Matthew McConaughey as Van Zan the Dragon Slayer

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Greenlights" by Matthew McConaughey. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why did Matthew McConaughey take the role of Denton Van Zan the dragon slayer in Reign of Fire? How did he prepare for the role?

The role of dragon slayer Denton Van Zan was influential in how McConaughey was starting to feel about life. After years of partying and hedonism, McConaughey began to wonder about other ways he could spend his time.

Read more about Matthew McConaughey and the role of Denton Van Zan the dragon slayer in Reign of Fire.

McConaughey the Dragon Slayer

Then the role of dragon slayer Denton Van Zan the dragon slayer in Reign of Fire came along. Matthew loved playing this character. He says Van Zan taught him the deep value of duty, along with the value of affirming and owning your personal element of madness. 

Amid the endless partying and gratification of his Hollywood life, Matthew had begun to question God’s existence as he placed more emphasis on self-reliance and free will. Playing Van Zan became an instrumental part of this. He realized that he wanted to pull away from his life of hedonism and start earning and deserving some of those easy Saturdays that he had been enjoying. The tough and rugged character of Van Zan, a man whose life revolved around a single, all-consuming purpose, felt important to him.

Playing the role also taught him how to play life by his own rules instead of letting Hollywood culture dictate his actions. To prepare for it, he began by shaving his head. This was partly because his hair had begun falling out anyway, and he had heard that shaving it was one way to make it grow again. But his new look also became part of his new self-determination when his bald head appeared in People magazine and a studio executive with a financial interest in Reign of Fire balked and threatened Matthew with some words about “bad karma.” In response, Matthew spent some time tanning his newly exposed scalp. Then he oiled it up, put on a fancy Gucci suit, and went to a Hollywood industry party, where his bald head was a hit. The studio executive later called him and raved excitedly about it.

Matthew’s preparations for playing Van Zan also involved some considerably more rigorous activities when he spent several weeks at his brother Mike’s West Texas ranch and developed his own brutal daily training regimen for becoming a dragon slayer. This included taking a double shot of tequila every morning, running barefoot in the desert for five miles, keeping his heart rate low as he stood on the edge of the barn’s roof, and going out into the fields at night to tackle cows. One by one, these exercises failed—the tequila made him sick, he couldn’t make himself go to the roof’s edge, his feet blistered so badly that he couldn’t walk, and he got a concussion from a cow’s headbutt. The upside was that he experienced a lot of pain, which was something the character of Van Zan knew all too well.

Matthew McConaughey as Van Zan the Dragon Slayer

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Matthew McConaughey's "Greenlights" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Greenlights summary:

  • How "greenlights" help you confirm if you're on the right path
  • How McConaughey switched college choices because of family finances
  • Why family is at the center of everything for McConaughey, no matter what's happening in his career

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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