Matthew McConaughey: Lone Star Rising
The Luck of the Drawl
At's late March of 1995 and Los Angeles is a beautiful city - or at least it'll be beautiful for the next couple of weeks, until the heat picks up and the sweet breeze dies down and the hazy film of smog boils into something shiny and mean and almost solid.
Matthew McConaughey, a lean, 25-year-old Texan with curly blondish-brown hair and a scraggly, inconsistently trimmed beard and mustache, is hunched over a Tex-Mex breakfast at Barney's Beanery, a popular Southwest-style greasy spoon on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, scooping egg onto a tortilla with a fork and telling this reporter from Texas how well his career has been going lately.
So far, the actor has 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 of 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. I'm really looking forward to playing a lead sometime, because usually it's only when you play the lead that you get to do what you call the "in-between" things - to play around in the margins of a script, play with the space between scenes."
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.
During his junior year as a film student at the University of Texas at Austin, he was drinking at a hotel bar one night when a bartender told him that Don Phillips was sitting nearby - a movie producer doing preproduction and casting work on Austin independent legend Richard Linklater's second feature, Dazed and Confused.
The bartender - who just happened to also be named Matthew - suggested that McConaughey go introduce himself to Phillips just for the hell of it. Because you never know, right?
McConaughey introduced himself 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."
So he 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 (Secret of Roan Inish, Passion Fish) that jumps back and forth in time and showcases nearly 50 speaking parts. In this new movie (which was shot in south Texas this spring), McConaughey plays Buddy, an Eisenhower-era deputy who steps into the sheriff's shoes when the man proves incompetent. 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 Fifties. 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. A top draw at this year's SXSW Film Festival now set for a late September release nationally, Return is a hilariously sharp horror movie along the lines of Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn that manages to poke fun at the form's clichés even as it revels in them.
But even if the movie weren't terrific, McConaughey's Nicholson-level deranged performance as the lead bad guy - a rompin', stompin', hootin', hollerin', homicidal cannibal cowpoke - would still make it worth a look. Through pure adrenaline-powered lunacy, he makes an implausible character so compelling that you can practically smell the blood on his clothes. Variety cheerfully declared that his performance went "way, way, way over the top."
It was a part McConaughey was not intended to have. He originally read for one of the teenaged victims. Then, on instinct, he changed his mind and told Kim Henkel that he wanted to read for the main villain. Henkel gave him a shot - and was blown away. Clearly, there's something to be said for following instinct.
McConaughey has had some agonizing near misses of late. On a couple of recent films, he came close to getting plum parts: the charismatic gunfighter-turned-preacher in The Quick and the Dead and the ambitious young hitman in the upcoming Sylvester Stallone action picture Assassins. In both cases, despite strong response from filmmakers and money men, the roles 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."
It's time to leave. I have to go to another interview I have scheduled after this and had planned to call a cab. But McConaughey offers me a ride in his battered blue pickup truck. It has a name: "Old Blue."
Old Blue's floor is full of old newspapers, receipts, food wrappers, script pages, and other detritus. To the dashboard is taped a startlingly explicit love note from a sometime girlfriend, but McConaughey doesn't act embarrassed or remove it. It's there because it reminds him of a great time with a fine woman. What's to be embarrassed about?
My destination turns out to have a tricky address that could be at either end of one of Los Angeles' longest thoroughfares. McConaughey drives me to one side of town, which turns out to be the wrong one. Then he cheerfully wheels around and drives in the opposite direction. Because it's rush hour and traffic is hellish, I end up spending two hours in the truck with him.
McConaughey doesn't seem impatient. He has plenty of other things he wants to say - especially about Texas. Although he loves his small beach house in Malibu and has adapted to Hollywood's deal-chasing culture without losing his sanity, he gets nostalgic for his home state sometimes.
He grew up in the small town of Uvalde, Texas, the youngest of three brothers. ("I was the accident," he says.) His father, James, who is now deceased, 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 two hours east of Dallas. McConaughey's older brothers - Mike, 41, and Patrick, 31 - joined their father's business and did very well, opening up pipe and supply companies in, respectively, Midland and the Gulf coast town of Surfside.
