Hot Actor: Matthew McConaughey

Watch out, America: Matthew McConaughey has arrived

Matthew McConaughey during World Premiere of 'Executive Decision' at Mann's Village Theater in Westwood, California on March 11, 1996. Credit: Jim Smeal/WireImage/Getty

If you're asking just who is this Matthew McConaughey who's supposedly about to be way too famous for his own good, congratulations: You've dodged a new media cottage industry announcing his arrival as a young leading man who's not just hot but sparkling and spitting like metal in the microwave. "People keep saying, 'Hollywood is going to take him by storm,' " says Sandra Bullock, his co-star in A Time to Kill. "I think it's the other way around. And Matthew will do it right."

The résumé is brief. He discovered himself four years ago by approaching casting agent Don Phillips in a bar in Austin, Texas. He talked himself into the role of the aging, slouchingly irresistible jock Wooderson ("That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older – they stay the same age. Yes, they do.") in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, cranked out a turbocharged turn as a blood-thirsty tow-truck driver in The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (available on video only outside the United States), played the cop who loves honor even mare than Drew Barrymore in Boys on the Side, shagged screaming liners in Angels in the Outfield, played iconic sheriff Buddy Deeds in John Sayles' Lone Star and, as the media won't let you forget, was the surprise, high-stakes pick of author John Grisham and director Joel Schumacher to star as Mississippi lawyer Jake Brigance in A Time to Kill. That role, in which the established and adored Bullock supports him, sparked the thousand-throated buzz. After the first preview of A Time to Kill, every schlub producer and agent in Hollywood grabbed the lapels of the guy next to him and chittered like an orangutan over the fact that the movie is OK but Matthew McConaughey is a bona fide, everybody-else-is-so-five-minutes-ago star. The brain-addling part of it is, they're probably right.

The very heft of the people stacking up around this young Texan means that the prophecy of stardom will be at least partly self-fulfilling. He has a quartet of agents at CAA, a comfortably imperial press agent, a rumored film-goddess girlfriend (Ashley Judd, whose reps explained that due to some snaky algebra of promotional commitments Ms. Judd would not be answering our questions about her A Time to Kill co-star) and some very good friends like Sandra Bullock. "He's a character actor in a leading-man's body, and he's going to change the face of what we demand from male actors," says Bullock. "We'll demand for them to push themselves more. He's not just another beautiful face."

It's probably best cto take a deep breath and tie your shoelaces just before you meet Matthew McConaughey. (Full first name, please, and the last one ends with what horses eat.) At 26, he's the kind of good company Texas mythology calls for – not that corn-pone, frenetic thing but a figure moving with steady and slightly mysterious energy, like a plume of dust across the Texas plain. What he likes best in life, he will say, "is when I've got something out there, a post that's stuck in the ground. I know I'm going in that direction, and there it is, I won't be able to miss it. That makes the steps to get there cooler and easier." Falling in with those steps can require a couple of catch-up skips, especially if he's inadvertently just made you jump in the dark barroom by arriving for a rendezvous not just quietly but punctually. Bearded and shaggier on top than the clean-cut lawyer he portrays in A Time to Kill, McConaughey looks you bang in the eyes from underneath a high-arching brow, shakes hands and conveys a momentum that immediately makes clear you will be leaving the aforesaid dark bar and going on down the road to the sushi place, if that's OK with you, and once you're in his big, new black G.M.C. Yukon, having taken care not to brush up against the second skin of powdered dirt that covers same (was that "Hell Bent" scrawled with a finger on the side window?), you realize you're already in some free-floating extension of chez McConaughey, a place where even squares can have a ball, where talk is loud over the noise of the throaty motor and a murder song from Chicago dada-country hoo-hahs the Handsome Family. "In the dark," he lip-syncs along, "your hair's just as red, and this long, dark cave will always be our wedding bed."

The traffic he threads through is getting only intermittent attention from McConaughey's left eye, and before you can catch your breath, you've arrived at Destination B, a sushi place that had promised him, falsely, he finds, that they would be open. He gives the management an ever-so-mild scolding before taking them up on the offer of sitting right next door, where one can have an unlicensed beer in a white cup (a droll grin creases McConaughey's face over doing this in ever-so-arty Venice, Calif.), and he says, "Tow truck, mechanical leg, remote control," answering a question about The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre that was asked in the truck before the tape of the Handsomes came on so loud. A comradely look: "We're improvising a lot already, do you notice?" he asks. "We went over here to the sushi bar, and we thought it was open, and it's not open – now we come over here. We're sitting outside, and so we're going to have our beer in a Styrofoam cup. We are incognito."

