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12 Best New Shows: True Detective

12 Best New Shows: ''True Detective,'' starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, debuts Jan. 12 on HBO

Image credit: Michele K. Short /HBO

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson

When you think of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, odds are your mind doesn't go straight to ''serial-killer drama'' — on TV, no less. But two of the big screen's biggest stars will kick off the first season of HBO's gritty, atmospheric anthology crime series True Detective, playing mismatched homicide cops — Martin Hart (Harrelson), a family man with some dark secrets, and Rust Cohle (McConaughey), a pessimistic loner — on the hunt for a mysterious ritualistic murderer in the backwoods of Louisiana. We talked to the boys about working in TV, and whether there may be a comedy in their future.

How did you guys get involved in True Detective? Had you been looking for a TV project?
McConaughey My agent goes, ''Man, there's this HBO series. It's really quality. Have a look at it.'' I read two episodes, and it was hot s---. It was obvious the writer, Nic Pizzolatto, had a clear identity where you're like, ''This thing knows what it is.'' I met Nic and the director [Cary Fukunaga] in Austin and said, ''I'm in.''

Harrelson Before I read it, they told me, ''Matthew is doing this show.'' I said, ''What? Matthew is doing a show?'' That just didn't seem possible. Then I'm like, ''Well, this thing must be unbelievable.''

This season is your characters' story, and next season will be a different story with a totally new cast. Was that part of the appeal of this — that it's a finite thing?
McConaughey I suppose. I wouldn't have said, ''Yeah, I'll commit to six months every year.'' I wouldn't have been ready for that.

Harrelson And that will be the appeal for the next two actors who do it.

Back in the days you were on Cheers, Woody, the dream for a lot of TV actors was to transition into movies. Now it seems like things have shifted in the other direction.
Harrelson Yeah, television is so good now. I watch all these great shows: Homeland, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey. I recently started watching Workaholics — it's so funny. It's one of those things now where you feel lucky if you're doing movies and you can jump to TV.

McConaughey That whole paradigm — ''Oh, don't go from [movies] to TV'' — it's horses---. I'm not worried about the rules or what the best move is supposed to be. It's ''What's turning you on? What's a great character, great story, great director?'' It's process, process, process. If you think about the results in this business, it's going to be a tough road. Look at this [awards-season] stuff I've got going on with Dallas Buyers Club! I'm in bonus time, man. This is all bonus time. [Laughs]

Matthew, a lot of people probably don't know that your first professional acting job was actually on TV — playing a murder victim, oddly enough.
McConaughey Yeah, on Unsolved Mysteries.

Harrelson Really? Was it like a reenactment?

McConaughey Yeah, and guess what? They got the guy. They found him around Bryan, Texas, about two weeks after that show.

True Detective goes to some pretty dark places, and your characters each wrestle with serious demons. What was it like to live in that headspace for six months?
HarrelsonWell, my character doesn't have the same kind of demons as Matthew's does. His guy's got demons just f---ing wrapped around his head, going through his gray matter. [Laughs]

McConaughey I loved being in that spot for six months because this character had a clear obsession. It didn't take its toll on me to live in Rust Cohle's mind. I was intrigued by his mind. I didn't get mean at home or none of that stuff. I enjoyed sitting in that place.

You have worked together before, in the movies EDtv and Surfer Dude. Do you remember the first time you met?
HarrelsonI remember they were showing some kind of weird Internet invention at CAA, and Matthew was there. I had this connection to him: I was going to do A Time to Kill, and he ended up doing it and it made him a huge star. So I came up to him and said, ''Hey, how you doin'? Should we do a shot of tequila?'' He had a bunch to do that day, but he's like, ''All right, come on.'' [Laughs]

McConaughey Then on EDtv, I remember I was up there doing a little rehearsal with [director] Ron Howard, and Woody, who was playing my brother, rode up on a bike with a bike helmet and bike shorts and clip-on bike shoes. He hops off the bike, and Ron says, ''Do you want to go look at some wardrobe?'' And Woody's like, ''This is what I was thinking.'' [Laughs] And you know he's got the greatest legs in the business.

HarrelsonPshaw! But from the legs up, you've got it nailed.

McConaughey I get 'em high, and you get 'em low.

With the chemistry you guys have, why haven't you done a buddy comedy?
McConaughey People get around us for five minutes and they go, ''We've got to get these two in something where they can play off each other.'' Because that's what he and I do comedically very well.

HarrelsonIt'll happen. True Detective is a kind of buddy comedy in a weird way.

McConaughey Without the buddy part.

HarrelsonAnd without much comedy. But still! [Laughs]

Originally posted Dec 13, 2013 Published in issue #1293 Jan 10, 2014 Order article reprints