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.
He grew up in the tiny Southwest town of Uvalde, Texas, the youngest of three brothers. ("I was the accident," he says.) His father, James, ran a gas station and worked as a pipe and couplings salesman. His mother, Kay, was a schoolteacher. The family eked out a working-class existence for 10 years there. Then McConaughey's father founded his own pipe supply business, which promptly took off. The family moved to Longview, an oil boomtown about four hours north of Houston. McConaughey's older brothers--Mike, 41, and Patrick, 31--joined their father's business and did very well, eventually opening their own pipe and supply companies in other Texas cities.
But Matthew McConaughey, movie buff, dreamer, and hellraiser, wasn't sure he wanted to follow his brothers into the family business. So after high school, he entered an exchange program and went to Australia, where he bummed around for a year, working odd jobs. "I went vegetarian for eight months," he says. "I was running five and a half miles a day. I wouldn't have sex with anybody I wasn't in love with. I was kind of fasting myself from all pleasures, figuring things out."
Returning home, he enrolled at UT-Austin. He bounced from property law to philosophy and psychology. Then came one of the flukes of fate McConaughey loves to talk about. At the end of his sophomore year, he studied so hard for finals that he went into a state of near brain-lock. He went over to a fraternity house to study in the company of his two best friends, but he couldn't even bring himself to open a book. He channel-surfed and flipped through magazines instead.
And then, underneath a stack of Sports Illustrateds and Playboys, he spied a dog-eared paperback: The Greatest Salesman in the World, a bestselling How-To-Discover-Your-Own-Potential book by inspirationalist Og Mandino. "I thought, 'Well, that's an interesting title. What's this shoveling?'"
He read the book cover-to-cover. He was thrilled by its advice on how to figure out who he was and what he ought to do with his life.
So he ripped up his course schedule, called his mom and dad, and told them he was switching his major to film production. He took film classes for a year, making friends in Austin's burgeoning indie movie scene. Then, the following summer, he met Don Phillips in the hotel bar.
Now he's driving around Los Angeles in a pickup truck with a journalist from Texas, ruminating on his future as a character actor and filmmaker. He's just finished a self-written, self-directed, self-starring short titled The Rebel, about a clueless rube who thinks pulling the manufacturer's tags off mattresses and going through a supermarket express lane with more than nine items constitute daring blows against authority.
McConaughey lives in a small house in Malibu with his black lab chow, Miss Hud, partying with friends and poring over scripts, trying to find the next great scene-stealing second-banana role. And he routinely gives copies of The Greatest Salesman in the World to anybody he thinks could use it.
He admits to feeling nostalgic for the ingrained politeness of Texans, especially waitresses and shopkeepers. He misses being able to compliment women he doesn't know on their looks without being suspected of evil intent.
"I like to tell people that in most ways, in Texas, you're innocent till you're proven guilty. People will give you the benefit of the doubt. It ain't quite the same here. Here, you're guilty till proven innocent."
We finally reach my destination. I apologize for taking up his afternoon.
"Don't worry about it," he says, grinning. "It's like I told you back there--it's all part of the plan, you know?"
Six weeks later, in May, I open an issue of Variety. There he is: Matthew McConaughey, 1994 UT Austin film school graduate and "relative unknown" actor. He just won the lead in A Time to Kill, the latest movie to be made from a book by suspense writer John Grisham. It's about a young white Mississippi lawyer named Jake Briggant who must defend a black man accused of killing the racist thugs who raped his young daughter.
It's a big film in every sense. John Grisham is one of the few fiction writers who's as famous and powerful as the movers and shakers who turn his books into motion pictures. His novels have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, and his movie projects have grossed almost half a billion dollars in North America alone. Joel Schumacher's most recent movies include The Client and Batman Forever. Samuel L. Jackson, who recently got an Oscar nomination playing a Bible-quoting hitman in Pulp Fiction, will play the avenging dad. Sandra Bullock has been cast as the law student who helps the hero assemble his case. Ashley Judd, who burst onto the scene in the well-reviewed independent movie Ruby in Paradise, plays Jake's loving wife. The film costars Kiefer and Donald Sutherland.
McConaughey beat out a whole field of better-known hopefuls, including Woody Harrelson and newly cowled Batman Val Kilmer. Variety reported that Grisham himself had intervened to convince Warner Bros. studio heads that only McCon-aughey was the right choice to play a character based on Grisham as a young man. Besides solid screen tests, Grisham was sold on McConaughey because of his palpable Southernness. He had a real accent and a real Dixie attitude.
Still, by Hollywood standards, he's a nobody. So how did this happen?
I call Herbert Ross, the director of Boys on the Side, to ask if he was surprised when he heard the news.
