Matthew McConaughey overcame his fear of stripping to create the memorable Dallas in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. Wendy Mitchell talks to the actor, who is having a career boom playing a whole gang of outlaws.

There are not many top actors who bare themselves to hundreds of flesh-hungry women for the sake of their craft.

As Dallas in Steven Soderbergh’s hit Magic Mike, Matthew McConaughey exposed himself in a way that few peers would dare — playing the boss of a male strip revue in Tampa, Florida, who delivers a raucous goodbye striptease that sees him gyrate on stage wearing only a small thong and cowboy boots.

“It got wild, it got very wild,” McConaughey remembers of shooting his pivotal stripping scene. “I had my thong ripped off at the end. One of [the women] popped that leather string on the side. I cupped my hand and rolled out of the situation. We wanted to have that wild anarchic sense of fun. I was doing my part to provoke them, that’s what Dallas would have done.”

Strolling off stage holding his thong was much more than he bargained for when Soderbergh initially contacted him about the role.

“He pitched a story of this male stripper world. And he said, you know, there’s this guy Dallas who runs the club… I just found it hilarious right off the bat. And my mind started racing with ideas and I said, ‘I would love to be in that picture, could you even give me one line?’

“We talked about tone. On the phone that night, he said, ‘You know, if you play this guy straight… it’s going to be hilarious.’ And I felt the same way about it, so from there I just started letting my imagination run, ’cause obviously this is a character changing the rules and he’s living in a world where you can make up your own rules.”

McConaughey thought a lot about the backstory of the character and drew inspiration from the likes of Jim Morrison, Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange and circus impresario PT Barnum.

In his trademark Texan accent, he says: “It was about finding and creating this very larger than life, lightning rod of a character… the character was written on the page as sort of a launch pad for me to fly. And if Steven liked the track I was going on, he gave me the thumbs-up. And maybe suggested another wild idea. I came loaded; if you’re going to work with Steven, you better come loaded… I think he really appreciates a strong opinion and he casts you for a reason.”

McConaughey, who is now 43, got over his “major fear” of performing the strip scene and was even inspired enough to suggest ideas for his costume’s rip-away back pockets and tearaway boots, as well as signature dance moves such as the ‘lick it and stick it’. He was the one who also chose Dallas’ song, Calling Dr Love by Kiss, which he thought captured the right “provocative, lurid, lecherous” mood.

Because he was nervous about the dance, he rehearsed as much as possible, “every moment I could get, in private, in the hotel after work, at midnight, Sunday morning — trying be comfortable with it”.

Even with such preparation, it was still nerve-wracking to shoot the scene. “You are trying to be comfortable hanging around having a normal conversation while you’re in a thong, which is a very tough thing to do… Your stomach’s cramped up, you’re so self-conscious but you’re trying to get comfortable. And then it’s time to go out and do it. Well, my adrenaline got going so high. I was thinking, ‘Don’t underdo it, don’t hold back.’ It was wild, it was scary as hell but there was something sinister and fun about it.”

Career highs

The film, which also stars Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer, was an unexpectedly large box-office hit (scoring $113.7m in the US, $13m in Australia and $12.8m in the UK) and drew positive reviews. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman noted: “I dare say [McConaughey]’s never been a better actor than he is in Magic Mike.”

It is another high point for the actor who achieved cult status as Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s 1993 Dazed And Confused (with lines such as: “That’s what I love about these high-school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.”). He took Hollywood by storm in 1996’s A Time To Kill, and then moved into rom-com territory, some good (How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days) and some bad (Failure To Launch).

He was given something of a relaunch as a powerful dramatic actor in 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer. Since then, he has been on a roll, channelling sleazy menace in William Friedkin’s acclaimed Killer Joe, and then starring in two Cannes 2012 Competition titles — Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy and Jeff Nichols’ Mud. He’s also drawing notice for his role in Richard Linklater’s Bernie (The New York Critics Circle gave McConaughey its supporting actor award this year for Magic Mike and Bernie.)

Now he is shooting the lead in a passion project he has hoped to make for years: Dallas Buyers Club. He plays Ron Woodruff, a heterosexual man in the mid-1980s who contracted HIV through intravenous drug use. He started illegally dealing homeopathic drugs to other HIV-positive men and was shut down by the FDA on several occasions.

Recent tabloid photos have shown the actor’s dramatic weight loss for the role, which is already attracting attention as a potential contender for the awards race next year (Jean-Marc Vallée directs). “I’ve lost 38 pounds,” McConaughey tells Screen during a mid-November phone conversation. “It has been quite the spiritual journey, actually.”

Of course, that role is about more than weight loss. “This is not a crusader movie,” McConaughey says proudly. “I love a crusader, but he doesn’t go wave the white flag saying, ‘I’m the face of everyone with HIV, we have to change the world.’ He’s really a gangster businessman. So he’s just trying to roll in cash and survive, himself. What happens along the way is he starts to take that responsibility.”

He continues: “It is great to tell a true story, it’s very anarchic. It has a lot to tell you about the anti-establishment, and how the government works with pharmaceutical companies.”

McConaughey is also appearing opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street and will appear alongside Gerard Butler and Sam Worthington in Simon West’s Iraq War action drama Thunder Run.

McConaughey says he is enjoying his run of independent films: “I am loving my craft more and more. I’m excited to go to work every single day and I don’t like leaving the set.”

It is also crucial he finds a unique mindset in each of his characters. “I am finding some very single-minded, single-willed characters [who] are of the world but they make their own rules. And they’re not allowed to meander from place to place. To me, that’s what is tragic about Killer Joe, that’s what makes them [fun in their own way], like Dallas. So they’re all kind of outlaws and rule breakers, in their own way.”

There has been some loose speculation about a Magic Mike sequel; McConaughey is not sure of plans but says he would love to inhabit Dallas again. “I would love to if it’s done the right way… when you take ownership of a character, you possess certain things about it. I can do it any which way. Put a blindfold on me, spin me around, take me anywhere in the universe, drop me off, take the blindfold off, press record, I’ll be Dallas. I know him that well. I know where he’s going. Do you want me to be Dallas when he’s 70? I’m ready.”