A Time to Shine
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His first real break came when Texas auteur Linklater—who had started a film society in Austin, where UT is located, and had made the film Slacker there—came back to town to make Dazed and Confused, a comedy that looked at the last day of school for a group of high school friends in 1976.
McConaughey met Linklater's producer Don Phillips in an Austin bar as they were getting ready to shoot and the producer suggested McConaughey to Linklater for a small role in the film: David Wooderson, a late-college-age guy who continues to chase the girls at his old high school.
"He wasn't what I had in mind for the character," Linklater says. "He was too good-looking, too clean-cut. I wanted someone creepier and scragglier."
In fact, McConaughey showed up for the audition, he remembers, dressed for a job interview—neat, shaved, shirt and tie—rather than trying to embody the character for which he was trying out.
"Rick told me, 'You're not this guy,' and I said, 'Maybe not. But I know this guy,' " McConaughey says. "To me, this character was who I thought my older brother was when he was in high school. I remember once, I was 11 and he was 17. It was 1980 and I went with my mother to pick up my brother at the high school. And before she spotted him, I saw him from the car, leaning up against the school smoking a cigarette. At that moment, he was cooler than James Dean to me. It's not who he really was, but who I thought he was from that image."
Says Linklater, "Matthew said, 'I know this character,' and then he transformed into him. His whole demeanor changed; he transformed right in front of me. I said, 'OK, you've got the part. Now don't cut your hair and grow some facial hair.' It certainly was a case where he didn't get cast because of his looks."
After McConaughey's first day of filming, Linklater began to write more scenes for him, expanding the role of Wooderson until he became one of the film's most visible characters: "The character only had three or four lines when I started, but I wound up working for two and a half weeks," McConaughey says. "When I went back to college, I was a much better director because I saw that being a director wasn't a dictatorship."
By the time the film came out, McConaughey had acted in another Texas-based movie (Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre) for "$320 a week for 17-hour days" and then packed his belongings in a trailer and moved to Los Angeles. There, he slept on the couch of Dazed producer Phillips, who offered to help him get started as an actor. Within two weeks, Phillips had introduced him to an agent who had seen an early screening of Dazed and Confused and saw potential in the young actor.
He auditioned for Boys on the Sid—-"My first audition in L.A.," McConaughey says—and was told by the casting director that he wanted McConaughey to read for the director, Herbert Ross. A few days later, McConaughey auditioned for Angels in the Outfield—and wound up being cast and going on location for the role, too.
"I was getting $48,500 just to act and play baseball," McConaughey recalls with a laugh. "I thought I was rolling in dough. Two weeks into shooting that, I got called back to read for Herbert Ross and got that role too."
McConaughey then tried out for a small role, a vicious Klansman in the film of John Grisham's best-selling first novel, A Time to Kill. At the audition, McConaughey asked director Joel Schumacher who was playing the lead role, an attorney named Jake Brigance (who was a semi-autobiographical version of Grisham himself). Schumacher asked whom McConaughey thought should play the role.
"I think I should," McConaughey told him.
Today, McConaughey says, "I totally straight-faced him. He laughed and said, 'That's a great idea but it will never happen. I think you'd be great and it won't happen.' But I left feeling good that I'd at least gotten the Klan part."
Two weeks later, Schumacher got back in touch: He wanted to do a screen test of McConaughey for the role. "But it was done completely off the grid," McConaughey says. "He told me, 'The studio will never go for this.' They were after Kevin Costner, actors like that, for the role and John Grisham had approval. So it was a long shot."
A few weeks later, McConaughey was filming Lone Star in the Texas desert for director John Sayles, when he got a call from Schumacher at midnight: "He said, 'Matthew, there's somebody I want to introduce you to.' And he put me on the phone with John Grisham. And Grisham said, 'My wife and I saw your audition tape and we'd love it if you'd play Jake Brigance.'
"After I hung up, I went out and howled at the moon. That was big. I understood what that meant."
The 1996 hit landed the still-unknown McConaughey on a raft of magazine covers, including Vanity Fair, whose cover line teased: "Why Hollywood is so hot for Matthew McConaughey." McConaughey could feel the world shift around him.
"The Friday before it came out, you could have shown my picture to 100 people and asked if they knew who I was and you'd have gotten 99 no's and one yes," he says. "And the next week it flipped in the opposite direction. I remember walking down the street in Los Angeles the weekend the movie came out and all these people were looking at me. I remember checking my fly.
"There was a tremendous amount of frequency cast on me. The shift was so dramatic that, at times, it was overwhelming. Once the movie had opened, what I did to maintain my sanity was pack a backpack and get a one-way ticket to Peru. I checked out for 19 days and just hiked anonymously, with no plan. I hiked Macchu Picchu and canoed the Amazon. I just needed to let time catch up with me."