He wasn't. "There are only two young actors I've worked with in my career who I thought showed as much promise," he says. "One is Matthew Broderick and the other is Kevin Bacon, and they've both gone on to be very big. Matthew [McConaughey] has everything you want in an actor. He can either look very ordinary or ridiculously handsome, depending on the part. He's inventive, he's got a great sense of humor, and he takes direction well.
"Of course, there are a lot of young actors you could say that about," Ross continues. "What makes Matthew different, from my viewpoint, is that he's such a hard worker. He has one of the most impressive work ethics of a young actor I've ever directed, and that covers quite a few years. Matthew understands that the harder you work and the more dedicated you are, the more luck you may have."
When I talk to him again in July, McConaughey has just returned to his Malibu home after traveling through the deep South with Joel Schumacher, who invited him to help scout locations. McConaughey found out he'd gotten the part in May, when Schumacher called him on the set of Lone Star.
"In 10 minutes, I was supposed to go onto the set and kill a man," McConaughey says. "And there's this call. It's Joel, and he just says, 'We're gonna make a film together.' I said 'Fuck yeah!' about 20 times."
Joel Schumacher, renowned for his keen casting eye, had been watching McConaughey ever since Dazed and Confused. He says he wanted the actor to play Jake Briggant from the start, but had reconciled himself that even though Warner Bros. had released Boys on the Side and believed in McConaughey's potential, they'd prefer to cast a bigger name. But the director still wanted to find a smaller part for him so they would at least get the chance to work together.
Then, at a reading in late March, McConaughey casually asked Schumacher if he'd already cast the lead.
Schumacher laughed and said he hadn't. "Why, were you thinking of playing the part?"
The young actor told him, "This is a job for Matthew McConaughey."
The director confessed that the idea intrigued him, but warned McConaughey not to get his hopes up.
But the actor's conviction stuck with Schumacher in the weeks that followed. He was concerned that Jake Briggant might stymie other actors; he was so decent and likable that he might seem boring compared to the colorful supporting characters around him.
"[McConaughey's] favorite movie is Hud, and I don't think that's an accident," says Schumacher. "There's a hidden unpredictability in Matthew that makes even the straight-arrow guys he plays more interesting. When you look at him in Boys on the Side, he's playing a good cop, a very straight, very righteous character, but there's something in his eyes that makes you wonder. There's a Hud in him."
Two months later, Schumacher and his producer, Lorenzo DeBonnaventura, flew McConaughey up from Texas where he was shooting Lone Star and screen-tested him for the part of Jake.
They had booked a small studio in downtown Los Angeles, far from the heart of Hollywood's studio culture, and sworn the small crew to secrecy so that in case their scheme didn't work, the outcome would not reflect poorly on McConaughey. The actor performed two scenes four times each. The results were express-mailed to John Grisham that night.
"John called me the next day," Schumacher says. "He told me he'd watched Matthew's tape five times. He loved him."
The studio quickly came around. And Matthew McConaughey's mug was plastered all over Variety.
For now, he's putting aside everything to concentrate on A Time to Kill--rereading the script, digging into law books and tomes about Mississippi and the South, and constructing a psychological profile for his character.
"I dropped down and went from being above it all to looking the sumbitch right in the eye," he says. "I fear it. When I say that I fear it, what I mean is that I give it the respect it deserves. I have to fear it, because that fear is gonna make me better."
Again, he brings up the fate factor. McConaughey notes that during the week he read for Schumacher and company, he was originally supposed to be unavailable on a set in South Carolina, playing a small part in a family melodrama starring Robert Duvall.
But at the last minute, McConaughey got a call telling him the deal had fallen through, and they'd cast someone else.
"Hell, yeah, I'm a religious guy," he says, voice rising with incredulity. "There have been so many coincidences in the last five years that I damn well know there's no such thing as coincidence.
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"Even if there isn't such a thing as a higher power, there's still fate. You do your shit day-to-day the best way you know how, and maybe fate's out there still, teaching you to think, rewarding you maybe, steering you along. If something doesn't happen for you, or if something bad happens, something else is bound to happen that you'll enjoy later."
Schumacher, like Herbert Ross, thinks McConaughey's success is more a product of hard work than chance.
"Matthew has extraordinary pride in his craft, but he also has a humility that's relatively rare in this town," Schumacher says. "I don't know if it's because of where he comes from or because of values instilled in him by his father and mother. But that might be why he talks so much about luck.
"It's pretty staggering to think that someone relatively unknown in our business, and totally unknown to John Grisham, got this role over anyone else--not because he lobbied for it, not because of his box office record, not because he's a friend of the director or the producer, and not because he was the only person available, but because he deserved it. It's simply an amazing thing.