McConaughey behind wheel of movie, cross-country trek

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The guy in the dark glasses, knit cap and rumpled cargo pants sways in apparent ecstasy, his hands coaxing improvised rhythms from a bongo-like drum. The percussive sounds echo off the walls and the high ceiling, turning the atrium of the historic Senator Theatre into a noise chamber on a chilly midafternoon.

It's not exactly the way you expected to meet actor Matthew McConaughey, who's in town for a couple of days to spread the word about his soon-to-be-released movie. Then again, the 35-year-old star-turned-producer has been following his own instincts when it comes to bringing Sahara, a wry, big-budget action picture slated to open April 5, to the public's consciousness.

"Usually, you do the three-day press junket, 70 interviews a day, in L.A. and New York," he says, "and that's it. When I told [Paramount Pictures] I wanted to drive cross-country and meet the folks who might be seeing the film, hear their stories and talk with them, they said, 'Man, are you nuts? You can't do that.' My only answer was, 'Why not?'"

So Baltimore became one of dozens of stops on McConaughey's own excellent adventure - a six-week trek that will take him to small towns, big cities, campgrounds and military bases from coast to coast.

The star of such films as Dazed and Confused (1993), A Time to Kill (1996) and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003) is at the wheel of Sahara in more ways than one. The film, shot principally in Morocco, is the first on which McConaughey has shared an executive producer's credit, which on this project, at least, meant he had more input than ever into the crafting of such non-acting elements as screenwriting, hiring and the shaping of tone.

"One reason I can't wait to promote this film is that I've known it from its earliest stages," he says, "and I know it's a great product. I feel good about selling something I believe in."

And that has left him, literally, at the wheel of a tour that has been as unglamorous as it has been invigorating. A man who loves driving, McConaughey is piloting his own beloved Ford F-250 pickup - which in turn is pulling his personal Airstream trailer, emblazoned bumper-to-bumper with golden-hued Sahara promotional art - up the East Coast, across the Upper Midwest and, finally, out to the sunnier climes of California.

"We'll drive this rig right up and park it in front for the Hollywood premiere," he says.

If Sahara, in which he plays globetrotting adventurer Dirk Pitt, turns McConaughey's character loose on exotic locales, the actor is intent on connecting with real people in his country. He and the buddy traveling with him spend most nights in RV parks and campgrounds, where he says impromptu meetings with fans help erase whatever artificial lines exist between actors and the people who pay for their movies.

"I might get out the grill and get ready to barbecue some dogs, and a guy will come over and say, 'Hey, man, aren't you ... ?' And I'll say, 'Yeah, as a matter of fact, I am.'

"He'll say, 'What the heck are you doing here?' And I'll say, 'Well, man, what are you doing here?' Then I just shut up, and I get to hear a whole lot more amazing stories than I tell. Next thing you know, everybody understands we're all on the same level."

McConaughey's tour started Feb. 21, the day after he had the pleasure of telling the NASCAR drivers at the Daytona 500 to "start your engines." He has already taken batting practice with the Atlanta Braves, shot hoops with Charles Barkley and sat in for interviews on CNN - where he first heard the rumor he'd gotten engaged to Sahara co-star Penelope Cruz. ("Totally untrue," he says. "Not even a grain of truth.")

But he reserves the better part of his awe for the members of the military he has met.

Monday night, McConaughey attended a Baltimore screening of Sahara at the Senator, one in a series on the tour that has been reserved for soldiers and their families. Before the screening, in the glare of photographers' flashes, he chatted with wounded Iraq war veterans who had made the trip from Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center in a snowstorm.

One such fan, 22-year-old Army Sgt. Adam Campbell of New Jersey, found the actor genuinely engaging.

"He wanted to know how I got wounded," said Campbell, who has been at Walter Reed for five months recovering from shrapnel injuries that have left him, among other things, with constant headaches. "His philosophy is like mine - you take things one day at a time, and before you know it, you've prevailed for a week, a month, a year. Good things accrue from smaller things."

Americans have great freedoms and privileges, says McConaughey, thanks to people like Campbell.

"I can drive from state to state, and nobody stops me to fingerprint me, check my passport, question my religion," he says. "Strong, truly humble men like these are the ones who protect those freedoms. I've had the chance to shake some of their hands, look them in the eye and say thanks. And it amazes me when they say the same thing to me."

Driving up from Washington on Monday, McConaughey negotiated the first snowfall he has seen in a couple of years. By the time the screening ended, the local RV parks were buried, so he encountered fewer locals than he'd hoped to.

"I met some electricians out in the back alley here this morning, though," he says at the Senator. "Great guys. I'm hoping they'll get the word out [about Sahara], too." The Airstream tour heads to Philadelphia, New York and Detroit before heading West.

By the time he's finished, McConaughey hopes he'll have done more than just pitch a film.

"You really can get in a bubble out [in Hollywood]," he says with a laugh. "But actors really need to get out of it, and it's not that hard. I met this guy named Joe at an RV park. He told me, 'Around here, if you want to meet people, all you have to do is put your hood up.' He's onto something there, you know?"

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