Matthew McConaughey Was His Chilled-Out Self at the University of Houston Commencement

Graduations are usually only exciting to the people actually marching along to a thumping rendition of Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance. But that electric, slightly-possibly-stoned graduation mood rippled through the entire crowd on Friday night as they packed into TDECU Stadium. They were all officially there to watch their loved ones march into the stadium and then to snap photos of their particular be-gowned and be-capped graduate as he or she marched across the stage. But really, we were all there to see what Matthew McConaughey would be like in real life and to hear what pearls of wisdom the Academy Award-winning actor would impart to the graduates he'd been brought in to address.

It was a big class with 4,958 graduates, but judging by the fact that at least half the white folding chairs assembled for the graduates were empty, a number of them missed out on the ceremony. But those who came to the ceremony got an impressive show with McConaughey.

He walked out with the main clutch of college leaders and politicians, but McConaughey, deeply tanned, tall, bearded and dressed in a black suit and blazing white shirt, stood out from the crowd. He smiled and nodded as he passed up the aisle through the screaming graduates to the stage. He was a hit just by being there — the graduates, the audience, everyone cheered and clapped when he was introduced. (We're betting that there were a ton of people who got much more interested in this graduation after he was announced as the speaker, judging from the audience reaction to him, especially since he's in the middle of an artistic renaissance, having sloughed off the romantic comedies in favor of fascinating roles in films like Mud, Magic Mike and his Oscar-winning turn in The Dallas Buyers Club.)

There was a tiny bit of controversy when UH officials announced they'd nabbed McConaughey as a speaker. McConaughey himself went to the University of Texas at Austin but his dad, "Big Jim" McConaughey, played football for UH, giving him some plausible tie to the university. The real issue bubbled up when nobody wanted to admit exactly how much he was being paid to show up and give this speech. Eventually it was revealed he was getting $135,000. McConaughey reps subsequently announced the fee was going to his charity, jk Livin' Foundation, shorthand for "just keep living," the mantra inspired by his father's death just after McConaughey's career took off with the 1990s film Dazed and Confused. The foundation serves more than 2,000 students in 24 programs in Texas, California, Lousiana and Washington D.C. 

On Friday night it was pretty clear that the audience didn't care what it had cost to get McConaughey here or where he'd gone to school or whether he wears deodorant in real life or somehow just parades around — even in the muggy Houston heat — sweating and naturally not smelling gross. After he was introduced, he stepped to the podium and then pulled off his suit jacket, slung it onto the podium, grabbed the stool behind it and dragged it closer to the edge of the stage. (It was an effortless move that instantly made him not seem like "a commencement speaker" or anything dull-sounding like that.)

He talked for just under an hour, and he split his talk up into 13 points of advice, pulling each one up on an enormous red-screened white-lettered PowerPoint as he went through it. "I thought long and hard about what I would share with you tonight," McConaughey told the graduates. "As the saying goes, 'Take what you like and leave the rest.'" And then he turned around and gave a 13-point speech about some things he's learned in life, punctuating the talk with his own stories.

He warned that life isn't easy, and that's just a basic part of living. He talked about how "'unbelievable' is the stupidest word in the dictionary" because everything in life, from the best to the worst, is possible. "If there's one thing you can depend on people being, it's people. Acknowledge acts of greatness and do not deny mankind's capacity for evil." He came back to the architecture theme repeatedly over the course of the speech. "Life is a verb. We try our best; we just don't always do our best. But architecture is a verb as well, and we are the architects of our own lives." And then he talked about the difference between being happy and having joy — happiness is based on things from outside yourself while joy comes from doing good work, living a satisfying life. "Joy is always under construction, in process." He weaved in stories from Dazed and Confused  and from Boys on the Side and his other films. 

He told the audience — by this point it felt as if we were all his close friends — about how right after he got famous in 1996, he went hiking in Peru and 12ish days in, he was thinking about where his life was, unhappy with himself, uncomfortable with his newfound fame, and he started taking stock of things. He ended up stripping everything off and really considering and reflecting on who he was while stark naked in the Peruvian jungle. Then he threw up until there wasn't even bile left in his stomach, and the next morning he woke up feeling lighter, different because he was beginning to really know himself. McConaughey talked about how he changed his approach to his work and decided to start making choices based on the satisfaction of the work and stop worrying about the stuff ahead, like whether he'd have a hit or be acknowledged. Since that time, McConaughey has won tons of awards and has received some of the best reviews of his career, and he told the audience it's because he decided to focus on the joy in what he does for a living.

The more he talked, the more it became clear that, handsome as he is, he's learned some stuff over the years. It's still unclear what McConaughey actually smells like in real life, but we can report that when giving a fancy commencement speech in real life, he had some stuff to say and he said it in a way that the graduating class and the audience seemed to understand. They gave him a standing ovation at the end. A lot of people got up and left right then, even though the actual graduation hadn't yet been held. 

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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray