Before Dazed and Confused came along, Matthew McConaughey was just a popular kid from a middle-class family, born in the small town of Uvalde, Texas, and raised in Longview. His mother, Kay “K-Mac” McConaughey, was a kindergarten teacher and a former beauty queen. His father, Jim, was a former NFL draft pick of the Green Bay Packers. Jim ran an oil pipe supply business. The two older McConaughey brothers worked for their dad, and Matthew originally planned to become a lawyer; that changed after an epiphany that led him to film school at the University of Texas, with the surprising support of his parents. When he tells the story of how he got cast in his first movie, he makes it seem like a matter of randomness and good fortune. But pretending that he just got lucky is a good way to disguise his own cunning and resolve.
The more you learn about how McConaughey ended up in Dazed, and how he developed the character of Wooderson, the more it seems like his path was not only intentional, it was the result of savvy choices. He brought a nonthreatening charm to Wooderson, an ancillary character that could’ve easily skewed dark. He’s a sleazeball, but you can’t easily dismiss him as a predator. He’s the kind of guy who has located the tipping point between bad jokes and actual dangerous behavior and has decided to stay just on the right side of that line.
McConaughey’s approach to Wooderson helped transform the character from a tiny role into the movie’s single most memorable personality. The character would change the arc of McConaughey’s life as an actor. Now, it’s often hard to imagine anyone other than McConaughey playing Wooderson, but that connection wasn’t immediate. When he first auditioned, he seemed wrong for the role. The following story of how he got it is adapted from Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused by Melissa Maerz.
Matthew McConaughey: Everyone has a different story about how they got into this business. What I did, I went into the right bar at the right time and met the right guy.
Sam Lawrence: You gotta put yourself back a long time ago. You know how there was a phase when, like, the top floor of a hotel would be a bar/restaurant with glass that looked over the city, and that was a cool place to go? That was the Hyatt in 1992.
I was 22, and there was a cocktail waitress named Toni Soteros, and she said to me one day, “I’m dating a guy named Matthew. He’s coming in tonight. Don’t be a dick.” So I’m bartending, and this guy walks in and I instantly hate this motherfucker, because he is gorgeous. He just immediately makes you feel not attractive because of how attractive he is.
I was totally ignoring him and somehow I mentioned something at the bar about Raising Arizona, and her boyfriend just immediately launches into this thing. He had memorized most of the fucking movie!
We start talking and he’s like, “Yeah, I’m finishing up film school.” And I was like, okay, he’s not a dick. We just hit it off. We started hanging out that summer like a shit ton. You know when you’re a kid and you just spend a ton of time together over the summer and then you go back to school and everyone goes into another world? It was that kind of relationship. He can’t remember it, though.
Matthew McConaughey: Geez, really? I don’t remember that.
Sam Lawrence: One night, a guy comes up to the bar and sits down. He was a drinker. He got really wasted the first night he was there. As he’s talking with me, he just starts bragging. Like, “Oh, I’m a casting agent . . .” And I was just like, Blechhhh, really?
Don Phillips: I’d always stay at the Four Seasons. Wherever I went, I always went to the best hotels and flew first class. I really felt like I deserved it! I had already been to Austin to interview a lot of the local talent, but we still had small parts that needed to be cast locally. So I fly back to Austin, and the Four Seasons says, “There’s no room in the inn. It’s graduation weekend at UT. So we’re going to have to put you up at the Hyatt.” If I’d have been at the Four Seasons, I’d have never met Matthew.
Sam Lawrence: Don’s like, “I’m working on a movie. It’s gonna be this generation’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” And I’m thinking, that sounds like a stupid plan. And he’s like, “I’ve got almost all the parts cast, but there’s a couple of remnants that we’re looking for.”
I called Matthew at home, like, “Hey, dude, there’s a guy in here that you should probably meet. He’s casting for a movie.” And he was like, “Nope, I’m stoned. I’m in my underwear.”
Matthew McConaughey: No. I’ve never worn underwear. I think Toni and I just went to the bar because we could get free drinks there.
