HBO’s new eight-episode drama series True Detective tells the story of detectives Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), whose lives entwine during a 17-year hunt for a killer that started with the original investigation of a bizarre murder in 1995 and continues into the re-opening of the case in 2012. The show is as intriguing as it is unsettling, expertly acted and compellingly brought to life. It’s dark, brutal and volatile, but will keep you coming back for more.
During the HBO portion of the TCA Press Tour, co-stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson talked about what made them sign on for a TV show, how they balance their characters in the two different time periods, what it was like to work with each other on this, and the type of direction they got on set. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Question: We’ve seen enough big stars do television that it almost feels old-hat. But, you guys are at the top of your game in film, and here you are doing a television show. What was it about this project that made you say, “I’m doing it. I don’t care if it’s a movie or TV, or whatever this is. This is a great project”?
WOODY HARRELSON: First of all, I had already worked with HBO on Game Change. There’s just no finer organization making amazing stuff out there than HBO. It’s a privilege to work with them. The other part of that is just the people involved. I love Matthew. He’s my brother. He’s a phenomenal, amazing person. And I love Michelle [Monaghan]. I’ve known her many, many years. Cary [Fukunaga] is a terrific director. And Nic [Pizzolatto] wrote this phenomenal script that you just couldn’t put down. His writing is so amazing.
MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY: For me, as we all know, it’s a different time in television. There’s not that feeling of, if you’re having a successful film career and somebody brings up something on television, [then you wouldn’t even consider it]. At the time when I got this, we didn’t know where it was going to be. All I knew is that I read the first two episodes, and I was in. I was just, at the time, looking for quality. So, it wasn’t something where I said, “I’m in, but wait a minute, it’s TV.” That wasn’t a gauge. That transition is much more seamless, in reality and perception, more now than ever. It was, “Television? Great! Let’s go to the right place to do it.” Some of the best drama going on has been on television, in comparison to some films. It was a 450-page film, is what it was. It was also finite. It didn’t mean that we had to come back next year, if we were under contract. In that way, it was exactly a 450-page film script.
Matthew, you’re on a ridiculous run right now, in your career. Was there ever a point when you thought you might never have a year like this again?
McCONAUGHEY: Oh, I’m still in the present tense of the year that’s going on. I haven’t gone retro yet. I’ve done a lot of work, over the last few years. I was able to put some things out, and be in some things that I liked a lot, last year. We finished these things over a year ago, and now they’re still vital. We’re actually just now declaring them, and they’re having a brand-new life. Other things that I’ve done had a quicker shelf-life. These things are feeling really relevant, and they’re piquing some people’s interests, and they’re resonating. I haven’t really thought about them as a year, and I haven’t thought, “Am I going to have another good year?” Part of it was that I haven’t really been looking in the rearview mirror for a while. I hope I don’t. It’s nice to talk about, but I’m in no way in a retrospective mode.
People change a lot in 17 years, which is the scope of this series. How do you balance these two characters, so that viewers recognize you as the same guys, at some level?
HARRELSON: I just took off my wig.
McCONAUGHEY: I just put on my wig. Speaking for myself, it was clear in the writing. One of the great things about this is that the identities of the men, at these times, was very clear. I didn’t have to do a lot of creative wandering in my head. One of my favorite things that I got to do with Cohle was go, “Who is he in ‘95?” Here’s a guy who is coming back on to a case, just barely hanging onto the rails. He needs a case to keep his shit together, literally. In 2012, he’s off the rails. He’s cashed in. He’s fallen prey to his own beliefs. Every day that he’s alive is another day of penance, in this indentured servitude he calls life. So, a lot of what’s fun and entertaining about this show is that, when you cut to 17 years later, he and I as characters are both wondering what happened in the 17-year interim to these two men. Then, you’re going to slowly find out what happened. You’re going to find out if what I’m telling is the truth. Where are our stories the same? Where do they veer from what really happened? What happened in that 17 years and how we’re connected is really the fun of the eight episodes.
McCONAUGHEY: We didn’t do them all at one. We did do 29 pages in one day. That was the biggest mountain of the heap I’ve ever had. I was going to Woody, “When we get into this, we gotta just dance.” We had these 29 pages that I had broke down for weeks. I knew it was coming up. I decoded everything because I had all these different stories to tell. We said, “We’ve got enough film. Let’s stay right here and do it.” And we did do it in one day. I remember, at the end of that day, we had one more angle to do. Somebody was like, “We’re all burnt. We should really go home.” I said, “No, we’re not going home now.” I had broken a literal sweat by then and was reveling in it. It was like, “No, we gotta stick to it.” So everyone stayed, and we got it all in one day. That was fun. I remember the wine tasted really good that night.
What was it like to work on this with each other?
HARRELSON: We have a shorthand, but interestingly, on this project, we didn’t use a lot of our normal kind of shorthand, the way we finish each other’s sentences and shit. He was an island. He is one of the most gregarious, awesome guys I know, but in this, he was fully in character and he was very much an island. It was very different. And part of that complication helped.
McCONAUGHEY: Part of why Woody and I are friends is that we get on each other’s frequency, and we affirm each other and one-up each other. It can turn into an improvisation, but it can go into the ether, and then some. I have a really big mag full of films, but this is the first time we worked together where there’s real opposition. This was not about us coming together. Early on, I remember that we said, “Boy, we gotta put some kind of fun in this. This thing can be a lead weight.” We found a new sort of comedy, but it was not the comedy of the two-hander, where I pass it to him, and he passes it back. We were not playing catch, back and forth.
HARRELSON: In fact, it does feel different, and I liked it. It’s weird. Although I really like the Rust Cohle role, I didn’t ever get a chance to play it because Matthew had that part, and I really love what he did with it. I can’t imagine anybody playing that part better. It was just phenomenal. And Matthew played a much different role from what I’ve ever seen him play before, but I think he knocked it out of the park.
Matthew, do you typically like to get a lot of direction, or do you have your own ideas and just want to have at it?
McCONAUGHEY: I like to be directed, but when I’m flying and I’m on fire, I don’t want someone coming and getting in my way just because they feel like they need to. A good director will do what Cary did. If you’ve got an actor that’s flying and they’re telling the truth, just sit over there and put some wind under them, and keep putting the wind under their wings. When a good director gets an actor who really comes in with the identity and a track on a character, and they see where they’re going with it, you can throw in variations. I want to hear a director come up with other options and other ideas, to point me in different directions, so I don’t get locked into one thing. I want that objective view. I like a nudge here and there.
True Detective airs on Sunday nights on HBO.