PASADENA, Calif. -- When Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson get together, onscreen or off, what usually results is a bunch of happy, goofy, brothers-from-other-mothers fun.
Not this time.
Cast as reluctant badge-toting partners in the darkly riveting HBO drama True Detective, which premières Sunday on HBO Canada (check listings for time), the usually "bro-mantic" pair found themselves dealing with a challenging tale of cops whose abrasive relationship is made more difficult by a disturbing murder case that remains unsolved for nearly two decades.
"With Woody and I, part of why we're friends and part of what we've done different times we worked together... is that we get on each other's frequency, and we add on, and we affirm each other, and we one-up each other," McConaughey explained this week during HBO's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. "And it can turn into an improvisation, and it can go and go, I mean, into the ether and then some.
"But this was something different. There was opposition here. This is the first time we worked together where there's real opposition. Woody and I, as people, don't work together like that, and our relationship is not built on opposition. We have our own thoughts about things, but we find (a way to) work on how are they affirmative... But this was not about us coming together."
In True Detective, McConaughey and Harrelson play Louisiana detectives Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, whose first assignment together, in 1995, turns out to be the case that defines their careers and forever alters their lives. The eight-part drama jumps back and forth in time, focusing on the characters and the state of the murder investigation in '95, 2002 and 2012.
It isn't an easy acting task, but the two pals bring a seething intensity to their portrayals in all three time periods.
"With this project we didn't use a lot of our normal kind of shorthand, the way we kind of finish each other's sentences and (stuff)," said Harrelson. "You know, he was an island. (Offscreen), he is one of the most gregarious, awesome guys I know, but in this, he was fully in character, and he was very much an island. It was very different. But I think that complication helped."
Harrelson's character, Hart, is a veteran in Louisiana's Criminal Investigation Division when the story opens in 1995; Cohle (McConaughey) is a new arrival on the team who quickly earns the nickname "The Taxman" because of the large, ledger-style notebook he carries while working on cases.
They're called to investigate the discovery of a female corpse found tied to a tree in a farmer's field; the positioning of the body and several odd artifacts at the site suggest a ritualistic killing that Cohle immediately concludes must be the work of a serial killer.
Hart warns Cohle he's jumping to conclusions and that his assumption might prompt him to skew his investigation to support this narrative. It's the beginning of a friction that will intensify greatly as the case remains unsolved.
True Detective starts out slowly but builds intensity steadily as the story moves along; even at its most measured pace, however, the compelling performances turned in by McConaughey and Harrelson will make it impossible for viewers to turn away.
The two have been friends since the mid-'90s and have appeared together in a couple of movies, EDtv (1999) and Surfer, Dude (2008), but this HBO project marks the first time they've co-starred in a continuing series.
But viewers who become invested in True Detective should be warned -- "continuing" does not mean that this story will continue beyond a single season.
"It's contained," McConaughey said of the drama's eight-episode run. "I mean, that's it."
email@example.com Twitter: @BradOswald