For a man with such a laid-back persona, Matthew McConaughey is actually one hell of a shape-shifter. Just when we think we have a bead on this unassuming Texas actor, he switches guises, going from the bong-powered charm of Dazed and Confused to the indie cred of Lone Star, from square-jawed Hollywood leading man in Contact to goofy romantic-comedy eye candy in films like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
But once audiences figured they had him pegged as the bare-chested king of date night, he transformed one more time — unleashing what would soon be popularly referred to as “the McConaissance.” A series of challenging adult roles that began in 2011 and culminated with a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club. According to him, though, this latest incarnation was completely accidental, prompted by the birth of his son. “I’m going to be a father for a while and I’m not going to rush into work,” he recalled thinking at the time. “Let the work come find me and just be patient, McConaughey, it’ll come.”
His latest project, Interstellar, is destined to be his biggest global success in a career that has now spanned more than 20 years. To celebrate, we’ve compiled a list of his 20 finest performances, covering both film and television. What emerges is that McConaughey hasn’t always had the best luck with projects, but he’s almost always their highlight, providing a memorable bit of color, comic relief or effortless pleasure to even the iffiest endeavor. And when he has found a great piece of material, he’s added a full-bodied humanity to his performance that’s often arresting in its simplicity. These 20 are for the time capsule.
20. ‘We Are Marshall’ (2006)
Casting McConaughey as an inspirational football coach is a no-brainer: He’s a sports fan and a font of unstoppable charisma. Unfortunately, We Are Marshall, inspired by the 1970 plane crash that claimed the lives of the Marshall college team, isn’t a particularly memorable gridiron drama. But McConaughey is: As Jack Lengyel, he nails the big speeches and negotiates the quieter moments with aplomb. Even during the mid-2000s low ebb of his career, he was giving the proverbial 110 percent.
19. ‘EDtv’ (1999)
Maybe this attempt to make fun of media ubiquity was fated to have a tough time with audiences: Its ordinary-guy-becomes-unlikely-reality-TV-star premise had been done brilliantly less than a year earlier in the critical and commercial hit The Truman Show. But what really doomed this Ron Howard misfire was that it simply wasn’t very funny or wise. McConaughey is its bright spot, though, letting his dependable regular-Texan persona do most of the heavy lifting. Still, this bomb isn’t high on any of the participants’ résumés.
18. ‘Contact’ (1997)
A loopy performance in a cosmic slop of a movie, McConaughey’s hippie-dippy man of God is too obviously meant to provide a thematic (and romantic) counterpoint to Jodie Foster’s atheist scientist. But one thing you always have to love about McConaughey: The man commits fully to every part. His very presence warms up Robert Zemeckis’s poetic-sappy opus, giving it a ragamuffin spiritual sweetness that serves as a necessary countermeasure to the stargazing awe and treacly daddy issues going on elsewhere in the film.
17. ‘Bernie’ (2012)
Richard Linklater’s true-crime dark comedy about Texas mortician and convicted murderer Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black) has its fans, though it may be a little too quirky for its own good. Likewise, this is the one McConaissance-era performance from his Mattness that isn’t a total home run. Portraying a flashy district attorney, McConaughey is at his most shameless, playing up the character’s Texas-sized personality to the point of self-parody. Still, after years of hanging around Kate Hudson in romcoms, he clearly seems relieved to let loose here.
16. ‘Amistad’ (1997)
Even at the time, the drubbing McConaughey got for playing lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin in Steven Spielberg’s historical drama seemed excessive, more a product of the actor’s overexposure than a lack of talent. To be sure, he’s not entirely confident in the role, but his quiet empathy is never in question, and that matters in a movie about seeing beyond our biases to judge people on their own merits. You wonder if McConaughey wouldn’t have been stronger in the part today.
15. ‘Reign of Fire’ (2002)
Frankly, it probably didn’t matter who starred in this 2002 action-thriller — the hook was always going to be “Dude, dragons!” Still, McConaughey and costar Christian Bale both have a ball as mismatched survivors trying to wipe out the thawed-out fire-breathers who have taken over the planet in the not-too-distant future. McConaughey especially seems to be relishing playing the unapologetically kick-ass American warrior Denton Van Zan: He’s as bat-shit awesome as his character name suggests.
