.
McConaughey: I’m glad you got the Laurel and Hardy part!
Harrelson: I like that statement.
Seriously, where did that come from?
McConaughey: I mean, what Nic wrote gave clear identities to the characters and tone. So basically it was going off the source material there. I, then, personally for Rust Cohle thought, OK, where is this guy coming from? There was one line I got to understand and be turned on by the guy. When he says, “I’m what philosophers call a pessimist,” and I added, “But I consider myself a realist.” That was not just a line for me; that was an understanding of my guy. He’s not a guy looking for the black in the world — no, the black is the light, and we’re stuck here in this fucking shithole of an existence. Cohle’s being a realist: He believes he’s an absolute realist, not a cynic. That’s what tapped me into the humanity of the guy. Don’t play an attitude; don’t play a guy who’s negative. Play a guy who’s not trying to sell anybody on anything, he’s just saying how it is and if you want to come by what he’s thinking, you’re welcome. If you do not, then do not. He’s a bit of an island of a man.
Harrelson: That’s a good sell-up for your character: “If you want to believe it, hey, yeah; if you don’t, no problem.”
McConaughey: There’s an ambiguity that is very existential in the guy. He’s very specific but you’re like, “How many more things can you be like this about?” Which leads to what we were talking about earlier, the comedy comes from the exasperation of “Dude, shut up.” “Well, you asked — you wanted to talk.” But no one’s selling.
It was also surprising to see Woody play the straight man, comparatively speaking. It’s not what I think first when I think Woody Harrelson.
Harrelson: It was definitely an unusual experience for me and I really liked it, you know. It’s not even — it’s so weird to have this kind of relationship with this guy. Obviously we’ve been friends a long time. So, it’s strange in the context of playing the two characters, trying to foray into his frontiers and it’s just a wall everywhere you go. It’s a wild way of trying to relate to each other because it’s so different from how we relate to each other. But I like that, you know?
So when you do stuff like this, does the real-world relationship ever seep in?
McConaughey: Well, I mean, I don’t know what goes on between Woody and I unspoken. I know there’s a completely different physicality to it. Woody and I are physical with each other, but that would have been a false note [here]. Cohle would’ve just been like … [gives distant eyes]. You know? It would’ve been another five seconds between lines. There are things like that in the relationship that’s some of the most interesting stuff, but it’s not said. There’s this wall there, but yet they’re trapped together. I know half the stuff for me is saying stuff out the window.
Harrelson: But I like that nonverbal stuff. Like, I like that thing when you come drunk [to dinner] and then you stay, even though you’re supposed to go. And you can see Hart’s like, “What the fuck are you still here for?” You know? He’s just like chatting up the wife, and it’s like, “I’m seeing him have a better time with my family than I do — and he’s never like this with me!”
Yeah, I love those reaction shots. I mean, there’s the comedy.
McConaughey: Yep. You know, when I first read it, I didn’t see a laugh in it, but I was fine with that. [Woody] brought up the comedy and I didn’t know exactly what he meant, but I knew it couldn’t be like anything we’d done before — like trying to tell a joke kind of thing. But I found myself from Episode 3 on howling laughing at the thing because of this exasperation. Because Cohle’s giving this same monk-like unemotional response, yet the circumstances are changing so much. The consistency of the character out-endured me as a viewer. I started laughing at it and going, “I can’t wait to see them having opposing opinions on the next thing.”
I’m almost waiting for the next time one of you pisses the other off as much as I’m waiting for the next plot turn.
McConaughey: Yeah, we piss each other off throughout.
Harrelson: It’s throughout. It never does stop.
McConaughey: Yeah, you’re never going to see us get chummy. There are no pink bows wrapping this up.
Here’s an acting question, and I love having the two of you here to get your different views because you both have great drunk scenes in the first few episodes: How do you play drunk?
McConaughey: Um, I don’t even remember that scene. I was on Bourbon Street and evidently the next day they told me they put me on set.
[Harrelson starts cracking up at McConaughey’s straight face.]
Harrelson: I remember that scene. That was so good; he comes with the flowers and the look in his eyes. You just see it. He doesn’t have to say anything, you just know he’s smashed. It’s so good. He plays drunk great. I have a hard time playing drunk, I honestly do. I don’t know why. I can sure play it in life all too often.
McConaughey: Here’s the good one I heard that I use. A drunk doesn’t try to stand up; a drunk tries not to fall down. So there’s a difference of trying to stand up and —
[McConaughey actually stands up to demonstrate.]
McConaughey: It does something to your walk when you react to straighten yourself up.
Harrelson: That’s a good one. Yeah … that would’ve been cool if you’d told me that a few days before … Fuck.
[The two of them dissolve into laughter a beat before the next question.]
This may be a naive question, but when you get that deep into the dark thoughts in a character’s head, does any of it stay with you at day’s end?
McConaughey: I mean, I dug Rust Cohle’s philosophies. He’s not me, but that was a good philosophy class, to live in that headspace. I do believe in God, but I think it’s very healthy for a believer to spend time in the pragmatism of agnosticism, and I think God appreciates agnostics trying to make a science of it and going, “I will not believe any further than that.” I enjoy that kind of engineering mind. In no way did it ever feel blasphemous to me as a man of faith. And what was I like at home? I was a pretty good explainer to the kids about things. I got pretty good at breaking down — if/then, this/that. I was very factual. But I didn’t go home and have nightmares.
Actually, that’s one of the twists on the genre I enjoyed. Normally in stories like this, the religious person gets painted as the creepy zealot. Here, it’s the secular pragmatist whose philosophy comes off creepy and intense.
