Credit: James Bridges

Back in college in the 1990s, Jeff Nichols had an idea for a movie, about a fugitive named Mud hiding out on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. The man was dirty and mysterious, with a tattoo of a coiled snake slithering up his right arm. He also looked a lot like Matthew McConaughey. “I’d seen Lone Star in college, and it was like… ‘That guy,”‘ says Nichols. “I’d seen Dazed and Confused as well, and there was something about this guy that I liked. He was funny and serious.”

More than a decade after Nichols’ initial brainstorm, after McConaughey rocketed to stardom and then settled into romantic-comedy purgatory, after Nichols won acclaim for directing Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain in 2011’s Take Shelter, Mud premiered at last May’s Cannes Film Festival to standing ovations and rave reviews, especially for its titular hero. The reception spearheaded a full-on McConaughey renaissance that included winning turns in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, Richard Linklater’s Bernie, and William Friedkin’s Killer Joe.

McConaughey’s alpha-male stripper in Magic Mike generated some awards buzz, but it might be Mud that ultimately delivers the goods after the film opens in theaters on April 26. On Saturday, Nichols’ modern paean to Mark Twain’s Mississippi had its American debut and the Sundance reaction rivaled that of Cannes. McConaughey may be currently fielding the accolades, but Mud is really a coming-of-age-story about 14-year-old Ellis (Tree of Life‘s Tye Sheridan) who befriends Mud and agrees to help him reunite with the love of his life (Reese Witherspoon) in exchange for the flood-damaged boat he and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) find in a tree that Mud also happens to be hiding out in. Ellis’ parents are divorcing, his own clumsy first attempts at love backfire, and with Mud’s quest for true love, the boy forms an unbreakable bond with the outlaw, who’s hunted by both sides of the law. “Mud’s an aristrocrat of the heart, a river prince,” says McConaughey. “Through my actions, I’m saying to the boy, ‘Don’t let the real world beat you down, man. No. Don’t give in. Stay pure.'”

Nichols always wanted McConaughey for the role, and the 43-year-old’s box-office clout didn’t make the casting problematic. But Nichols admits that he had to work against the actor’s public persona — even if he never doubted McConaughey’s ability to deliver. “I bring up James Garner a lot, because they’re innately likeable,” says Nichols, who also compares his star to Paul Newman for the way their early performances were discounted because of their good looks. “They’re all guys you want to spend time with. And when you see them [play] darker, then you get a complex equation going on in front of your eyes and that’s fun to watch.”

McConaughey has always been easy to watch, from his stoner-philosopher in Dazed and Confused, to the little-seen but mind-blowing Frailty, to the much-better-than-it-should-be The Lincoln Lawyer. But McConaughey also got trapped making successful, profitable movies that failed to push him out of his comfort zone. “It was a lot of romantic comedies and action films,” he says. “I just said I feel like I’ve done a version of that 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.”

So after 2009’s Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, McConaughey went away for awhile, spent some time with his new family — he and Camila Alves welcomed a baby boy in July 2008, the first of three children together — and just let things take care of themselves. When he poked his head back up after about a year and half, Nichols and a flock of other revered directors were eager to put his talents to work in a variety of diverse and challenging roles. “Isn’t that wonderful the way the world works,” says McConaughey. “They’re all characters who weren’t placating to civilization or society, so I liked them. They’ve all been sort of fringe-y characters that I was able to define certain obsessions that they had. And as an actor, if I can grab a hold of an obsession or two, that’s what I wanted to get drunk on.”

McConaughey has no intention of putting that drink down any time soon. He’s only just gained back about half of the 47 pounds he lost to play an AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club, and he’ll next appear opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. “I might not know where this is going,” he says with that famous grin. “But I gotta dive in and come out the other side breathing.”

He’s more than breathing. He’s finally really livin’. L-I-V-I-N.

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