HBO's 'True Detective' Brings Big Stars To Tell A Brutal Tale Eric Deggans explains how HBO's new crime drama anthology with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson lured its stars with a combination of a great script and a limited commitment.

HBO's 'True Detective' Brings Big Stars To Tell A Brutal Tale

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey star in HBO's series True Detective. JIm Bridges/HBO hide caption

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JIm Bridges/HBO

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey star in HBO's series True Detective.

JIm Bridges/HBO

Woody Harrelson has a simple explanation for how he handled playing the same detective over a 17-year span of time for HBO's newest foray into quality TV, True Detective.

"I just took off my wig," joked Harrelson, sporting a beard and his naturally receding hairline for a press conference here Thursday to tell a roomful of TV critics about HBO's attempt to reinvent the buddy cop story.

Two seats to his right was his chuckling co-star Matthew McConaughey, whose career resurgence over the past year has been miraculous, even by Hollywood's unpredictable standards. Together, Harrelson and McConaughey play two mismatched cops in Louisiana hunting an explicitly morbid serial killer for HBO's eight-episode cop drama.

And while the story is complex and bruising – McConaughey's Rust Cohle is a nihilistic loner forced to work with Harrelson's buttoned-down family man cop Martin Hart – the real appeal here is seeing two movie stars with a well-known offscreen friendship bounce off each other in new ways for a TV event.

Even at a time when big movie actors regularly pop up on the small screen, True Detective feels different. Thanks to star turns in Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street and Mud, McConaughey couldn't be hotter, while Harrelson's days of cracking wise for a sitcom paycheck are far behind him.

To hear McConaughey tell it, however, where the final product might appear wasn't nearly his biggest concern when considering the job.

"We didn't know where it was going to be [shown]," he said. "I read the first two episodes, and I was in...I was just, at the time, looking for quality. And so it wasn't something that said, 'I'm in, but wait. Wait a minute. It's TV.'...That transition is much more seamless, in reality and perception, more now than ever. So it was to me, it was, 'Television? Great. Let's go to the right place to do it.' And I've said this before. Some of the best drama going on has been on television and you know, in comparison to some films. So it was a 450 page film, is what it was. It was also finite. It didn't mean we had to come back this year, next year if we were under contract. It was finite. So in that way it was exactly a 450 page film script."

In other words, HBO built the perfect beast to capture movie stars on a TV series.

A key characteristic, according to McConaughey: the job had a definitive end date. Cohle and Hart's story unfolds and concludes over eight episodes, ensuring the show's gold-plated stars don't have to pass up important film work to keep playing the same characters year after to year.

Talk to film actors about doing TV series these days, and their biggest concern remains getting locked into roles for too long. But Director Cary Fukunaga confirmed that HBO plans True Detective as anthology series, with hopes of starting a new season with new characters after the first one airs, taking a page from FX's hit American Horror Story.

The other key element of True Detective is the chances it allows its stars to take in their portrayals.

McConaughey noted he was originally approached to play Hart, a conventional detective with a family and wandering eye, whose extramarital activities eventually become a serious problem. But it was Cohle, a philosophical loner with an ex-wife, dead child and healthy disdain for religion, which drew him into the series and fit with his recent habit of choosing roles quite different from those Hollywood expects of him.

"I understood objectively why they would be coming to me with the role of Hart...[he was] probably closer to some of my past work," McConaughey added. "But Cohle was the voice that I remember writing down, 'I can't wait to turn the page and hear what's coming out of this guy's mouth. It's got fire on it every time.' And I was like, 'You know what? That I have not done, but boy, I know who this guy is. I love this guy's mind. Let me in.'" .

But the best aspect of True Detective is its unconventional structure. The story starts in 2012, with Cohle and Hart separately telling police investigators about their work together in 1995 investigating the murder of a prostitute they thought might be the work of a serial killer.

As the story unfolds, the action leapfrogs from 1995 to 2002 and 2012, allowing Harrelson and McConaghey to play different version of the same men, revealing an intricate story in which the family man sees his life unravel as the loner's vision of the world is increasingly confirmed.

Forget about conventional buddy cop stories like Lethal Weapon or Miami Vice; this is a story laced with danger and friction. These two cops aren't sure if they like each other, and when a prostitute is found dead, hands bound with a crown of antlers on her head in a seeming ritual killing, their dynamic only gets stranger.

It has the feel of an indie film spread over eight episodes starring two of the best character actors in the business.

And it's a bold step toward creating the kind of TV series structure which might allow some of the biggest names in Hollywood to lend their talents toward worthy small screen projects.

True Detective debuts at 9 p.m. January 12 on HBO. The show features explicit language, sexuality and crime scenes. Eric Deggans is reporting from the TV Critics Association's winter press tour.