Lone Star Rising

How obscure Texas actor Matthew McConaughey won the lead in Grisham's next big Hollywood thriller, A Time to Kill

Matthew McConaughey, a lean, 25-year-old Texan with curly, blondish-brown hair and a scraggly beard and moustache, is hunched over a Tex-Mex breakfast at Barney's Beanery, a popular greasy spoon on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, scooping egg onto a tortilla with a fork and telling a reporter from Dallas how well his career has been going lately.

It's March 1995, and so far, he's played offbeat character parts--including Wooderson, the twentysomething stoner who still hangs out with high schoolers in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused; the leader of a gang of crazy cannibals in Return to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre; and Abe Lincoln, Drew Barrymore's ramrod-straight Arizona cop boyfriend in Boys on the Side. In the process, he's built a reputation as a versatile young pro--somebody who can be relied on to steal whatever scenes he's in, but who isn't yet considered leading man material.

"I'm getting into an interesting time right now," he says. "The choices are getting pretty good. I'm not getting a lot of offers--I'm not at that level yet. But I'm getting a lot of scripts, and I'm always looking to find something with a little meat in it, y'know? I get considered for a lot of secondary characters, and it's rare to find one with some meat on him. So many times he won't have a place where he's from, and he won't be the kind of guy who seems like he has a life when he's not onscreen next to the lead character."

He's convinced that big things are on the horizon. But he doesn't seem particularly impatient or resentful that his star hasn't risen faster. He's the first to admit that a guy in his position has no right to feel unjustly neglected. He's come pretty far for someone who never acted on film until three years ago.

One night, during the summer before his senior year as a film student at the University of Texas at Austin, he was drinking at the Hyatt Regency's bar. The bartender told him that Don Phillips was sitting at the end of the bar--a movie producer doing preproduction and casting work for Austin independent icon Richard Linklater's second feature, Dazed and Confused. The bartender told McConaughey he ought to introduce himself to Phillips just for the hell of it. Because you never know, right?

McConaughey took his advice, and ended up talking to the producer for a couple of very informative hours about films, film school, art, and life. On his way out, Phillips told McConaughey, "You know, there's a small part in this film you might be right for. You might as well go by the office tomorrow and pick up a script."

McConaughey auditioned for Dazed and Confused and was cast in the scene-stealing part of Wooderson. Richard Linklater took such a liking to the first-time actor that he enlarged the part and gave him more scenes and lines. Reviews singled McConaughey out as one of the brightest young actors in a film full of them.

Since then, he's appeared in five films, including a short directed by the son of producer-turned-auteur Irwin Winkler. He just won a role in Lone Star, a Texas melodrama from writer-director John Sayles (City of Hope, Passion Fish) that jumps back and forth in time and showcases nearly 50 speaking parts. In this new movie, which Sayles will start shooting in a Texas border town in May, McConaughey plays Buddy, an Eisenhower-era deputy who steps into the sheriff's shoes after he becomes convinced the man is an incompetent bully. It's a small part, but a crucial one: the film unfolds in flashback via conversations among the present-day locals in a bar, who are reminiscing about what the town was like in the '50s. As the locals spin their tales, we see Buddy grow from a green deputy into a near-legendary lawman.

It sounds like a promising part. But for my money, he'll have a hell of a time topping his performance as the lead villain in Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, written and directed by wildman genre specialist Kim Henkel, who penned the script to the original Saw 20 years earlier. The movie, due out in September, is an unexpectedly terrific genre piece. But McConaughey's Nicholson-level deranged performance as the lead bad guy--a rompin', stompin', hootin', hollerin', homicidal cannibal cowpoke--makes it truly special. Variety cheerfully declared that his performance went "way, way, way over the top."

But McConaughey has had some agonizing near-misses too. He came close to getting a couple of plum parts--a charismatic gunfighter-turned-preacher in The Quick and the Dead and an ambitious young hitman in the Sylvester Stallone action picture Assassins. In both cases, despite strong response from filmmakers and money men, the parts ended up going to better-known actors--Russell Crowe and Antonio Banderas, respectively.

McConaughey shakes his head, smiling ruefully. "Everything happens for a reason," he says. "I believe that."

After the interview, McConaughey offers me a ride in his battered pickup, "Old Blue." The floor is full of old newspapers, receipts, food wrappers, script pages, and other detritus. A startlingly explicit love note from a sometime Dallas girlfriend is taped to the dashboard. Because it's rush hour and traffic is hellish, I end up spending two hours in the truck with McConaughey. He doesn't seem impatient. He had plenty of other things he wanted to say--especially about Texas.

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