POPULAR CULTURE IS DETERMINED BY THE POPULACE. No matter what America’s corporate entertainment machine puts in the theaters, the public can always reject it. But in this age of $100 million budgets, the movie companies do everything they can—surveys, focus groups, demographics studies, micromanaged ad campaigns—to determine what will put paying bodies in the cineplex seats. Sometimes they actually get it right, and a solid product and marketing align in such a way that the studios just know something is a hit. Or that someone is a star. For while most moviegoers don’t know what he looks like and his big turn is only now hitting theaters, the verdict has been in for months: Matthew McConaughey is a star.
In April the 26-year-old Uvalde native, a veteran of Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused ensemble, was one of three up-and-comers featured on the cover of Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood issue. He was the one who wasn’t Tim Roth or Leonardo DiCaprio. The reason for this prime placement was McConaughey’s unexpected casting in A Time to Kill, the latest adaptation of a book by John Grisham, America’s best-selling thriller writer. The racially charged legal cliff-hanger turns on the rape and beating of a ten-year-old African American girl; when her father enacts a murderous revenge upon the white men responsible, his fate becomes a matter of life-or-death-penalty for his lawyer, Jake Brigance. The heroic, conflicted role of the young defense attorney was one that every youngish actor coveted, so the movie world was caught off guard when the plum went to someone with such a slim résumé. Hollywood being Hollywood, the town recovered from its surprise and immediately coronated the actor with “It Boy” status.
Here’s a sample of Matthew McConaughey’s press clippings these past few months: When the most important talent agency in town, Creative Artists ( CAA), parted ways with Sylvester Stallone and Kevin Costner, the editor in chief of Variety said its relationship with McConaughey helped make up for those losses. Grisham (who, granted, is biased) described him as a cross between a young Newman (a McConaughey hero) and a young Brando. Not to be outdone, the New York Times added Gregory Peck to the mix. And Vanity Fair made an unprecedented move—Matthew McConaughey, though not yet a household name, is on the cover, solo, just four months after his previous cameo. And he’s not even pregnant or naked.
McConaughey (pronounced “Muh- con-uh-hay”) is just enjoying the play, especially when the phone calls come, promising no-audition roles and dollar figures he has never seen before. “I’m looking at these offers and going, ‘Really?’” he says, chuckling. “I have more options, and options are power, which is good if you use it in the right way.”
McConaughey knows he caught a break, but he never doubted it would come eventually. When A Time to Kill was screened for test audiences, the response was 500 “excellents” out of 509 cards, a staggering, near-impossible level of approval. “The research people had never seen anything like it,” Joel Schumacher, the movie’s director, says. Previously responsible for, among other things, St. Elmo’s Fire with a then-unknown Demi Moore and Flatliners with a then relatively unknown Julia Roberts, Schumacher is the man who made McConaughey’s breakthrough possible. A year later, he couldn’t be more effusive about his choice: “I don’t think Matthew was lucky to get this role,” the director says. “I think I was lucky to get Matthew.” Pretty soon, lots of other producers, directors, and studio execs will be saying the same thing.
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY IS, as he puts it, “in business mode.” It’s April, and the release of A Time to Kill is three months away. But it’s no longer acceptable for an actor to leave his career in other people’s hands. He can’t just show up, read his lines, and spend the rest of his time chaperoning starlets and avoiding paparazzi.
A few months ago he switched agencies, from William Morris to the more high-powered CAA, and he has brought his friend Gus Gustawes, a UT buddy with a graduate business degree, out to run his production company. Their operation is j.k. livin productions, named for one of McConaughey’s lines in Dazed and Confused (“You just gotta keep on livin’”). Eventually they will produce outside projects in addition to serving as the primary vehicle for McConaughey’s work as a writer-director and an actor. A studio is bound to bankroll their venture soon, but at the moment the two men are on their own, taking two or three meetings a day and working out of a living room littered with red paperbound scripts bearing the CAA logo.
Today is Sunday, however, so while they still answer the phone “j.k. livin productions” out of habit, this is an afternoon for peeling off shirts and cracking open Bud Lights by the beach, which happens to be the back yard. McConaughey’s house is not plush, nor is it on a truly decadent shoreline stretch, but it still makes you realize why people live in Los Angeles, the picture-window Pacific view on a cool blue-sky day making up for a whole lot of smog, gridlock, and narcissism.
McConaughey is hosting a small gathering of neighbors and friends. It’s a laid-back crowd, even if one of the gang—a cute, slender, vaguely familiar brunette McConaughey introduces as “Sandy”—is more or less the world’s biggest young female star. Sandra Bullock (or “Redblood,” as McConaughey calls her) is also in A Time to Kill. She plays a law student who provides McConaughey’s character with legal assistance and romantic temptation.
With a blue bandanna tied around his head, aviator shades masking his deep blue eyes, and a wispy goatee, McConaughey resembles the original FBI sketch of the Unabomber. He takes exception to this comparison, but his friends rib him about it anyway. A plug of Levi Garrett chaw is visible in his upper lip. When he was briefly involved with another A Time to Kill co-star, Kentucky girl Ashley Judd, they