Matthew McConaughey joins Mila Kunis, Quinta Brunson and Jennifer Hudson as one of PEOPLE’s 2022 People of the Year. Look for all four covers on newsstands this week and read more below from McConaughey’s revealing interview in the new issue.
For Matthew McConaughey, growing up in Uvalde, Texas, in the 1970s was the stuff of small-town dreams.
From his home on the town’s main street, McConaughey could hop on his bike and pedal to school or catch air, Evel Knievel-style, on the dirt pile behind the neighbor’s house. It was in Uvalde where McConaughey, the youngest of three sons raised by Kay, a teacher, and Jim, an oil-pipe salesman, first put down roots. It’s where he saw his first movie, King Kong, in the town’s lone theater, and sought refuge in the shade of a pecan tree in his front yard on hot summer days.
So when news broke on May 24 of a mass shooting at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, it hit McConaughey hard.
An 18-year-old with a semiautomatic rifle had killed 21 people, including 19 children. Before the actor, 53, could process next steps, his wife, Camila, 40, who was traveling in London, had clarity.
“This is 40 seconds after I found out the news. She immediately goes, ‘I’m getting on the next flight back — we’ve got to go down there,’ ” he recalls in this week’s cover story, where he is honored as one of PEOPLE’s People of the Year. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, we do.’ ”
Without a game plan, but with their hearts wide open, the pair headed to Uvalde to see how they could help. They spent weeks visiting and listening to families, and their advocacy in Washington, D.C., helped press Congress to pass its first major gun-safety legislation in nearly 30 years.
Six months after the tragedy, the Oscar winner reflects on the life-changing experience and how it spurred him to take lasting action: “We want those lost lives to matter.”
How quickly did you realize you had to do something?
I was working in the studio all day. So I came out, and my phone had blown up. I checked the news. There was a message from Camila, so I called her right back. Being in shock, I was a little immobilized, and she said it before I could: “We’ve got to go.”
Did you take the kids [Levi, 14, Vida, 12, and Livingston, 9]?
Not at first. We knew it was going to be raw and that we were going into the belly of the beast. We met with a congressman [Rep. Tony Gonzales] who represents Uvalde. We went to the Fairplex where the town was mourning and gathering. We met families who had just found out — and this is over a day later — that it was confirmed one of their children had [died]. DNA tests had to be done because some of the bodies were so mutilated. And you noticed very early that no one’s in mourning yet. This is pain, denial, shock.
We met some of the families informally, and they asked us, “Can we spend some more time together?” And that’s when we said, “Okay, we got more to do here.” So we got my older brother [Rooster], his wife and kids and grabbed our kids and went back down. . . .
Camila and I were asked to come into the chapel at the funeral home to view the body with a family. This is sacred time, sacred ground. I remember walking into the chapel and feeling like [I was] between a mama bear and her cubs in the wild; I was like, “Oh my gosh, I shouldn’t be in the eye line or in the space between them,” but it was the only way in. . . . I would say 100 percent of the families we talked to really wanted to embrace. They didn’t want a handshake. They would quickly bypass the open hand and just come in [for a hug]. [It was] show up and meet their gaze, meet the pressure of their hug and hold on to them as long as they wanted to hold on to you. Some hugs went on for minutes.
You took your kids to a viewing. How did they react?
Here’s why [we took them]. The family asked if we wanted to bring our kids. My thought was . . . are you ready to look life in the eye and understand that death is part of it? Well, I don’t want my children seeing that in a movie or a comic book. I asked each one of them if they wanted to, and they said yes. We tried to prepare them. I don’t think it’s too early to expose them in this most natural way. As a father, what do I hope they get out of it? Respect, more respect for their own life. More thanks and gratitude for the life they’ve got, for being able to go to school and come home safe from school another day. This is not how it always is for everybody forever. . . . They asked many questions, and we talked about it. And even in their youth, they got it. Now, mind you, we didn’t give them day after day of that, we gave them a day and a half. After that [I said] me and Mom have to go into town. Y’all stay out here at the ranch and play around.
How did you and Camila [a bestselling author and founder of the online community Women of Today] work as a team?
When we went to Uvalde, we both didn’t know where or how we would be needed most, but once we arrived it became clear that our connection was with the families — and especially Camila with the mothers. She became a support system for them, and even now, long after we have left, she still maintains that support when needed. There was a connection there between her and the families that was different than what they needed from me. . . . When a need is clear, like in this case, her dedication to serving and being a trusted teammate is unquestionable.