Don Phillips: In walks McConaughey with this absolutely drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend. I didn’t give a shit about him. I don’t look at guys. I like women. So I said to the bartender, “Wow! That’s a beautiful girl there.” And he says, “Oh, that’s my friend Matthew McConaughey’s girlfriend.”
Well, that’s nice! I’ll have another drink. Then about 15 minutes later, Matthew saunters down to the bar. “Hi! I’m Matthew McConaughey, and this is my friend the bartender. He told me that you’re in the movie business?”
Matthew McConaughey: Was I going at him sort of opportunistically? Sure. But was I also interested in what he was doing? Yeah. If he’s in town producing a film, that was a big thing to be doing in Austin.
Don Phillips: When you’re guys and you’re drinking, you talk about two things: girls and sports. Just so happens that I’m a major golfer and Matthew’s a major golfer. So we start talking about golf. And I talk loud.
What happens with guys, when you’re talking about golf, it’s like measuring the size of your dick. What you’re really doing is talking about how great you are. And each drink, you get better than the last drink, you know? You drive the ball further. You putt better.
So Matthew and I are telling these great freakin’ golf stories, and we’re just enjoying the shit out of each other, and all of a sudden a couple of hours goes by, and that poor girlfriend was sitting at the end of the bar all by herself.
Matthew said to me, “Excuse me...” and then he went down and gave her money for a taxi. He sent her home.
Matthew McConaughey: Some three or four hours later, we are mock-playing a 17-hole golf course we had both played. And we’re doing it very demonstratively and loudly. And lubricatedly.
Sam Lawrence: They were making a scene, showing the mechanics of their golf swing and knocking stuff around, and I think my manager, Herb, may have said something to Don like, “I need you to go down to your room now.”
Don Phillips: He kicked us out, and I said, “Why don’t you come to my room and we’ll smoke a joint?” So we go to my room and Matthew goes, “The nerve of that guy, throwin’ you out of the bar! You know what I’m gonna do? Gimme the phone.” So he picks up the phone, calls the manager, and says, “You know what you just did? That’s Don Phillips! You kicked him out of the bar! You owe him an apology.” And of course the manager says, “We’ll send you a bottle up, sir.” And he sends us another bottle of vodka.
Matthew McConaughey: No, I didn’t call the manager. The truth is, there’s what Don said, what he said I said, and what really happened.
Don Phillips: Anyway, I’m saying to myself, this good-looking kid is defending me? I never had anybody stick up for me like that. And this is the way my mind thinks: If you do something for me, I immediately want to do something back for you.
Matthew McConaughey: We’re driving home. I think he’s going to drop me off at my place. I’m pretty sure we pulled out a joint on the way home, in the cab, and it was around then that he’s like, “Hey, you ever done any acting?” And I said, “A little bit.”
And he goes, “Well, tomorrow morning”—or this morning, because it was already in the a.m.—“Come by this address, I’ll have a script waiting for you. It’s a small part in here, but it’s about this guy who’s older and he’s still hanging out in high school; he likes the chickies. And you might be just right for the part.”
Monnie Wills: Those guys came back to the house at 4:00 in the morning and woke me up. They were wasted and bumping into shit and looking to see if they had any more liquor.
Scott Wheeler: I’m in bed, and they’re being loud and crazy, and I’m just like, “What the fuck is going on?” I go down there, and Matthew’s like, “This is Don Phillips. He did Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” I’m just like, What is this old guy doing hanging out with a bunch of 20-year-olds? I remember Don saying, “I’m gonna make this boy famous.”
Richard Linklater: The story of Matthew getting discovered, it’s so different than, like, the story of Lana Turner getting discovered at Schwab’s drugstore. People think Matthew was in a bar and he just happened to be talking to a guy who happened to be a casting director. But it’s like, no. Matthew knew Don was in town casting movies, and Matthew went over to him. He’s the one who introduced himself. He grabbed that opportunity. Matthew has a very methodical side to him. He’s a very clear thinker in how to go from A to B to C. He’s not just bouncing around. People want to believe it was just like, “Hey, you! You should be in movies!” because they want to believe it could happen to them.
