Matthew McConaughey and the Physical Transformations of Actors

It’s not often that you can say one word three times and pretty much everyone in the room knows who you’re talking about. Normally, it takes a few dodgy impressions, erratic hand gestures and at least six obscure accent attempts to get your point across. But in the case of Matthew McConaughey however, “Alright, Alright, Alright” is pretty much all we need to immediately recognise the subject of conversation. With his distinctive voice, killer looks and charm, everyone feels like they know him and those who don’t, want to. But there is a downside to this fame.  As more and more people recognise him, the harder it becomes for an audience to lose themselves in his performances. Nevertheless, McConaughey somehow manages to morph seamlessly into his characters every time, leaving us to wonder how he does it.

It seems only apt that we turn firstly to his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club, a part for which he lost three stone in four months. For his role as real-life Aids patient Ron Woodroof, MCconaughey literally immersed himself in the body of his character and took no prisoners when it came to distinguishing himself from his rom-com past. Commonly dubbed the ‘McConissance’, this was the first time we saw him move successfully away from ‘chick flicks’ like The Wedding Planner and Ghost of Girlfriends Past towards more in-depth character studies, where he was required to play more than a handsome movie star or himself. Fast-forward to the present and he recently gained weight to play Kenny Wells in Gold, another awe-inspiring performance in a less-than-spectacular film. More transformations in Dazed and Confused and we could start wondering if the greatness of this actor all stems from his ability to eat himself silly or turn into a bag of bones.

But as Mark Kermode for the Guardian noted in Dallas Buyers Club, “there’s much more to his performance than the mere shedding of thirty-odd pounds.” His performance is quite simply astonishing because it comes from somewhere deep within. It is filled with raw emotional declarations that are subdued by a surface of stubborn irrationality, a determination of will in the face of death. On the other hand, I’m not so sure Jared Leto’s performance as transgender activist Rayon would have been quite so groundbreaking without the full face of makeup. In McConaughey’s case though, it was one of those times where great acting would have still been good acting even without the physical transformation.

It seems we must separate McConaughey from character actors such as Johnny Depp, who really struggle to live up to their own expectations when they have to look like normal humans or aren’t speaking in a twisted Scottish accent. The Tourist was the perfect example of Depp’s less impressive talent when faced with his own voice and mannerisms. Ultimately, he came across as rather ordinary, a word rarely used to describe his other  performances as Sweeny Todd and as Captain Jack Sparrow, which are spellbinding.

On the opposite end of the spectrum though, there are actors who refuse to physically transform such as Renee Zellweger for Bridget Jones’s Baby. Allegedly, she called for a fat suit this time around, after her doctor warned her of the damage that rapidly gaining and then losing 30 pounds could do to her body. Does this make her less of a dedicated actress? Not really. Looking at the box office figures for this latest instalment, clearly Zellweger has got talent not matter what she does with her body.

Ultimately, physical transformation must be a personal decision, and one that only the actor should make. If health risks are involved, extreme physical changes can’t really be expected of actors. As long as Matthew McConaughey keeps gracing us with superb, compelling and complex characterisations I don’t really care if he transforms into a donkey. Whatever needs to be done to keep him at the top of his game, I’m all for.

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