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Time To Thrill Matthew Mcconaughey May Be The Next Big Thing, Thanks To ‘A Time To Kill’

Matthew Gilbert The Boston Globe

This particular Next Big Thing lodges chewing tobacco in his cheek and chug-a-lugs coffee, black. He has movie-star good looks by way of Longview, Texas, and he sports a gusher of a drawl that makes Brad Pitt and Keanu Reeves sound downright pretentious.

His hero is Paul Newman, a k a Butch Cassidy and Hud, and he greets interviewers with a good-ol’-boy finesse that’s like a little black gold in the desert of movie promotion. Also: He has an older brother whose name is Rooster.

This particular Next Big Thing is a very Southern boy named Matthew McConaughey, and beginning Wednesday you will know him as the lead in one of the summer’s most commercial properties, “A Time to Kill,” based on the John Grisham novel.

At 26, he is living out the classic Hollywood “A Face in the Crowd” fantasy, plucked from the netherworld of unknown supporting players to carry a $40 million movie with the supporting cast of Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Ashley Judd and Donald and Kiefer Sutherland.

And now, like a skunk on garbage day, he is being handed one tasty morsel after another: a lush cover profile in the August Vanity Fair, the male lead opposite Jodie Foster in Robert Zemeckis’ next movie, “Contact,” and private audiences with personal favorites like John Mellencamp, Oliver Stone and Paul Newman, who advised him to “make your word mean your word” and “go give ‘em hell.”

In other words, Matthew McConaughey is about to become a household name - if you can figure out how to say it. “That’s been the subject of some serious mispronunciation,” McConaughey says, picking up the tape recorder to accentuate his articulation: “It’s May-thyoo Mc-Con-a-HAY. It’s Mc-Con-a-HAY.”

Today, McConaughey looks very unlike his character in “A Time to Kill,” a Deep South lawyer named Jake Brigance who defends a black man who murdered the rednecks who raped his daughter. With a straggly, three-week-old beard and a roughhewn tan, he is more of a mellow-yellow cowboy than a lawyer, or an actor, with a cause. We’re all in our own movies, and Matthew McConaughey’s movie is definitely a Western - a hippie Western in which a turquoise bead choker stands in nicely for a Stetson hat.

“It hasn’t really knocked the wind out of me,” he says about his career joy ride. “But each day I go, ‘Wow,’ a bunch. It’s all pretty damn neat right now. The past few months, every day is a new buzz.”

He says he expects it all to hit him when he sees the Vanity Fair cover, photographed by Herb Ritts, in a grocery store near his Malibu house: “Then I’ll go, ‘Look at that.”’ How did McConaughey become the “event” on which Wednesday’s opening of “A Time to Kill” hinges? For one thing, brass.

Last spring, he was known only for his small, effective performances in “Dazed and Confused” as an older slacker hanging out with high schoolers, and “Boys on the Side,” in which he played a cop named Abraham Lincoln. Cast by director Joel Schumacher in a supporting role in “A Time to Kill,” the confident McConaughey approached Schumacher to say he thought he should play Jake Brigance if Brad Pitt wasn’t going to.

Schumacher, who shared casting approval with Grisham, agreed.

“John and I had been through a year of not agreeing. He did not like anyone I suggested, I did not like anyone he suggested, and we had been through everyone on the planet Earth,” Schumacher says.

Names considered: Brad Pitt, Woody Harrelson, Val Kilmer, Keanu Reeves - “everyone from Macaulay Culkin to Milton Berle,” Schumacher says.

So on Mother’s Day 1995, Schumacher flew McConaughey to Los Angeles from the Texas set of John Sayles’ “Lone Star,” in which he has a small role, for a secret screen test in a small studio.

“I didn’t want people to think that if he didn’t get the role, he wasn’t a fine actor, that he’d failed a test,” Schumacher says about the low-profile operation. “The next day, I sent the tape to John, and he loved it. He said, ‘Who is this guy? Where did you find him? He’s great.”’

Indeed, advance press for the movie has confirmed Grisham’s and Schumacher’s faith in the actor, who has never had an acting lesson, singling out McConaughey’s performance for its intelligence, its integrity and, of course, its sexiness.

“On the surface, Matthew can appear to be that perfect boy next door that you want your daughter to marry,” says Schumacher. “But if you knew him for 10 minutes, you’d lock your daughter up, because he’s got a Texas wild boy streak.”

Fittingly, McConaughey has a dog he named Miss Hud, after Newman’s turn as just such a Texas ne’er-do-well in the 1963 movie. Once Grisham and Schumacher made McConaughey the lead (Kiefer Sutherland took the newly vacant supporting role), the best-selling writer met with the unknown actor for some bonding. While movies have been made of Grisham’s “The Firm,” “The Pelican Brief” and “The Client,” which was also directed by Schumacher, Grisham has said that “A Time to Kill” is his favorite and most autobiographical novel.

