A frank and friendly memoir from a working-class kid who hit the jackpot
A self-confessed diarist, Matthew McConaughey draws on a trove of handwritten notes, journals, poems and short stories he’s been collecting since boyhood in his new and utterly charming 500-page memoir Greenlights. McConaughey, obviously comfortable expressing himself in writing, has developed the rich, inner life that comes from honest personal exploration. The result is a frank and friendly memoir of a kid from a working-class background who hit the jackpot and rose to Hollywood fame (sometimes despite himself), keeping his eyes open and wits about him throughout the journey.
The focus of Greenlights is on the formation of McConaughey’s character and personal value set. Part One deals with his childhood with unsentimental clarity. Events such as lying to his father, building a treehouse or working summer jobs are pressed rigorously through the screen of what they taught him about how to live successfully. The key, McConaughey maintains, is awareness:
“Catching greenlights is about skill, intent, context, consideration, endurance, anticipation, resilience, speed and discipline. We can catch more greenlights by simply identifying where the red lights are in our life, and then change course to hit fewer of them. We can also earn greenlights, engineer and design for them. We can create more and schedule them in our future–a path of least resistance–through force of will, hard work, and the choices we make. We can be responsible for greenlights.”
Although the language is simple and the expressions occasionally cliché, McConaughey arranges them prettily–and to good effect. The development of a personal approach to life is immediately put to the test when the author applies it to the task of forging a career in Hollywood. McConaughey takes us through his journey, pointing out where he hit red lights and, more importantly, why. He then takes the extraordinary step of admitting responsibility for his own screw-ups and explaining what he learned from them. Such an unblinking public confessional is rare in print and takes real courage. The result is a narrative containing some fine and hard-won wisdom. It is, in fact, an object lesson in adulthood.
It’s fair to call McConaughey a natural talent–an instinctive actor who happened to be at the right place in the right time. He applied this same “red light/greenlight” philosophy to the task of preparing for his first role–that of the lecherous creep Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s 1993 Dazed and Confused. A surprise offer from the film’s producer, with whom he had unknowingly spent a night carousing, McConaughey describes the task of developing the character (or, as he puts it, “finding his guy”) by drawing on a memory from the richly-documented trove of his life experience.
“That image of my big brother, leaning against that wall, casually smoking that cigarette in his low-elbow, loose-wristed, lay-fingered way, through my romantic eleven-year-old little brother eyes, was the epitome of cool. He was literally ten feet tall. It left an engraved impression on my heart and mind…And eleven years later, Wooderson was born from that impression.”
McConaughey’s career, unlike the long plod of a Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino, took off like a rocket. Finding himself suddenly the toast of Hollywood after his unlikely casting as the hero in the 1996 adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill,” McConaughey experienced the psychological vertigo that comes with instant celebrity. His response was to retreat to a monastery in New Mexico for a period of prayer and reflection. Having ‘Gone Up,’ he then chose to ‘Go Within’, presumably, in search of more greenlights.
In preparation for writing this column, I read the book while working night shift at a community center on Vancouver Island in Canada. On my rounds, I mentioned it to my friend John, a janitor and local BC fixture for decades.
“Oh, yeah,” John said. “McConaughey. He was filming a movie here in BC and the cast and crew were all staying at some upscale hotel in downtown Vancouver. But McConaughey rented an Airstream trailer and anchored down at the campground by the Peace Arch. After a day of shooting, I guess it was burgers and beers back at Matt’s place with the campground locals. Folks said he was a real nice, down-to-earth guy.”
Hollywood is rife with stories of cut-throat ambition and badly-behaved celebs for whom we make endless excuses. Drug addiction? Sexual excesses? Financial impropriety? All acceptable so long as the guilty party adds value to the studio bottom line. But we all know, deep down, that it’s never really acceptable. Ultimately, those who make our art inform our culture through their work. And that work is a product of their values and character.
It’s refreshing to encounter a story about a good guy making it in a tough racket. It’s even more refreshing when that person turns out to be articulate, self-aware and eager to share what he learned along the way. Greenlights tells just such a story. By turns humorous and reflective, it is fast paced, engaging and well-written. Reading it was time well-spent and I recommend it without reservation.