Cowboy up: Matthew McConaughey commits to Jean-Marc Vallee's 'Dallas Buyers Club'

Twenty years ago, an Austin, Texas high school run by Richard Linklater in Dazed and Confused turned out a class of future stars that included Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Cole Hauser, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Renée Zellweger, Anthony Rapp and, lest we forget in the role of a hunky hick, a 23-year-old Matthew McConaughey.

At the same time, Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack (the writer-director team who did Aaron Eckhart’s 2007 comedy Meet Bill) began work on an original screenplay based on 25 hours of interviews they did upstate in Dallas with Ron Woodroof, a buck-chasing, anti-gay bigot turned AIDS activist, just before he died in September of 1992, six years after he was given 30 days to live after being diagnosed HIV-positive.

He spent those 2,160 days productively—some would say historically—fighting ferociously for his life and the lives of other AIDS victims by bucking the Food and Drug Administration for stop-plugging and retarding the flow of untested drugs to those afflicted and dying. He formed the Dallas Buyers Club, where $400 a month entitled members access to his own cocktail of alternative drugs and therapies. Turning his Oak Lawn apartment in Dallas into a large distribution center for experimental drugs and treatments, he did a land-office business in saving lives.

Nothing but his actions qualified Woodroof for hero status. Some have called him “the Oskar Schindler of Texas gays.” Hardly a worthy candidate for dogcatcher in actuality, he was a hedonistic homophobe, working hard by day as an electrician and playing harder by night as a rodeo cowboy, raising all manner of heterosexual hell in between. Ironically, maybe even through a jest of God, it was this unexamined lifestyle that landed him in the same boat with the gays he persecuted and detested.

Woodroof being Woodroof, he elected himself captain of that boat, researched various medicines and drug combinations, then sailed forth full speed ahead, roaming the globe for quasi-cures and solutions that would stave off the disease and extend his dying days, combing catalogs of non-FDA-approved medication and new drugs. His new strange bedfellows fell in behind him.

While all this was going on, the man who eventually guided McConaughey’s performance as Woodroof in the Oscar-caliber Dallas Buyers Club—director Jean-Marc Vallée—was oblivious to the scene. None of this drama made it across the Canadian border, he says. “It was news to me, and it’s a terrific story. That’s why I wanted to film it.”

So why the two-decade delay, you ask? Well, as you probably have gathered, the real-life Woodroof was a pretty harsh character to ask audiences to sympathize with. “Ornery cuss” doesn’t begin to cover it. As uncompromisingly presented here by McConaughey, Vallée and the writers, he scared off whole brigades of producers.

Happily, Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter—both women producers—held their ground, and the $5 million that was needed to finance the film soon fell into place.

Vallée’s proudest achievement, he says, is that McConaughey’s warts-and-all portrayal of Woodroof prevailed and grudgingly wins over its audience. “He’s not an admirable, or even likable, guy—but his persistence and struggle are laudable.

“And, let’s face it, this movie wouldn’t have happened if Matthew didn’t believe in it as much as he did. It rubbed off on the rest of the cast. They were struck with his commitment. He challenged people to come up to the mark. I felt it. He was always testing me on how to play scenes, always pushing to make his performance better.

“Ron Woodroof is the only real-life person in this film, and we strove to get him as right as we possibly could. What he did—his actions and reactions in this age of little information—are genuine and accurately portrayed. But the other characters are invented and positioned around him to facilitate the storytelling of his deeds.”

McConaughey’s commitment to the project is apparent in a glance. The six-footer’s gaunt good looks have gone ghastly, almost ghostly—a scary skeletal facsimile of his former self. People magazine’s Sexiest Man of 2005 is a dim, distant memory here.

Various weight losses have been quoted for him, but Vallée feels the total “must be close to 50 pounds. It was very moving on the set. The cast was awed by it, inspired maybe. They wanted to do their best for him and get the picture made as soon as possible. He was surrounded by the right people medically to do this extreme thing.”

The weight loss had obviously begun during the filming of Magic Mike, in which he was an emaciated live-wire named Dallas who ran a male strip joint. The loosy-goosy exuberance of that performance won him the New York Film Critics’ nod for Best Supporting Actor and raised suspicions he’s really an excellent actor trapped in rom-com mode. His continued weight loss, accompanied by his raging bravura and the raves he just won at the Toronto Film Festival, make him an Oscar inevitability.

A startling change of appearance has not gone unrewarded in the past. Robert De Niro gained 60 pounds and a second Oscar for his Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. The record for weight shed by an actor seems to be the 63 pounds that Christian Bale dropped for The Machinist, but he gained enough of it back to film Batman Begins the following year—only to shed much of that five years later to approximate the haggard, thin-frame look of his Oscar-winning role: boxer-turned-trainer Dicky Eklund in The Fighter. Jim Carrey also went in for an extreme weight loss to play a Texas prison convict who pretended he had AIDS in I Love You, Phillip Morris.

If the critical tom-toms in Toronto are correct, McConaughey won’t be skipping to the Oscars by himself. A completely unrecognizable Jared Letobewigged, in drag and heavy-duty makeup, down 30 pounds himself and affecting a female voice—gives the film its true heartbeat and compassion as Woodroof’s transgender deputy and bookkeeper, Rayon. After taking in the spectacular physical overhaul, factor in the fact that Leto dropped off the screen four years ago to tour with his band, 30 Seconds to Mars, and this marks a pretty colossal comeback to form and film.

“Jared arrived on the set in character and never really came out of it through the whole shoot,” recalls Vallée. Sheepishly, he admits, “In fact, when I ran into him at the Toronto Festival the other day, I had absolutely no idea who he was.”

Some readily familiar faces line the supporting ranks—Steve Zahn, Tony winner Denis O’Hare and Griffin Dunne. The closest the film comes to any kind of romantic interest is the female doctor played sympathetically by Jennifer Garner. (Since Woodroof believed that AIDS was a gay disease exclusively, it should not be surprising that the character is shocked to see doctors come in the female gender.)

Also in the cast is Dallas Roberts, a Houston-born off-Broadway actor who has never been to Dallas. That distinction is still intact. Out of budgetary considerations, the film was lensed in Louisiana, with New Orleans subbing satisfactorily for Dallas.

“We had an excellent production designer and a good location spotter,” notes Vallée. “I think it worked out rather well. We didn’t need specific sites for the shooting.”

Yves Belanger’s gritty, handheld camerawork further disguised the state switch, and Vallée co-edited the movie with Martin Persa, giving it the rough, jagged edge of a documentary. Nothing about the picture aspires to be on the pretty side of life.

All this from the director who, unsparing on the royal pomp and circumstance, gave you The Young Victoria—a movie, he’ll tell you, he did because he felt challenged that it was so far removed from his frame of reference. “I think I got Dallas Buyers Club because the producers wanted something closer to what I did in the movies [apart from] The Young Victoria—namely, C.R.A.Z.Y. and Café de Flore.” Elements of both are very much present in this biopic, and it looks as though he will be continuing the anti-glam trend. He’s now in pre-production on a Reese Witherspoon adventure flick called Wild.