We came in search of Matthew McConaughey, and we found Jack Lengyel. The handsome star with the flowing locks, Hollywood smile and six pack you could break a knuckle on has been replaced by a man with hair greased down slick to his head, a wide and garish tie the likes of which haven’t been seen since John Travolta had a waist line, and clad in enough polyester to send a static electric shock down your arm with a single hand shake.
For reasons that never truly become clear, McConaughey has come dressed for our interview in a Manhattan skyscraper dressed as Jack Lengyl, the football coach he plays in his latest movie, We Are Marshall. With his career most recently notable for light, comedic fair like Failure to Launch, How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days and The Wedding Planner, We Are Marshall is McConaughey telling us he’s got more than abs and a tan to offer: at 37 years old, he’s got serious.
Set in 1970, Marshall is the true story of a small town in West Virginia devastated by the loss of almost their entire college football team, five of the team’s coaches and a number of local fans in a plane crash. McConaughey plays Jack Lengyel, the new coach brought in to help rebuild the team so the town can re-build their lives. According to McConaughey, the script – by 26-year-old, first-time screenwriter Jamie Linden – is the first he’d read since his debut in ‘93’s Dazed and Confused that he immediately wanted in on.
“It's a wonderful script and I laughed, I cried and I was also so happy that it was a true story,” he says. “That meant that we didn't have to exaggerate, we just had to tell the story. There's a major responsibility that comes with that, but very quickly it became a privilege.”
The responsibilities for cast and crew were heightened by the fact that the entire movie was shot in Huntingdon, the town that bore the original tragedy. Screenwriter Linden made numerous trips there while researching his script, each successive visit the locals slowly warming up to the idea of their story being told.
However, it’s one thing telling your story, and it’s another when Hollywood turns up at your door with its movie stars and its filming demands, something director McG – himself “looking to grow” as a director after making a big splash with his Charlie’s Angels pictures – had to deal with personally.
“This story belongs to Huntington, West Virginia and I went there three times and listened to what people had to say,” the director says. “We opened our hearts and our script and shared entirely with the community and welcomed them into the process. I likened it to a Scarlet letter arc: people were a little standoffish at first, then they came to tolerate us, then they came to really support what we were trying to achieve. Now I think they're very excited about sharing this story with the rest of the world.”
As part of the sharing process, all of the extras used in the film are descendents of the crash victims. McG proudly tells the story of inviting the grandchild of one of the victims to sit in his director’s chair and holler ‘action’ and ‘cut’ at the appropriate moments. Plus he credits “the two Matthews” – Lost star Matthew Fox plays the team’s original coach Red Dawson, who missed the doomed flight that day – for setting the right tone.
“They lead by example, treated the town with respect,” McG says. “We told our crew this is not your garden variety Hollywood gig: this is a story that really belongs to these individuals. We wanted to take Hollywood out of this story.”
Fox, on hiatus from his hit TV show about the aftermath of another plane crash – “you know, I really didn’t make that connection,” he laughs - was looking for a project and was similarly impressed by the script.
“I usually have to sit with stuff for a while but I just jumped in with both feet and felt really good about it,” he says. “I don't think it's a football movie, I don't think it's a sports movie - I think it's a movie about the strength of the human spirit.”
Over the course of filming, Fox got to hang out with Red, as McConaughey did with Lengyl, the two actors forming lasting friendships with their real-life counterparts. Fox says he’s still in regular contact with Lengyl and that the pair have become “very good friends”; McConaughey, meanwhile, was made an 'honorary' West Virginian by Governor Joe Manchin. Clearly, making Marshall has been a life changing experience for all concerned.
“You know, I’ve made 39 films now,” says McConaughey, “And this really turned into the most gratifying work experience of my life.”