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McConaughey relishes role of Civil War 'badass'

Film & TV

Matthew McConaughey was stunned when he first picked up the ‘Free State of Jones’ script and began to read page after page.

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The Oscar-winning actor wondered why it was the first time he had heard Civil War renegade Newt Knight’s story.

McConaughey knew it was a story that had to be told.

“He did it with the bible and a barrel of shotgun,” he says, describing Knight’s rise from poor white Mississippi farmer to leader of an armed rebellion against the Confederacy and protector of slaves.

“He was a real bad ass. An avenging angel.”

The driving force behind turning Knight’s true story into a Hollywood film was screenwriter and director Gary Ross, a four-time Oscar nominee for Seabiscuit, Big and Dave who spent 10 years attempting to make the movie.

The film begins in 1863 while the Civil War is raging.

Knight, from Jones County, was opposed to owning slaves and was against Mississippi’s secession from the union, but knowing he would be conscripted to fight he enlisted with the Confederate Army so he could be in the same regiment as his family and neighbours.

When his teenage nephew was killed, Knight fled the frontline and returned to his farm.

He discovered his wife, Serena (Keri Russell), forced to run the farm by herself, was being exploited by Confederate soldiers who took the few crops and farm animals she had.

After Knight confronted the soldiers he was forced to flee, escaped into swamp land and joined a camp inhabited by runaway slaves.

From a base deep inside the swamp, Knight led a guerrilla campaign against the Confederate army and when news spread of his success hundreds of supporters joined him.

“The first question people should have after seeing this movie is, ‘How didn’t we know about this? Why wasn’t this ever taught?'” says McConaughey, who portrays Knight.

The actor took a two-week road trip around rural Mississippi before filming began and spoke to Knight’s descendants, locals and historians.

Some believed Knight was a hero while others thought he was a bandit.

“He was a man with a very simple moral code, saw the wrong and had no way to ignore it,” McConaughey says.

“He couldn’t ignore it. It was in his DNA.”

Free State of Jones opens in Australia on August 25.


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