By BETSY PICKLE
Matthew McConaughey is asking for it.
Attention, that is.
Sitting in a canvas chair next to an Airstream trailer decorated as a billboard for his new movie, "Sahara," McConaughey is fair game for anyone visiting this Opryland RV park in Nashville, Tenn. Cameras -- official or not -- are snapping away, and he doesn't mind at all.
"This trip -- I was joking the other day -- there's nothing real subtle about it besides the way that I'm doing it, which is on the road, driving, pulling the trailer and living in it," said McConaughey, relaxing after about 1,800 miles.
"I saw a paparazzi the other day, and I was like, 'Hey, man, you don't have to hide behind the tree on this one. You can come right here. As you see, I'm not hiding.'"
Dressed commando chic in a form-fitting black shirt, olive cargo pants and work boots on a sunny day, McConaughey is at the end of his first week in what will be a 38-day trek.
After starting in Austin, Texas, he's crossing the country with his heavy-duty Ford pickup and 28-foot Airstream International CCD to promote "Sahara," taking his dual duties as star and executive producer seriously. This is not the kind of maturity anyone would have predicted for the guy who played Wooderson in "Dazed and Confused" 12 years ago.
"Producing this thing, I had my hand creatively in more decisions," said McConaughey, 35, whose company, j.k. livin (just keep livin'), helped develop the project. "... I wanted to be more than just an actor for hire."
"Sahara," based on a best-selling novel from author Clive Cussler's popular Dirk Pitt series, tells a yarn about adventurer Dirk (McConaughey) and his best friend, Al Giordino (Steve Zahn), and how they join forces with a World Health Organization doctor, Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), who has stumbled upon what seems to be a deadly epidemic in Mali. The star doesn't mind if moviegoers draw comparisons to the Indiana Jones movies.
"I liked Indiana Jones," he said. "I liked that explorer, that treasure hunter, that mystic, that dreamer, that guy who gets out and gets into it -- with a great attitude, and it's fun.
"We were not trying to emulate Indiana Jones. But what we're hoping to do is make more of 'em. If people get out and see it, then we can make more, and it could be a franchise character for me. Hopefully, it is."
Growing into character
McConaughey has starred in other action films, playing a bank robber in "The Newton Boys," a submarine officer in "U-571" and a post-apocalyptic dragon-slayer in "Reign of Fire." But he says he thinks that he needed to wait until now to play Dirk Pitt.
"It's just in the natural selection of growing up -- a way of looking at life, a way of feeling at home in so many different situations, which Dirk Pitt does," he says in a Texas twang. "That's one of the great things about him, his dexterity."
But he says he doesn't want to be too much of an adult.
"There's a youthfulness that I notice works for me when I do my best work; I'm more of a kid, even if it's a serious role," he said. "We're playin' make-believe, and when you do your job the best, you make 'em believe.
"The great thing about Dirk Pitt, he's one of those guys who's gotten older -- call 'im 35; that's my age -- but one of those fortunate ones who's maintained an innocence and a dreaming, pure heart about life. ... "
In between films, he heads to his ranch in West Texas, hits the highway with his Airstream or hikes in exotic locales. Although Morocco stands in for Mali in "Sahara," McConaughey has been to Mali.
"I went five years ago, hiking for a month over there," he said. "So right before the movie, I went to Mali again, hiking around for a month, and then showed up on foot in Morocco across the desert. Everyone else flew in from the north and got out of the plane. I walked up from the south."
Mixing work and pleasure
Though his current road trip falls under the category of work, McConaughey is making it feel like a vacation, "cooking 'dogs and burgers on the grill with the neighbors."
He chuckles at the suggestion that there might be irony in towing an Airstream 7,000-plus miles to promote a film that has an environmental message.
"You know how little electricity that I'm using in my house in Hollywood by livin' in this thing?" McConaughey asked. "It more than equals out. I plug into a 30-amp hookup for a few hours and run off my generator off the back. I think I'm doin' just fine."