The Austin Chronicle

Adonis Rising

Matthew McConaughey

By Margaret Moser, July 26, 1996, Screens

It's the face.

As the much-touted star of the upcoming buzz movie A Time to Kill, Texas-born actor Matthew McConaughey is a publicity dream. Ensconced in the Parisian ambiance of an airy suite at Dallas' Crescent Court, sunshine spills freely into the room, shimmering off the young actor's tousled Adonis curls, coppery wisp of a beard, and bronzed skin. The 26-year-old strides confidently across the room, greeting me warmly and smiling broadly when I present him with some Chronicle T-shirts.

"Good, they're black. These will get worn. I love the Chronicle," he says, examining an Awards show shirt. As if it reminds him of something, he walks to a stereo tucked away in a cabinet. "What's the classic rock station in Dallas?" he wonders aloud, holding the T-shirts as he fiddles around on the radio dial until ZZ Top's "Sharp-Dressed Man" comes pumping out. He grins.

The incandescent smile on his sculpted face is priceless, and its value isn't being overlooked by media. McConaughey's face is on the cover of virtually every magazine -- if not on the outside, then inside. (True to its own off-beat rhythms, The Austin Chronicle, September 1, 1995, Vol. 15, No. 1 splashed its own McConaughey cover last September when the Texan was just starting to set national tongues wagging.) He stands, arms folded and clad in blue denim, by the words "Lone Star Rising" on Vanity Fair.Interview provocatively pairs him with A Time to Kill co-star Ashley Judd on their cover. Premiere introduces him on their table of contents page. The Texas Monthly cover focuses on That Face.

Now, That Face is not wholly perfect, though it certainly appears that way. If you stare long enough at his mouth you see that the peak on one side of his upper lip is ever-so-slightly higher than the other. And one of his front bottom-row teeth is crooked. None of this diminishes his dazzling effect; even Michelangelo's David has flaws. The face is disarmingly handsome, though, and there's no skirting that.

With a cast that includes Judd, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, and Donald Sutherland, this screen adaptation of author John Grisham's first novel which is, furthermore, directed by the savvy Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever, The Client), A Time to Kill seems poised to make a killing. It has all the earmarks of an end-of-summer hit, although it's the face of Matthew McConaughey that's likely to make it memorable.

In the movie, McConaughey plays Jake Brigance, a Mississippi lawyer hired to defend Samuel L. Jackson's Carl Lee Hailey, a black man who shot and killed the two white men who raped and beat his 10-year-old daughter. McConaughey reads Brigance as a man with a personal code that includes the law but doesn't end there. It was risky casting for Schumacher and Grisham to put a virtual unknown in the lead, but in a film well-padded with "names," that risk was well-taken.

McConaughey wasn't the first choice for the role of Jake Brigance. The much-desired lead had not yet been cast when McConaughey was set to play another, much smaller, role as the angry brother of one of the murdered redneck rapists. Director Schumacher had his eye on McConaughey when the actor himself spoke up, saying he thought he was right for the role. After viewing a discreet screen test Schumacher made with McConaughey on the sly, Grisham, who had final casting approval, agreed and big wheels started rolling.

For all his breathtaking physical charms, McConaughey's acting career really didn't begin until 1993 when his exuberance in playing the small part of an aging ex-high school jock named Wooderson in Dazed and Confused caused director Richard Linklater to expand it into a memorable supporting role, one that virtually launched his acting career. After that came parts in Angels in the Outfield, Boys on the Side, The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Lone Star. Next, McConaughey is filming Contact with Jodie Foster. Larger Than Life, in which he appears with Bill Murray, will be in theatres later this summer. For the time being, however, there's A Time to Kill, because that's the movie virtually guaranteed to make Matthew McConaughey a star.

It's the eyes. At this moment, Matthew McConaughey's eyes reflect the soft, brushed-cotton blue of his workshirt. The eyes are brilliantly colored, inspiring comparisons to skies, bluebonnets, sapphires, oceans... anything associated with the word blue. And when McConaughey gets mentioned, names like James Dean and young Marlon Brando are also invoked, but the one actor in whose footsteps McConaughey is likely to follow is Paul Newman, whose own blue eyes defined that star's image. With that face and those eyes, McConaughey easily recalls Newman's looks and talent without imitation. That specific appeal seemed to have been evident from the start.