All four syllables of the last word get their emphasis – what fun, to be in-cog-ni-to and on the peaceful sidewalk in the seaside breeze at dusk – and with his first real pause in a conversation that has been steady but never frantic, McConaughey removes his red-tinted shades. He is incognito to the state liquor board, perhaps. But with just days to go before the release of A Time to Kill, Grisham's fourth best seller to make the transition to film, the actor is now in his waning hours as a private citizen.

It makes him laugh out loud. "Keeping a sense of humor is the mandatory thing right now," McConaughey says. He searches out, and often cooks up, maxims to live by. And if his not-so-long-ago days as a film major at the University of Texas at Austin didn't make him a scholar (he uses words that really should be in a dictionary, like epiphamatic and integritous), he is a sincere quester after home truths. Plus, when it comes to discussing sudden fame, he's got more than his share of the good sense some Southerners call mother wit. "You concede the fact that you'll come unhinged a little bit, but what counts is how quick and how well you recover," he says. "I'm sitting here thinking I feel real solid in my shoes. I'm crazy, but I'm not reckless. I'm a bit weird, but I'm not clinically insane. I feel focused on what I want to do, but it's like the day I had to deliver Jake's summation in the trial [in A Time to Kill] – admitting that I feared it, and then going, 'You've got my permission to fear it, buddy.' It's all right to do that. I'm not naive by any means. I'm very savvy and intuitive. But I have a very trusting view, and I'm not ever going to lose that. Because that's exactly what makes me tick."

"What I see in Matthew," says Joel Schumacher, "is something that we haven't had in a long time. He fills a kind of void. For the last few years, there's been this trend of young leading men where they're . . . they're sort of wanna-be Seattle-grunge-stocking-cap, smashing hotel rooms, chain-smoking poseurs, with less acting and more attitude. There's a dozen people that fit into that category. You wouldn't want to put your life in their hands. You wouldn't want them to be your lawyer in a courtroom when you're fecing the gas chamber because, first of all, you wouldn't know if they'd show up. Secondly, they'd probably be in contempt in about five minutes."

While Schumacher and Grisham exercised their contractual right to veto each other's choices for the role of Jake Brigance, Bullock waited patiently. Woody Harrelson was vetoed by the author, whose first choice, Kevin Costner, wanted a bigger piece of the project than Warner Bros. would give. Then, as the much-reported McConaughey canon has it, the actor snapped everybody's suspenders with a screen test. Schumacher told Bullock he wanted the younger actor just after she'd seen Boys on the Side (in which McConaughey often resembles a length of knotty pine). Bullock recalls, "I said, 'If it's a strong, honest actor, it's my privilege to be opposite him.' I know Kevin [Spacey, as the prosecutor who combats Jake] and Samuel [L. Jackson, as the revenge killer Jake defends] felt privileged. Matthew is incredibly grounded, and anyone who is around him feels it."

It's not just Bullock and Schumacher who are putting their money on McConaughey. Director Richard Link-later found McConaughey curiously crucial to Dazed and Confused. "When he came in and auditioned for me," recalls Linklater, "it was probably the first film audition he had ever been on. I didn't know that. He just came in like, 'Hey, how are you doing?' He has that quality that's very rare – he knows who he is. There's a sincere, truthful quality. You think of what Paul Newman must have been like in the '50s." Has Linklater noticed a Newmanesque amusement hiding just below the surface in McConaughey's eyes and mouth? "That's the intriguing thing," says Linklater. "I'm doing this movie Newton Boys with him soon, in which he's a good guy, but a bank robber. He can be the anti-hero. Wooderson is a slimeball, but people love him.

"He wasn't Wooderson at all when he came in for the audition – he was too good-looking. He said, 'I'm not this guy, but I know this guy.' So he took a step back, shrugged his shoulders like an athlete would, his eyes kind of narrowed – a little stoned, like – a certain swagger came over him, he lost about an inch, and he's a new guy, right in front of me, a 30-second dissolve into a new person. I'll never forget it. I just said, 'Hey, man, you are this guy.'"

