'It's quite freeing': Matthew McConaughey lays soul bare in unconventional 'Greenlights'

No one knows Matthew McConaughey like Matthew McConaughey. But now, the world has the chance to know him as he knows himself, thanks to “Greenlights,” the actor’s love letter to life that hit shelves Tuesday. 

The Oscar winner didn’t aim to write a memoir, he tells USA TODAY, though the book has has many of the same elements and is told chronologically, with a narrative backstory following the 50 years of his life so far.

Like its author, the book has come a long way — and hasn’t, at the same time. McConaughey planned to use a ghost writer, a journalist who he had worked with in the past, but the arrangement fell through.

“When he got off the project, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do this,'” McConaughey tells USA TODAY, noting that he had to let go of any preconceived notions of what the book would be as he went through his journals, starting the project in the cabin he was conceived in. He originally thought the project would be a back-pocket book that could be pulled out for “wisdom bombs,” but it morphed into much more.

McConaughey’s own story is arguably more interesting than any character’s he has embodied on the silver screen over the decades. And he didn’t write it because he is a celebrity, he explains. 

“I remember writing this down: ‘The words on this page need to be worthy of being signed by anonymous but also be words that only I could have written,'” he says. “And that was sort of my North Star of what I wanted it to be.”

McConaughey has released a book that looks back to look forward, highlighting the philosophy of “Greenlights,” which say to us “go — advance, carry on, continue,” similar to a green light at an intersection. Likewise, yellow means pause and red means stop. McConaughey delves into how he has identified these signals in his life and how he uses them to move forward — the green lights, along with red and yellow, which might indicate a lesson or a time to change or grow.

“I had been threatening, daring myself to go open my treasure chest of diaries for the past 15 years but never had the courage to do it,” he says. The milestone of hitting 50 was good encouragement.

It was time, he decided, to reflect on lessons learned, relearned and revisited. 

In digging into his past, he learned something about himself: While he has evolved, he remains interested in the same things he was interested in at age 14. “I was always intrigued by being the head investigator and head interrogator on who I am and what is life about? And what am I doing in it? And then that led to what are we doing in it? What is it all about? Where do we put value? What matters to us and when?”

He’s found some answers over the years and his questions have developed, but the subject matter — his interest in the riddle of life — hasn’t changed. He’s found that “life is a verb” and there is no real arrival. That realization helps him enjoy life even more.

While McConaughey learned about his own essence in the writing process, readers will learn even more about the actor himself. His audience is taken down memory lane in every direction, getting an intimate look at his upbringing, education — in school and outside of it — and life as an actor, among other things.

Sharing that kind of intimate detail was something McConaughey was ready to do, he says. 

“It’s quite freeing,” he says, noting he’s laid it all out. “I haven’t made straight As in life the whole way through, and I’m glad. I’ve made some Cs — I’ve probably learned the most when I made the Cs.”

The most important thing, he says, is to continue on the “chase” of life — and that “isn’t always pretty.”

“I tried to give context to everything [in the book] and be very self-effacing about when I was on it, when I was off it, when I thought I had it, when I dropped it. But I stayed in it, [kept] recalibrating,” he says, pointing out how important it is to continuously check in with ourselves. 

And a 50-year look-back is a big check in.

“I did a huge amount of laughing with myself when writing, I did a huge amount of crying — most of my tears came from being able to go back and feel the love that my family had that my mom and dad had for each other, that they had for us.”

He shares striking moments between his parents throughout the book: The twice-divorced, thrice-married couple had a fight that turned bloody but ended with them making love; his mom went on extended vacations that turned out to be divorce; his father later died while having sex with his mother. 

McConaughey then shares how his father’s death in his early 20s, a “red light” event, impacted him. It turns out that the red light, which can make you stop and reassess, had green-light elements: His father’s passing forced him to grow up, as the father who seemed above the law was no longer there to look out for him. 

He shares intimate details of his relationship with his mother and with his brothers — coming-of-age stories and fights they had with their father (which included wrestling).

And he also shares details about his relationship with his wife, Camila Alves, with whom he shares three children, one of whom prompted him to marry Alves by asking a series of intensely honest questions children are so known for. It started with one question from his son, Levi: “Why isn’t Momma a McConaughey?” McConaughey quotes his son asking in the book. His answers were met with follow-up questions about why they didn’t marry, and finally one that made McConaughey think: “Are you afraid to?”

“I think the reason [I shared those] is that those stories of discipline or consequence were so human and they were moments when the love was most tested,” he says.

Love was always going to win. 

“Our family was never going to be punctuated,” McConaughey says. 

McConaughey’s voice, familiar to many from flicks like “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Lincoln Lawyer,” among others, is almost audible as one reads the text. But if a reader wants to take it one step further, McConaughey created an accompanying audiobook, which, in my own reading experience, works well in tandem with the book to offer a fuller experience, a deeper look at McConaughey in his own voice. 

At its core, “Greenlights” serves as a resume on his way to his eulogy. “What story do we each want to introduce us after we’re gone?” he asks. “Well, let’s work towards that story that we want, knowing that the headline is going to change.”

But if he were to have a eulogy written about him now, it would go something like this:

“He was at home in the world. Loved being a father — had the most reverence for fatherhood — incredible reverence for fatherhood — believes that that’s the greatest job for a man in the world,” he says. “[And] if God loves a trier, then he loves you McConaughey, because you sure tried.”

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'It's quite freeing': Matthew McConaughey lays soul bare in unconventional 'Greenlights'

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