DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
Deeper Into Character
From the time they first convened in New York City to discuss making Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey and Jean-Marc Vallee had a meeting of the minds. The actor from Texas and the filmmaker from Montreal were both determined to keep Ron's story as raw and revealing as the man lived it.
McConaughey notes, "The first thing I try to do as an actor is to humble myself before the text. Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack's script informed me of everything to take literally about the character, and also informed me of who Ron was not.
"Jean-Marc and I felt we had a wild and crazy story that was pretty rock'n'roll with a lot of heart and a lot of humor, and some very ironic relationships that we were never going to shy away from. Our thinking was, if it's human, it's going to work."
Vallee says, "On each film, I'm hoping to capture reality, to be honest and try to make authentic and true moments on-screen. With the actors, I explore the emotional content of each scene and try to create the right rhythm for the work. On this project, we had to achieve a rollercoaster of emotions."
McConaughey found Vallee's collaborative approach and "dexterous mind" to be to his liking. The actor says, "My favorite part of making movies is the architecture of the films, the process. From the moment Jean-Marc and I began talking, I found that he was a great listener; I don't think he's ever interrupted me once, and I can talk for a long time!
"We had a similar sense and understanding of what would be best for this movie, what fit. Early on, when we had a lot of choices to make, we would pick the same ones independent of each other."
Vallee was impressed with McConaughey's dedication. "He's a hard-working pro," marvels the filmmaker. "He's a great student who does his homework. I've rarely seen an actor work like he has and prepare like he did. His script copies would be covered with notes. He's always challenging the storytelling and his character to make sure that it all works. Matthew was born and raised outside of Dallas, so he well knew where Ron Woodroof came from and the culture and history that shaped Ron."
The actor allows that his character is "a cantankerous bastard with a wicked sense of humor. He's a guy who's easy to hate, yet you can't help but love him. When people are true to themselves like that, you realize, 'Man, that's just who he is,' and you end up caring about him.
"The way I approached playing him is to never forget that he was a businessman first, a man doing what was necessary to survive. Later on, he became a crusader for the cause, but almost without even knowing it. He helped save so many people, and whether he was doing it for all of us or doing it for selfish reasons, he did it."
Producer Rachel Winter observed McConaughey being true to Ron. She remembers, "He worked hard with us, with Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, to weave Ron's personality, voice, and guts into the script. Ron was a fast talker, a hustler by nature, and a fighter. Matthew made sure that each of these qualities was reflected in the dialogue, in the way he spoke, and constant in his characterization."
Vallee marvels, "Having studied the original audiotapes and Ron's journals and quotations, Matthew got close to the genuine article. Over the time that we worked together to bring this movie to fruition, he became someone else.'"
Jennifer Garner states, "I could not have more respect for Matthew, and not just for what he put himself through physically; it takes more than that discipline, it takes an intense need for truth. He knew the character inside and out, tore it apart and put it back together. Every day, he would lay himself open emotionally."
To prepare for her role as an AIDS immunologist, the actress spoke to different doctors and did a lot of reading -- yet "learned more from Matthew about this time in history, about these drugs, about their effects on people, than from anyone or anything else."
Winter offers, "Matthew was beyond laser-focused in his passion to tell the story; the weight loss he underwent and the research he did spoke to his devotion to Dallas Buyers Club.
"I think audiences are going to forget that they are watching Matthew McConaughey, and will just see Ron Woodroof."
Producer Robbie Brenner concurs, saying that "he transformed himself into Ron. When I saw the hair and make-up tests, I got chills."
From all the research McConaughey did, he found Ron's journals to be the most informative for comprehending just how a rodeo-riding electrician found the fortitude and tenacity to become an educated stalwart of the AIDS movement: Ron had kept journals from when he was only sporadically employed.
"Everything was meticulously put into writing," reports the actor. "'Wednesday, got $12 worth of gas, still owe $3 to Mrs. Rosa down at so-and-so.' He'd talk about work that week; at the end of the week you'd see that he didn't quite get as much work as he had hoped for, yet he was positive. He'd get up every morning at 6:00 A.M., acting like a man who had a full-time career. He'd be ready to go to work every day and then sit and wait. His pager wasn't paid off, his phone wasn't ringing, but he stayed ready.
