In his book Greenlights Matthew McConaughey shares stories, insights, philosophies and how he dealt with imperfections and inadequacies throughout his life, hitting roadblocks and those red lights which made him see them either as good luck or figure out ways to do it less often until eventually they became green lights.
Greenlights, according to Matthew, are affirmations, approvals, support, gifts and fresh starts.
They are a means for us to proceed ahead with our journey in life yet they can also be disguised as yellow and red lights.
A caution, a thoughtful pause, an interruption, a problem, even a failure. They might be a hindrance to our path’s journey but they sometimes give us what we require, what we need.
The problems we face today eventually turn into blessings in the rearview mirror of life.
In time, yesterdays red lights leads us to a greenlight. It’s a matter of how we see the challenge in front of us and how we engage with it. Persist, pivot, or concede, it’s up to us, our choice every time.
Matthew’s mother was a feisty woman. She beat two types of cancer and is the type of woman that say ‘I’m gonna’ before she can, ‘I would’ before she could, and ‘ill be there’ before she’s invited.
She never carried zero stress and believed in the motto of ‘don’t walk into a place like you wanna buy it, walk in like you own it.’
Matthew’s mom was prepping him to be an actor long before it became his vocation.
But, as a teenager Matthew, prior to committing to studying law, was thinking of packing in his studies and being undecided wasn’t sure on whether he’d like to pursue the path of law or whether he should heed his friends advice and, being a good storyteller, follow his heart and go study at film school instead.
His dad, at the time, was paying his tuition fees so it was only fair to call him up and tell him about his plans to pack in his law degree and pursue film instead.
Dreading to have the conversation with his dad, Matthew eventually gathered the courage to call him up and told him of his plans. His dad took a few seconds to respond but when he did he was firm with his answer of ‘Don’t half ass it.’
Those few words gave Matthew the approval and validation to follow his path, drive through the greenlight and while given the freedom to pursue his dream also take responsibility for his actions.
Don’t half ass it means not committing 80% or 90% or even 99% – it requires one to commit wholeheartedly and to follow through with the plan of action. It’s about being accountable to our word and being fully invested in going all the way.
Matthew explains this in very simple terms of conceding, pivoting and persisting. If we can’t be bothered to pursue what it is we feel is right for us then concede and move on. But if we do then start to pivot towards that direction and once we do then persist and keep at it.
After performing in Dazed and Confused Matthew was still a fresh faced actor and was crashing at a casting director’s pad in Hollywood, he asked if Don, the casting director, can get him meetings with agents since he needed the work, Don snapped at him saying this town smells needy; and that Matthew is done before he can get started, so he needs to be cool and get out of town and not come back until he’s ready to not need it! Then they’ll talk about an agency meeting.
Matthew set off to Europe for a month and went backpacking. When he got back Don had managed to arrange a meeting with William Morris Talent agency for Matthew and Matthew showed up at the agency and acted like he wanted them, but not like he needed them. He ended up signing with William Morris Talent the next day.
After landing a couple of small roles on films including ‘Boys on the Side’ and ‘Angels in the Outfield’ Matt decided to take up some acting lessons and start learning the craft that he had practically fallen into.
In the past he’d just gone with his instincts but now he was getting an education on how to read a script, what to look for, how to prepare for a role and how to be a professional actor.
Playing a minor role in a film called ‘Scorpion Spring’ Matthew only had one scene and he thought that it wouldn’t require for him to read the script and he would just work on his instincts like he had as the character of David Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, when reading just one line of the script completely unlocked the character for him.
He believed he could improvise just like he did before but when he walked onto the set and was handed the sides Matthew realised that there were 12 pages of monologue that he had to deliver and in Spanish.
He learned a good lesson that day – to be prepared to have freedom. To have to do the work and then do the job. To be prepared for the job so one can be free to do the work.
A red light.
When he went up to audition for a role in the film ‘A Time to Kill’ based on the book by John Grisham he was auditioning for a small role of a young head of the Ku Klux Klan. This time round he read both the script and the book but it wasn’t the role he was after. He wanted to play the lead of the young lawyer Jake Brigance who defends a black man.
When sitting across from Joel Schumacher, the director, Matthew enquired who’d be playing the role of the lead and Joel replied with no one yet and who he thinks should? Matthew replied back with himself.
Joel burst into laughter saying that it’s probably not going to happen since the studio would never put a relatively unknown actor in the lead role but Matthew planted a seed and was hopeful that it would germinate.
