By Mary Milliken
TORONTO (Reuters) - Ron Woodroof was about the most unlikely of heroes in the frightening early days of AIDS in the 1980s - a homophobic, cocaine-snorting, sex-addicted Texas rodeo cowboy who crudely made fun of actor Rock Hudson's battle against the disease.
No one wanted to make the film about the guy for the longest time, says actor Matthew McConaughey. But 20 years after inception, "Dallas Buyers Club" - a chronicle of Woodroof's transformation from bigot to AIDS patient to savior of many - has finally made it to the screen.
And had it not been for the Texas-born McConaughey's extreme weight loss to play Ron, the film might never have happened.
"Dallas Buyers Club" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday and garnered favorable reviews, particularly for McConaughey's depiction of a man both lovable and detestable and awfully skinny.
McConaughey, 43, said he had seen a screenplay years ago, and "the fangs of Ron Woodroof had stuck in me from the first time I read it."
He just wanted to play the part, not produce, but started helping to cobble finances together. He and his partners got to the point where they might have enough money to begin filming, but it was tenuous.
"Someone said, 'Well maybe next spring. And I was like 'I'm 47 pounds down. I could, but I am not gonna,'" McConaughey told Reuters.
He said he and Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee, who McConaughey admired for his 2005 film "C.R.A.Z.Y.," decided to proceed with just over $4 million under their belt, giving the film an underdog air that McConaughey says only added to its allure.
"That's inherent to the man I was playing. All of that is part of the spirit," said the actor, who got his start 20 years ago in the coming-of-age comedy "Dazed and Confused" and made waves last year with his daring turn as a male strip-club impresario in "Magic Mike."
Early in the film, Woodroof is diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live, but thinks it must be a mistake. After all, the mustachioed macho asks his doctor, played by Jennifer Garner, how could he contract "that gay disease" claiming lives of gay men he made fun of like Hudson?
He learns of his fate around the time that Hudson, a long-time leading man in Hollywood, loses his battle with AIDS and becomes one of the first celebrities to die of the disease.
DRUG SMUGGLER, THEN SAVIOR
Hit forcefully with the kind of bigotry and rejection that he so embodied, Ron is left to fend for himself. He first steals the potent AZT from a hospital while it awaits approval by the U.S. government's Food and Drug Administration. But he just gets sicker - while snorting coke - and goes to Mexico for treatment, where he finds an alternative drug mix that restores his health.
Then he has his epiphany: ever the scheming entrepreneur, he realizes he can smuggle the drugs from Mexico and sell them for a big profit to the gay men of Dallas, who he still holds in contempt, despite their common plight.
With the business acumen of drug-addicted transsexual Rayon, played by Jared Leto, Woodroof launches his "buyers club," offering drugs not available in hospitals for a monthly charge.
"The biggest challenge was getting these two bigger-than-life, over-the-top characters...team them up and make it real," Vallee said. "The first week of shooting, I thought, 'What am I doing? This is too big. No one is going to buy this.'"
Trade publication Variety called the film a "riveting and surprisingly relatable true story." Any doubts as to McConaughey's talents, it added, "are permanently put to rest."
Woodroof might have turned out to be one of the saviors of a generation of gay men, but for most of the film he is an opportunist looking to survive and make a lot of money, traveling as far as Japan and Europe to smuggle in drugs.
But as the gay community recognizes his contribution to saving lives, his antipathy toward homosexuals melts away. He then takes the fight for access to drugs to court, but loses and ultimately dies in 1992, seven years after diagnosis.
"We got away with making one of these movies that is important, and is good medicine," said McConaughey. "We got away with making a damn entertaining one."
"Dallas Buyers Club" from Focus Features opens in North American theaters in December. (Reporting by Mary Milliken; Editing by David Brunnstrom)