Did the visits help crystallize how you could help?
We didn’t have a plan of attack. But after meeting those families, it became very clear they didn’t want to hear us say, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” In the first meetings, we said, “So what was your favorite thing about your kid? What’d they love to do?” And each one would light up, and they’re smiling and then they’re laughing. They’d just come to life. And I realized that they weren’t mourning the death of their child as much as they were just trying to keep the life force within their [child’s] dreams, the memory of that person, alive. [It was], “I just want their life to matter. I just want their loss to matter.” And after a few days of these conversations, it became clear we had more to do [and] were still on the journey.
In an op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman in June titled “It’s Time to Act on Gun Responsibility,” you called for bipartisan compromise on a fraught, politicized issue. Then you and Camila traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss gun-violence prevention with lawmakers, and you spoke at a White House press briefing. Weeks later Congress passed historic federal gun legislation, including funding for mental health programs, stronger background checks for gun buyers under age 21 and new restrictions on domestic-violence offenders owning guns.
It became what can be done? We need to go there and share the stories nationally and worldwide. We didn’t go to D.C. to [have] a press conference. We weren’t organized, but we were armed with frontline stories from the families. I had to remind myself many times, “Matthew, you ain’t got to be an expert on fricking gun control. You don’t have to sound like a lawyer who knows all the points and constitutional rights.” Trust me, I studied — I did as much of a crash course as I could. But I was like, “No, remember you’re going there as a human, as a dad, as an American, as somebody who’s got kids that go to school and would hope this wouldn’t happen anymore but [knows] it will again . . . someone who’s going, “Come on, this can’t become status quo. Bulls—.”
You tried not to be polarizing to people on either side of the issue.
I was not and on purpose. . . . It’s twofold. One, go in there with the human heart and raw stories from the families that they want shared. Now, I also know there’s thousands of those stories. Parkland, Buffalo, you can go back in time. There’s a million tears that can fall from two million different eyes . . . from families that lost [loved ones]. Nothing’s changed. So now on the other side, left side of the brain, we have to be tactical.
You pushed for gun “responsibility,” not “control.”
It became very clear to me early on, as a lover of words, that to the right, so-called staunch Second Amendmenters — these are my people in the South, I know them well — “control” is a dirty word. It’s like a mandate. Whoa, whoa, whoa, don’t you tell me what to do, I got my right to bear arms. So that word, out of the gate, is shutting about 80 percent of their ears. . . . I flipped it to “responsibility.” Responsibility is to give the person the power of choice. It’s forward-moving. It’s affirmative. I’m responsible. Don’t tell me I ain’t responsible.
On the other side, there was the need to also talk to the left, [and] some of them are like “One gun’s too many,” and [you] go, “That ain’t going to fly. Let’s be practical.” So if the right comes over a little bit, will you look them in the eye and actually go, “Thank you”? Or will you go, “That’s not enough”? So much of it is knee-jerk [on both sides].
You recently said, “Even in the most painful and darkest of times, light comes in the morning,” and in your book Greenlights you wrote, “All destruction eventually leads to construction.”
I believe that inherently. That’s more than an intellectual thing. That’s not foolish optimism. The old adage “What goes up must come down,” I believe the opposite: What goes down must come up. I don’t have the answer for how we as society and civilization are going to — ta-da — see the light. I think there’s incremental changes, there’s breakthroughs. I do believe that with time, inevitably we can improve, we can ascend, we can evolve as people.
Here’s where the light comes from — the biggest way we make the light: It’s our kids. I think every parent’s hope is to leave some kids behind that are just a little bit better than we were. Learning what we learned and improving on what we taught them. Maybe fixing a few things that we were weak at. That’s the main light. To get there it’s just a daily battle. But I think the most important thing that anyone can do when you sit there and go, “This is all overwhelming, what am I supposed to do?” Look at the mirror, and if you got kids, look right there and go, “That’s the ticket.” . . . We have to do better for our kids.
You said an enduring sentiment shared by the Uvalde families was the need to make the lives lost matter. How do we honor that?
By respecting the gift and value of the life we are living. By following through on our own hopes and dreams, because so many never get the chance to.
The McConaugheys’ just keep livin Foundation is supporting grief counseling and other community needs for the people of Uvalde. To donate, go to jklivinfoundation.org/uvalde
For more of the exclusive interview with Matthew McConaughey, and PEOPLE‘s 3 other People of the Year cover honorees, please pick up this week’s issue, on stands Friday.