Matthew McConaughey spent 52 days in the desert without a phone or electricity to write his memoir 'Greenlights'

The actor takes us through life lessons gleaned from 36 years worth of introspective journals, a curious social experiment and his next chapter
Matthew McConaughey spent 52 days in the desert without a phone or electricity to write his memoir 'Greenlights'

It’s midnight in Chennai when we sit down for a video call with Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey. This interview, centred around his new memoir, Greenlights, is much anticipated as you can imagine. What ensues is a close to two-hour rollercoaster ride — with the 51-year-old actor (Interstellar and Dallas Buyers Club), who quickly puts us at ease with his Texan drawl. We talk about the lockdown, life lessons, fatherhood and his exhaustive record of journals over the years. Excerpts: 

You put yourself in solitary confinement for 52 days in a desert to write this book, including 12 days of no electricity. Why go so extreme and what was that like?
The reason I did that was because I was going away with my diaries of 36 years, my journals. And I didn’t want to have an internet connection. I didn’t want to have phone service. I didn’t want to have a TV, I don’t have a radio. I didn’t want to have these things to reach out and have a relationship with the rest of the world. I wanted to be stuck with me and who I’ve been in the last 36 years of my life. And I said look, if you get bored — you got only one person to hang out with — You.

<em>The early years</em>
The early years

Thirty-six years worth of journals, that sounds like a lot! Where did this start and how did you sustain this habit?
It’s usually the young girl that writes in a diary, sooner than the young boy. I wrote in my diary for the same reasons — you know, questions you have when you’re 14 years old... Why did so and so break up with me? Why do I have pimples on my face? The confusion, the questions, you know what I mean, going through an awkward time coming out of puberty into adolescence, you know, trying to figure out, what’s going on with my body, etc. And then I continued to write in it because, for instance, I would be in a movie theatre, and I’d watch a movie. And I would laugh at something that nobody else in the theatre would laugh at. Okay, but the joke that the entire theatre laughed at, I’d be like, I didn’t think that was that funny. So, I would think: wait, am I odd? Is that weird? And I’d go and write it down. 

When I hear you talk about recording your thoughts, it sounds fairly haphazard... are the journals of different sizes spread across different parts of your house?
...More like Ziploc bags. I’ve got bags full of napkins, beer coasters, the insides of matchboxes. I’ve even got photographs of my arm where I had written stuff down because I had nothing to write on at the time. 

Why the name Greenlights? Is it a metaphor for the lights turning green in terms of landmarks?
It’s a metaphor for approach, perspective, choice, optimism. I would go as far as to say — survival. It’s a way of contextualising circumstances we have in life. Easy ones, fun ones, successes... are the obvious green lights. But the art of living  seems to be, what do we do with the yellow light? Do we slow down and make it a red? Because we kind of really need to be that introspective in our life to look back at it and go, ‘why do I keep having this problem? Why do I keep repeating this behaviour?’

<em>Surf's up!</em>
Surf's up!

You emphasise that it’s important not just to dissect our failures but our successes as well. What are some patterns that you look for to keep those green lights coming?
I look at the people I am hanging out with, where I am going, how much sleep I am getting, how I am greeting the day and my spiritual soundness. If I am more spiritually sound, I am more sound with myself.

With all of the interviews that you’ve been doing with this book, we’ve been seeing a very different side of you. You go really deep on self-help. Is this an area you want to focus more on in the future, like a separate vertical in your career?
Yeah, it’s a whole new category that really interests me more than any character I’ve played in a movie. I’m endlessly intrigued with potential as a human being. I am thankfully endlessly intrigued with the potential of myself. And in this world, where especially now, where it feels like, well... who do I trust? What leaders do you want me to follow? What do you want me to believe in? I think that with the private sector, all the way down to the individual, we have more power right now than we have ever had before. 

With that power also comes responsibility. So what now? What are we going to create? Who are we offering ourselves to be as individuals, and as a society now? I do believe that a collective change comes with enough individuals that go: Can I be a little bit more fair here? Can I be a little more giving here? Can I be more of a risk-taker? Can I have a better sense of humour? I think we can all individually improve on that and that will make a collective change.

