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Which Lead From ‘True Detective’ Season Two Will Have a McConaissance-Style Career Rebirth?

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True Detective

As anyone who has not been living under a proverbial pop culture rock knows, we are currently living in — and have been living in for over the past year — the McConaissance. This era is characterized by the fact that in this time, a bleach-blonde, bongo playing bad boy transformed himself into one of the most bankable dramatic actors of his generation. Matthew McConaughey, who kick-started his movie career playing deadbeat David Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, picked up an Oscar in 2014 for playing Ron Woodroof in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyer’s Club.

The road to Oscar gold was paved with roles in myriad romantic comedies of varying quality (for every How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, there’s a Ghost of Girlfriends Past) and a fair share of stock surfer/burnouts, with McConaughey deploying his lazy drawl at nearly every turn. But in the years leading up to Dallas Buyer’s Club, McConaughey appeared to be drawn to darker, more complicated characters — like those he played in Mud, Killer Joe, and a brief but electric cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street — determined to show the world he was more than just a pretty face. A very serious rebranding was underway, one that reached its apex on Oscar night.

Perhaps more impressive is McConaughey’s TV trajectory. In 1992, a 23-year-old McConaughey appeared in a segment on the cult classic Unsolved Mysteries. Twenty-two years later, he returned to TV — albeit this time on a prestige cable drama — in HBO’s True Detective, playing the troubled and troubling Rust Cohle, a detective prone to waxing philosophical in the Louisiana State Homicide Unit. While sharing top billing with Woody Harrelson, McConaughey — perhaps boosted by his recent performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club — emerged the true star of the show (I have yet to hear arguments that we are in a Harrelsonnaissance; the name doesn’t even lend itself to a pleasant portmanteau). McConaughey received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his work, and picked up a Critics Choice Award for Best Actor in a Drama Series.

As soon it was announced that True Detective would be back for a second season, with a new plot and new characters, the rumor mill started churning out names of possible stars, a veritable who’s who of Hollywood royalty. Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Keira Knightley, and Joaquin Phoenix were among the names floating around.

Even five years ago, the prospect of anyone of this caliber deigning to take a TV gig would be laughable hogwash unworthy of even Perez Hilton, but True Detective and other anthology series like American Horror Story had helped to change the TV landscape, attracting actors with meaty roles and short shooting schedules that could accommodate existing film commitments. Ultimately, it was announced that Season Two would have four leads, and that Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch would play them.

True Detective played a critical role in the birthing of the McConaissance, allowing McConaughey, over the season’s eight episodes, to show off his dramatic range. Any actor entering into the second season of such a cultural juggernaut must be aware of the impact that association with such a prestigious enterprise can have on their career. McAdams and Kitsch are still very much in the early stages of their careers, but Farrell and Vaughn more closely resemble McConaughey in age and the stage they’re at in their respective careers. By examining both actors’ career trajectories, personal trajectories, and their other projects in the pipeline, we’ll determine, in a highly scientific and totally indisputable manner, which is most likely to enjoy their own version of a McConaissance this year.

Career Trajectory

For years, McConaughey was relegated to either silly, goofball roles or — due to his chiseled face, equally chiseled physique, and overwhelming abundance of southern charm — the romantic lead. There are many adjectives to describe Colin Farrell’s acting work — “underrated,” perhaps, sitting at the top of that list — but “silly” is not one of them. From Total Recall to Phone Booth, A Home at the End of the World to Miss Julie, Farrell’s past work has prepared him to feel right at home in the relentlessly bleak landscape of True Detective. He spends much of the season premiere getting drunk (that entire bottle of Johnny Walker!), yelling at his kid, donning a ski mask and roughing up a newspaper reporter, and using brass knuckles to teach a suburban dad a lesson. He certainly had much more capital-A “Acting” to do in the first few episodes (including a near death encounter with a shotgun-wielding, bird mask-wearing maniac), but none of it fell too far outside his wheelhouse. What is new, however, is that it appears to that Farrell has finally found a role suited to his talents. Grantland’s Andy Greenwald summed it up perfectly, calling Farrell “an A-plus character actor stuck doing leading-man lifting in B-minus movies.”

