STORY BY AMY LONGSDORF
For 21st Century Media
What’s a Best Actor Oscar winner to do for a follow-up?
If you’re Matthew McConaughey, you blast off in the direction of a big-budget sci-fi epic called “Interstellar.”
After re-inventing himself with a series of human-sized indie dramas, including “Bernie,” “Mud,” “The Paperboy” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” which netted him the Academy Award earlier this year, McConaughey decided to pursue a more overtly commercial flick.
Directed by Christopher Nolan, the acclaimed helmer who gave new life to the Caped Crusader in “The Dark Knight” movies, the film stars McConaughey as Cooper, a widower who must leave his two kids behind to pilot a mission into outer space.
Alongside three other astronauts (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi), Cooper steers a spaceship through a wormhole and into a new galaxy, in search of fresh food supplies for earthlings.
At the same time “Interstellar” delivers adventure on a grand scale, McConaughey says the film also manages to be as emotional and intimate as any he’s made in the last five years.
“It was apparent to me early on that this was about family, about parents and children,” says the actor, 44. “And I think that’s obviously where the aorta of the film lies.”
As McConaughey sees it, “Interstellar’s” emphasis on family dynamics makes it relatable to all audiences. Cooper might be a space explorer but he’s a father first and leaving behind his beloved daughter Murph (played as an adult by Jessica Chastain) is among the hardest things he has to do.
“Even if you’re not parents, you have parents, and you’ve been in those situations, where there’s a certain kind of goodbye,” he says. “Nothing as extreme as this but that’s what I think everyone leans into. It’s a common denominator that runs through this movie, something that everyone kind of understands.”
As a husband and father of three youngsters, McConaughey could certainly relate to Cooper’s reluctance to bid farewell to his family for such a long stretch of time.
“Let me say this; I’m in a fortunate position because my family gets to come with me, when I head off. But [I did think], `boy, if I did have to go off [alone]….’ Because I do [occasionally] have to go off, for a month at a time, and leave the family.’ That’s a much more minor situation than we have with Cooper in ‘Interstellar’. “
Nolan says McConaughey’s ability to relate to his character was just one of the reasons he was tapped for the job.
“[Matthew] embodies everything we were looking for in casting Cooper — the spirit of adventure, a cowboy-like swagger, and the warmth of somebody who’s involved with his family first and foremost,” the director states.
“Interstellar” was largely shot in Alberta, Canada, which stood in for the agriculturally-ravaged landscapes of Earth. Iceland played a planet that Cooper explores on his mission. And scenes inside the vast spacecrafts were shot on some of the same soundstages where Nolan lensed the “Batman” movies.
While “Interstellar” wasn’t quite as demanding to shoot as “Gravity,” McConaughey did have to spend extended periods of time performing inside a 40-pound space suit.
“A real space suit is closer to a 100 lbs. so they did a lot of work on making it as light as possible, and as easy to maneuver in,” says McConaughey. “ But you couldn’t break out in a sprint, no. You couldn’t jump as high, no…but [I was capable] of a lot of movement.”
“Interstellar” has been a long time in the making. In 2006, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne got the idea for a film about astronauts traversing wormholes. He partnered with Lynda Obst (who produced 1997’s “Contact” starring McConaughey and Jodie Foster) who, in turn, interested Steven Spielberg in the project.
Spielberg hired Jonathan Nolan to come up with a story and after Spielberg passed, the script was picked up by Jonathan’s brother Christopher, who set about giving it a polish.
“We always bounce ideas off of each other, and it just sounded incredibly exciting…the way that [Jonathan] originally explained it to me, which was that it was really about an inevitability,” says Christopher.
“We’re going to leave this planet, at some point, further than we already have. We’re going to go beyond the moon. We’re going to go to Mars. We all know that on some level, I think. So there’s an inevitability to human evolution, of this being the next step.”
While a lot of futuristic films these days are dark looks at a planet devastated by global warming, nuclear fall-out and zombies, Christopher Nolan believes “Interstellar” breaks the mold by putting an emphasis on optimism.
“I think that space exploration to me has always represented the most hopeful and optimistic endeavor mankind has ever engaged with,” says the filmmaker.
“It feels like we’re in need of it again. I feel, personally, very strongly, that we need to start looking outward again, and exploring our place in the universe more.”
McConaughey supposes that space travel helps define the mystery of human existence.
“One of the things that I got out of this film is that mankind’s expectations have to be greater than ourselves, and that…the further out there we go, the more we find out and learn about you and me,” says the actor. “Right here. So it’s much more a tangible idea, an obtainable thought.
“I’m in no way an expert on [space travel]. But I can have conversations about it, now, that I couldn’t have had a year ago, before getting on this film.
“I have a much more four dimensional outlook, in terms of where we’re going, or what the new frontier is.”
After finishing up “Interstellar,” McConaughey shot “Sea of Trees,” directed by indie icon Gus Van Sant. In the film, due in 2015, the actor plays a suicidal man who goes to the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji with plans to kill himself. Instead he encounters another lost soul (Ken Watanabe) and together they attempt to make their way out of the woods.
Even with an Oscar and an Emmy nom (for HBO’s “True Detective”) under his belt, McConaughey says he still has a lot he wants to achieve as an actor.
“I’ve got some things that I want to do, that I won’t share,” he notes. “They’re for me. Has [my outlook] changed? Look, and this is something that Chris and I talked about early on…about being obsessed with the job that we’re doing right now.
“I always think that this job could be my last one, and I like to approach it like it is. That’s a great way to go into everything. I would say, with respect to what’s happened to me over the past couple of years, that I’ve become more obsessive over what I’m doing, at this moment. It could be the last one. I hope it’s not, but it could be!”