"Then there would be two pages of big doodles, from when I suppose he was just sitting at home getting high and dreaming of a better life."
The actor further confides, "What I found is that he struggled with following through -- in a relationship with a woman, on his ideas for inventions. And he had creativity, he would come up with viable things; family and friends would tell him, 'You should patent that.' But he would complete the project and then walk away from it, never patent it -- could have, but never did. He didn't finish things that he'd started.
"Then, when he got sick with AIDS, he finally did see something through: survival.'"
McConaughey underwent a complete physical metamorphosis to play the frail, emaciated, and dying man. He recalls, "Jean-Marc and I started that dialogue early on. His concern was, 'How are you going to lose all that weight?' I said, 'Don't worry about that, it'll be my job.'"
This process spanned four months before filming began. McConaughey first figured that losing weight would necessitate "50 percent diet, 50 percent exercise. Thankfully, I found out it was 98% dieting -- though that was pretty hardcore, with the controlled meals -- and 2% exercise."
The latter regimen enabled him to shed muscle mass and tone while pushing past key weight checkpoints. "The toughest part was reaching those plateaus," reveals McConaughey. "When I got to 177 pounds, I flew to 170. Then it was tough to get to 167 but once I got there, I flew to 160 and so on. It takes a mental lock-in. I was always hungry, so I had to constantly dampen the fire of desire; you find out just how much food sublimates your time. I chewed a lot of ice."
Consulting with doctors all the way, McConaughey ultimately shed nearly 50 pounds to play Ron at around 140 pounds for the majority of the shoot, playing one pivotal hospital scene at 135 pounds. He states, "It was a wonderful journey, spiritually and mentally, something that was good not only for the role but also for me. I read more. I wrote more. My mind became sharper. I slept less, three hours less a night, every night. I learned a lot about discernment and choices, and about respecting things you take for granted."
After filming wrapped, the actor was advised to be cautious in building back body and muscles after becoming accustomed to little or nothing in the way of food intake. He reveals, "That was actually the more dangerous part. You can't just go out and start eating ice cream and cheeseburgers. The body can't take it, and the organs can't take it. Since we finished filming I have continued to eat healthy, raising amounts of protein for every pound I gain, and took my time integrating exercise back into my regimen.
"The months of weight loss accomplished what I had hoped it would, being part of my commitment to playing Ron. I got what I wanted out of it, and more."
Like McConaughey, Jared Leto understands what it takes to alter his body weight for a role. With only three weeks to prepare, Leto fasted for a quick drop to skeletal proportions to portray Rayon, whose body is under siege from not only AIDS but also drug abuse. By the time filming began, Leto weighed 116 pounds. "I wanted to best serve the character," explains the actor.
Leto had transformed his body several times before for portrayals, including losing weight and mastering running for another true story, Prefontaine; dropping more than two dozen pounds for Requiem for a Dream; and gaining more than 60 pounds for Chapter 27.
He has vowed to never again go the latter route, explaining that "gaining weight is worse than losing weight; it's absolutely dreadful. What you are doing to your body is a much more toxic thing, especially since you're not eating very healthy foods."
By contrast, Leto was confident throughout his extremely concentrated weight-loss process for Dallas Buyers Club. He offers, "In history, people have fasted to great effect -- spiritually and mentally. So I don't think it is necessarily a bad thing, depending on how long you do it, how you're doing it -- and if you educate yourself about it. You are also losing a lot of muscle, not just fat. I drank a lot of water and ate really very little at all.
"It was what was appropriate for the role. The physical transformation affects you in every single way, including emotionally. It affects your energy. It affects your voice and outlook, the way you move and carry yourself. It raises the stakes. When you looked at someone like Matthew, who made such a tremendous commitment to the character and the story, you found yourself working a lot harder in every area to make the strong choices. We all climbed a mountain together."
