November 17, 2014 12:00 PM

EXCLUSIVE People EXCLUSIVE

At 45, Matthew McConaughey has the kind of life most actors can only dream of—an Oscar for last year’s Dallas Buyers Club; a new sci-fi blockbuster, Interstellar; a gorgeous family he adores. And with his ready smile and laid-back charm, he makes it all look so … easy. Not true: The pride of Longview, Texas, has a fearsome work ethic, an unquenchable thirst for self-discovery and a joie de vivre that has nothing to do with fame. “As long as I can remember, he’s been happy,” says his mom, Kay. “He’s the same thoughtful, kind, happy person he always was. He’s just Matthew.” Now the actor takes on the role of writer for PEOPLE and shares 10 moments that shaped him. —ELIZABETH LEONARD

1 The Curse of the Red Sports Car (1987, junior year in high school)

I had driven a four-cylinder truck for two years but had just saved enough money to buy this cherry-red 300ZX with T-tops. I liked my truck, took it off-road all the time, didn’t really care if it was muddy or got a dent. My truck was informal, rugged, social, like me. But this 300ZX was my dream car, or so I thought. And as soon as I got it, something changed. I started acting like my car. I became really concerned with my appearance, meticulous, self-conscious. I’d even park in the furthest corners of the parking lot so as to be sure it never got a door dent or fingerprints. In the same way, I also disengaged. Instead of chasing the girls like I always had, I found myself hanging out with my car, leaning against it as if to let it do the work for me. Girls became less interested in me, and I became less interesting. I was giving that damn red sports car way too much credit, and in doing so I got lazy, less fun and less me. I sold it two months later and bought my truck back. And all was fine again with the ladies.

2 Exchange Student to Australia (1988-1989)

Two weeks after graduating high school I decided to go to Australia for a year as a foreign exchange student. Before I left I was living a very affluent high school graduate’s life. I was catching green lights, as I like to call it. I had a car, I had a job that kept some cash in my pocket, I made my grades so Mom and Dad were happy, I had a great girlfriend at my school and one across town, I had a solid reputation and a 4 handicap. Once I got to Australia, all that was gone. I was back in high school, with no money, no car, no girlfriend, no paying job, and I was the new guy in town. I quickly noticed how much my happiness depended on those “things” I had that now I didn’t… . I missed them. They were crutches for my personal satisfaction, and now I had to start from scratch, in a foreign country. I was forced to get to know myself better because I was stuck with nobody but me and me only. I had to learn selfreliance, I wrote more, I asked all the questions I’d never had to ask myself before. Most I didn’t have the answers to, but in hindsight, the fact that I was asking them for the first time was the reward. I was forced to find out who I was, without any social securities, friends or family around. It was easily the most difficult year of my life to that date, I did go half crazy, and it was one of the most important as well because it forced me to look inside, take some inventory and get to know myself better. Sometimes you have to leave what you know to find out what you know.

3 Finding The Greatest Salesman in the World (1991)

This Og Mandino-authored book actually found me. I was in school at the University of Texas at Austin, struggling with my decision to go to law school at a time when I was running out of time to change majors. After I declined an invite to play a pickup game of basketball and chose not to study more for that afternoon’s exam, a little paperback book buried beneath a stack of eight Playboy magazines caught my eye. I loved basketball, studying and looking at Playboys, but on this day, for whatever reason, I was looking for something else, and I found it. Or, rather, it found me. I was intrigued with the title. “Who’s the greatest salesman in the world?” I thought. I picked it up and began to read. In it, not only did I find the courage to change my major from law to film production, but I found selfrespect, compassion and wisdom I could prepare with daily. Interestingly, the book didn’t teach me anything novel, but it did help me practice with assurance things I was taught as a child but had slowly forgotten.

