Transformations: Matthew McConaughey & Jared Leto on Dallas Buyers Club

If the adage that dramatic weight loss or gain is the key to Oscar glory, then Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are shoo-ins this year. Both transformed their bodies to play characters battling AIDS at the height of the epidemic in Dallas Buyers Club. But there’s a whole lot more to their performances than just the physical changes they submitted their bodies to—the transformations helped each actor achieve a near spiritual connection to characters rarely seen in mainstream films.

Texas native McConaughey plays real-life Texas redneck Ron Woodroof, who in 1985 was diagnosed with AIDS and told he had 30 days to live. Woodroof, a heterosexual, is ostracized by his peers at a time when AIDS was a “gay disease.” He embarks on a mission to bring non-FDA approved drugs to patients like himself, traveling the globe and earning the wrath of doctors and the government. What starts out as a mercenary choice becomes a personal crusade that bonds him to a community he’d once reviled. It’s the latest in a string of offbeat choices — from Magic Mike to Killer Joe to The Paperboy and Mud (and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming The Wolf of Wall Street, although a role in a Scorsese movie is always a good idea) — that have earned the actor praise from critics and redefined expectations of his range and depth.

“Yeah, it’s a healthy time in my career. I’m enjoying and loving acting more than I ever have. I’ve got a great support system in my family. They allow me to put the blinders on. Kids sure help the job I do; they remind you to be goofy as hell and that frees up the instrument. You’re not acting, you’re behaving. Even the hard work is fun,” said McConaughey during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival where Dallas Buyers Club received an enthusiastic reception.

McConaughey signed on even before there was a director attached. Craig Borten’s script had been kicking around Hollywood for nearly 20 years; many actors and directors were going to make the film at several points along its long, oft-lonely arc. When McConaughey met Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee, the chemistry clicked. “I was a fan of C.R.A.Z.Y,” says McConaughey. “We were like, ‘let’s do this.’ But this script had been in that situation many, many times in the past. Even as we approached the start date, suddenly it was like, ‘can we push it back’? And I was like, ‘wait a minute, do you want me to drop to 110? C’mon, we have to do this.’”

McConaughey lost 47 pounds for the film, shot in Louisiana over 27 days, and has gained 40 of it back. But what the actor and Vallee attempted was more than shock the audience or elicit tears. “We never wanted that moment, that third act turn, where the character changes, or is suddenly redeemed. The story is set up for that moment, but it would have been false, it would have been bullshit,” says McConaughey. “Jean-Marc and I agreed to stay with the bigoted bastard who’s out for self-preservation, out for me, me, me. Stay with the guy who’s a businessman, who wants to be ‘Scarface,’ man. Then the crusader and the activist will be revealed. But he’s never conscious of it. Hud is one of my favorite films. From beginning to end, [the Paul Newman character] doesn’t change. But you respect him at the end, whether you like him or not. If you show that this is who his is, then [show that he is] human. He can be a bastard, a homophobe, but you get who he is. Jean-Marc and I trusted that and stuck with that.”

Much of Woodroof’s gradual humanizing comes through his unlikely friendship with Rayon (Leto), a Texas drag queen battling both AIDS and drug addiction, that he meets in a Dallas hospital. Rayon becomes Woodroof’s business partner in distributing the then-unheard-of remedies to mostly gay clients.

With echoes of Midnight Cowboy, it is the odd couple relationship that anchors Dallas Buyers Club, says McConaughey. “They bond as outcasts. They’re stuck together. He’s isolated, on his own island and stuck with himself.”

“I got seduced by Rayon,” says Leto, who had taken an unplanned 5-year hiatus from movies while he toured and recorded with his band Thirty Seconds to Mars. “Rayon came from my imagination. That character has been represented in film so many times its become a stereotype. I did not want to put a cliché onscreen. Members of the transgender community were great teachers… I sought them out; I wanted to do it right. It’s still a challenging choice, but in 1985 to walk through a Dallas supermarket dressed as a woman….” His voice trails off but the effect on him is apparent.

Leto says he stopped counting after he lost 30 pounds for the role. “But I’ve done this before. I lost 25 pounds for Requiem for a Dream and gained 60 pounds for Chapter 27. It’s how it affects me on the inside that matters. It changes everything: how you walk, talk, laugh, breathe. It’s a transformative thing.”

Leto jumped at “the role of a lifetime” but it also mattered that Vallee was directing. “I’d seen Cafe de Flore, which is a great little movie. And I like what Matthew has been doing. I thought, ‘If he’s betting on this, if he’s made the commitment to the project, then I’m in.’ I worked harder to make strong choices and to climb this mountain with him.”

Talk of awards and accolades aside, McConaughey says he’d transform himself again “for the right role.”

“That’s part of the fun of what we get to do,” he says. “There’s a singular focus. It’s fun to commit like that.”

Featured image: (l to r) Jared Leto as Rayon and Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof in Jean-Marc Vallée's fact-based drama, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features


Loren King

Loren King is an entertainment journalist whose features and reviews appear regularly in various publications and online. She is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics and lives in Southeastern Massachusetts. You can follow her on Twitter: @lorenkingwriter

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