TORONTO - Matthew McConaughey is branching out.
Well known for playing the lead in mainstream dramas such as "A Time to Kill," "U-571" and "The Lincoln Lawyer," as well as in lighthearted rom-coms (frequently with his shirt off), the A-list actor is now looking for edgier fare.
Starting with the recent male-stripper flick "Magic Mike," McConaughey says his current work reflects a departure from the safer picks he's made in the past.
Perhaps his most brazenly risque choice is "Killer Joe," opening Friday in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.
The film features McConaughey as a crooked cop who moonlights as a contract killer. The job leads him to a low-life drug dealer (Emile Hirsch) who wants his mother killed so he can cash in on her insurance policy. Without the money to pay for the hit job up front, the dealer offers up his very young sister (played by Juno Temple) as sexual collateral, which suits McConaughey's lascivious character just fine.
Helmed by William Friedkin ("The Exorcist," "The French Connection"), and based on an off-Broadway cult favourite, the film is campy, twisted, graphically violent, sexually explicit and punctuated with the kind of black humour that may leave some audience members stunned.
"The masses, when it comes to seeing me in the film, are going to see this and go, 'Whoa!' Some of them are going to say, 'That's the McConaughey I like to see' and a lot of them are going to say, 'I can't believe he did that, I didn't know he would do that, could do that,'" says McConaughey in a recent telephone interview.
"People are going to go, 'Whoa! McConaughey's doing some very different things and maybe just when I thought I knew what to expect from him, he just gave me the unexpected.' And that I think is a healthy thing and a good thing.
"That's something I've been looking for lately, what parts can I go give an original performance in."
McConaughey wasn't immediately drawn to the script and admits to quickly tossing it aside before giving it another chance and picking up on its out-there potential.
"The first time I read (the script) I didn't even like it, I thought it was gross, and then I read it again and got the humour of it. I talked to William Friedkin and all of a sudden ... I got underneath it and saw the character and said I would love to do it," he says.
"I knew it was heavy-duty, somewhat horrific material ... but I didn't even think about whether it was risky or not. I definitely felt it was a different kind of challenge and I definitely felt it had things in it that made me say, 'Hey, McConaughey, I dare ya.'
"I can say that about three of the last five films I've done. (The upcoming film) 'Paperboy' had that 'I dare ya to it,' 'Magic Mike' had that 'I dare ya' to it and this definitely had it — in a good way."
In the United States, the film has received the controversial NC-17 rating (it's 18A in Canada, meaning anyone under 18 must be accompanied by an adult), which historically results in a more limited release and lower box office take.
McConaughey says he was never really worried that the film would end up going straight to video but wasn't under the illusion that it'd be a massive hit either.
"There's a difference between a 'Magic Mike' and this. You look at the DNA of 'Magic Mike' and you go, 'You know what? Done right, sold right, this has (huge) potential.' And it did. Just reading the script initially you don't look at 'Killer Joe' and go, 'Oh, this has blockbuster potential,'" he says with a hearty laugh.
"It's skewed enough, it's horrific enough, it's absurdly funny enough, it's cheerfully amoral enough and specific enough in its world and the tone that you feel, 'Yeah, this is going to be a really interesting movie if we do it well.' I don't know how many people will see it but it's definitely coming with some shock value and I think our best chance for who will see it will probably be through word of mouth, people saying, 'You gotta see this movie.'"
It's the kind of button-pushing film that will likely inspire some filmgoers to walk out, or at least think about it.
"There is an odd, interactive experience with the crowd in this movie, there's a tension in the theatre and there's almost a moment of, 'Who's going to laugh first, loud enough for everyone in the theatre to hear it? Who's going to start to laugh but catch themselves, saying, "Wait, I shouldn't be laughing, that's gross, that's sick. Is it OK that I'm laughing?"' You feel all that in the theatre with this movie."
McConaughey thinks the NC-17 rating will actually help "Killer Joe," given that everyone who buys a ticket will know that they're in for something unusual.
"(Friedkin) and I were talking about the rating and we said, 'You know what, man? We know what the Motion Picture Association of America wants us to cut, but that would completely strip away the integrity of what this film is, what the DNA of the film is,'" McConaughey says.
"People who have seen it in festivals reacted to it, many, many loved it — now there's critical acclaim. If we tidied that up and packaged it up and put a pink bow around it, that'd be wrong. It'd be cowardly and false.
"So let's wear NC-17 as a badge, keep that badge shined, and go chest forward."