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The Law of Attraction : With 'A Time to Kill' to his credit and more than a little media hype, Matthew McConaughey's magnetic appeal is growing exponentially.

July 29, 1996|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"A Time to Kill" director Joel Schumacher calls Matthew McConaughey "my Frankenstein."

But only tongue in cheek, he swears. "I didn't create Matthew," Schumacher said of the 26-year-old actor starring in the film version of John Grisham's first and favorite novel, released last Wednesday. "I just gave him the break he deserved. Everyone thinks that we were the engine, but it was his performance that caused the buzz. You can't take someone out of the woodwork and make them a star. Only God can make a tree."

Maybe so. But in this case, the media certainly helped. Riding the crest of one of the biggest promotional pushes in recent memory, the virtually unknown character actor has been hailed as the long-awaited successor to Marlon Brando, Tom Cruise and McConaughey's idol, Paul Newman. Grisham's refusal to approve stars ranging from Woody Harrelson to Val Kilmer--and Schumacher's secret screen test of McConaughey--are firmly enmeshed in Hollywood lore.

The New Regency film, also starring Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, got off to a solid start. Greeted by mixed to positive reviews, "A Time to Kill" took in $14.6 million in its opening weekend, knocking "Independence Day" from the top spot for the first time since its July 2 release. Despite competition from the Olympics and the film's longer running time reducing the number of screenings, it came close to the opening weekend numbers of Grisham's "The Client," also directed by Schumacher, which went on to gross $92 million in the domestic market. (For more details on the weekend's box office, see Page F2.)

"Grisham movies usually draw an older audience, the over 25- who read books," said Barry Reardon, Warner Bros. president of distribution. "Matthew McConaughey will probably expand the audience to young females, pushing the movie, we hope, past the $100-million mark."

Pat Kingsley, president of the PMK publicity agency, accepted McConaughey as a client in April after media screenings in New York and Los Angeles. She takes no credit for the actor's meteoric rise; in fact, she says, she was fielding calls. "No one I've handled has struck it this big this fast," she said. "Bullock and Julia Roberts had been around for a while. Tom Cruise comes the closest, I suppose, since 'Risky Business' was his first starring role. With McConaughey, I felt like I was on a runaway train. Though the press viewed him as the Second Coming, there was the inherent risk of overkill."

Lorenzo di Bonaventura, president of worldwide theatrical production for Warner Bros., agreed. "There's no backlash yet, but a lot of people went in believing it was all Hollywood hype--saying, 'I'm from Missouri. . . . Show me.' "

*

He need not have worried. Time, the New York Times and Roger Ebert were among those who had kind words for the film--the tale of a Southern lawyer defending a man (Samuel L. Jackson) who murdered two rednecks who had raped his daughter. Many who found it excessively commercial and formulaic admitted to enjoying the movie despite themselves. When it came to McConaughey, there was virtual unanimity: Playing opposite seasoned professionals, they said, he more than held his own.

Rob Friedman, president of worldwide advertising and publicity for Warner Bros., said he feels vindicated by the reviews. "There was the overriding feeling we manipulated people," he said. "But since McConaughey and the film both delivered, it wasn't a case of 'all show and no go.' "

An aspiring lawyer, McConaughey first studied film at the University of Texas at Austin. Hoping to pick up some pointers from a producer/casting director who was in town working on "Dazed and Confused," he struck up a conversation with the man.

Don Phillips introduced McConaughey to director Richard Linklater who cast him as a druggy, older guy whose focus in life is picking up high school girls. A chance audition also won him the lead in "The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre," after which he headed west.

Five days after arriving in Los Angeles in August, 1993, McConaughey was signed by the William Morris Agency, which landed him a nonspeaking part as a third baseman in "Angels in the Outfield" (1994) and as Drew Barrymore's love interest, a patrolman named Abe Lincoln, in Herb Ross' "Boys on the Side" (1995). "He was very good in a thankless role," Schumacher said.

After playing a small-town sheriff in John Sayles' "Lone Star," McConaughey got his big break. Though Schumacher tested him for the role of a Klansman, he wanted him for the lead. "Forget it," the director recalls Di Bonaventura telling him. "No one will cast an unknown." On Mother's Day last year, Schumacher tested him anyway. When the hard-to-please Grisham threw his weight behind the actor, the studio nervously agreed.

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