Matthew McConaughey Photograph by Sheryl Nields
Christine Spines
January 05, 2007 AT 05:00 AM EST

There is no intercom gate or 50-foot hedge or pack of snarling guard dogs surrounding Matthew McConaughey’s two-room pleasure pad, smack in the center of the busiest public beach in Port Douglas, Australia. The only boundary between him and the daily influx of surfers and sunbathers in this laid-back little tourist mecca, just off the Great Barrier Reef, is the flimsy orange hammock he’s tied between two coconut trees a few feet from his front porch. McConaughey doesn’t seem to mind that the Aussie paparazzi have set up camp in the bushes on either side of his white clapboard anti-compound — a three-month rental while he’s down here shooting the romantic adventure Fool’s Gold opposite Kate Hudson. He’s not even worried about clearing out the broken beer bottles lying about, remnants from his 37th-birthday bash a week ago. Privacy is not a priority. Go figure.

McConaughey emerges from the white, billowing curtains that lead into his living room wearing nothing more than a pair of camouflage cutoffs and a half-cocked grin. His arms are loaded with a few of his favorite things: two cold beers, a can of chewing tobacco, and a tube of architect’s drawings for the Airstream trailer he’s designing for himself. He can hardly wait to unfurl his plans for the RV, which he’s tricked out to be his own portable hub of hedonism. There is no drunk-at-4 a.m. contingency he hasn’t accounted for: ”I’ll have an on-off switch for anything electrical, all in one spot. TV, XM radio, DVD, sanitation system. I don’t want to be fumbling around [in the dark],” says McConaughey, leaning back to stretch and revealing what appears to be a half-moon-shaped hickey on his left flank. ”I built it all to my imagination. I’ve always customized.”

In McConaughey’s world, enjoying the hell out of himself is undertaken with the earnest sincerity of a spiritual quest. On screen and off, the actor can be counted on to bring the party with him wherever he goes. He’s the guru of good times. In fact, this combination of Southern-fried charm and old-school masculinity is the cornerstone of his appeal and has been a driving force behind a trifecta of hit romantic comedies — The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and Failure to Launch. It’s also made him the most bankable leading man in a tough-to-nail genre that’s been looking for the right guy since Hugh Grant abandoned his foppish charmers for a run of cynical cads. But being America’s dream date was never on McConaughey’s blueprint for stardom. A series of high-profile disappointments (Amistad, The Newton Boys, EDtv) killed the momentum he built early on, after following up his standout role in John Sayles’ 1996 border-town saga Lone Star with back-to-back successes A Time to Kill and Contact. But now, his box office clout recharged, the question remains: Can McConaughey transcend his hunk-du-jour status and become the all-purpose dramatic movie star he was predicted to be from the beginning? Does he even want to?

We Are Marshall, due Dec. 22, is an unapologetically mainstream sports movie, aimed squarely at uplift, but it’s McConaughey’s best shot in a long time at reestablishing his reputation as a serious actor. Based on the true story of the worst disaster in the history of college sports, the film (see EW’s review) stars McConaughey as the relentlessly positive coach Jack Lengyel, who helped resurrect the Marshall University football squad after a 1970 plane crash killed 75 players, coaches, and fans, devastating the team and the tiny college town of Huntington, W.Va. The high-caliber supporting cast includes Matthew Fox (Lost) as Lengyel’s haunted assistant coach and David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) as the stalwart school president.

It’s a movie oozing with sentiment and naked emotion, and it’s shaping up to be something of an acid test for McConaughey and director McG (Charlie’s Angels), both of whom are working outside their comfort zones. ”Matthew wants to push himself to a new level, past what people think he can do,” says McG. ”He can always flash his million-watt smile and get the point across, but this film requires different moves as an actor.”

For McConaughey in particular, playing an everyday hero who trades on his good intentions rather than his good looks represents a step into more grown-up territory. ”I wanted to do something that resonates,” McConaughey says, leaning in, as he does when he wants to be absolutely clear. ”I feel like now I have more to prove to myself than ever before.” Meaning? ”Quality. Working hard. Creating.” He sucks in a deep breath before adding, ”And having fun…. Want another beer?”

NEXT PAGE: Honoring his late father by vowing to ”Just keep livin’…”

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