Matthew McConaughey and Jeff Nichols talk about “Mud”

Alex Williams

The fact that “Mud” came together as well as it did is something of a miracle. Director Jeff Nichols put the project into high gear just as his choice for the titular role, Matthew McConaughey, broke free of romantic comedies and started taking on more challenging roles. The resulting collaboration is an excellent, wonderfully told coming-of-age story with a dynamite performance from McConaughey.

The Daily Texan participated in a roundtable interview with Nichols and McConaughey at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival.

The Daily Texan: The film is a really rich coming-of-age tale. What inspired you to write it?

Jeff Nichols: I started thinking about this back in college. I had the idea of a man hiding out on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. Immediately, I was thinking of Matthew for this part. I just kind of kept it and started to add layers to it, and in 2006 I sat down and started writing it. I wrote the first 30 pages and got through the first big dialogue scene on the beach with the boys, and then I stopped and said, “I’m not ready to write this yet. I’m just not prepared.” The same summer I wrote “Take Shelter,” I was also writing “Mud,” and I finished it. I just kind of always had Matthew in mind for this part and was fortunate enough that my career got to a point where I could actually give it to him.

DT: Matthew, what were your thoughts when you first read the script?

Matthew McConaughey: That it was very specific, that it had a very specific voice. The character had language that I’d never really read before, but I loved the language and it was highly mysterious to me. I loved the superstition, and I loved that it was a love story. I loved that it was about this longing and pursuit for an unconditional love, almost innocent yet very fierce love, for this woman. As a character, it was fun for me to go, this guy is living off the grid, and he’s not really civilized. It was being able to be that Labrador that you kick off the porch a thousand times and he keeps coming back. This guy Mud, who’s this poet in my mind, is this sort of aristocrat of the heart.

DT: Young stars Jacob Lofland and Tye Sheridan pull it off so well, and they really hold your attention. When you’re writing and casting for that and you finally cast these kids, do you expand on their roles?

Nichols: You have to give credit to these kids for pulling off these words. Tye had come out “The Tree of Life,” and he had gone through this kind of amazing experience which I call [Terrence] Malick boot camp. He never had a script, and so he’d never had that problem that I think a lot of child actors have. They just get weird and they get reality ground out of them. I knew Jacob immediately when I saw him. I was like, “That’s Neckbone.” There’s something in their personality — they’re mature, but at the same time, totally suit their age. These kids were able to ingest all of this material and it came back out sounding like them.

McConaughey: But Tye was more of an actor. He knows what he’s doing. He has a process. Jacob was someone who is exactly who he is on-screen, who had the confidence to be himself in front of that camera.

DT: I thought you effectively captured the feeling of growing up in a small town. What was your inspiration?

Nichols: I grew up in the suburbs. In Little Rock, you drive 30 minutes, and you’re in the middle of these places. My grandparents grew up in a very small town, so I was in a very unique position. Had I grown up in a small town like that, I might have some resentment or I might be one of these people that’s like, “Ahh, I gotta get out of there!” I had an outsider’s point of view but with insider access. I’d go and stay for weeks at a time with my grandparents and be brought into their community and friends and everything else, so I got to observe people and observe this way of life. It’s characters that I feel comfortable with and a location that I feel comfortable with, which isn’t to say it’s easy. It’s just something that I feel like I understand.