But Matthew McConaughey, movie buff, dreamer, and hellraiser, wasn't sure he wanted to follow his brothers into the 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, but he had no idea why. He bounced from property law to philosophy and psychology, hitting the books obsessively in each new major. "I was really anal about schoolwork," he says. "I made that first couple of years way, way too hard. I was my own worst enemy."
Then came one of the flukes of fate McConaughey loves to talk about. At the finale of his sophomore year, he studied so hard for finals that he went into a state of near brain-lock. So he went to a fraternity house to study in the company of his best friends, Braden Box and Tim Abel, whose companionship he hoped would jump-start him. But McConaughey was too burned out. He couldn't even bring himself to open a book. He channel-surfed instead. Then he read Sports Illustrated and Playboy.
And then, underneath a stack of magazines, he saw a 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 whole thing 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, and how to avoid taking "no" for an answer, either from other people or from his own fearful subconscious.
Next, 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 two years, making friends in Austin's burgeoning indie movie scene. Then, the following summer, he met Don Phillips in a 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 are daring blows against authority. He's 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 occasionally feeling nostalgic for the ingrained politeness of Texans, especially waitresses and shopkeepers. He misses feeling able to compliment women he doesn't know on their attractive appearance without being suspected of evil intent. And he misses the congeniality of many of the state's citizens.
"I like to tell people that in most ways, in Texas, you're innocent 'til you're proven guilty. People will give you the benefit of the doubt. It ain't quite the same here. Here, you're guilty 'til proven innocent."
I keep offering to hop a cab or a bus, but he won't hear of it. "We're in this to the bitter end, buddy," he says. "We got into it together and we'll get out together."
We finally reach my destination. Despite his assurances that he had nowhere special to be that afternoon, I still apologize profusely 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?"
In the weeks that follow, I get a knowing chuckle out of that statement. McConaughey was a fount of sincerity when he said it, but I've heard it so many times before from so many young actors that I'm still skeptical.
Then, six weeks later, I open an issue of Variety.
There he is, in living color: Matthew McConaughey, 1994 UT film school graduate and "relative unknown" actor. He has 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 features. His novels have sold over 50 million copies worldwide, and his movie projects have grossed almost half a billion dollars in North America alone. Director 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 hit man 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 co-stars Kiefer and Donald Sutherland.
McConaughey beat out a whole field of better-known hopefuls, including Woody Harrelson and newly cowled Batman Val Kilmer, who wanted the part so badly they could taste it. Variety reported that Grisham himself had intervened to convince Warner Bros. studio heads that only McConaughey was the right choice to play a character based on Grisham as a young man. Besides solid screen tests, Grisham was partly sold on McConaughey because of his palpable Southernness. He had a real accent and a real Dixie attitude - something even the most skilled actors not raised in the South sometimes have difficulty faking. He was perfect.
But he is also, by Hollywood standards, a nobody. So how did this happen?
I call Herbert Ross, the director of Boys on the Side, to ask him if he was surprised when he heard the news. "Not really," says Ross. "There are only two young actors I've worked with in my career who I thought showed as much promise. One is Matthew Broderick and the other is Kevin Bacon, and they've both gone on to be very big. It seems to me that Matthew 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 sees something he wants and he goes after it, and he makes sure he does it right. He has one of the most impressive work ethics of any young actor I've ever directed, and that covers quite a few years. A lot of actors underestimate the importance of a strong work ethic. They seem to think that if they're talented, they can sit back and good things will happen for them. But Matthew, I think, understands that the harder you work and the more dedicated you are, the more luck you may have."
So maybe McConaughey wasn't bullshitting with all that talk of letting whatever happens happen. He really does believe in fate, with a serene confidence I obviously couldn't fathom - and more importantly, some part of him understands how to make it work in his favor, how to seize opportunities not just when the present themselves, but before.
Obviously, I need to talk to him again.
"McConaughey," he says into the phone when we finally agree on a time for another interview that's convenient for him - which turns out to be mid-July. The guy's a lot busier than he used to be.
