“True Detective” might be a dark new addition to HBO’s drama lineup, but its leading men are anything but serious when they get together. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson have been friends since 1996 and are so close now that the frequently finish one another’s sentences and laugh prematurely at their half-delivered jokes.
Both have worked with HBO before — Harrelson in “Game Change” and McConaughey for several episodes of “Eastbound & Down” — but never quite like this. “True Detective” will be their third project together, and a fun challenge because of how different it is from their previous two collaborations.
“We’ve done two comedies before — ‘Surfer Dude’ and ‘Edtv’ — and then we came to do this which is drama, and these are two characters at direct opposition,” McConaughey tells Zap2it. “The comedies and those are where Woody and I are more playing off each other’s energy, and I’m giving him some and he’s grabbing mine, taking it and throwing some back, and we’re just kind of affirming each other back and forth, so this was kind of about not having that transaction between us. We still got away with comedy, I think, in this.”
Creator Nic Pizzolatto approached McConaughey first for “True Detective,” and then after he signed on they “thankfully” (in McConaughey’s words) brought on Harrelson. Though there was the acknowledgement that this would be a change of pace for them together, Harrelson was simply excited to get to work with McConaughey again.
“A big part of me coming on was the fact that he was on. I will say that,” Harrelson says.
McConaughey has been pushing himself outside his comfort zone in recent years with projects like “The Lincoln Lawyer” to “Dallas Buyers Club.” “True Detective” is no exception, and Harrelson says Rustin Cohle is the farthest he’s ever seen McConaughey come from his true self.
“Probably, of the things I’ve seen — and I’ve seen most of what he’s done — it’s least like him, this character,” Harrelson says. “He’s playing this guy who’s an island. There’s no inroad; you can’t really socialize with him in any real way. It’s just a shutdown path, roadblock. It’s a while to be communicating with this guy who’s so different from Matthew. I thought that was a cool experience just to see him become this guy.”
According to Harrelson, McConaughey is “one of those guys that’s kind of good at everything he tries.” Though McConaughey hasn’t played in Harrelson’s Hawaii poker group and also says he’s “not a big time poker player,” Harrelson quips that he’d be “afraid to have to play him” in the card game. Ping pong, though, is an entirely different matter.
“I think he’s pretty confident against me at ping pong,” McConaughey says, looking at Harrelson. “I’ve been sober as a cat, really on my game, pumped up and focused, and he beats me six in a row. And then he’s over there like, ‘Yeah, hey man, hey,’ and I look over and he’s playing left-handed now, and he’s still 11-3 on me.”
Ping pong actually helped solidify McConaughey and Harrelson’s friendship. The pair recall one epic night where a ping pong game brought them together.
“The first time we ever really bonded — like, really bonded — I went up to his [former] house up on Mulholland, and we were drinking Maker’s Mark,” Harrelson remembers. “We were playing ping pong, and it wasn’t long before we’re no longer really using the table. It’s just about if the ball is still moving, you have to get it back before the ball stops.”
“If the ball stops, you lose a point,” McConaughey inserts. Harrelson continues, “No matter where it is — oh, it’s going down the driveway — you’re running down the driveway, get it, freaking hitting it back.”
“It’s over there under the lawnmower, you’re flipping the lawnmower,” McConaughey recalls fondly.
That night, they “both won.” “It was 1-1, and that was as high of a score as you could get,” McConaughey deadpans.
It’s that level of trust that makes “True Detective” work. Both actors go to dark places for the HBO project, but thanks to their faith in one another and longstanding relationship, they have the confidence to go there. “True Detective” might not be a comedy, but it still is a chance to see McConaughey and Harrelson “playing off each other’s energy.”
“True Detective” premieres on HBO on Sunday, Jan. 12 at 9 p.m.