Matthew McConaughey’s journey from rom-com stud muffin to Oscar-winning actor is officially complete. Six years ago, he starred in Fool’s Gold and Surfer, Dude. At Sunday night’s Oscars, he took home the Best Actor prize for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club, the culmination of a string of career-rehabilitating roles that included Magic Mike and Mud. McConaughey was always a popular star, and his frivolous, formulaic romantic comedies likely served as golden handcuffs for several years of his career that left him in a creative rut. Give him credit for recognizing that and then actually doing something about it. “I did consciously say, ‘You know what, I’m going to not work here for awhile and think about what I want to do,’” McConaughey said at Sundance in 2013. “I just said I feel like I’ve done a version of [rom-com and action roles] before. Or I feel like I can do that tomorrow morning. And I think I’ve done enough of that for now, and I want something that I don’t think I can do tomorrow morning. I want something that scares me.”
For almost two years, just as he and his wife were starting their family, McConaughey let the phone keep ringing, and when he’d finally figured things out, he answered it to find an eclectic collection of filmmakers — William Friedkin, Richard Linklater, Lee Daniels, Jeff Nichols — at the other end of the line. “Isn’t that wonderful the way the world works!” McConaughey said. “This is what I’m talking about. [These roles] scare me! Oooo!”
With McConaughey’s transformation as the template, what other Hollywood stars need to step out of their comfort zone? Who needs to take a step back, let the phone ring, and re-energize their creative juices? Click below to see our choices for their own personal McConaissance:
Vince Vaughn: For a guy who can be so money, Vaughn hasn’t exactly been swinging for the fences lately: Delivery Man, The Internship, The Watch, The Dilemma, Couples Retreat. There’s an old story from the set of Ghostbusters II that director Ivan Reitman used to turn to Bill Murray before a scene and simply say, “Okay, do something funny.” Watching Vaughn’s recent work leaves me with the same impression. Each movie seems designed to wring another laugh out of the Old School/Wedding Crashers Vaughn, but people sometimes forget how good he was in serious dramatic roles, like Return to Paradise and Into the Wild. Vaughn doesn’t have to go the serious route; but he should look for something a little unconventional soon. Very soon. The next season of True Detective, perhaps?
Johnny Depp: Depp has some interesting projects potentially on the horizon — the Whitey Bulger movie, Black Mass — but since he made the leap to super-duper-global-superstar after playing Jack Sparrow, so much of his time and energy has been invested in the Pirates franchise, as well as other similarly cartoonish characters buried beneath layers of makeup (Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter, Tonto, presumably the Wolf in the upcoming Into the Woods). He’s one of only a few actors who can literally get any movie green-lit — a happy accident for an actor whose tastes run against the grain — so it would be refreshing to see him take some chances. In his case, that might mean playing a typical character in a typical domestic drama, something that doesn’t require him to hide. It’s been awhile since we saw just Johnny.
Will Smith: The ridicule and vitriol heaped on After Earth hopefully prompted a serious strategic review for Team Smith, which seems intent on global domination built upon big-budget franchises. The episode that best epitomizes Smith’s current play-it-safe approach was his passing on the lead in Django Unchained — a role Quentin Tarantino wrote with Smith in mind — to make Men in Black 3 and After Earth. (Smith told Tarantino that Django’s role wasn’t big enough and that he needed to be the hero, the character who kills Leonardo DiCaprio’s wretched slave owner.) Perhaps After Earth will be a wake-up call; it would be a shame to waste such a setback.
Halle Berry: Twelve years after winning the Oscar for Best Actress, Halle Berry is still waiting for that next great role. She cashed in immediately after Monster’s Ball, starring as a Bond Girl and infamously playing Catwoman, but her last decade is mostly X-Men movies, critical misfires, or movies you’ve never heard of. But there’s still a lot of love for Berry. How do I know? Because The Call grossed more than $51 million last March. The Call! Currently, she’s filming the Steven Spielberg-produced series Extant, which will air on CBS this July. Television has jump-started many a stalled Hollywood career, and Berry might be well-positioned for a comeback.
Kate Hudson: The parallels between Hudson and McConaughey are striking. In addition to the two hits they made together (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Fool’s Gold), she also burst upon the scene with a powerhouse performance — Almost Famous — and then settled in to make generic romantic comedies. But she hasn’t yet felt the need to change course, playing a string of pretty wives and girlfriends, including Zach Braff’s better half in the upcoming Wish I Was Here, which premiered at Sundance. Her Glee arc was interesting, something different, but you’d think someone smart would write a script for her that made her stretch a little bit.
Liam Neeson: I know, I know: You loooooove Liam Neeson right now. He kicks ass. He’s totally cool. This is the Liam Neeson you always wanted him to be. Okay. I get it. And I don’t fault him for making these popular action movies since they’ve made him the star he never was when he was a younger man, even when he was Oskar Schindler. This has to be the most fun time of his career. But he’s totally coasting, yes? If it’s not these Bronson-esque ass-kicking roles, it’s been mostly over-the-top performances in special-effects-driven action movies: Clash of the Titans, The A-Team, Battleship. Neeson was attached to play Lincoln in Spielberg’s biopic before Daniel Day-Lewis came aboard. If that had worked out, would his career be in a very different place today? I’d still like to see him get there after he’s done having his fun.
Who did I leave out? What other popular actor or actress do you think needs to hit the reset button?