McConaughey offers, "Some people may have been put off with Jared's ideal of being in-character the entire time. Well, too bad, it was good for him and it was good for me; it would have been easy for an actor to caricaturize in this role, but Jared kept Rayon grounded in her eccentricities. Jared went for 'human,' and that made him so much easier to act with, and more truthful."
Winter remarks, "The heart of the movie is in the relationship between Ron and Rayon. Jared's chemistry with Matthew as Ron is reminiscent of Midnight Cowboy with a little bit of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There's a vibe between these two that comes alive on the screen."
At the Dallas Buyers Club, the LGBT community was well-represented both among staff and clientele, including a partner in the business. But, as screenwriter Melisa Wallack says, "Texas in the 1980s was undoubtedly one of the most difficult places to be a homosexual or transsexual, much less one with AIDS.
"In Rayon, we wanted to create a character who struggled with wanting to live and wanting to die. Ron never struggled with that; he was determined to live."
Given that there was leeway to interpret the character, Vallee praises Leto's instincts. "Jared came up with something very precise," says the director. "I was seeing Rayon as a blend of glam rock, sexy gay guy, and female. But Jared went for the feminine thing all the way."
The actor affirms, "I did get in touch with my feminine side, because it's a strong attribute of the character. In terms of emotions it was important for me to study as much as I could about what it meant to be a transsexual woman, to get at how you see things and what you want out of life.
"Rayon is a ray of light, no pun intended. She is someone who wants to be loved and wants to love others, someone who wants to take care of people with humor and kindness. She looks to be electrified. I think she's a spirit of hope, joy and optimism."
Garner adds, "With Jean-Marc, Jared and I discussed this backstory for Eve and Rayon: our characters have known each other for a long time, since well before Ron comes into their lives. Rayon has always been the kind of person who brought a little bit of levity to Eve's very serious type-A life. She's always been a bit of a caretaker to him, and now that becomes even more than case."
Leto elaborates, "Rayon calls Dr. Saks 'Evie.' They were friends back in junior high and high school until Rayon started experimenting with a lot of things and stopped going to school. They serendipitously found each other again when Rayon was diagnosed with AIDS. Evie is the one who takes care of her."
Garner states, "Like Matthew, Jared turned himself inside out for his role. He took on Rayon's fragility, like a butterfly. He had this frail, beautiful quality. It was a privilege to be on the set with the two of them."
For Vallee, having two actors physically transformed and completely submerged in their characters meant that as director he was even freer to let the power of the emotional narrative and performances drive the action. He relays, "We could trust what was on the page and just have the camera watch Jared and Matthew."
Michael O'Neill recalls how he got to the set and "didn't recognize Matthew at first and when I saw Jared I thought, 'That's a pretty girl.' They were living inside these characters.
"I was happy to be part of their process, contributing to it by playing pressure opposite them while they are showing the human spirit being tenacious. But I didn't want to make Barkley a heartless company guy; Jean-Marc made sure that he was not divorced from his humanity, which opened up a whole lot for me."
The actor was able to chart his character's progress -- since it is intertwined with Ron's. O'Neill notes, "Each time they meet, Ron is going a little bit farther in his activism, so each time Barkley has to lean a little bit harder on a guy who's becoming more and more frail. He sees the pain that this man is in, but he still has to fulfill his professional responsibilities."
Dr. Eve Saks is comparably caught between professional responsibility and personal compassion, and as such McConaughey believes that Garner's role "is a difficult part to play. Dr. Eve has to walk a tightrope. She has to listen, perceive, and then decide what to do with the information that comes at her from all sides including at her job."
Eve is not only Ron and Rayon's physician, but also their link to a scientific/medical community in conflict as a pandemic spreads. "I think everyone was kind of grasping at straws trying to find a cure," notes Garner. "I feel that people were doing the best they could to understand this terrifying disease; I don't believe there were black hearts, yet there was supposed to be a balance between business and medicine."
Ron debates the immunologist early and often. McConaughey says, "Ron comes in as this lightning bolt wanting to rip it all out, saying 'I got a new way to go.' It's hard for Eve to take that in."
Garner concludes, "Because of his evolution, Ron becomes more than a patient to her; he becomes someone whom she can't help but respect."
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