“We rode around in my truck for a while and talked very generally,” McConaughey says. “We talked about life, religion, himself, his background, my background.” But in the movie, McConaughey emphasizes, he “wasn’t trying to play John Grisham.”

On the movie set, McConaughey cultivated peace of mind by zeroing in on the work and ignoring the pressures of having to hold a movie together.

“Each day, I gained confidence as I went,” he says. “Working with Samuel (Jackson) and Sandy (Bullock) and Ashley Judd and Kevin Spacey and Donald Sutherland and Brenda Fricker, you get confirmations to yourself that, OK, this works. You come off a scene and you both look at each other and nod. That’s confirmation that this works, this is good.”

Still, watching the finished movie with Grisham and some of his friends “was a bit overwhelming,” he says.

“Seemed like it lasted for six hours to me. Six months came crashing in, and in every scene I was dissecting things. Then, the second night I saw it, I laughed and cried and thought, man, that is a wonderful story.”

On the middle finger of his right hand, McConaughey wears a gold ring branded with a thick “M.” The ring belonged to his father, a former Green Bay Packer who sold pipe and couplings to the oil business before he died in 1992.

“It’s a meltdown of Mom and Dad’s class rings and gold from Mother’s teeth,” he says.

When McConaughey talks about his Texas background - born in Uvalde, raised in Longview, went to college in Austin, has two older brothers - a nostalgic glaze comes over his eyes.

“My upbringing was very much about grades, because my mother was a teacher. Mom was worried about grades, Pop looked at your behavior.”

Was he dazed and confused during his high school years?

“I had acne out to here,” he says, holding a hand 2 inches in front of his face. “And I was just starting to understand that high school was kind of Mickey Mouse. My oldest brother, Rooster, who’s 43, grew up in a time where you graduated from high school, and you were all set. When my generation came through, high school didn’t do anything, and neither did graduating from college, with whatever GPA. And I was just getting privy to that.

“I was in the in crowd, so to call it. I had friends across town at the other school. I had black friends. I had Mexican friends. I had friends in the smoking section. I had some nerd friends. I had friends across the board.”

After high school, he went to the University of Texas, where he became a psychology-philosophy major headed for law school.

“I wasn’t sleeping well with that idea,” he says. “I got into the idea that, man, I’ve got some stories I want to tell.”

He started keeping a story-concept diary and drifted far away from the prospect of becoming a lawyer, at least off-screen.

“Then I found this book, ‘The Greatest Salesman in the World,’ which gave me a little bit of impetus to rip up my course schedule and go to director’s school.”

While he was studying film, he met the casting director of “Dazed and Confused,” who offered him an acting job.

“For being my initial film, that was right on the money,” he says, lavishing praise on director Richard Linklater. “I learned a lot about the giving side on ‘Dazed and Confused.”’

McConaughey liked acting enough to put his directing aspirations on a back burner. He landed parts in “Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Boys on the Side” and “Lone Star,” and he has a role forthcoming in Bill Murray’s fall movie, “Larger Than Life,” in which he plays a speed-freak trucker named Tip Tucker.

His family, he says, is beginning to react to his career. His mother is “digging it and starting to understand what all’s going on. It’s very new for me, so me translating it to her helps me understand what’s going on, too.”

Rooster, too, is starting to catch on.

“You oughta hear him,” says McConaughey. “‘Gosh darn it, Matthew. Everybody calls and I can’t do any business anymore. I say “This is Rooster,” and they say, “Oh, Matthew’s brother.” Everybody knows me as Matthew’s brother now.’ He’s kidding me, going on and on about that.”

Naturally, where there is overnight fame, there is the danger of flavor-of-the-month syndrome. Last year, Julia Ormond, the British actress who was loudly hailed by Hollywood and the media as the next Audrey Hepburn, saw her career quickly devolve into critical backlash and a series of duds, including the remake of “Sabrina.” McConaughey faces the same possibility of fast public rejection.

He says he’s planning to keep his eye on the work and not the hype. He likes to come up with one-liners to help him make sense of his life, and right now his motto is “less impressed and more involved.”

“This is all impressive for me. I’m saying, ‘Man, look at this’ all the time. To go read with Jodie Foster and Bob Zemeckis! I was really nervous and anxious - the good butterflies, but like really whooo. Just to meet them, before I read, was like wow, look who I’m sitting here with!

“At the same time, I can’t sit there and be a spectator with what’s going on in my life. Then what - I’m just on a leash? I’ve got to be involved in it, have a point of view on it, look it all in the eye.”

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