Matthew McConaughey shot to stardom with his role as a lawyer in the drama A Time to Kill. Fifteen years later he is back in the courtroom as Michael ‘Mick’ Haller, a slick, charismatic Los Angeles criminal defense attorney who operates out of the back of his Lincoln Continental sedan.
He unexpectedly lands the case of a lifetime; defending a rich Beverly Hills playboy (Ryan Phillippe) who is accused of attempted murder. But what initially appears to be a straightforward case develops into a deadly match between two masters of manipulation.
I spoke with Matthew McConaughey at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills about his new project.
You’ve played a lawyer before, what did you like about Mick?
Jake Brigance in A Time to Kill was more innocent, more naïve, more ideological. This guy still has a real draw to humanity, but he’s not naïve by any means. He may have some ideology about defending these people who can’t defend themselves, but he’s pretty much a pragmatist and understands how the system works.
He knows you have to understand how the system works to make it work for you. He bends his own rules. He plays both sides of the law. It’s not really a moral or immoral question with him. I’d say he’s more amoral. He makes it work for him.
Did you talk to criminal defense attorneys?
A few and what I saw is these guys are movers and shakers. The phones are always ringing, someone’s at the door. They’re wheeling and dealing and papers are stacking up. I’ve got another one over here and I’ll do this for you if you do this for me. They’re always haggling. It’s not like they’re just sitting there. There’s nothing formal about it.
When I went through some cases at the federal courts you see how these guys are performers. Some of them are good and some of them not so good. You see it matters what judge is in there. The judge I was in there with didn’t have patience for these stories these defense attorneys would weave into. He’d interrupt and say, “What is your point?” Other judges would let them go on for hours, days.
These kinds of attorneys in downtown LA aren’t wearing Dolce (& Gabbana) suits. They look like they’re thrown back 15 years in certain places. They’re down there with the clients they’re representing. They’re street-smart slick and they are wheeling and dealing and constantly on the move. So there was less formality to the structure of it. Everyone’s cutting deals.
How strictly did you adhere to the script?
The script was tight and written really well. There are some ad-libs at the end of certain scenes and the beginnings of certain scenes that stayed in the film. Also, when you’re dealing with a character like a lawyer, there’s a certain vernacular that goes with the occupation. It’s not as easy as a romantic comedy.
It’s not an occupational vernacular; it’s two people trying to get along or not get along. It’s easy to improvise and that’s usually the stuff that becomes the best. You give the scenario and then you have two people go at it. We had a lot of that in here but it didn’t need much improvising.
Can you talk about working with Ryan Phillippe? I read you didn’t want to rehearse with him.
Not with him. With Marisa Tomei, who plays Mick’s wife, yeah. We have a history. So when you meet us on film, we’ve met long before this. William H. Macy, we have a history. When you meet us on film, we have a familiarity. Ryan, he’s my client. I’m his attorney. We first meet each other in this story, plus the fact that what our relationship becomes, I didn’t want to show him my hand. I didn’t want to share anything about what I was thinking.
I didn’t want to know anything from him. I didn’t even want to get to know him in any way. I knew it would be better for me. I felt more comfortable. I told him, ‘I’ll meet you onscreen, the day we’re doing our work. I’ll meet you through the character.’ It wasn’t until it was over that we actually looked at each and went, “Nice work, man. Hey, how are you doing?”
>I think you would have made a great lawyer.
My plan when I was going to college was to do that.
Why didn’t you become one?
I looked up one morning and noticed to do what I wanted to do was two more years of this school and then four years of law school and I’d be 28 when I out and start practicing my craft and start my career? And I was like, ‘No way man. What about my 20s? I’ve got some things I’d like to say now and try and do.’
I’m glad I made that decision to change. I changed my (major) and went into film production and studied on that side of the camera. And you know the story between my junior and senior year. I met (director) Richard Linklater and got my first role (Dazed and Confused), acting. I went back to school (afterwards), graduated and got my degree. And came out here and started work.
Is this a character you’d like to play again onscreen?
Two things would make that so. The first one has got to be a good movie. I think we made a good movie. Two, it’s got to perform at the box office. There’s a number, I don’t know the number, but there’s a dollar number that it has to make for the people, the financiers to say,’Let’s pony up for the next one.’ That’s just a fact. Yeah, I’d love to.