Matthew McConaughey: Well, I went down, 9:30 that morning, and there was the script waiting for me with a handwritten note from Don. At that time, I have a buddy who was at New York University film school, Robb Bindler, who ended up directing Hands on a Hardbody. I went and worked with my buddy Robb on this part, which was, as I remember it, three lines.
S.R. Bindler: Most people call me Robb, but I go by S.R. Bindler professionally. I was in Dallas for summer break, and Matthew drove up from Austin. My memory is, the audition was one line: “Say, man, you got a joint? Well, it’d be a lot cooler if you did.”
Richard Linklater: From my travels, I knew a guy in Montana who used to say that: “It’d be a lot cooler if you did.”
S.R. Bindler: Matthew was behind the wheel of a car, so I just set up a chair and told him to play like he had one hand up on the steering wheel. And we started to run it, and it was good, but it wasn’t it. \
I was like, “Okay, when you think about pot, when you think about Mary Jane, think about sex, like you’re physically turned on by it.” And he just got this little grin, and he did the line, and when I picked myself off the floor, ’cause I was cracking up, I go, “Bingo.”
Matthew McConaughey: It was in that two weeks workin’ with Robb that I found who Wooderson was. Wooderson was who I thought my brother Pat was.
When I was 11, his Z28 broke down, so Mama was gonna pick him up from high school, and I’m in the back of the car. We’re drivin’ around, lookin’ for him, and I look out the back window, and I see this iconic silhouette of this guy leanin’ against the wall, knee kicked up, in the shade, smokin’ a cigarette. And I almost said, “There’s Pat!” when it hit me that, oh, I’d better not tell Mom that’s him ’cause if she turns around and sees him smokin’ a cigarette, he’s gonna get his ass whooped.
But that image of him, in my 11-year-old eyes, he was 10 feet tall. Nothing cooler. That’s who Wooderson was.
S.R. Bindler: What year was Dazed set in? Seventy-six? Pat came from that generation. He listened to that music.
Matthew McConaughey: When Mom and Dad would go outta town, he’d let me drive his Z28, and we’d rock out to his system. To this day, I’ve never heard a better-sounding system than it sounded to my 11-year-old ears in my hero’s car.
He’d get home at midnight and come wake me up, and I’d run out there in my underwear and get in his car in the driveway, and we’d listen to Nugent, Judas Priest, AC/DC, Zeppelin ’til about three in the morning.
S.R. Bindler: I’ll tell you this, Pat could’ve walked out of his house onto the set of Dazed without passing through hair and makeup.
Matthew McConaughey: He had that great part down the middle, throw his hair back—man, cock of the walk! Shoulders back, kinda leaned back a little bit, the pelvis pushed forward, preceding the chest and the head. P-A-T. You know, Hey, hey, hey, watch the leather, man! He had hot cars. He was funny. He was a great big brother. He’s actually my adopted brother.
S.R. Bindler: There was Pat, and there was Matthew’s other brother, Rooster, who was much older than us.
Rory Cochrane: Rooster’s great. He named his kid Miller Lyte! He got a lifetime supply of beer for it.
Monnie Wills: And then there’s Jim and K-Mac, his parents. They got divorced and remarried and divorced and remarried again.
S.R. Bindler: They were a family of characters, in the best possible way. For the longest time, I didn’t know Pat was adopted. I just flat-out assumed that he was McConaughey blood, because he had a lot of the same characteristics and attributes.
Matthew McConaughey: Pat’s nickname was White Lightning, ’cause he was really fast and he was good with the ladies. And we moved to Longview when the oil boom hit, so he shows up, new school, and the coach is like, “So, what’s your sport?” “Well, I run track. My nickname’s White Lightning.” And he says, “Okay. Meet me down at the track this afternoon.”
