By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Fresh from his turn as an exotic dancer and strip club proprietor in “Magic Mike,” Matthew McConaughey plays a far more sinister character in his newest movie, the ultra-violent “Killer Joe,” in which he plays the title character, a killer for hire who gets involved with a very dysfunctional rural Texas family. The southern noir black comedy is based on an award-winning play by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay.
McConaughey co-stars in the William Friedkin-directed film with Emile Hirsch, best known for his starring roles in “Into the Wild” and “Speed Racer.” Hirsch plays Chris, a young Texan with a gambling problem who hires Killer Joe to knock off his abusive mother in hopes of collecting on a life insurance policy so he can pay off his debts to a deadly local bookie. His trailer park dwelling father and stepmother (Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon) go along with the scheme but things go awry when Killer Joe sets his eyes on Chris’ dotty sister Dottie (Juno Temple) and insists on moving in with the family.
McConaughey, 42, and Hirsch, 27, sat down to discuss the sex and violence filled film, which earned a NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America.
Front Row Features: Matthew, you’ve played sinister characters before, but Killer Joe has a distinctive coldness we haven’t seen you portray. How was it unlocking that character?
McConaughey: It’s not a literal, “Oh, how would I become a killer?” It’s not that literal as an actor for me. You go into character (and say to yourself) “What’s this guy need? What’s he about?” You make up some things. Maybe it helps me say where he’s from and what’s he about. What I found was this guy needs is family. He doesn’t have it. So he’s finding it. Look where he is. He moves in. He goes from cohabitation and inhabitation with his relationship with Dottie. They’re just misfits that are out there that are in the abyss that happen to come across in the same galaxy. That’s how that starts.
Front Row Features: Were you familiar with Tracy Letts’ play beforehand?
Hirsch: I’d never seen it. I read the script cold. I didn’t know what it was. It was just a bunch of pieces of paper and all it said was “Killer Joe” on it. I didn’t know what it was—comedy or drama, But not knowing what to make of it as I read it, it was part of an enjoyable part of the experience which, hopefully, the audience will have that same kind of confusion and getting to make up their minds as they watch it. But certainly after I read the script, I did a little bit of research on it. I found out it had been a really popular play. It was a showstopper. I was reading a couple of theater reviews and it brings down the house. It’s insanely violent and a lot of the productions, believe it or not, are a lot more sexual and violent than the movie.
Front Row Features: Did he give you any notes on how to play Chris?
Hirsch: Tracy gave us a memo early on of like the dos and don’ts of what makes a really successful production of “Killer Joe” based on his experiences with the play and not shying away from the violence and the sex. Everything was a big part of what his experience in making the play work was.
Front Row Features: Did Joe’s sense of menace come across on the page?
McConaughey: Yes. There was always something going on underneath. There’s always something very cryptic. There are many different explanations of what you think that is. You can take that from what, if that’s going to define. There’s always tonally something else going on, and then you can decipher that many different ways.
Hirsch: There is a morality tale in the sense that I do think that if Joe thought these people were really good people like he does with Dottie, he wouldn’t have doled out the same punishment. I don’t think Joe’s the kind of guy where if Chris were a standup guy, the same fate would have awaited him.
Front Row Features: There’s a lot of ambiguity about the relationship between Chris and Dottie. What did you make of their relationship and did that inform your character at all?
Hirsch: For me it was just trying to take the ambiguity and just play the scene however it could be because if something’s ambiguous there’s not necessarily something concrete to walk on, for me, where I know exactly what happened one way or another, I can just play it and then the ambiguity becomes part of the scene. You can’t necessarily control that.
McConaughey: It didn’t really matter that much for my character to make a moral choice as a character to go, “Ah, it was incestuous.” I didn’t make that choice, but it is insinuated.
Front Row Features: How was it working with filmmaking legend William Friedkin (“The French Connection,” “The Exorcist”)?
Hirsch: It’s almost like he’s the other member of the ensemble a little bit because he’s so up with all of the actors and the set, like he has this really big personality, and really high level of intensity, and I’ve never quite been around something like that, that was so fast. And what really impressed me about Billy is that he knows right away what he’s going to do. He has this weird quick-minded ability to make all those creative decisions almost in a split second.
Front Row Features: Matthew, was working with William Friedkin anything like working with Steven Soderbergh, who directed you in “Magic Mike?“
McConaughey: No. Steven is very much a stylist and a shaper, and he sits back and you come to set and you are walking around and you quickly learn that when you show up to set you’re on. He’s watching you as your character because you are sitting there talking and then all of a sudden, 30 minutes later, you look up and there’s track being laid down and there’s a camera, (On “Killer Joe”) it was just show up on set and just do what your character starts doing. Dive in. They are similar in that they expect the actors to show up, know their character better than anybody and be ready to do it.
Front Row Features: Speaking of Soderbergh, are you going to be part of the “Magic Mike” sequel?
McConaughey: I hope so. I’ve talked to (co-star) Channing (Tatum) about it.
Front Row Features: There are also reports you will be doing a sequel to the 2011 crime drama “The Lincoln Lawyer?”
McConaughey: It’s not a sequel. It’s two Michael Connelly books that they are putting together right now. I wish I’d had a script in my hand a year ago. I don’t have it yet. If that script is good, I would love to get back into Mick Haller’s shoes. That, of all of the things that I have done that could be a possible returning character, I would love to be in his shoes again on another case.
Front Row Features: On a personal note, congratulations on your recent marriage. How’s married life?
McConaughey: Thank you. It’s going wonderfully well. I’ve got two healthy kids and another one on the way. It feels good to be married and call (Camila) my wife and be her husband.