Playing the coach of the rebuilt 1971 Marshall University football team
Matthew McConaughey is the biggest football fan I know - Texas Longhorns all the way for the Lone Star State native.
And he got to live out his passion in the new Warner Bros. film, We Are Marshall. While on set of the film in Atlanta, Georgia, we sat down with Matthew. McConaughey plays Marshall University's newly named head coach, Jack Lengyel in the film, which is based on the true events of the tragic 1970 plane crash that killed nearly all the members of that years team. Lyngel was hired for the 1971 season because the previous coach has died in the crash.
It was a story McConaughey was unfamiliar with when he got the part, but said he took it on full force once he did. "This story was the first script that I had read since Dazed and Confused that I read it one time, didn't ask about the offer or anything else, just shut it and said, 'I'm in.' Mind you, I had never had a job before Dazed and Confused. Jamie Linden wrote a great script and it's a great story; then to find out that it was true, and I didn't know about it, and how well it was put together by the writer, and, again, that it's based on factual events. You still get to come out here and portray it and characterize it; you're telling it in 120 pages, you're telling the story in 2 hours, but the legitimacy that comes with that it's really one of those times when you go, 'Boy, the truth is better than fiction.' This time it's a great story of a town, a team, players and people who came back together through the game of football - to keep the program going. That's something I looked for when I read this, and of course playing a coach; sometimes I still think I can be on the field out there playing, but it's nice to be on sidelines coaching too."
Matthew got to meet the real Jack Lengyel, which was a life-changing experience; and it really helped him understand who he was and what he was going through. "I talked to him quite a bit; I know basically his story. I'm not coming in here to do an imitation, I don't even know if it's an emulation. One of the basic things I picked up on is that he was the outsider; he was the only guy who wasn't an alumni who they interviewed for the job. It wasn't like Jack was the final straw, in a lot of ways he was the only straw. This guy comes in, and I think partially because he was an outsider and did things in unorthodox ways, is exactly how he was the right man for the job. I know that in life it's easier to talk to someone who wasn't part of the situation; you've got something going on, you can talk to a stranger sometimes and it's fresh. He came in and comes to understand and has a huge heart how he goes about things; he understands how they feel."
Being a motivator on set is something Matthew also took on and embraced. Before every scene, he would gather up everyone in the room and start the chant of 'We Are...Marshall' - the group would be all eyes on him. "From the first day here, you've got to," he says. "Dealing with these kids who are extras; Mark Ellis (football technical guide) started recruiting players - I met with him back in Huntington. Now the first time, it's incredibly important and helped me; all they know at that point is that Matthew McConaughey's playing the guy Jack Lengyel, who is our coach. I've got to get us past that immediately, and that starts with my first appearance with those kids - I'm talking about street clothes, everything; it's right past that. I introduced myself as Coach Jack Lengyel - one, that helps me to start understanding and believing it; two, it has them - the way I speak to them and talk to them and listen to them and learn from them. I'm then enabled to coach after I learn from them; it makes it simple, and you know what it really does, it really just makes it really fun because we're playing make believe. Our job is to make you believe; so let's start it right out of the gate, let's start in preproduction, let's start when we meet in the wardrobe, let's start it, let's do it. We're playing more than dress up here."
And as we watched him pump up the players on the scene we watched, you could tell Matthew was no longer Matthew McConaughey - he was Jack Lyngyel. "Today's scene is a scene we've gone through spring practice, we'd dropped the Power-I, we switched to the Veer, we went to Morehead State and got our asses handed to us. Now we have another week of practice, the whole town is saying let's just scrap the program, and we're coming in after half time of our second game and we're ahead three to nothing. So what have we taught? In a scene like that you have to show familiarity; these kids haven't, but you have to sell it. These kids have gone through a lot of failures and some success together for months now. We've got to sell that some of them were on that team and lost all their friends that day, who died in the plane crash. A lot of other ones were freshmen who came in with no connection and just wanted to play football. And we have to sell what we've taught, which is 'We are...Marshall.' One of the things in practice is that any time a coach or a captain says 'We are...' the other team says 'Marshall.'"
It was extremely important for Matthew to discuss everything with McG and make sure he was on board with what he was doing. "One of the things is I talk to the them and what I was going to bring up at spring practice, things we were going to work on in practice, things we were going to work on after the Morehead State game. So in shooting the film out of sequence, it was very important we had those things down because now we hadn't had practice."
It was amazing for me as Matthew was talking to us, I felt motivated; I felt like I was part of the 'team.' And again, something he reiterated. "One of the words we need to work on - which is already in the fight song - is 'we.' And we're going to talk about 'we' starts with 'me' - and that's the man in the mirror. So we're tracking these things, we're bringing them up now, we're doing the post; but in practice, back to spring practice, we will introduce it. You will hear them comeback and be recalled here; that way, when we go back into spring practice, you'll see that counted, that wasn't a philosophy that was forgotten. It was consistent, something they stuck with. We're still working on our plays with practice; we've gotta get everything that we practice, we've got to pick out what are the things that we're going to teach, and then we have to show that in the games. We've got to show them succeeding - and we have to show them failing. We're still working on the final scene - that's a great football sequence; you're going to see the plays. Then you're going to go, 'That's what they practiced; oh, it worked.' Or 'Oh, that's what they practiced; oh, it didn't work.' So that's what it is; this is not the football sequence that's gonna look like the Texas Longhorns last year.
We Are Marshall is going to be an amazing film. It will be the inspirational film that everyone will be talking about for years to come.
We Are Marshall opens in theaters December 22nd. The film also stars Matthew Fox, Ian McShane, and David Strathairn.