As Don Phillips, the Dazed and Confused casting director credited with discovering McConaughey while relaxing at the Austin Hyatt bar, told Vanity Fair: "...Matthew's got those three things that make a star: You got to be smart, you got to have talent, and the girls got to want to fuck you." It's an assessment blunt enough to make McConaughey a bit uncomfortable and shift to a good-ol'-boy triumvirate he's more comfortable with. "Born in Uvalde, raised in Longview, went to school in Austin!" he proclaims proudly. It's a statement spoken so guilelessly, so pure-dee Texas, it could have been a line from Wooderson himself.

"You know... I just figured out who Wooderson was recently."

Really? You had him down pat in Dazed and Confused!

"Well, he's a pretty simple guy. He had four things: pot, women, rock & roll, and hot cars," McConaughey ticks them off on his fingers. "It's like, my older brother Pat used to come wake me up and say, `Hey, come listen to this!' and we'd go out to his car, listen to a little Jimi, some old Mellencamp. I thought the stereo in his car was the best sounding stereo I'd ever heard -- not that it was anything really special but it just sounded good!"McConaughey's reverie is evident in his eyes, sparkling at some long-ago evening after midnight.

"I mean, when you're a kid and someone asks what's your favorite movie, well, truly it's King Kong, for as much enjoyment as I got out of it. So I had this heightened, glorified image of those things. And while [Wooderson] wasn't my brother, it's who I thought my brother was, out smoking cigarettes, one leg propped up, driving around, and stuff."

It's the walk. "All right, all right, all right...!" McConaughey cracks one of Wooderson's famous lines from Dazed and Confused at my request. Jake Brigance may be the role that makes him a star, but it was Wooderson that made everyone pay attention. As an aging stoner whose post-high-school years never matched his glory days on the football field, McConaughey gave the seemingly one-dimensional Wooderson a curious empathy.

Wooderson's Dazed and Confused lines are so famous, they're almost a code of their own, especially his neo-philosophical "just gotta keep on livin'... l-i-v-i-n'!" But the frames that say the most about Wooderson have no dialogue. McConaughey's pretty-boy face and baby blues gave Wooderson's beautiful loser a golden glow; when he strolls with a stud's strut through the local hang-out to the music of Bob Dylan's "Hurricane," Wooderson almost comes off the screen, he's so alive. And it's that innate understanding of character, evidenced in his first role, that seems to come so easily to McConaughey. Seems to.

"If I could pinpoint where that acting thing comes from... well, I probably couldn't do it, you know? I've had great characters -- lucky -- stuff to really sink my teeth into.... I guess acting is just making it as realistic as possible. Actors are paid to play make-believe. You're a better actor if you can play better make-believe. Make that as real as possible. Jake... Vilmer...." McConaughey pauses and emits some deranged, Vilmer-like hoots (from Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre) for my delight.

Or Buddy Deeds in Lone Star, I offer. He nods, and derails his train of thought to praise director John Sayles, as a man who, "...knows a little something about everything. Very well-spoken on any subject from the leg of that chair," he gestures across the room, "to the history of film." Then McConaughey confesses to not having seen the film in which he appears in flashbacks as the father of the character played by actor Chris Cooper -- a co-star who coincidentally resurfaces in A Time to Kill.

"You know," McConaughey rubs his scrubby beard thoughtfully, "he's the easiest actor I've ever had to react to. Doesn't he have a great face? One reason he's so easy to react to is because, there are actors who, as soon as the scene changes, they just change up, turn it off, over. Chris has his own thing going on to himself, never intrusive, but he's off in his own corner. He doesn't give anything away off the camera, in that segue from on- to off-camera. And since there's been nothing off-camera to say he's bullshitting, I find it very easy to believe when something happens with Chris."

It's the talk. "What do you get from Independence Day?"McConaughey turns around and interviews me a little, as the conversation meanders back to film, and just how much the subject of the film should count.

"Independence Day was pure pleasure," I told him. "Like Chainsaw."

"Right -- and that's fun. But if you can combine the two, that's the ideal situation for a character. Chainsaw -- visceral experience. Let's have some fun! What are the rules for playing a character like that? Well, the rules are: Every prop is in the scene for me because my character can break anything anytime he wants. So, with full license," McConaughey's voice speeds up into the reverie, "it was like being a kid. No rules. And it was visceral, animal, in a way... Chainsaw was so much fun."