Here comes this guy next to him, about six foot two. Big Afro. He lines up with him. Pat’s five nine, five ten at this time. He looks over to this guy and he goes, “Hey, bud.” This guy looks down at him. He goes, “I hope you got your wood screws in, big boy, because I’m about to blow your doors completely fucking off.” And bang! Pat goes off.
It’s a 100-yard dash. Well, the guy beats Pat by like 12 yards. Turned out, the guy got all the way to the final trials in the Olympics for the 100-meter. So Pat, telling this big black guy, “I hope you got your wood screws in, because I’m about to blow your doors completely off.” When I say that when we’re racing in Dazed and Confused? That’s where that comes from!
Jason London: McConaughey calls his car “Melba Toast” in the movie. That was the name of his brother’s car when McConaughey was a kid.
Monnie Wills: Patrick was a fantastic golfer. Could’ve went pro. Pat was able to get a long way on his natural ability, but there’s a point when you gotta have discipline. You’ve gotta work at it. You’ve gotta be willing to put the time in. I don’t think Pat did.
There certainly comes a time where there’s an expectation that you’re gonna do this, and then you just don’t. So I think in some ways Pat was perpetually in that high school era when he was the big shit. I think you see some of that reflected in Wooderson, the sense of, let me try to hold on to this part of life as long as I can.
Shana Scott: I was there when McConaughey auditioned. I hated him. He came in with such swagger, like he owned the joint. And he did, I guess! But at the time, it was very off-putting.
He was good-looking, and he knew it. And it’s like, “We’re all Texans here! Stop it with this accent!” I mean, honestly, just take a step back: if you bumped into him and he acted like he does now, but he wasn’t famous yet? Ugh.
Matthew McConaughey: That first audition, it was like I was going in for a job interview. I’d better shave. I better put on a button-down and tuck my shirt in, and give a firm handshake and say, “Yes, nice to meet you, Mr. Linklater.”
Richard Linklater: He was clean-cut. I was like, that’s not Wooderson at all. I need an asshole. Rough around the edges. I mean, Wooderson has his charms, but I wanted a little more sleazy. You can’t say that I cast Matthew for his looks, because his looks almost kept him out of the movie.
Sam Lawrence: The thing that’s disarming about him is that, back then, he didn’t realize he was so attractive. He just kind of was a cool personality who happened to be wildly good-looking. When Matthew was practicing Wooderson’s lines in my living room, I said something to him about the part, and he said, “You know, I really want to be like Brad Pitt.”
Cool World had come out and we were making fun of Cool World a lot, and he was like, “Look, man, at least Brad is taking these roles! That’s what I want my path to be. I want to take roles where it’s about the character and not my looks.”
Richard Linklater: I had imagined Wooderson as a creepier guy, just kind of predatory. But there was no dark edge to Wooderson when Matthew came on. He was just a sad older guy.
Sheri Galloway: Matthew made that guy likable. He had a twinkle in his eye.
Richard Linklater: Matthew just set the tone for the party.
Rory Cochrane: When I first saw Matthew, he was wearing a pink Izod shirt, tucked into khaki shorts, with a belt and brown loafers. He looked like he was on his way to pick up his golf clubs.
Adam Goldberg: He looked completely different in real life. I was like, That’s the guy?
Jason London: Rick says, “Hey, everybody, this is Matthew. He’s gonna be playing Wooderson.” And we’re like, “Oh that’s right, he’s the character who hangs out with the high schoolers and stuff, cool cool.” And all of the sudden, Matthew slinks down in a chair, his eyes droop, and he goes into character, and we’re all just like, “What the fuck?”
Marissa Ribisi: Matthew transformed himself more than anybody else. He was this innocent, sweet Texas boy, and he transformed himself into a pot-smoking, subdued, jaded character.
Richard Linklater: He told me, “I ain’t this guy, but I know this guy.” And I thought, that’s interesting. That’s an actor thinking. And then he became that guy, right in front of me.
Matthew McConaughey: To this day, my brother is like, “You say I inspired that character? God dang. Guy’s still hangin’ out, tryin’ to pick up high school chicks? Thanks, dude."
Originally Appeared on GQ