4 Being at the Right Bar at the Right Time (1992)

I went to a bar in Texas on a lazy Thursday night and walked out with an opportunity to audition for three days’ worth of work in a trade that would later become my profession. If we’re fortunate enough to have a career, then we all have a moment that we can look back on as the initiating break. For me it was being in the right bar at the right time. One year into film school, I met a man named Don Phillips in this bar, and four hours later, after being kicked out of the joint, he asked me to come in and audition for an acting role in the film he was in town casting. I auditioned for a director named Richard Linklater. That film was Dazed and Confused. I like that bar.

5 Pop Passing (1992)

A boy loses his father, he quickly becomes a man. I was 22. I remember clearly the sobriety I felt in the pain of my father passing. The sorrow refined me, and I never looked at the world the same again: Everything I previously revered and looked up to suddenly dropped to eye level and felt more mortal and attainable, while everything I had patronized and looked down upon rose up to a more respectful eye level and wasn’t beneath me. The world was suddenly flat, and I looked it square in the eye with more courage and incentive than ever before.

6 I Want What I Can See, and All I Can See Is Right in Front of Me (1996)

Jungle, Peruvian rain forest, South America. I was sick, literally, and of myself. Maybe it had something to do with getting my mind and body back in balance after losing my anonymity to the overnight success of my first starring role in a film called A Time to Kill and becoming famous overnight. Maybe it was Montezuma’s revenge. Both were true. I wanted to leave the jungle and go back to the comforts of my California home, I wanted the conveniences of not having to keep my own company. I wanted some attention to take my mind somewhere else. Shortly after puking for the fourth time before 9 a.m. on a rain-soaked morning at 11,000 ft. in the cloud forest, I noticed that same wet, brown path I’d been hiking for weeks was suddenly glowing with blues and greens and pink colors like I’d never seen before, there or anywhere. Looking closer, I noticed the colors were actually that of thousands of butterflies on the tropical floor. I don’t know exactly what or how it happened, but at that moment I felt like a new man. Lighter. The thought of going home and the weight on my shoulders were lifted, and out loud, to no one in particular, I said, “I want what I can see, and all I can see is right in front of me.” The next three weeks in the jungle by myself were magical. I didn’t think about the past or the future. I was there, and the revelations that hit me for the rest of that trip are ones that I haven’t forgotten. I only wanted what I could see, and all I could see was in front of me.

7 If You Want Your Jeans Pressed (1996)

My second acting job, my first maid. I was so excited, I’d never had a maid before. I was enthusiastically telling a friend how great it was to have my house cleaned, a meal prepared for me. “She even presses my jeans!” I preached. My friend smiled and said, “That’s great, Matthew … if you like your jeans pressed…” And I realized, “Oh, s— … I don’t like that line down the leg of my jeans.” I recognized that day that more is not always better, and before doing something because I can, ask myself if I want to. I still don’t like my jeans pressed.

8 Firstborn Child (2008)

Since I was 8 years old, the one thing I’ve always known was I wanted to be a father. Then my first child, Levi, was born. The sense of clarity and the order of what’s important to me was instinctually realigned on a solemnly spiritual level every father understands. I became more masculine yet more compassionate at the same time. To have the inherent responsibilities that come with being the shepherd, the father, the teacher, the caretaker, the king, to someone who is greeting this world for the first time really gave me an identity that I always knew I wanted.

9 Marriage (2012)

To make a covenant. Not that two together make one, rather that the two of us together, through the bond of marriage, make the other individually more. That the two of us together are now more than the sum of our parts through the bond of marriage under God. To have a teammate who demands I be more of myself, not less. And we both found the person we wanted to take the adventure with.

10 In Process (2010–2014)

Around the time I worked on Lincoln Lawyer I really locked into this idea of choosing my acting roles based on what personal experience I could have. I started getting really turned on by the process of acting, the adventure, more so than any result the work might or might not render. I got more selfish, and I’ve had a string of tremendous experiences that coincidentally rendered more validating results. From the Oscar to now working with Christopher Nolan and the Interstellar team, I am having more interesting personal experiences in my work than ever before.

A Father’s Joy—and How He Gives Back

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