"Well, listen to him," Matthew McConaughey says admiringly as a radiant red songbird alights on a branch.

"Who you callin'?" he asks. The bird ignores him, continuing to live tweet its tiny heart's lament to some audience, nearby but unseen in the gloaming of a cool New Orleans evening.

"You callin' your lady friend, huh?" the actor says, nodding a head that's been shorn of its familiar golden locks. He seizes the little bird in his gaze with a look of emphatic empathy.

The bird cocks its gumball-size head and pauses mid-song to consider his wingless interlocutor.

"Callin' your lady friend," McConaughey says again, still nodding, that knowing, toothy, high-wattage grin widening.

They're staring at each other now. Then a flash of recognition seems to pass across the songbird's glassy features and he chirps out an excitable tune that, to my untrained ears, translates roughly as:

It's him! Mr. All right all right all right j.k. livin himself! The bongo-banging, chisel-chested playboy philosopher king inexplicably here among the vines and branches of my garden paradise on the grounds of this crumbling old Treme mansion! The fuck is he doing here?

The fuck, indeed.

It wasn't supposed to go down like this. It's the night before Mardi Gras, and I'm with Matthew McConaughey, a man with a legendary appetite for fun in a city famous for indulging and satisfying and forgiving all cravings. This is the put-everyone-at-ease, good-time surfer dude who's known to pack up his Airstream trailer for impromptu transcontinental road trips. It doesn't seem right to just sit around with Hollywood's long-reigning rambling man.

In my mind, the way it was supposed to go down was: me and McConaughey joining the wild rumpus on the eve of Fat Tuesday, buoyed along into some benevolent strangers' crab boil, eating king cake, drinking yard-tall hurricanes, and getting flashed by the tits of this great city in an epic bromantic bonding session that would lead (inevitably) to the sharing of deep personal revelations and hair-of-the-dog Ramos gin fizzes as the sun comes up over the French Quarter.

Unfortunately, no one told McConaughey. And courting trouble isn't high on the 43-year-old actor's list of priorities these days. He's regained most of the 50 pounds he lost for a recent role, but there's still a leanness about the man that speaks of a discipline and seriousness of purpose you wouldn't have predicted from his naked-bongos-playing days.

In town to shoot True Detective, an HBO series he's making with his buddy Woody Harrelson, McConaughey's been in a photo shoot all day in this old house on a sketchy, Katrina-blighted stretch of Dumaine Street. After being swarmed by photo assistants and stylists and called on to make Matthew McConaughey faces in various outfits while someone's iPod cranked out Aaron Neville tunes on repeat, what he wants to do is avoid the roiling carnival around us, not engage it. What he feels like, actually, is sitting right here in the darkening quiet of this garden, opening some decent wine, and drinking it out of proper stemware.

So here we are, and it's all quite civilized. An assistant uncorks a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, then disappears into the hedges. In his post-photo-shoot street clothes (plain white tee under an army-green jacket-shirt from his new menswear line, JKL), McConaughey seems less of a physical presence than you expect him to be, based on his famously sculpted abs. The marquee physique is in check, under wraps. His bearing is watchful, reserved, consciously low-profile. But then he drops a tin of chewing tobacco on the table and leans in as he starts to talk, visibly animated by the process of expressing himself, by the communion of communication. The guy is big on eye contact, and when he says or hears something he likes the sound of, there's that smile that charms birds out of trees. He raises his glass.

"Life's good with grape juice, man," McConaughey says by way of a toast. No disagreement here, though I do feel a twinge of sadness for our Big Easy bender that isn't to be. Still, it seems appropriate somehow to pause and raise a glass in quiet reflection on what has been a pretty sweet run of recent back-to-back successes.