"I figured out the other day," says McConaughey over a contraband Kirin, "who that guy was. He's the image of my middle brother, Patrick, when I was 10 years old. Not really him, but who I thought my middle brother was at certain moments in my life when I was 10."

Middle brother Patrick, 33, now makes his living in the same way as both his late daddy, Jim, and older brother Rooster (né Michael), 42: selling pipe to Texas oil drillers. If the marvelously loquacious Rooster isn't unhinged, he is swinging pretty loosely. Rooster recalls the days Matthew speaks of, when brother Patrick "had a golf scholarship but wasn't doing too good in school, and Patrick's going, 'Oh, I just have too many subjects.' And my dad said, 'I'll tell you what, son: If you fail any more classes, next year you get to take one course. I'll give you a choice of four. All you got to do is take one.' Patrick says, 'Well, hell, I can handle that.' And Dad says, 'Yeah, son – Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines.'"

"We have two rules in the family," says Matthew. "Don't lie, and don't say, 'I can't.' " He recalls this by way of speaking about the scene in A Time to Kill where friends beg Jake to quit the case after Ku Klux Klan thugs torch his house: "That helped me make sense of that scene. A lot of what Jake was thinking was, 'No, no. I started this – I'm not quitting. I'm taking my chances. I'm not going to stop now and cut my losses going down. If I'm down, all right. Beat me. But you'd better make sure I cannot get up.'"

Jim McConaughey was born in Mississippi in 1929 and raised in Morgan City, La., and was 6 feet 2 inches and 220 pounds when he started playing defensive end for college coaching legend Bear Bryant (with whom he shared a nickname) at the University of Kentucky. He moved on before Bear did and played his last two years at the University of Houston, winning a watch as the conference's most improved player before being drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1953. Before long, though, he was back in Texas with his bride, Kay, ending up in Uvalde (population today: 15,000). "Matthew was an accident," insists Rooster. "Shit, that son of a bitch, he's the one that got all the looks. He got the smile – hell, I got crooked teeth, we couldn't afford braces. Oh, that sorry bastard. Now he's famous, I never got so many calls to my pipe business. They don't want to buy nothing. All they want to do is talk about my goddamn brother. We're going to tell 'em, "When you buy something, we'll send you autographed pictures of the son of a bitch.' " A beat. "I'm just playing, you know."

Indeed, it's somehow clear that if you or some stranger spoke ill of Matthew, Rooster might well take your arm off and beat you to death with it, but, says Rooster, "We're steadily, you know, giving each other a hard time. We're all so loud. People that don't know us, they come into our house – it's so loud you've got to get out."

Matthew was born into more noise than money. "My childhood was nothing but one pair of cutoffs, no shoes, no shirt," he says. He's sure that if he leaves that all behind, he will lose whatever it is that he thinks is his motor: "To get my resources, I have to hang. I have to know and be in touch with and keep the pulse of every walk of life, man. Some of my craziness comes from that Huckleberry Finn childhood in Mother Nature. Then there's another part that's just kind of off the wall – just kind of a tweaked way of looking at things. I find a lot of things to be humorous that other people don't think are humorous."

When Bullock brought McConaughey out onto a Malibu, Calif., beach to shoot a scene for Making Sandwiches, a short she was directing, the paparazzi arrived. She nearly burst into tears for having led them almost to the door of his beach house. Bullock recalls, "He just said, 'Ah, bless your heart.' . . . So long as we can laugh about it. You just sort of get sucked up in his joy."

With the late-'70s oil boom, Jim McConaughey left behind driving oil trucks and running a Texaco station for selling pipe. He prospered in the boom, but the address of father and third-born son changed for a period. Matthew says, "My dad and I went up and lived in a trailer park for a while until he got everything settled down." (Though some family friends say Jim and Kay had periods of strife and separation, she soon joined them.)

Early on, big Jim had trouble with a union strike, recalls Rooster: "He went in there and broke those union lines, in those big yards up there, and all these people respected him. I mean, he carried an ax handle. He broke it, and then he carried a gun. They were all going to gang up on him one day. A big guy came up. Dad said, 'Hold on just a minute' stepped off that porch and knocked him out cold. He was a gentle man, but he was a bad son of a gun. Nobody you'd want to mess with. He wasn't scared of nothing. Or I guess he was, but he never let us know." "

He started working out there," recalls Matthew, "and in a year he had his own yard, a whole factory. He had testers and drillers, probably 50 people working under him in the yard. So it was just a booming time." Dad and a couple of partners shared a company jet in those days. "Then Mom came up and – Texas in the late, 70s was really something. It's one of the events in American history, I think. I mean, it was so big. And then it went under."