"I'm just sittin' here cookin' up dinner - some rayyy-john, cayyy-john chicken!" he rasps, in a cartoonish Bayou accent. He's trying to drop weight before A Time to Kill starts shooting in September, so he's trying to stay away from red meat, desserts, fried foods, and heavy sauces. "I'm eatin' a lot of fish and chicken and shit, and I spice the hell out of it," he exclaims. "It's a real different deal, I gotta say - cooking on this diet. When you're going without butter and oil and all that, you really gotta pay attention to your spices."
He just returned to his Malibu home after traveling through the deep South with Joel Schumacher, who invited McConaughey to come along as he scouted 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. Then I talked to Grisham. He said, `Matthew, we're real glad to have you on board.'"
In a twist eerily reminiscent of Henkel's story about casting the actor in the 'Saw sequel, McConaughey says that late last year, he read for a much smaller part in A Time to Kill - one of the young black girl's evil redneck rapists.
Joel Schumacher, who's renowned for his keen casting eye, says he'd been watching McConaughey ever since Dazed and Confused. He says that he wanted the actor to play Jake Briggant from the start, but had reconciled himself to the fact that even though Warner Bros. had released Boys on the Side and believed in McConaughey's potential, they'd still want to go with a bigger name. But Schumacher still wanted to find a smaller part for McConaughey so that he could at least get a chance to work with him.
Then, at a reading in March, McConaughey casually asked the director if he'd already cast the lead. Schumacher laughed and said he hadn't. "Why, were you thinking of playing the part?"
"I told him, `This is a job for Matthew McConaughey,'" the actor recalls.
McConaughey's conviction stuck with Schumacher in the weeks that followed. He couldn't get the young Texan out of his head. 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. Only McConaughey could provide the edge Jake needed.
"[McConaughey's] favorite movie is Hud, and I don't think that's an accident," says Schumacher. "There's a hidden unpredict-ability 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. It's that mysterious quality, that quality of hidden dangerousness, that makes it believable that somebody like Drew Barrymore would be with him. There's a Hud in him."
One night, during a long conversation with John Grisham, who wasn't satisfied with the actors recommended by the studio, the director finally decided that what was "possible" under the terms of Hollywood politics wouldn't necessarily be best for the movie. "I said to John, `I have an idea,'" Schumacher recalls. "And John said, `I knew it! I knew you were holding somebody out on me!' I said, `I'm not going to tell you who I have in mind - I'm just gonna show you something.'"
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 Briggant. 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 Federal-Expressed 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 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 - re-reading the script, digging into law books and tomes about Mississippi and the deep South, and constructing a psychological profile for his character.
"After I got the news, I was numb for about 48 hours," he says. "Then I dropped down and went from being above it all to looking the sumbitch right in the eye. I've been looking in the eye of this job ever since. I fear it. And when I say 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. I have to not succumb to the hype, because all I've done at this point is gotten a part. I haven't played it yet. I've done a certain number of interviews and photo ops, but I don't feel comfortable with them, because I have not yet actually gone and done my job."
Again, he brings up the fate factor. McConaughey notes that during the week that 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 that the deal had fallen through and they'd cast someone else. Which meant McConaughey had an open week and could go on casting calls. Casting calls like A Time to Kill.
"Hell, yeah, I'm a religious guy," he offers, 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. When I think of all the people I've had in my life and some of the great bits of timing, I mean, come on! Like that night in Austin when I met Don Phillips in a bar. I was gonna stay in that night and watch a movie. Why did I go to the bar? Why did I stay there late that night? Why did this bartender with the same name as me tell me there was a producer in the bar who was working on a movie?
"That's why I say things happen for a reason," he says. "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." He mimics a telephone: "Ring a ding!"
When Schumacher hears McConaughey's account of his career - which makes it sound like one lucky break after another - the director chuckles. He personally says that the truth is probably closer to what Herbert Ross said - that if luck is involved, it's a by-product of the actor's combination of likability, salesmanship, and talent.
"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. In any case, that's not for me to say. But that might be why he talks so much about luck.
"The fact is that I'm very proud of him. I'm proud of him because he got this role purely on his merits. 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." n