Matthew McConaughey is charismatic. It's obvious and oft repeated, but true. The actor with a distinctly Texan twinkle in his eye and drawl from his grin manages to draw the audience to himself onscreen fairly consistently, whether he is at the film's center or on its periphery. His career has seen some highs ("Amistad"), some lows ("Surfer, Dude"), and some up-for-debate rom-com bows ("How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days"), but McConaughey has persevered onto a recent string of risky, off-the-beaten-path roles and giving one of the bravest and not-so-coincidentally most critically acclaimed performances of the year in "Dallas Buyers Club."
Over two decades ago (according to McConaughey's March interview on NPR), the 23 year-old University of Texas film student was out at a bar with his girlfriend at the time, getting a few free drinks off of a classmate who was bartending, and met casting director Don Phillips. Four hours later and after they closed down the bar, Phillips turned and asked McConaughey, "You ever acted before?" This exchange led to a script six hours later and an audition in which he nearly didn't get the part. According to his interview last year with the Chicago Tribune, with McConaughey's combed hair, ironed shirt and clean-shaven face, the director said, "You're not this guy." Not so easily disheartened, McConaughey pressed further, "No, but I know who this guy is," and went on to slouch into character convincingly enough to get role. The director was Richard Linklater, the "guy" was Dave Wooderson, and the film was "Dazed and Confused."
At the film's 20th anniversary NYFF screening earlier this month, Linklater corroborated this, saying his initial reaction to McConaughey was that he was "too good-looking" but after the actor "settled in," he saw that "Matthew was so perfect when he fell into that character" of the government employee still living out his high school glory days and preying on high school girls ("I get older, they stay the same age."). According to Linklater, McConaughey based his performance of Wooderson partially off of one of his older brothers and Jim Morrison, with the latter being the specific inspiration for the now-iconic "All right, all right, all right" line (which McConaughey recently quoted in his HFA acceptance speech last week).
During the same Q&A, co-star Parker Posey shared that on-set, McConaughey had a certain aura around him, enough of one that the film's makeup artist declared to Posey, "He's going to be a big star," and on first sight, she immediately asked Linklater if she could be in a scene with him (which is how Darla ended up at the Emporium pool hall and, with a little more back story, greeting Wooderson with a slap on the derriere). For a first film role and in a supporting part, McConaughey sure left his mark, receiving praise from critics and audiences alike. Through his off-the-charts likeability, McConaughey managed to carve a place for a very seedy character in the hearts of high school nostalgists everywhere and to begin to pave his own way into movies.
Stuck a few years on the Hollywood sidelines (including a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role in Angels in the Outfield), McConaughey made a bigger name for himself in the late ‘90s with highlights including Joel Schumacher's legal thriller "A Time To Kill," Steven Spielberg's historical drama "Amistad" and Robert Zemeckis' sci-fi "Contact." In each of these roles, McConaughey exuded a rugged idealism which was neither naïve nor delusional but convincingly portrayed the character's conviction. This ability combined with his chiseled good (but not too pretty) looks and six-pack parlayed itself into a few higher-profile studio roles in would-be blockbusters and romantic comedies. Or as William Friedkin (who would later direct McConaughey in "Killer Joe") said in an interview with the A.V. Club, "If you're that good-lucking, they just want you to be that good-looking and make love convincingly to the leading lady." Unfortunately, these became his trademarks throughout the 2000's alongside gratuitous paparazzi snaps of him exercising while shirtless. (I'd like to blame this on a curse cast on him during a 2000 appearance in the "Sex and the City" episode "Escape from New York," but no one else is buying it.)
After the 2009 bomb "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," McConaughey decided to take a break from rom-coms (though never having officially "retired" from the genre) and looked towards smaller, riskier projects. Going back to his lawyerly roots, he played a defense attorney in Brad Furman's "The Lincoln Lawyer" and a district attorney in Richard Linklater's Bernie (their third film together after 1998's "The Newton Boys"). Having matured out of his heyday of young, earnest lawyers, a more tarnished McConaughey brought an admirable combination of pragmatism and dark wit to both roles that had not been showcased in previous performances. With the former being a surprise hit and the latter giving him some more critical cred (winning the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Supporting Actor, both marking his first-time nominations from those bodies), McConaughey decided to keep the momentum going on this "renaissance."