Strictly speaking, Matthew McConaughey is a father of three. Ask the Oscar winner how many kids he and wife Camila Alves McConaughey have, however, and you'll get a different response.
"We've got Levi, Vida and Livingston as our three children that Camila and I created and Camila bore," he says in his trademark Texas drawl. "But we've got four children in the house — and one of 'em is 91. That's Mama Kay. That's my mom."
For the past four years, McConaughey's mother has been living with the Dazed and Confused star — who goes by "Papai," the Portuguese word for "dad," in a nod to Camila's Brazilian roots — and his family. ("And I suppose she's gonna be with us 'til she moves on from this life," he muses.) The experience, he says, has been "really wonderful," with Camila involving her mother-in-law in her work and online content. That's helped the McConaughey matriarch feel "needed" and "in the game a little bit." Her grandchildren, meanwhile, are getting a "wonderful, wonderful, wonderful lesson" about the importance of taking care of your elders.
"They've got their grandmother living in the house. And they've got their own relationships each with her; they have their own arguments each with her," he says. "Her politics can be different than ours, and we all just discuss it and have it out loud. .... It's fun."
Following the 2020 release of his New York Times-bestselling memoir Greenlights, McConaughey has found a way to connect with younger readers. Publishing Sept. 12, his picture book Just Because guides kids through life lessons brought to life via playful illustrations by Renée Kurilla and the actor's famously folksy style. "It was a Bob Dylan folk song in my head," he says of the singsongy tone in the book, which was inspired by conversations with friends about the importance of communicating with kids as they hit their teens and beyond.
"Being a father is the one thing I always knew I wanted to be," says McConaughey, who notes that he wrote most of the book between the hours of 2:30 and 7 a.m. while staying up late one night. "Camila and I work every day to try to be the best parents we can be, and kids are on my mind a lot. And as they grow, the moral bottom line needs to be the same, but your style has to change."
Many of the lessons — "Just because they don't hear you, doesn't mean you have no voice" is one — emphasize that things often aren't black and white. What looks like a failure can be turned into a strength; compromise and respect can be found even when two people — like his kids and their grandma, perhaps — disagree.
One message that particularly sticks out to McConaughey is "just because you're wailing doesn't mean that you're a crier, and just because I lied doesn't mean that I'm a liar." Growing up, he had a sterner view of lying: To bend the truth even once was to be branded, and condemned, as a "liar" — something that most relationships can't bounce back from. He's come to realize, and teach his kids, that instead of labeling someone and attacking their character, it's better to call out the lie itself and have a meaningful conversation that hopefully rights some wrongs and repairs the friendship.
McConaughey has a larger-than-life persona, but what's it like with having Mr. "Alright, Alright, Alright" as a dad? The star says that he and Camila are up front with their kids about the perks, and price, that come with having two parents in the public eye.
"We've had the days where they come home from school and someone's said, 'Oh, I bet you live like this, blah, blah, blah 'cause your mom and dad are so-and-so,'" McConaughey says. "And they felt like, you know, they're under our name."
McConaughey puts it to them plainly. "We tell them, 'Look, we live a very fortunate life. We live a privileged life,'" he continues. "'But your mom and I have worked hard to be good at our crafts to get to where we are. And we're not apologizing for that. And don't you ever apologize for that and never lower your head because of that. Yes, you are a McConaughey. Will that open some doors for you in life that maybe aren't open for everybody? You know what, it probably will. But once you get in that door, you don't rely on just a name. You have to make it for yourself. Your mom and I have made this for ourselves. That doesn't mean the whole family, you're all in. No — you've gotta go make it on your own.'"
Character, he adds, is paramount. He and Camila want their kids to know who they are and to "not ever feel entitled by an accolade or something that your last name may lead people to treat you with." They also warn their kids to look out for those who "befriend you just because of your affiliation and your last name."
"'Do they really like you, or do they just kind of want to be around you?'" McConaughey tells his kids. "You know, you're gonna have to measure that, and that's just part of your lot in life. That's just how you're gonna have to navigate forward, and let's talk about it. But if you live up to your name — and our family and the character that we're trying to teach you to be — it's gonna be an asset in life ... but it doesn't mean going forward with any kind of entitlement."
These reminders have resurfaced ahead of the recent decision to let 15-year-old Levi join Instagram.
"We've had talks for years going, 'OK, you understand you're gonna have a lot of followers and a lot of people that will come in really liking you because of your last name. You'll also have people that are gonna come at you irresponsibly, without any real reason to, because of your last name,'" the actor shares.
Like a lot of parents, McConaughey sees social media as a big parenting challenge.
"They're getting so much more frequency of information and opinions, and valid or not valid, in life," he says. "It's so much information to try and process. How can we help them decide what's important and what's not? It's really tough.
"We now have an age that we live in where you create something, you export it, you put it out and then you wait to see what everyone thought," he continues. "And if you get a lot of proverbial thumbs up, these kids go out and have a good day. If they put out the same product and you get a lot of thumbs down, these kids go off and have a bad day. ... How do we not let what other people supposedly think — even though some of 'em may not have even really thought about it, they maybe just didn't like you and said 'enhh' — how do you not let that affect who you are? And part of the first part was admitting that it does affect you. And I talked to them about it. I said like, 'Guys, a good review feels better than a bad review of a movie I do.' It just does. I read a good review, and I'm like, 'Yeah, that person knew what they were talking about.' I read a bad review and I'm like, 'Oh man, come on.'
"So I said, 'I'm 53. I'm your dad. I'm a successful parent. I'm doing alright in life and it still affects me. So let's admit that it will affect you ... and then navigate and make the right choice and say, but what should I listen to out there in the world that really affects how I feel about myself'? Because this is that time where children are really finding their identity — who they are and who they're not. And understanding who you're not is a lot easier than for knowing who you are."