STORY BY AMY LONGSDORF
For Digital First Media
When Matthew McConaughey read the script for the Civil-War-era thriller “Free State of Jones,” he felt as if he was fated to play the leading role of Newton Knight, a Mississippi farmer who leads poor whites and local slaves in a rebellion against the Confederacy.
“[Director and co-writer] Gary Ross came to me with a story that when I first read it, I asked the question most people ask: ‘Is this true and why haven’t I heard of it before?’
“I remember going, ‘This is worth telling and worth making a movie out of even if it’s fiction,’” recalls McConaughey, 46. “And guess what? It’s not fiction, which was a lot of extra incentive for me.”
Indeed, for the Texas-born McConaughey, it felt natural to take part in a movie celebrating a heroic Southerner.
“This is a very important part of American history that nobody really knows about,” he says. “I sure didn’t know about it. I’ve talked to very few people who did know about it, and so, yes, there was a sense of responsibility.
“But it wasn’t a burdening responsibility. I actually found a lot of freedom and privilege in saying, ‘I want to be a part of telling this story because it should be told.’”
Writer/director Ross believed in the story’s resonance for more than a decade but getting the financing for it proved to be a bit of a challenge. The filmmaker dates his interest in the material back to the days when he had a production shingle at Universal, where he made the fact-based, Depression-era drama “Seabiscuit” back in 2003.
After Ross started digging into the true life tale of Newton Knight, he became fascinated by the man’s strength and courage.
“I didn’t know there was this kind of resistance within the Confederacy,” he says. “We’re always taught that the Confederacy is a monolith, a single entity.
“So that began a kind of an odyssey of two, three years of research where I began to investigate the corners of the Civil War that I didn’t know anything about. I began a long process of self education before I began to write the script. “
Even though he eventually put the script aside to work on other films, including the first “Hunger Games,” Ross never stopped learning about the Civil War or polishing his “Free State of Jones” screenplay.
“It’s a funny area because there’s so much that’s been rewritten or revised in this period of American history so I had to almost know what I didn’t know,” says Ross. “The more you learn, the more you’re compelled to learn. I’ve always analogized it to standing on top of a rock and you start digging it away, and you realize you’re really standing on top of a pyramid.”
McConaughey is no stranger to period epics or films about real life figures. He’s starred in a handful of fact-based movies, including “Amistad,” “The Newton Boys,” “We Are Marshall,” “Bernie” and “The Dallas Buyer’s Club,” for which he netted a Best Actor Oscar. As with most of those films, “Free State of Jones” pivots on a fascinating character.
“At the center of it all, there’s this man, Newton Knight,” says McConaughey. “What a man! Talk about having a real, pure handle and understanding of humanity. The guy had a very simple moral code. … He would see a wrong and he had no way to ignore it. That’s a very simple thing, but to be able to do that for 94 years?
“He was fighting alongside poor white farmers and run-away African-American slaves, maroons, and not hiding out but saying, ‘Let’s rebel. Let’s take the fight to them. Let’s play offense here.’”
In “Free State of Jones,” Newton teams up with like-minded farmers and local slaves, including Moses (Mahershala Ali), to fight back against his fellow Southerners.
Newton and company were so successful that, in 1864, they took over Jones County and succeeded from the Confederacy. They were able to raise a United States flag over the Jones County courthouse in Ellisville.
Once the Civil War was over, Knight eventually married a former slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), with whom he went on to father five children.
“After [Newton] married Rachel, he lived in an inter-racial community,” notes McConaughey. “He marched with the freed men to vote.
“Then the Klan came out. A lot of things went back to how they were before the Civil War but he continued to fight with the Bible at his side and the barrel of a shotgun in his hand.
“Even in his death, Newton went out with a bang, [asking to be buried] next to Rachel, which you didn’t do [in that era]. No one did. That was another act of defiance. And then deeding Rachel 160 acres, which is four times 40, which is no accident. He was a bad ass.”
While “Free State of Jones” is set in Mississippi, the film was primarily shot in Lafayette and New Orleans, Louisiana. As the sets were being built and the costumes sewn together, Ross was a stickler for realism.
“The trick was … not giving the movie a kind of gloss,” notes Ross. “So, you actually find the aged wood. You age the costumes. You make sure that there’s an authenticity.
“You don’t overscale the buildings. You have to do a lot of research about what daily life was like in that era, and there’s a decent record for that. … So we were very, very specific about it.”
McConaughey says all of Ross’s preproduction work as well as the on-location filming in the area’s swamps only helped him deepen his performance.
“When you’re in the swamp, the design of the sets are vast and detailed and broad,” he says. “It’s no green screen … [They’re] not coming over putting fake sweat on you … You don’t need sound design to come in and put locusts in the background.
“You have to do less acting. You react. When you see us in the film swatting at mosquitoes, that’s a real mosquito, so to speak.”
Speaking of those mosquitoes, McConaughey says he occasionally felt like a walking, talking slab of bug bait.
“We all were [meals for the mosquitoes] no matter how much DEET we had on,” he says. “But I have a wonderful relationship with the swamps, thank you. Always have.
“My father’s mother lived in Morgan City, south of New Orleans. And we used to go down there every year for the shrimp festival. So that part of the country is something I’ve always been turned on by.
“I’ve done quite a few movies in the swamps, actually. The thing about the swamp is that it is sort of like the jungle, where it’s like a song. Every step in the swamp is another note.
“It has a four dimensionality so you’ve got to worry about what’s coming from above you, below you, left and right at every step because it’s a living, breathing thing. The mosquitoes are happy there. And you’re seeing gators every day.”
McConaughey isn’t complaining. He became so enamored of bayou country that he brought his wife, Camila Alves, and three kids, aged 3, 6 and 7, along with him for an outing or two.
“My family and I actually camped out there for awhile,” he says. “We enjoyed it.”