Two months later Joel the director called up Matthew to come in for a screen test for the lead character in ‘A Time to Kill’ and to hear him deliver the monologue of the final summation in court.
Matthew’s mum of course advised him to not walk in there like you want the role, walk in there like you own it!
After delivering a performance worthy of note, two weeks later Matthew got a phone call that he got the part.
Throughout his career in Hollywood Matthew learned a few things about the hustle. For starters, it’s better to play your own game in the business of Hollywood than to do your business playing Hollywoods game.
You have to get the joke, and the joke is, nothing’s personal. From the I love yous to the unreturned phone calls when your last picture didn’t perform, it’s not personal, it’s just business.
Over the course of several years he more or less did the romantic comedies which remained consistent box office hits which then made them his only consistent incoming offers.
Matthew enjoyed giving his audience a ninety minute breezy romcom getaway from the stress of their lives where they didn’t have to think about anything, just watch the boy chase the girl, fall down, then get up and finally get her.
Eventually the romantic comedies stopped presenting a challenge for him and he was beginning to feel like an entertainer not an actor. Although he had good comedic timing, and had succeeded in giving the audience what they wanted he felt like he was posturing instead of behaving, playing a part instead of being more of himself.
He needed some evolution, to change lanes and feel some ascension in his grade. But how?
Matthew appreciated the fact that an actors life had to be imbalanced one way or the other, a vital existence was more important that a vital profession, but he wanted to be in stories that at least changed the vibrancy of the life he was living and play characters that at least challenged the liveliness of the man he was.
It was time to make a change, to pivot and make a new commitment. It was time to get truly selfish and see what he could live without.
Matthew called up his agent and told him that he wanted to stop doing romantic comedies and to find him dramatic roles that challenged him.
It was a risky bet he was making since in Hollywood if you pass on too many projects they may quit asking. If you step out of your lane and turn your back on what you’re successful at, the industry can turn its back on you.
They don’t mind seeing you miss the bus because there’s plenty of people to take your seat. Not personal, just business.
A year went by and dozens of romantic comedy offers came his way. Only romantic comedy offer. He read them out of respect but stayed the course and stuck to his plan.
The studios kept offering him more and more money to take on the romantic roles and yet he declined their offers.
A sense of humour helped him cope, together with his strong wife and two infant kids by his side which kept him busy.
Matthew continually had to reinforce his belief that his holdout was a form of delayed gratification, that today’s abstinence was an investment that would give him ROI tomorrow.
Yet, not working was taking its toll. It was causing him a good amount of anxiety. His need for immediate personal accomplishment had him fighting against the temptation to do what he had always felt privileged to be able to do in the first place, while fighting for the necessity to have his art, his work, more resemble himself than his life.
Another 10 months went by and now the offers dried up.
The industry didn’t know where he was, just what he wasn’t doing. Out of sight, he was out of mind. And it seemed he was forgotten.
Then, just shy of two years of not working he unexpectedly became something, a new good idea.
His anonymity and unfamiliarity had bred creativity. Casting him as the defence attorney in ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ was now a fresh thought. Going for Matthew for the lead in ‘Killer Joe’ was now a novel notion.
By saying No, the target drew the arrow. He was remembered by being forgotten. He had un-branded himself. And was a re-discovery and time to re-invent himself.
His sacrifice was complete and he had weathered the storm. He was now going for the experience and not the money.
Ultimately Matt read the script for the Dallas Buyers Club and immediately attached himself as the actor who would play the lead character of Ron Woodroof. He was drawn to him because of being an underdog, an outlaw, living on the fringes of society and doing what was necessary to survive which of course resonated with Matthew.
Matthew also had control of the script which meant he was going to decide how the story was to be told and who would be attached as a director. He decided to go with a relatively unknown Canadian director called Jean Marc Valle who directed a small indie film called CRAZY.
Their plan was to shoot the film at a certain date and yet had to raise $7 million. Someone, eventually did believe in the project and put up only $4.9 million which didn’t seem enough to get them across the line.
Despite the fact, they’ve managed to make the film for the budget and shoot it in 25 days.
Matt didn’t ask anyone for permission, he did not flinch, he took the hill.
To round up Matthew journey which is still ongoing, he always believed that the science of satisfaction is about learning when and how to get a handle on the challenges we face in life.
When we can design our own weather, blow in the breeze. When we’re stuck in the storm, pray for luck and make the best of it.
We all have scars, we’ll get some more. So rather than struggle against time and waste it, let’s dance with time and redeem it, because we don’t live longer when we try not to die, we live longer when we’re too busy living.