By Karen Valby
March 10, 2013 at 12:00 PM EDT
Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Matthew McConaughey began his Sunday afternoon “Conversation” with a SXSW audience on a familiar note. “Hey everybody, alright,” he said, taking his chair in front of a room that included not just fans and colleagues, but his mother and who appeared to be his two young children as well. “Go ahead and say it,” the moderator, Village Voice‘s Scott Foundas prompted. “The first words I ever spoke on film?” McConaughey said with grin. “Alright, alright, alright.”

It was a loose, at times contemplative hour from the man who brought us Dazed and Confused‘s unforgettable Wooderson. Since then he became an overnight movie star after A Time to a Kill, flat-lined in wildly successful romantic comedies for a decade, and is now doing some of his most interesting work in films like Magic Mike and the upcoming Mud (in theaters April 26). It’s a long road for the kid who first showed up in Hollywood back when he was 21 years old. “I remember going up Sunset Boulevard on my first day,” he said, “and I remember there was a Madonna song I was listening to. And I was like ‘I wonder where she is.’ And I was like ‘She could be right here. It’s that place!”

DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993) McConaughey described being a film student at UT, going to the Hyatt bar where he knew the bartender would hook him up with free drinks, and randomly getting into conversation with a movie producer. “Four hours later we got kicked out of that bar. On the way home he said ‘you ever acted? You might be right for this part. Come to this address and pick up the script tomorrow morning.’ And I did. There’s Wooderson on the page.”

“That particular scene, I said oh this is where this guy has it figured out. Let everyone else go ‘Oh you’re getting too old, it’s kind of gross.’ And he just looks at them and goes ‘You don’t get it. But that’s okay.’ And I remember with my legs just stepping forward and thinking ‘This isn’t to anyone in particular, this is to the world.’ It’s Wooderson’s philosophy.”

A TIME TO KILL (1996) After A Time To Kill I basically got famous over a weekend. The hundred things that I was seeing the Friday before A Time to Kill there were 99 no’s, you can’t do that, and 1 yes. Well that Monday there was 99 yes’s and 1 no. I went ‘whoa!’ I was in a place where I was like man, I want to do anything, now I have to be discerning and discriminate? It was exhilarating, titles of songs came to my head, it was really cool going through a grocery line and seeing myself on the cover of a magazine! Things like that were fun. I’m putting super unleaded in my tank now. But also the world became a mirror very quickly. Over the weekend  there were more mirrors in the world everywhere. The challenge for me as an actor is if you become a celebrity you don’t meet strangers anymore. And strangers are where we have our anonymity. And I believe it’s essential for the soul to be anonymous, especially if you’re going to be an actor…And I had to learn to go find it. And then I had to embrace it, and go okay, if someone comes up ‘Hey, how’s Miss Hud?’ Instead of going ‘Wait a minute, how’d you know I have a dog? How’d you know her name was Miss Hud?’ I now understand it’s part of it.

ROMANTIC COMEDIES Before Lincoln Lawyer I just was starting to see slightly different version of the same action movies or romantic comedies. One day it hit me, ‘Okay, you could do that tomorrow.Well, nothing wrong with that. You got a fastball.’ But I thought about it and thought I want to read something that kind of scares me, shocks me. So what I first did was I said no to many of those things. I had the advantage of having just started a family so I looked at my feet and said I’ve got a newborn son. This is the epic, to work on this movie. Be a Dad and a good man to my lady, let’s do that for a while. That’s a noble place to be. So I wasn’t spinning…That helped me bide my time. As the world works, after about a year or so of my agent working with me saying no to those things, then I was sent nothing. All of the sudden the boomerang swings. William Friedkin (Killer Joe) calls, wants to meet. Lee Daniels (The Paperboy) calls, wants to meet. Steve Soderbergh calls and pitches me a project. Jeff Nichols with Mud was there and percolating. They came to me at the right time. Each one I read I saw a million choices that could be made which was something I wasn’t seeing in some of those other scripts. I didn’t see a million choices. I know exactly how this would go and if I did it any different than the way I want to do it it would have been dumb of me.

MAGIC MIKE (2012)“I was writing [director Steven Soderbergh] all these six and seven and eight page emails about [my character] Dallas. My hook with him was capitalism. I could always have that in my pocket. Every scene, what would this guy do to make more money, get more money out of those women’s pocketbooks. I was writing all this stuff to him, like ‘I’ll have one of my dancers at the door and he’ll report to me if somebody pulls up in a ’77 Toyota or if they paid with a 20, a 100 or a credit card. Whoever paid with a 100 or a credit card, let me know because I got to send one of my guys to play to them so we can get private dances later which are a 100 bucks a pop. So all this fun stuff I’m coming up with and sending to Steven, anticipating his response. Two days later I get a message back. I don’t open it because I want to first make sure I’m in a good spot to sit down with his return answer and I’m going to make sure I’ve got undivided attention. Open it. ‘Sure.’ That’s it. Sure. Period. Okay.”

MUD (2013) “There was an innocence to it. [Writer/Director Jeff Nichols’] voice was very specific, it was Southern in the right way, it had a very defined sense of place and time and space. I immediately was attracted to the dreamer aspect of this character. He’s such a wonderful dreamer and this aristocracy of this guy’s heart. And that he wasn’t of this world, actually if he became of this world, if he got his feet landed on the ground, if he came off the island to the mainland, he’d die or be killed of something. So this guy has been informed by nature, he’s stepped in shit so often that he now knows it’s good luck. So there was a sort of eternal but sometimes delusional if you were looking from the outside optimism with the guy…And also it didn’t get sentimental. I’m not a big appreciater of sentiment. ”

THE DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB (possibly fall 2013, domestic distribution deal pending) “This is something that I’ve been a part of for three, four years. I had seen this film C.R.A.Z.Y. by  Jean-Marc Valle and was a big fan of it. And he knew about the script and I thought that would be the right guy for this and he loved the script. We got the financing really clear 10 days before shooting.  A lot of things had already started, mind you I was 40 lbs. lighter and I wasn’t doing it just for the fun of it. But it was possible it wasn’t going to go. And we got just enough to where we said ‘F it, we’re going to go anyway. It’s not enough but let’s just go do it.’ But it was a beautiful true story based on this guy’s life, Ron Woodroof, who got HIV in the 80s. And the original thing story wise is yes it’s about HIV and AIDS but this is from a heterosexual point of view which I thought was interesting. And the second thing was it wasn’t a guy who in the third act becomes a white flag-waving crusader for the cause. He’s a selfish businessman, wants to be Scarface and make all the money in the world, dealing drugs, but guess what drugs he’s dealing? Homeopathics he’s smuggled in to different gay men who have HIV in Dallas at the time.”