Matthew McConaughey gets tough with Killer Joe

By Emma Jones
BBC News entertainment reporter

  • Published
Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe
Image caption,
McConaughey says the contrasts in his Killer Joe character were compelling

Matthew McConaughey has become known as an actor with an impressive physique, displayed in romantic comedies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Sahara and Fool's Gold.

But his fans should prepare for a change as the 42-year-old propels himself in a grittier, edgier direction, starting with Killer Joe.

The movie, which opens the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Wednesday, sees McConaughey playing a twisted Texan detective who hires himself out as a contract killer.

Directed by William Friedkin and co-starring Emile Hirsch and Britain's Juno Temple, the plot centres around a young man who wants to murder his mother for her insurance money.

He hires "Killer" Joe. But when he can't pay, Joe demands the man's young sister as a "retainer" for the job.

The film, which has an 18 certificate in the UK, depicts the detective's sexual relationship with an underage girl.

It also includes one graphic and violent scene involving a piece of fried chicken that is already the subject of debate from those who have seen the film.

"Hey, this is just another light, breezy romantic comedy with chicken," jokes McConaughey. "Seriously, this film is a different cat for sure.

"It's a really, really wild movie with a wild character. He is dangerous at every turn."

The script was originally written as a stage play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts, whose writing has been described by fans as "the love child of Tennessee Williams and Quentin Tarantino".

Friedkin shot the movie over a number of weeks in New Orleans, which became the substitute for Texas.

The 76-year-old says he wanted to make the film because "it's about innocence, victimhood, vengeance and tenderness".

"I've experienced all those emotions in life and I like to put them in all my films," he explains.

McConaughey says he was drawn to the moral duality of Joe as a character. "Joe's charming and a gentleman on one hand - he certainly becomes Prince Charming to the daughter in that family - and yet he's a killer.

"I couldn't quite see him clearly as a character until I met with Billy Friedkin. It was Billy's affection for the story and the blasphemous humour within it which helped me understand him.

"Partly though, I took on the part for the thrill of it. You know, he's a bit scary.

"It turned me on in the right way when I was reading the script, and that hadn't happened in a while. I really looked forward to getting under his skin.

'Hearty laughter'

"This guy is bound by nothing and no one - not the law, religion, relationships, anything. But I still get to play Joe as a human being."

Image caption,
Juno Temple plays Killer Joe's 'bounty' for the contract killing

Asked how he coped with filming the sometimes distressingly graphic scenes, McConaughey says: "I just let it fly.

"And I was greeted by bursts of hearty laughter at the end of the scenes, so that reassured me."

But how will McConaughey's audience react to their clean-cut hero heading down a darker path?

McConaughey points out that he first came to Hollywood's attention with the thriller A Time to Kill in 1996 - a much edgier movie than the ones which followed.

"I've really enjoyed the films I've done up until now, and in the future I will do more romantic comedies.

"But right now these are the kind of characters that I've been drawn to, and they've been drawn to me too. This is what's giving me a buzz."

All in all, McConaughey has four more films to be released over the next few months that are all departures from the rom-com stereotype.

He plays the owner of a male strip club in Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike, which is out next month.

Then he stars as a journalist in The Paperboy, starring opposite Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron.

Image caption,
Emile Hirsch has established himself in films such as Into the Wild and Milk

He plays a fugitive in indie thriller Mud and will be seen as a cynical district attorney in black comedy Bernie with Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine.

Both Mud and The Paperboy were selected for competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival - a fact that, according to McConaughey, shows he is heading down the right road.

"It is a deliberate shift for me," he says. "I wanted to shake things up, do some new things, and play some roles that scared me - characters that would make me excited to go to work in the morning.

"For about 18 months though, I was still receiving offers of comedies, and some of them were very good, but I had to keep turning them down.

"I felt like I'd done them before. Then after a long period of saying no to everything, all these new scripts came and found me."

McConaughey's gamble seems to have paid off. Reviews of Killer Joe have generally been positive with The Guardian raving that he "freezes blood [in] a game-changer of a part".

The Hollywood Reporter notes that the "likeably unpleasant slice of adults-only Texas noir aims at the funny bone as much as the jugular".

Will the other releases bring such plaudits? "If the work translates and people like it, which I hope they will, I'm happy," says McConaughey.

"I gave my heart and soul to this, and I also worked my butt off too."

Killer Joe is out in the UK on 29 June.

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