That speaking voice, a cross between the Hill Country drawl of his childhood in Uvalde and the flat East Texas twang from his teenage years in Longview, is another of McConaughey's secret weapons. Like his even-featured good looks and glittering stone-blue eyes, the voice is malleable -- nasal for Wooderson, sincere for Boys on the Side's Abe Lincoln, sharp for the deranged Vilmer, well-modulated but Southern for Jake Brigance. The voice is just comfortably Texas.

"Brigance, though, was a journey. There was a character with an agenda of his own, in the back of his mind. He knew Carl Lee came to him knowing what he was gonna do. That was Jake's secret. Now, I don't think Vilmer had a secret," McConaughey laughs. "Vilmer was a hedonist in the extreme. Wooderson had his agenda -- the four things. Ask him about those, he'll tell ya everything. If it's not about them, he's not interested. Each character has something he'll fight to defend. That makes for an interesting character that's where you get the dangerous element -- how far will they go to defend it?

"We're in an interesting time when things are being redefined. The abuse excuse is running wild. Addiction. Chemical imbalance? No way, man! No one said it was gonna be easy! And we're such a pill-popping society. Even metaphorically speaking."

You don't smoke cigarettes?, I ask as he picks up his Levi Garret tobacco pouch, smiling.

He shakes his head and holds up the pouch. "This is sweeter. Lighter."

"Huh, I would think that the cigarette mystique has more appeal," I tell him. I glance warily at a cup I realize is a spitoon.

McConaughey fixes those Texas sky-blue eyes on me and quirks his brows. At this moment he reminds me of his character in Lone Star, Sheriff Buddy Deeds. "Would you like to try some?"

"Uh...." Sure, why not, I think.

"You put a little bit in your mouth and suck on it." The man who's about to be the next Hollywood sex symbol pinches a small amount and proffers it. "Now, ball it up real small and put it there." He indicates the lower lip. "You'll taste it right away, it's sweet."

He's right -- a sugary, leathery taste washes through my mouth as I gamely push the plug in my cheek with my tongue. "Don't swallow it," he admonishes. "It will start to `leak' but don't swallow it."

I nod. "You spit, right?"

"Right. Spit it in there. You might wanna drink some water when you're done," he points to the cup.

We talk for a few minutes more and I pause. "You need to spit, doncha...?" His voice is amused and friendly. I nod sheepishly at this inevitable turn of events. He smiles charmingly and pushes the cup across the clear glass table to me. I spit into it.

"Yeah!" He grins approvingly and laughs warmly.

It's the code. One thread common in most of McConaughey's screen material so far is a kind of rebel status. Wooderson refused to grow up, Abe Lincoln fell in love with a woman on the run from the law, and Jake Brigance plays his legal cards with a deft touch. Some of it is the Texas thang, some of it is Southern mystique. And some of it is just plain McConaughey, who readily acknowledges the unspoken code of the rebel.

"Local rules. Local law, where you can bend and twist. Lone Star is a good example -- Buddy Deeds is a better sheriff than Charlie Wade, but you know what happens. Local law was how Wade treated the Mexicans from across the border. [It's] different things in different places... the hierarchy will be different but it's how you get things done from place to place. What I try to do [with roles] is trust that my vision's gonna work but I can't think, oh, what will touch the masses? I just trust the story I have to tell and hope they like it."

I mention Hud, the 1963 adaptation of Larry McMurtry's Horseman Pass By and a gritty story of old Texas and new Texas and their uneasy coexistence. I also suggest that if it is ever re-made, the Paul Newman role is his. McConaughey's face turns luminous at the suggestion as he retrieves some Evian water for us, his eyes glitter and he walks back to the table, talking animatedly.

"I think so. That is my favorite film, showing the likenesses and differences of generations, how they say the same thing each using a different vocabulary. Hud does that with three generations. That's what's fun about playing different characters -- each one has a code, there are certain things in every story that each character takes literally."

What's your code, Matthew? Is it the line from Dazed and Confused -- Wooderson's now-famous"j.k.livin' ?"

"Yeah... j.k.l.... it seems very general but it's not... not..." he gestures to the air, the sentencing dangling.


"Yeah. It's not `party all the time,' it's about getting things done. It's not me, it's about what I believe in. And doing things right. I don't wanna be 40, looking over my shoulder saying, `whew, man! I burnt that bridge!' Which doesn't mean take the safe way, it means take the risk. It means you're gonna screw up and that's part of it, man -- j.k.l." n

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