Stephen Gaghan directs the treasure-hunting tale
Credit: Lewis Jacobs

In the adventure drama Gold (in theaters on Christmas Day), Matthew McConaughey plays a luckless prospector trying to strike it rich in the Indonesian jungle. And he found the nugget of his character, Kenny Wells, buried in his own past, in the parking lot of a run-down strip mall on a rainy day in southwest Houston.

Directed by Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) and loosely based on the Bre-X mining scandal of the 1990s, Gold introduces Wells at rock bottom. He’s operating his prospecting business out of a bar in Reno while his steadfast girlfriend, Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard), works two jobs to keep them afloat. Ultimately a fever dream inspires Wells to team up with a wily geologist (Edgar Ramirez) and head to Borneo in search of a massive gold deposit. If getting the gold is hard, keeping it proves even harder.

McConaughey recognized Wells the first time he read the script. “He was an indomitable spirit and dreamer,” the actor tells EW. “I felt like I knew him from the inside out.”

Growing up as the son of an oil pipe salesman in eastern Texas, McConaughey met his fair share of hustlers smooth talkers. And he saw a glint of Wells in his own late father — a man who “loved a bad deal,” especially if it made for a good story.

One Christmas Eve, McConaughey recalls, he rode shotgun as a teenager while his old man made a furtive transaction with a merchant named Chicago John, who sold his wares from the back of a white van.

The moment is etched into McConaughey’s memory, his father’s shoulders shooting up as he laid eyes on the goods: a titanium Rolex supposedly worth $22,000, and thus a steal at $3,000. He counted out a stack of bills, the deal was done, and they sped off down the highway.

“Now, that watch wasn’t worth 22 grand — but that’s the kind of stuff my dad loved to do,” McConaughey says with a laugh. (His brother still has the watch.) “That’s the hustler. That’s the make-it-happen motherf‑‑‑er.”

And that’s Wells.

“A lot of times,” says McConaughey, “an impression of someone — like that impression of my father, an impression like that I can take to a character — reveals all the specifics more than the real truth.”

McConaughey also transformed himself physically for the role, gaining 40-plus pounds, sporting a shiny bald forehead, and carrying himself like a different man.

In Gaghan’s words, “He’s like a tight end, just big and surprisingly nimble. … The way he sits is different, the way he stands up is different, the way he drinks and smokes, rolls out of bed.”

As for Gaghan, he had his own inspirations for the film, which was penned by Patrick Massett and John Zinman. It has “a throwback vibe” that reminded him of John Huston’s 1948 classic The Treasure of The Sierra Madre, and a sweep that goes from Reno to Borneo to Wall Street.

“It’s a type of huge Hollywood entertainment that I don’t think studios are making much of anymore,” he says.

Some good things, it seems, will only stay buried for so long.

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