Matthew had taken a year off after high school to live and work in Australia, and he returned to enter the University of Texas at Austin with the idea of becoming a lawyer. "But I had been getting a little anxious about what I was going to do with my life," he says. "Then, the end of my sophomore year, I talked with my buddy Rob Bindler, who was at New York University film school." Meanwhile, Rooster weighed in: "I told him if he became a lawyer, I wouldn't have nothing to do with him. Hot damn, who likes a lawyer? That and ever having an earring in his ear."

Thus, Matthew McConaughey became a film major, directing, for example, a short film called Chicano Chariots. More recently he made The Rebel, about "an arbitrary, small-time rule breaker who thinks he's like a big-time criminal." Before long came the evening when his then-girlfriend, Toni Ceterra, said, " 'Let's go to the Hyatt and have a drink.' I wanted to stay home that night. She said, 'No, let's go out.' " After quite a few drinks with chance acquaintance Don Phillips, the casting agent for Linklater, McConaughey was all but signed up for Dazed and Confused. "Toni and I have a running joke," says McConaughey. "This thing where she's going, 'Commission, baby, commission.'"

A piece of McConaughey wouldn't be a bad thing. "There was a certain change where I was halfway through the shooting of A Time to Kill," the actor remembers. "A script came to me, and they said, 'We'll let you play this part, and we'll pay you a million dollars.' And I was going, 'How? Why? What's this about?'"

McConaughey has his own method for making sure that fame doesn't knock his dick in the dirt. He places a high value on his knack for seeing trouble coming. "I remember my mother going into menopause," he says. "We all said: 'Now, Mom, let's admit that you're going to be moody and have headaches, so when it happens, it doesn't hurt as much. We're not short or quick or impatient, and you're not either, because we're conceding it before it happens.' It's something about claiming it, claiming it to come."

Still, success has put McConaughey in line for problems, major and trivial. Take the beard he's growing for Contact, the scientific thriller he'll be shooting soon for Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis with co-star Jodie Foster. Might the studio object to covering up his newly famous mug? "Whatever is best for this character is what will be," says McConaughey, laughing at the looks issue. "I can't live up to that. I wake up in the morning, and I have bags under my eyes, man. I'm not going to not take out the trash because the paparazzi will be there and get a shot of me without makeup. Kiss my ass."

McConaughey was shooting Dazed and Confused around Austin on the sad day in 1992 when word came that Jim McConaughey had died. Jim had told his wife to have a good party of a wake, and as Rooster recalls, "We all just told big stories on him, one after another." It wasn't even dark yet when Kay told them that the end came right after a bout of lovemaking. "That would be the top story," says Rooster. "We couldn't top that."

McConaughey reported back to the set of Dazed and Confused, remembers Linklater, as "the same guy we knew." McConaughey had become the heart of the operation. "The whole crew, from his first lines, was looking at each other – 'OK, that's the movie we're making.' The whole thing kicked into gear."

After McConaughey's return, Linklater says, "Matthew, on the football field at the end of the movie, delivers what to me is the whole movie. He said, 'It's really about living, isn't it?' And that's the scene where he says, 'You just got to keep livin', man.' Basically, you've got to answer only to yourself in this world."

For Sandra Bullock, the most memorable moment of making A Time to Kill came after the screening for the cast. "We had just seen the film together," she says. "And then, OK, I'm crying in front of a bunch of people, because Matthew had made a very moving performance."

"I was crying," admits McConaughey. "Basically from seeing the start of the trial summation till the end of the movie."

Bullock picks up her account: "But all of a sudden I got this really overwhelming feeling that he really missed his dad. When you know somebody, and you know how much they deserve certain things in their life, all of sudden you can just feel a void. But you just have the feeling his dad's watching. They're such a close family, and there's such a strong presence of his father around anyway . . . ."

He knows what he wants to do in his work. He wants to make good points and send out good messages. They're not always going to be pretty ones, but they're ones that need to be said. He doesn't mind getting in peoples' faces. And on his next movie, if Matthew wants to grow a mustache down to his chin and hair down to the floor, I have a feeling the studio is going to listen. He's going to be fine. He's going to be so fine it's scary."