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McConaughey shakes it up
Matthew McConaughey as Dallas in Magic Mike. Picture: Warner Bros.

Matthew McConaughey was the major revelation at this year's Cannes Festival with two films, Mud and The Paperboy, screening in the competition.

The 42-year-old Texan has been best known for revealing his monumental chest in a string of romantic comedies, so the hallowed Cannes critics were unprepared for the calibre of his performances, let alone his natural wit and charm in the flesh.

"I can't get over how smart he is," one male critic chimed, very much in tune with the flurry of reviews. Had the festival programmed McConaughey's stripper movie, Magic Mike, they may have had a riot on their hands - and wouldn't that have been fun.

In some ways the movie wouldn't have been out of place because Magic Mike is no ordinary stripper movie since it was directed by Steven Soderbergh, a man who knows how to make a male ensemble cast work as he had in his Oceans movies. Oceans Thirteen had screened in Cannes out of competition in 2007.

McConaughey has five films in the can and they are all good, he says. "Not one single day in all five films was I not excited to get out of bed and go to work," he says.

In Killer Joe, a tongue-in-cheek trailer-trash tale, he teams with The Exorcist director William Friedkin and his Joe is as mean and as tough as sociopathic killers come - if ultimately a little dumb. In Bernie, he re-teams with fellow Texan Richard Linklater whose 1993 film Dazed and Confused gave him his start. ("It's our third movie together. It's a unique dark comedy - and it's a true story.")

He has a supporting role in The Paperboy, where he plays a lawyer attempting to defend Nicole Kidman's violent death-row prisoner husband, John Cusack. He has the undisputed lead in Mud where he has murdered for the love of Reese Witherspoon and is hiding out Robinson Crusoe-style on an island while he hatches a plan. Then as an ageing dancer and strip club owner in Magic Mike he all but pulls the rug from beneath the feet of the young buck actors.

"I was ready to shake some things up in my career after having to sit around and endure some of the other things I was being offered," he explains. "I had to say a lot of no's to really get the point across. But now I feel like I'm on my way and I'm enjoying myself and feeling the work more than I ever have in my career."

Two factors are at work here. Firstly McConaughey is happier than he has ever been with his Brazilian wife, Camila Alves, 30, their two children Levi, three, and Vida, two, and with another one on the way.

"I have a wonderful wife," he admits. "But what children do is they bring an incredible amount of significance that is outside of yourself. Your peripheral vision gets better as a father, the way you engage with the world. There's also a certain sobriety that becomes synonymous with having the courage to see the world straight on. I never did suffer fools but you definitely don't suffer fools when you become a father, because it could have real repercussions."

Secondly and probably most important to his career resurgence is that McConaughey, who had become so closely identified with romantic comedies (The Wedding Planner, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Failure to Launch) had a dramatic hit. The surprise success of last year's Lincoln Lawyer allowed the actor, who had once studied to become a lawyer, to take on more serious acting roles. Lincoln Lawyer is now likely to sporn a sequel.

"With that movie I got to hang my hat on reality daily," he says. "It's a different challenge. In some ways it's easier because you are consciously going after a tangible thing, whereas in a romantic comedy you are going to a fictional place, so you're going to a cloud. If you dig too deep in a rom-com you sink the ship. They are built to be buoyant."

In any case there's plenty of juice in the tank to do both, he says. The super-fit actor admits that having a young wife has helped him stay young. "I still feel 27," he announces in his Southern drawl. "I definitely don't feel older."

Which brings us to Magic Mike where he more than proves he can stand his own, well, merits, alongside some of Hollywood's hottest actors.

"Oh, it was a hoot," he admits. "All the characters take the stripping very seriously, which is why it's so funny. I get to play this wonderful lunatic who has these grand visions of basically taking over the male review world, whatever that world is. But in his mind, it's a real world. It's a story based on Channing Tatum's real-life experience when he was a stripper for a year."

Could McConaughey have imagined doing that himself when he was young? "No, it never crossed my mind," he replies.

"Channing is a really, really good young man. He has a great amount of energy and he has taken on all the good stuff that's coming at him. He's very involved in all the things he's doing and he's cultivating all the good fortune that's coming his way. He's not backing up and looking at it."

McConaughey is now ready to take the bull by the horns as well.

Magic Mike opens tomorrow.