In the subsequent 15 years, McConaughey has worked on films that range from big-budget fantasies to low-budget independent dramas. He's had a string of romantic-comedy box-office hits (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Failure to Launch being the most successful) and worked with leading ladies such as Jennifer Garner, Kate Hudson, Jennifer Lopez and Sarah Jessica Parker (and been romantically linked with Sahara costar Penelope Cruz). He's worked with Oscar-winning directors such as Steven Spielberg (Amistad), Robert Zemeckis (Contact) and Ron Howard (EDtv), but also lent his talent to such well-regarded little indie offerings as Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Bill Paxton's Frailty.
His free-spirited existence and active social life have made him tabloid fodder over the years. There was, for example, that 1999 incident in Austin, when police responded to a late-night noise complaint from neighbors and found McConaughey playing bongos naked in his living room. And he was named one of People magazine's "hottest bachelors" in 2006.
Some of the stories spread about him were obviously false ("One time it was reported that I had three kids with three different women; that one didn't make me nervous for a second."). Some, in fact, are true.
His older brother, Rooster, did, in fact, name one of his sons Miller Lyte McConaughey. And there is a basis to the persistent rumor that McConaughey avoids revolving doors.
"I really don't like them," he admits with a sheepish grin. "I'm not a claustrophobic guy; maybe I've just seen too many Godfather movies. And I don't like tunnels. I'm surprised there aren't more accidents in tunnels; the blind spot when you go in gives me a little vertigo."
He's come to terms with the paparazzi and their seemingly constant presence in his personal life. He addresses it by dealing with photographers on a human level, saying, "OK, take a picture—then let me get on with my life."
"I was tired of getting pissed off. It was legitimate but I was tired of it," he says. "I thought, well, am I ready to move to a place where they weren't? No, not for good. Was I ready to build fences or tall walls around my house? No. So I just shook hands with it and dealt with it.
"So, say I'm taking my kids to the beach. And the photographers are there. I just talk to them and say, 'OK, go ahead and take your picture. And then move on.' How many pictures do they need of me running on the beach? So far, they've mostly respected that. But you've got to have a relationship with that kind of thing if you go out in public because that check's already been written. Sure, I feel intruded upon. But I don't feel it's unfair. I can't do anything about it unless I move on or imprison myself, and I don't want to live like that."
It's one thing to get the kind of break McConaughey received with A Time to Kill; it's another to build a career from that break and keep it moving forward, not just forward but upward. Yet McConaughey maintains that forward momentum—not an easy task.
"When you look back, you see a guy who has made a lot of right choices," William Friedkin says. "But he also has an inherent star power that few actors have. Young actors today are not long on career trajectory. They seem to be kind of one-note. But Matthew has something else. There are only a few people like that: Will Smith, say, or Tom Hanks. And, in a lot of those cases, star power trumps career choices because people want to see him in whatever he does. A guy like Matthew persists because people like him. There's a certain magic there."
For McConaughey, it's about keeping things interesting—challenging himself and finding work that feels important to do.
"After A Time to Kill, I wanted to do subjects that mattered to me, films that I thought, philosophically, I wanted to be a part of," he says. "They were good healthy stories to tell, with questions to ask. And some of the romantic comedies were pure entertainment for a Saturday night date. You know the guy and girl will end up together in the end but you hope people have a good time seeing how that happens.
"On a basic level, we can all read a script. You read The Lincoln Lawyer and you feel it's a thriller that could touch a nerve and be a hit. You read Killer Joe and you know it doesn't have the DNA to open on 3,000 screens. But it could be an arthouse cult hit. They don't all have to be blockbusters; it's not in their pedigree. Still, sometimes there are ones you think will go, 'Ka-boom!' and they don't. And the one you think won't does."
At 41, McConaughey has his own production company and a charitable foundation, both called j.k. livin (after one of the lines that served as his character's philosophy in Dazed and Confused: "Just keep livin', man-just keep livin' "). He has settled down with his partner, former model Camila Alves, with whom he has a son, 2, and a daughter, 1. Still, marriage is not in the cards in the foreseeable future.
"Marriage isn't something I'm against," he says. "My parents married each other three times—and divorced twice. I know a few older couples who have been married a long time and are happy; I've been around healthy marriages. I knew I wanted a family and I found a woman I love and felt was right for me. I thought, 'That's the woman I want to make a family with.' But marriage—it's not something we feel we need to be complete. It doesn't mean we won't do it.
"It doesn't make my mom that happy that we're not married. But it doesn't make her mad, either."
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