Matthew McConaughey on ’Dallas Buyers Club’
What do you do when someone tells you that you have 30 days to live? Back in the mid ’80s, it was an all-too-common statement, and devastatingly true all too often.
Devastation is really the only word that even comes close to an accurate description of how deeply unsettling it was to exist during that particular moment in time. It was like a bomb had been dropped in the gay community and its radioactive effects kept building day after day, year after year, mounting a body count that was at times impossible to comprehend. It seemed that everybody was sick or dying: There one week, and seemingly gone the next. Leaving most to wonder if they would be next. The virus’ barrel was pointed directly at us. And the need to connect, which had drawn us together as a community in the free-wheeling 1970s, was the gun with which it would be, or already had been delivered.
"Dallas Buyers Club" lands itself in the middle of that paroxysm, exposing the rawness and vulnerability of those who were infected and the absolute lack of resources available for treatment, like no other film to date. They nailed it. The feeling that it was a war and that in order to survive it you were going to have to fight - down and dirty - for life. "Dallas Buyers Club" shows how the battle was done, and regardless of how unlike we in the LGBT community and the main character might be, he brought familiar echoes to the role.
The title character, Ron Woodroof, was a heterosexual Texas good-ol’ boy electrician and rodeo cowboy back in 1985. Totally reckless, he possesed a devil-may-care lifestyle that includes copious amounts of alcohol, drugs of every flavor and delivery method and lots of unprotected sex anywhere he could get it. This guy was the epitome of every LGBT’s nightmare; homophobic doesn’t even cover it. Let’s just say he is not the guy you want to come across alone in a dark alley. How does this guy connect to HIV/AIDS? His tenacity is familiar to many of us especially after his blindsiding diagnosis with the "gay disease."
In an interview with Matthew McConaughey, we spoke about how they decided to handle the main character, get into that chaffing exterior and beyond it in order to tell his story. "It’s not a docu-drama, it’s not necessarily even about HIV/AIDS. What’s original about it is that you have a heterosexual man and we haven’t seen that story before. When you first meet him, most people can’t stand him. This guy doesn’t start off as a flag-waving crusader for the cause in any way. He’s this selfish son-of-a-bitch who is doing what he can to survive. The challenge was keeping him true to that, trust that if we keep him this sort of bastard who wanted to make money - he wanted to be Scarface - we wanted to keep him doing that, and trust that his humanity will come out in the process."
Humanity seems like a long stretch for Ron’s character but in the end the disease and diagnosis forced his hand by making him vulnerable. Like it did for so many in the gay community, that same vulnerability compelled us to band together and to learn how to fight. McConaughey continued, "Here’s this two-bit cowboy electrician with a seventh grade education, who is forced to become an expert, even a scientist, on how to extend his life in a healthy way with HIV. He took it upon himself to find out things that were on the cusp because there was really nothing to go off of. Because of his personality, when he didn’t like what they were prescribing, he went elsewhere for a solution. Even leaving the country at one point for Mexico, then later traveling all over the world to figure out how to survive."
Director Jean-Marc Vallée, also a part of the interview said it this way: "To me it’s about the life-lesson behind it. I mean when you are told that you have 30 days to live, what do you do? Ron’s response was, ’Oh Yeah? There is nothing out there that can kill me in 30 days... you just watch me.’ This guy had some big balls. With no education he becomes his own teacher, expert and lab rat. He was a crazy cowboy... he wanted to live."
It’s that particular kind of fight that in the end humanizes Woodroof’s character, in his own words that "You are not going to tell me that I am going to die. F*ck you, I am going to live," sensibility. To be certain, it has its reflection in the LGBT community and the sense of purpose that eventually took hold when so few were interested in helping.
We were at that time still marginalized, still considered "not-quite-so-normal" and still on the outskirts of regular society. In that way and on other levels Ron was similar. He was an outsider, not a part of "acceptable" society. That isolation only grew and became more apparent after his diagnosis, when the bulk of his friends shunned him.
After several self destructive faceplants and a near-death experience or two, Ron comes to understand that his survival depends on taking control of his outcome. This realization eventually forces him to understand that he must rely on others and more importantly those he had hated and judged so harshly. As Vallée put it, "Watching the arc of transformation in Ron, slowly but surely, without him even realizing it, he eventually became a spokesperson for the gay community, the same one that he’s been bashing for years and years. It was because of who he was, how he was raised and where he came from, that he had the will to question and to fight through that adversity and become a better person."
McConaughey put it this way, "The hard truth that I could see about Ron and the way I approached it with him contracting HIV, it was really the first time in his life that he had something he could grab onto. Something he could fight for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every single day until he was here no longer. Being that immersed in something is when he found an identity, he found a purpose."
Nobody could say that Ron was a saint, however much of a fighter and a crusader he ended up being. He was at his core an opportunist, so when he cane across alternative treatments available in Mexico he found another purpose - and a way to make money. He begins smuggling these "treatments" into the U.S., challenging the medical and scientific community by figuring out a way around the FDA’s sanctions. He forms the Dallas Buyers Club and charges monthly dues for "memberships," then gives away the non-approved medications and supplements.
He struggles initially to make connections with those seeking treatment and finds an unlikely ally in a transsexual character by the name of Rayon. She is ill, but has a desire to live equal to that of Ron - making them an unlikely pair, but kindred spirits of a sort. Jared Leto -- who plays Rayon brilliantly, I might add -- rises to Ron’s every uneducated, homophobic challenge and in the process, teaches him a thing or two about humility - and how to move product.
McConaughey recalled a couple of favorite interactions between Ron and Rayon. "During the scene when she and Ron are negotiating cuts, she says, ’10 percent? Please, I won’t take less than 25.’ " The other scene he mentioned, "Rayon brings Ron to sell his ’products’ in a gay bar, and it is so obvious that he really doesn’t want to be there. She shimmies over and coos to him, ’The one who has the honey attracts the most bees!’ "
Their relationship develops into one of genuine caring and Vallée shared with us the scene that for him, expressed that love the best. "I think the Supermarket scene says it all. There is something so unsaid, so untold between them. They are doing their thing and the way Rayon looks across at Ron - there is a love story there between these two guys - these two men love each other. They came together for a purpose, relying on each other as they fight hard to survive. And then when Rayon passes, Ron falls apart, returning to his hard-partying self-destructive ways."
Ron eventually returns to the fight, taking on the FDA, going toe-to-toe with the DEA, the FBI and the IRS. He actually sued the FDA in federal court in San Francisco, asserting that their actions had violated his 9th Amendment ’right to a healthy mind.’
But in September of 1992, seven years after he had been given 30 days to live, Ron Woodroof himself succumbs to complications from AIDS. But not after becoming a walking encyclopedia of antiviral meds, pharmaceutical trials and patents, FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulations and court decisions. He turns his tragedy on its ear and creates something with it - however much motivated by self-interest and self-preservation - his journey benefitted and helped many others.
Dallas Buyers Club opened for wide release on November 1. Check your local listings for show times. Go see this film, it is well worth your time and energy.