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