LOS ANGELES (AP) -- After years of (often shirtless) fun both on and off screen, Matthew McConaughey is donning a suit and digging back into drama.
His most recent credits include starting a family with girlfriend Camila Alves. They have a 1-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, Vida and Levi. Before that, McConaughey was on a comedy run, with roles in "Fool's Gold," "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" and "Tropic Thunder." He also played the shirtless, shoeless lead in a little indie called "Surfer, Dude."
Now, the 41-year-old actor is suiting up for the courtroom, playing opposite Ryan Phillippe and Marisa Tomei in the legal thriller "The Lincoln Lawyer," which opens Friday.
The role is something of a homecoming for McConaughey, whose turn as an idealistic young lawyer in 1996's "A Time to Kill" marked his big-screen breakthrough, introducing the handsome Texan to moviegoers as a new leading man. And it goes back further than that — McConaughey also wanted to study law as a University of Texas student.
"That's probably instinctually why I feel comfortable jumping into these kinds of shoes," says McConaughey, his real-life size-10s up on a sofa at the Four Seasons hotel. "I love the world. Ideally, I love the scale of justice, guilt and innocence and right and wrong. And then realistically, I've learned to love this game they play."
McConaughey plays Mick Haller, a savvy defense attorney who operates out of the back of his chauffeur-driven Lincoln Town Car. He mostly serves street-level criminals, until he's hired to defend a rich playboy accused of domestic violence.
McConaughey first found the script, based on the novel by Michael Connelly, several years ago. After some revisions, it came back around and the actor hopped on board.
"It was exactly what I was looking for at the time," he says, explaining that lately he's been drawn away from romantic comedies into more dramatic roles.
"It's not really a conscious decision. I'm just naturally turned on by this kind of story and this kind of character now," he says. "And it's fun. It's different."
Incidentally, it was one of McConaughey's comedic roles that convinced Connelly the actor could take on his roadworthy attorney.
"I feel like I was ahead of the game, because long before he was involved, I thought that he could play this part pretty well," says the author, who appreciated McConaughey's performance in "Tropic Thunder" as "the kind of slippery, sleazy" Hollywood agent.
"We went to that movie and I leaned over to my wife and said he would be a good Mickey Haller," Connelly says. "It was at least a year later that I heard that he was Mickey Haller."
McConaughey was ready for a meaty drama. After logging his share of romantic comedies — he also counts "The Wedding Planner," "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" and "Failure to Launch" among his credits — he understands the "buoyancy" they require. It's a challenge all its own, he says, to maintain the "hyper reality" of those movies.
"In a funny way, there's more acting to do in the rom-coms," he says. "The work is to keep them light."
But McConaughey welcomes the depth and intensity that dramas allow him.
"You can hit as hard as you want. You can love as hard as you want. You can be in as much pain and hurt as much as it really hurts," he says. "The ceiling and the floor of how hard or how much to do something, the width is so much more vast."
Romantic comedies still have something to say, but "you can't hit that hard, because we all know we're getting together in the end," McConaughey says. "We can pretty much cash that check going in."
Though he says he would do romantic comedies again, for now there's more on-screen drama in McConaughey's future. He's already wrapped filming on "Killer Joe," which he describes as "definitely a drama, but it's a riot," and "Bernie," a "real character role" in a black comedy that costars Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black.
McConaughey's own production company, j.k. livin, is also developing a film called "The Grackle," in which he'll play a barroom brawler for hire in New Orleans' French Quarter.
After getting another taste of the legal system in "The Lincoln Lawyer," does McConaughey regret giving up law school for acting?
"I like this version," he says. "Be one for six months, then retire. Come back and do it again years later."