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Just 'Deserts'

Persistence Pays Off as Matthew McConaughey Plays His Larger-Than-Life Alter Ego in Paramount's "Sahara"

"Matthew McConaughey is M.I.A.," exclaims a PR rep with baffled exasperation. Colleagues and cohorts following the progress of securing this story inevitably made tongue-in-cheek speculations concerning bongos, nudity and big fat doobies. In fairness, the sly-grinned Texas thesp has kept his al fresco antics to himself since his 2000 disturbing-the-peace arrest, wherein an open window made his privates public -- but who can resist a good naked bongo joke? Not even McConaughey himself, who shortly after the incident was reportedly seen sporting a "What part of naked bongos don't you understand?" T-shirt in an unabashed proclamation of his proclivities. ("I've done it probably 50 times since then," he later professes. "I just shut the window.")

A phone interview time is set up. It comes and it goes. "He's very difficult to reach," is the nebulous explanation. "He's in a remote location." Where might that be? "He's not in this country." Is he filming something? "No." A pregnant pause follows as further information is awaited. Instead, a vague consolation that "he might tell you" is bestowed.

Later, it comes out that McConaughey is in "some who-the-f--- -knows place" in Mexico where there's only one phone that works, "and he can't get to it." Visions of a moat full of snapping crocodiles surrounding said phone spring to mind.

It turns out to be as likely a possibility as any other. When McConaughey finally does triumph against the odds and gets a call through, one hears horses whinnying, church bells ringing, roosters crowing and dogs barking nearby as he pants for breath after some unnamed exertion. He declares with evident satisfaction that he is on vacation -- "hiking, gettin' lost and workin' it out --" in Real de Catorce, aka the Real 14 -- named, he relates in his playful drawl, for "the Spaniards who got beheaded when they tried to take over the place." And that's not all: Real 14 is also "one of the magnetic spots on the Earth, because it's so rich in so many different metals," it is revealed before a word is gotten in edgewise. Is this meaningful? "Mystics and magicians would say so," McConaughey muses. "And I'd say they sometimes fall in line with what's true."

It soon becomes evident that the contagiously enthusiastic McConaughey is a font of such lore, having culled much of it from personal adventures. When he's not working on films as diverse as "Frailty," "13 Conversations About One Thing" and "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," he's hiking into remote jungles, staying in mud huts, accepting challenges to fight the locals and laughingly embracing them after one or the other of them have gotten their blocks knocked off. Sounds like the epitome of Dirk Pitt, the roguish treasure-hunting hero of Clive Cussler's best-selling action-adventure novels.

In fact, McConaughey had been chasing the part for seven years, hunting Cussler down from time to time to convince him he was the man for the job.

"Without having as many life-and-death circumstances as Dirk Pitt does, this is the kind of stuff that I do -- that I love to do. I head off into places where I don't know anybody or anything, and I go out for a month and go work it out, and go on adventures.

"And the other thing about Dirk is that if you're going to do it, when he gets in the inevitable situation, even if it's in harm's way, he does it. With pleasure." One can hear the grin in McConaughey's voice, and it instantly conjures the "devastating smile" of Dirk Pitt legend. "We have a better chance of surviving if we have a good time. Heh heh," McConaughey adds.

Throughout the conversation, he refers to himself as Pitt so immersively one can't tell where the character ends and the actor begins. So much the better for fans of the series, who would be satisfied with nothing less than a lead who loves and lives the Dirk persona.

The first film in an intended franchise is an adaptation of "Sahara," which involves a treasure hunt, a dangerous toxin threatening the world's oceans, a beautiful U.N. scientist (is there any other kind?), frenzied cannibals, an Amelia Earhart-type aviatrix and, bizarrely enough for a modern-day adventure set in the titular desert, Abraham Lincoln. "Although it's not the first story, 'Sahara' seemed to be a really good introduction to all the major cool aspects of Dirk Pitt, of the tone of what happens, of the stakes and how we do or do not get out of it," says McConaughey. "We've got some stunts and things in here that you've never seen before. Let me just tell you, Dirk Pitt's also a bit of a MacGyver. He makes a loooooot of lemonade out of lemons."

It's clear from his exuberance when talking about his real-life exploits or Dirk's fictional escapades that McConaughey's long-held ethos of "just keep livin'" (for which he named his production company) is alive and well.

"I've really learned a lot about 'just keep livin'' through this character, and I really gave a lot of 'just keep livin'' to Dirk Pitt. That's one of the main reasons that I chased him in the first place. Here's a guy who's always moving forward. Here's a guy who sees life as a verb. Here's a guy who doesn't see the history books as things with periods in them. He sees the comma. He's still going, 'Whoa, you didn't answer the last question! Hang on a minute! That's still unresolved! I'm gonna go find out about that!' That's day to day going, 'I'm gonna try to get the nectar out of life.' That's 'just keep livin'!'"

"Sahara." Starring Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz, Steve Zahn and William H. Macy. Directed by Breck Eisner. Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and John C. Richard and James V. Hart. A Paramount release. Action/Adventure. Opens March 25.

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