And, yes, he understands that trading malaprops with Terry Bradshaw—his dad in Launch—ain’t exactly honing his Bard chops. But then again, pointing that out is just putting another pesky curb in the path of the master.

“Ten years ago, I’d have been like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not like that—I’m an actor!’” McConaughey says. “But I’ve learned that when you have success, you can’t be condescending to it. Besides, it’s all in the same thread, the same river. And this is just the fish I caught out of this part of the river, ya know?”

When the call came down from the cult of personality that is People magazine that he’d been weighted down with the title of “Sexiest Man Alive,” the first thing Matthew McConaughey did was call his mama.

“She said, ‘Well, it’s about damn time!’” he says, laughing. Because, really, what else is he supposed to do? All the label has done is left him open to an avalanche of good-natured shit from friends and family. “People are going, ‘You’re the sexiest man in America.’ And I’m like, ‘No, no—alive!’ Those extraterrestrials out there? Those dudes on Mars? They ain’t got nothing on me, man. I’m sexy, and I’m alive. Fact!

And why should he need People’s affirmation when he’s got Penélope Cruz? The two have been dating since they worked together on Sahara, and while McConaughey still picks and chooses his words when talking about her, he’s not afraid to get a little flowery. “There’s a bit of a language barrier, but it’s like poetry when it happens,” he says. “What I really love about her is that she sees everything for the first time, every time. And she’s one of the best listeners I’ve ever met. She’s not a right-and-wronger.”

She also gets McConaughey’s need to ramble on and “check out” for weeks at a time on some middle-of-nowhere road trip. But perhaps the most telling mile marker is this: She’s working on getting her driver’s license. McConaughey smiles and unfurls those Texas-size dimples. “She gets the simplicity of this tribe,” he says, rapping a knuckle against the silver belly of his trailer. “But, man, if it’s winter, I’d better make damn sure the heat is working.”

It’s dusk in Austin, which means that the largest urban bat colony in America—millions of Mexican free-tailed bats—is about to black out the evening’s first stars in a massive search for dinner.

It also means that the teacher must bid the student farewell. Tomorrow the Buddha of Walnut Creek will load up the Airstream and head for Los Angeles. Meetings, interviews, handshakes, and more than a few mirrors lie in wait. It’s a long haul, but once he’s made it he’ll be able to marvel at how much tread he’s left in the rear view. “Maybe it’s a man thing, but I get in a groove, put on my tunes, and just open up my mind,” he says. “Then you pull out the map and it’s like, ‘Whoa, man, nice leg.’”