Matthew McConaughey
Credit: Courtesy Matthew McConaughey
It's 1991, and McConaughey, now a University of Texas frat dude, has been making money on the side as a model and commercial actor. One morning in class, his beeper goes off. There's a 2 pm audition in Dallas – it might have been for a Miller Lite spot – and he's got to haul ass from Austin. This happens often, but somehow he's worked out a deal with his professors where he gets a gentleman's C just for showing up once in a while.

On his way home from the audition, he pulls off I-35 just outside Waco, to go on the side streets, because that stretch of the interstate sucks. While squirreling his way through Waco, he smells meat. He comes upon a little house with a sign out front and a barbecue pit out back. There, a 6-foot-4 muscle-bound guy, the kind of dude you don't want to be messing with, is handling briskets as big as his torso. "It looked like he was open for something," McConaughey says.

McConaughey asks for a sandwich. The guy says he usually just delivers whole briskets door-to-door, but he'll slap some slices on some white bread if the kid's willing to pay. They go inside to eat, and the guy starts telling McConaughey his life story. First, he's just out of prison. Second, he's from a family with generations of involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. This doesn't bother McConaughey. Traveling with Big Jim, he's met all kinds of characters.

The next time McConaughey goes to Dallas for an audition, and the time after that, he stops off at the brisket guy's place. He brings a tape recorder and then later at home he transcribes the tapes, filling notebooks with the guy's life story. McConaughey won't take his first formal acting class for another decade. So for now, he prepares by studying people. "You don't play characters who are celebrities," he once said. "You play guys who know what to do when their septic tank's blocked." It's all part of something he calls "localizing."

"You know, when things are feeling homey," he explains. "It's one of my favorite things to do. You go someplace, and it's like new new new new new. Then you say, Oh, I get it. They're speaking a different language, but it's the same vocabulary. I could hang here, I could live here, I understand these people. The sooner you do that, the better. When that happens, then it's sort of all right to go back."

Around this time McConaughey meets Don Phillips, a casting director, in a bar. They get drunk and get tossed out. Soon after that, he's stealing the show in 1993's 'Dazed and Confused' as Wooderson, the guy with the wispy mustache who still hangs around the high school after he graduates to dispense wisdom and score chicks. ("That's what I love about these high school girls," Wooderson says with a cackle. "I get older. They stay the same age.") But McConaughey's father never sees the role that launches his son's career. In 1992, five days into the filming of 'Dazed and Confused,' Big Jim dies at age 64. Poetically enough, it happens while he's having sex with McConaughey's mother.

One morning in August 1993, just before the film's release, McConaughey attaches a U-Haul to his Dodge truck and drives off from Austin. A few days later he pulls into Don Phillips's driveway. He has arrived in Hollywood, and he's about to localize like he's never localized before.