LOS ANGELES – In “Dallas Buyers Club” (opening Friday) Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof — a Texas electrician and rodeo cowboy, who discovered he was HIV-positive in 1985. At that time, in the early stages of the AIDS epidemic, those diagnoses were a virtual death sentence, as treatments and drug regimens, allowing patients to live beyond a few months, had yet to be discovered.
Further complicating things in Woodroof’s mind: He was actively heterosexual and extremely homophobic. Not only was he initially baffled by his diagnosis — he was unaccepting of it, believing AIDS was strictly a disease that could only strike gay men.
During a recent chat with McConaughey, the actor talked about Woodroof, his unorthodox and desperate struggle with the U.S. drug authorities (that led to the establishment of the real Dallas Buyers Club — which led him to live seven years longer than his original 30-day prognosis), and how playing this role was life-changing for him.
Q: As an actor you get to get into the skin of many different people. Is it fair to say, this was one of your most challenging roles to date?
A: Without question. This was wild adventure. In this job that I do, we are blessed to be given the opportunity to become other people. It’s not just dressing up for Halloween. For this movie, we spent seven months preparing to do something like this.
Q: You lost nearly 50 pounds — getting down to like 140 or 135. Did losing that weight to play a man with AIDS help you emotionally and mentally to tackle the role in your head?
A: I noticed that if I lost 40 percent of my energy from the neck down, due to the amount of weight that I lost — that strangely was added to the energy I felt from the neck up. I could sleep three hours less at night. I was on fire mentally. Physically, I’d be terribly tired, but mentally, I was feverish and wildly alive.
Q: While the real Ron Woodroof died many years before you played him, I know you met family members, watched video of him and read his diaries. That had to be a big help.
A: Yes, it all was important to researching that guy. What sticks with me was how watching video of him helped. That was important. I’d watch him telling a joke, and then he’d seamlessly slip into talking about a conspiracy theory involving the feds trying to shut him down and confiscate the drugs. Then he’d switch and start flirting with a girl over there. Watching how his mind worked was important to me. Then I got into his diary. That gave me his personal monologue – which made it easier for me to get into the dialogue of the film, so to speak.
Q: A big part of this film deals with the prejudice about people with AIDS and HIV at that time — even someone who was not gay, like Ron. How was that for you to revisit?
A: At that time, everyone thought it was just a homosexual disease — I mean everyone. Ron would say, “Look at me I’m a rodeo man — I can’t have this!” Then he did his own research on the disease and realized, “Whoa! I do have it. I think I know where I could have got it.”
Then he’s excluded by everyone, even lifelong friends.
People were so afraid. They didn’t shake someone’s hand, if they thought they had it — much less look them in the eye. There was rampant paranoia. It was across the board.
The national spotlight was on it when Magic Johnson was playing in that All-Star game and Carl Malone didn’t want to get on the court. Some people took that as the absolute of non-compassion. But, they had a legitimate argument at that time, because no one could go out and say with total conviction that it was okay – you couldn’t catch it from playing in a game.
It was a new disease at a new time and nobody knew anything but fear.
Q: What was it like working with Jared Leto — who stayed in character as the drag queen Rayon during the entire film shoot?
A: Ron and Rayon. The odd couple for sure. Jared was great. He kept it simple. He was just Rayon. It was a pleasure, because we had a lot of work to do. I was meeting Rayon every day. Our relationship grew just as it did in the scenes in the movie. That was it.
Afterward, I got to meet Jared. I said hello, and he did too — and his voice dropped a couple of octaves. And there was Jared.