Harrelson: I love my line, “Don’t say that! When you come over to the house, don’t say any of that shit!” “Of course, man, I’m not some kind of maniac.” That’s hysterical. It’s great to see the funny stuff come out of a reality that is not forced or anything.
Nothing like ritual murder to pump up the funny quotient of real life.
Harrelson: To get the humor going, yeah.
A lot of the show takes place in the car. Is it tough to work like that, driving the same stretch of road, going over those dialogues over and over?
McConaughey: Nah. A car becomes your cockpit. I mean, behind the wheel is my favorite thing. I ain’t used to being in the shotgun, so my point of view is kind of outside the right window, Cohle off in his own wonderland. Actually, we went back and reshot the big car scene where we’re talking about religion.
Harrelson: Yeah, we reshot that thing.
McConaughey: If anything, that became the buddy movie. That’s our stage: the car. That’s it.
I guess it does make a good dramatic space.
McConaughey: That’s when there’s respite. We’re on the way to the job. [Hart’s] looking for like, “Let’s have some small talk” and Cohle doesn’t know how to do that. He doesn’t do that. So that became our Laurel and Hardy of existential despair. That’s the place.
Harrelson: Honestly, just as an actor, I’ve had some of my funnest times in cars because you’re with someone for a long period of time. You’re with them for 12 hours, and you’re just with that person. And with Matthew, of course, even though he’s playing Rust Cohle, I did have some freaking fun. I can remember him giving me shit. He don’t like my driving. I’d be driving close to the edge of the road —
McConaughey: No, look, let me tell you about Woody driving …
[McConaughey gets up again to demonstrate.]
You got a ditch over there, and you got 16 feet of a lane. That tells a lot about a person, man! Some people drive along the yellow line; some people get over here and know this can be scary but the ditch would mean death for your partner. Not Woody. Woody’s chunking gravel right off the shoulder …
[Now McConaughey is making chest sounds eerily similar to his Wolf of Wall Street scene.]
You got nine feet over there, Wood! You got to give yourself a little draft, Wood, man. I’m looking down and there’s the —
But wait, you guys aren’t actually driving? You have a rig when you do the scenes, right?
McConaughey: No, we had to drive a lot.
Harrelson: A lot of driving.
McConaughey: And he never takes the same path back to one, nor does he take the shortest path back to one. Because on the way, Wood may see something that draws him to it: stop sign, shmop sign, man. Red light, nah! Wait, the highway patrol don’t have that part locked down? It doesn’t matter. Get on that highway! Guess what, we’re back onto I-70, headed to Birmingham, Mississippi, hey hey!
And the rest of the crew’s far behind you guys, huh?
McConaughey: [Sarcastic laugh.] Oh, they’ll catch up! They don’t mind. Everybody else can go have lunch. We’ll be there when we get there.
Harrelson: See that’s the kind of shit he would say. He was on me the whole time. It’s so funny. ’Cause in fact, I’m a good driver.
McConaughey: You’re not a good driver! You’re not a good driver!
Harrelson: Yes, I am!
McConaughey: You don’t drive! You know you’re not driving in Hawaii — he’s not a good driver. You know how many stop signs you run through in your Prius? And we’re not even working. Before we got out of the Prius, you banged the door into the trash can, and then you backed up into the fence, and then once you did get the electric car going, you pulled out into traffic, wheels squealing, and it’s raining, and we’re hitting all the potholes in New Orleans, going the wrong way down a one way — and I’m over there just going.
[McConaughey mimes wigging out. Harrelson looks at me knowingly.]
Oh, I see. [To Woody.] Does he start doing the thing where he puts his foot on an imaginary brake whenever you go too fast?
Harrelson: [Laughing.] No, but there’s an equivalent to that.
McConaughey: Yeah, he’s a four-dimensional man. One-ways and stop signs and these regulations that somebody put up to keep society safe and stuff — he’s not anti-that, but this here’s one of the original and last wild men walking the earth.
Harrelson: Coming from you, that means a lot to me.
McConaughey: Hey, you are a wild man — but I mean that as “of the wild.” I don’t mean crazy. I mean like, “Hey, if you can’t water it and it’s got no roots, what can it be worth?”
[McConaughey stands up and starts miming, improv-style.]
“Woody, come on, we got to get out of the house, it’s burning!” “Just a second, man, this is interesting. This little piece of coal here.” “NO, the house is burning, man. Look behind us.” “Oh shit, we better go.” He has a wonderful relationship with time.
McConaughey: You are never going to see a watch on that man’s wrist.
Harrelson: I’m not a time person.
McConaughey: That would be like putting shackles on the man’s ankles.
Harrelson: A watch is not good for me.
McConaughey: I work through life with commas. I don’t even know, do you have parentheticals?
Are you calling him a run-on sentence?
Harrelson: I’m all lips, head-loops, what’s that called?
Harrelson: [Laughing.] Yeah, ellipses.
McConaughey: You’re that guy you don’t like, that Irish poet. I never got anywhere, I was just on my way. The guy with the great name, you said you never were a big fan of his.
Harrelson: You’re talking about the English playwright, what’s his name, from the ’60s — Pinter.
McConaughey: No, I’m not talking Pinter. Irish.
McConaughey: Beckett, Samuel Beckett!
Harrelson: Oh, Beckett! I don’t like Beckett!
That’s funny, because my backup quip was that this show has a Beckett vibe. You could call it Waiting for Godot and Serial Killers.
Harrelson: Oh yeah, I never thought about it like that!