14. ‘The Paperboy’ (2012)
In a movie notorious for its campy excesses — Google “Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron” — McConaughey is one of The Paperboy‘s few bastions of restraint. (No, we have not forgotten the nude S&M aftermath motel scene. It’s that kind of movie.) Lee Daniels’ giddily florid Florida murder-mystery finds the actor playing a reporter trying to prove that John Cusack’s kooky death-row inmate is innocent. Surrounded by so much over-the-top ludicrousness, McConaughey risks being overshadowed, but he’s the film’s smart, still center, desperately trying to keep this boat from capsizing.
13. ‘A Time to Kill’ (1996)
This John Grisham adaptation provided McConaughey his first chance to top-line a studio blockbuster — and he nailed it. Yes, director Joel Schumacher’s sweaty, hyperbolic legal-eagle drama is all courtroom theatrics and liberal hokum (a Southern white guy stands up to racism and saves the black guy!) but McConaughey’s aw-shucks likeability was especially potent during his early stardom. Sex appeal, modesty, understated intelligence: He uses them all to fine effect in a movie that probably doesn’t deserve his talents.
12. ‘Tropic Thunder’ (2008)
What’s a little unsettling about McConaughey’s performance in Ben Stiller’s Hollywood satire is how convincing it is: You can almost see how, if events had worked out differently, he could have turned out to be the kind of spoiled, bro-tastic talent agent he parodies here. McConaughey wields his charm and ability to put you at ease for evil here. It’s a small role, but it’s far more substantial than his other 2008 offering, the lackluster Fool’s Gold.
11. ‘U-571’ (2000)
A proudly old-fashioned submarine flick like this one needs a movie star who radiates classic Hollywood heroism — and McConaughey fit the bill nicely. Director Jonathan Mostow’s thriller about a group of U.S. Navy seamen on the hunt for a doomed German sub finds our man playing a stoic, untested lieutenant who must rise to the challenge when his commanding officer gets wounded. Muted but no less captivating, McConaughey perfectly complements the film’s no-nonsense approach, his every action a model of stripped-down efficiency.
10. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (2013)
His part is nothing more than a glorified cameo — but, good lord, what a glorified cameo! Responsible for portraying the influential mentor who will set Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort down the path of wickedness, McConaughey practically hums as Mark Hanna. (Actually, make that literally hums.) A sociopath with a killer smile and great suit, Hanna supplies Belfort with his ethically slippery North Star. Every terrible thing Belfort does for the rest of the film? It all goes back to McConaughey’s crucial, coked-up guest appearance.
9. ‘Frailty’ (2002)
Maybe the most underrated gem in the man of the hour’s canon, this sharp psychological thriller was actor Bill Paxton’s directorial debut. McConaughey plays a man who relates his story filled with murder and religious fundamentalism to an FBI agent, recalling how he and his brother were terrorized by their frightfully god-fearing father. He tries to stop Dad from killing “demons” — and then things get worse. The star may be merely the film’s narrator, but he sets the tone, showing a darker side to his usually sunny J.K.-livin’ disposition. It was a hint of things to come.
8. ‘Lone Star’ (1996)
McConaughey’s best Texas movie that wasn’t directed by Richard Linklater, John Sayles Southern-fried noir-cum-neo-Western (and biggest hit) features a cavalcade of terrific turns, including Chris Cooper, Joe Morton and the dearly departed Elizabeth Peña. But just as he was making the leap from indies to studio movies, McConaughey reminded people that he wasn’t merely a goofy guy with hunky good looks. His Buddy Deeds holds the secret to a decades-old murder mystery, and the actor emphasizes the character’s enigmatic essence, craftily withholding whether he’s the story’s hero or villain.
7. ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ (2011)
The McConaissance starts here. After years of wasting time in dim-bulb romantic comedies, the actor got serious, starting off nice and easy with this pleasantly gripping crime thriller. Playing Mickey Haller, McConaughey flashes the same snake-oil charm that once made him date-night catnip. But surrounded by a strong supporting cast he reaches down deeper, portraying a hotshot lawyer who realizes that his hot streak can’t last forever. At the time, The Lincoln Lawyer seemed like an aberration. It was merely the beginning.
6. ‘Mud’ (2013)
No doubt filmmaker Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) knew that casting McConaughey would boost box office — but the star responded with one of his earthiest, most vulnerable performances. Though not the main character, McConaughey’s mystery man named Mud gives the film urgency and edge, especially as this mysterious drifter becomes an unlikely, and maybe ill-advised, father figure to a directionless teen. Shorn of coming-of-age niceties, Mud stands as a portrait of bruised male pride, its spirit embodied in McConaughey’s wary eyes.
5. ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ (2013)
Like many Oscar-winners, McConaughey has peaked higher than the performance that netted him a statuette. But that shouldn’t diminish his evocative portrayal of Ron Woodroof, a homophobe who contracted HIV in the 1980s and decided to make a buck off his fellow sufferers. Best when fighting off inspirational-drama platitudes, Dallas Buyers Club focuses on a flawed man who begrudgingly grew a conscience once his life was threatened. McConaughey never lets you forget that Ron is a stubborn old bastard — and makes you respect the guy anyway.
4. ‘Killer Joe’ (2012)
The titular dirty cop in William Friedkin’s jet-black comedy-thriller flaunts a sadistic streak that was a new addition to the actor’s repertoire. Pure evil decked out in a cowboy hat and sunglasses, Joe Cooper is classic McConaughey because once again, he’s the self-assured master of ceremonies. But instead of drawing us in, the actor pushes us back, letting the audience observe from a distance his sly seduction of Juno Temple’s curious naïf and his inhuman brutalizing of Gina Gershon’s schemer, which leads to the actor’s nerviest scene ever. You’ll never view McConaughey (or chicken legs) the same way afterward.
3. ‘Dazed and Confused’ (1993)
Inspired by McConaughey’s adoring childhood vision of his chick-magnet older brother — “He was the coolest cat going, man,” the actor once said — David Wooderson is our modern Peter Pan, all dopey smile and endless freedom. No such guy probably exists in real life, but that’s the point: Plenty of men see in Wooderson an idealized version of no-strings-attached grownup swagger that they know they’ll never attain. McConaughey’s first onscreen role was so instantly iconic, so tossed-off natural, that it risked pigeonholing him. Years later, though, his Dazed and Confused breakthrough now stands as a guiding light for everything that’s come after: effortlessly charming, deeply lovable, no big deal yet one-of-a-kind.
2. ‘True Detective’ (2014)
Even in his darkest dramas, McConaughey always had life in his eyes. But the spark has long since gone out of Rust Cohle, a sour detective who has embraced pure reason as a buffer against faith or hope. True Detective granted McConaughey his greatest acting platform, allowing him to showcase the knife’s-edge intensity of his Killer Joe turn and the soulfulness from Dallas Buyers Club. With a minimum of fuss appropriate to a character who’s systematically stripping away his own humanity, McConaughey made obsession and grief indistinguishable. Everybody can do his own “Time is a flat circle” impression; very few of us can embody Cohle’s endless heartbreak.
1. ‘Magic Mike’ (2012)
David Wooderson, Mark Hanna, even Rust Cohle: They’re exaggerated variations of the male animal who probably shouldn’t be let loose in the general population. But what makes them indelible is the same reason that Magic Mike‘s Dallas is McConaughey’s apex: He honors their extremes while finding the humanity beneath their behavior. His performance as the strutting, ridiculous strip-club owner is perfect because, first, it’s so deeply felt and, second, because it really is ridiculous. The sort of motor-mouth entrepreneur who won’t shut up for fear that if he does his dreams won’t come true, Dallas is pure positivity, pure hustle, pure gyrating id — but McConaughey made him real.