Vince Vaughan, on the other hand, rose to fame in comedies like Dodgeball and Anchorman. This guy was Fred Claus in Fred Claus! He’s also — like McConaughey — starred in his fair share of romantic comedies. He embodies brusqueness and briskness in a way that lends itself to successful comedy, and he’s made piles of money doing it. Frank Semyon, the mob thug and casino owner Vaughn plays on True Detective, like the show he’s on, has no sense of humor. In the first few episode, Vaughn feels a little bit out of his depth, relying on his stern brow and gravelly voice to do much of the work for him. He brought nothing to the table to make the second episode’s opening “water stain” monologue less interminable (Nic Pizzolatto’s idea of pillow talk is, unsurprisingly, terribly un-sexy). However, he gets points here for taking a risk and, while he had significantly less to do than Farrell in the first few episodes, there’s more potential for surprise in what he’s able to do with the material in the rest of the season.

Winner: Vince Vaughn

Personal Trajectory

F. Scott Fitzgerald was clearly not anticipating Matthew McConaughey’s total career 180 when he wrote that there are no second acts in American lives. In fact, Hollywood loves second acts. Whether it’s a bad boy gone good or a starlet’s swift slip into obscurity, the entertainment industry is interested. This is, after all, the industry that celebrated comedienne Mo’Nique’s dramatic turn in Precious with an Oscar, and then gleefully reported her struggles with getting future roles.

For a while, Colin Farrell was the baddest of the bad boys. Brash, boisterous, and unwitting porn star (a homemade sex tape, featuring him and an ex-girlfriend, leaked in 2006), his off-screen antics often overshadowed his onscreen work. He struggled with addiction to recreational drugs and painkillers, which landed him in rehab in 2005. Since then, Farrell has appeared to make an effort to refocus the attention on his work. He has stayed mostly out of the public eye, taken roles in family friendly film’s like Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks, and, with True Detective, is finally ready to show the world just how serious a dramatic actor he is.

Vaughn, on the other hand, has always seemed to be more or less a normal guy. For a while, he was just a normal guy who was dating Jennifer Aniston, but there has been no rehab, no well-publicized benders, no — for better or worse — sex tape. He’s more likely to be photographed at a sports event than at a club; he voted for Mitt Romney. In short, Vince Vaughn is basically your dad. Working steadily, his career hasn’t had any particular highs, but it hasn’t had any particular lows, either. The narrative is just that: a working actor, doing his thing. On this measure, that loses him points.

Winner: Colin Farrell

Other Projects

It’s important to remember that True Detective was only one of the features contributing to the McConaissance. Dallas Buyer’s Club and the resulting Oscar gold truly solidified the new era in McConaughey’s career. Given that, it’s important to consider what other projects these stars have coming down the pike that might contribute to their potential world (well, entertainment world, at least) domination.

The plot of Colin Farrell’s most recent film, the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, is a bit of a head scratcher. Essentially, single adults must check into a hotel with other single adults to find a compatible mate. If they are unable to find a partner of whom their supervisors approve, they are transformed into an animal of their choice and released into the forest. The rest of the cast is impeccable; it features Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, and John C. Reilly. And it picked up a Jury Prize at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. While Farrell wasn’t singled out for an acting award, this project suggests he is open to taking the kind of risks that the Academy might, one day, honor.

Vaughn, on the other hand, recently starred with Dave Franco and — strangely enough — Tom Wilkinson in Unfinished Business, which came and went in theaters earlier this year, receiving an abysmal 11% on Rotten Tomatoes. The only thing I remembered from the commercial was seeing Dave Franco take a dart to the chest (incidentally, this could be an apt analogy for the film’s reviews). In the pipeline for Vaughn is Term Life; the plot is described on IMDB as “A guy wanted around town by various hit men hopes to stay alive long enough for his life insurance policy to kick in and pay out for his estranged daughter.” Work begets work; and perhaps True Detective will lead to more success for Vaughn down the road, but it doesn’t appear to be coming in the form of any of his recent projects.

Winner: Colin Farrell

The Ultimate Winner

Taking these three measures into account, it looks like we should ready ourselves for the impending Colinaissance.

But Don’t Discount a Dark Horse
What surprised me most in the season’s first few episodes has not been either of it’s a-list leading men. Rachel McAdams, who rose to fame in comedies like Mean Girls and serious romances like The Notebook, here takes a darker turn as Detective Ani Bezzerides: a knife-wielding, e-cigarette toting badass. Ani’s stakes — both personal (daddy issues) and professional (being a woman in a male-dominated field) — have been the most clearly drawn. She’s successfully shedding her good girl image to get down and dirty in Nic Pizzolatto’s gritty world. Perhaps, when all is said and done, this is the dawning of the Age of McAdams.

Brett Barbour is a writer who lives in Brooklyn and is prone to binge-watching.

 

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Photos: HBO

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