Is there a plan to structure this?
I have a social experiment that I want to unveil in a certain city, where I’m from. And I want to see how it can work on a city level first, and see if I can get measurables that I believe can work. It’s called a shared and competent value system. And there’s going to be a launch but I’m keeping that on the DL (down-low) for now.

Are you looking at capsule-sizing this and bringing it out on your social media? Or perhaps a whole movie project like in the direction of The Secret?
I’m not even thinking about this character in a movie, I’m thinking about this character in the movie, the big movie, the one called life. Let’s go live. It’s happening right now. Standards of time are recording us right now. Okay, what are we doing? You know, what I mean? What’s the story we’re writing, it’s live, ‘cut’ will be called the day we die. 

<em>Little Mr Texas, runner-up</em>
Little Mr Texas, runner-up

Speaking of stories, you gave your kids a lesson on delayed gratification with your Oscar trophy. We’d love to hear it.
After I won the Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, my kids went: ‘Wow Papa, what did you get the trophy for?’ And I thought, oh here’s a teaching moment. So I said: ‘Remember a year ago when your dad was going to work everyday and you thought I looked like a giraffe because I was so skinny?’ And they said, ‘yes’. So I go, ‘well, the work that your dad did a year ago, his peers gave him a trophy for that last night’. And they went, ‘Wait a minute. A year ago? We thought you got you a trophy for something you did today.’ And they asked: ‘So you can do something today to get a trophy tomorrow?’ And I said, ‘yes’. There was a wonderful moment where I saw that click.

What does your next chapter look like?
Some form of leadership. That’s the role I think that I’m becoming suited for. Mind you, I’m still raising kids and there’s this great African proverb that says: ‘No man should lead people until he has raised kids through adolescence.’ (Laughs)

That’s a good one! But I did hear you say that you weren’t veering toward politics, that it doesn’t 
interest you.

It interests me because it’s a great position of leadership. What doesn’t interest me is that it’s a broken business right now, that it needs to redefine its purpose. I don’t know that it’s my category or where I will be most useful. My hunch is that it’s in the private sector. Private businesses have shown that they were much more functional than a lot of governments through this last year. So maybe that’s the category to have more influence. But what is it going forward? What are reliable, solid stepping stones, for us as individuals to go: okay to step out of this damn fog, can you give me something I can rely on? I think it’s the common denominator of values.  And defining those for people to go, look, I don’t care where you went to church. I don’t care who you voted for. Those are small ideas to me. Let’s think about what are solid stepping stones for humanity to say I’m gonna put a foot out here because I can trust that solid footing. Great. Okay, there’s two, three, four. Let that become an epidemic. I don’t know the position yet, I’m between chasing it and letting it come to me.

Greenlights is published by Hachette India, priced at INR 799.

Bonus questions

Why do you need to say All right, all right, all right three times?

(Laughs) Well the reason it’s got to be three times is because... it starts to build. The second ‘all right’ tastes better than the first. And the third one tastes better than the second. So it gains momentum. It’s three affirmations and by the time you get to the third one — few and far between — does anyone not have a smile on their face!

Faith, fear & foundation

What is your measure of success?
Family, faith and foundation, friends and career.

What do you fear?
These mutant viruses that are popping up in Brazil and South Africa! Is a pandemic future, just all of our future? You know, I’m in limbo. Do we let the kids go out? No, we’ve done so well, so far. Hang in there. It’s frustrating. My wife and I talk about it every single day. No matter how much you talk about it or how much of an expert you are, the answer at the end of a conversation is: ‘And... we don’t really know.’ I fear living in the ‘I don’t know for how long?’

Give us a glimpse into your spiritual practice.
A lot of what I write in my journals, whether I know it or not, are prayers. They’re an aspirational prayer of something I’m looking for or hoping for, or telling myself to remember because I can rely on this thing in my life. Gratitude is a good one to rely on, I believe gratitude creates responsibility, meaning the more things that we’re thankful for, the more value we give to more things that are important to us — then we want to take care of those things. 

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