The Chance Meeting That Landed Matthew McConaughey His Dazed And Confused Role

While Richard Linklater's 1994 film "Dazed and Confused" may stand out, even now, as one of the great cinematic representations of '70s adolescence, it's possibly more notable for its massive cast. Nearly every actor in the movie was on the eve of their own personal stardom, with most to blow up in the year or two following the movie. It's a testament to the work of legendary casting director Don Phillips that this crew of soon-to-be celebrities came together. One particular discovery gave the movie its most famous character.

"Dazed and Confused" was Linklater's first studio film, and Phillips ensured it would be riddled with future stars, like Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, and Parker Posey. But Matthew McConaughey's performance as David Wooderson, the 20-something who hangs out with (and liberally hits on) teenagers, towers over all. While Linklater, who often blends the real and the fictitious in his movies, had intended to cast Wooderson with local talent in Austin as a cost-saving measure, it's hard to imagine any other actor saying what that character does.

Linklater initially thought McConaughey was too handsome for the part, and it wouldn't have been a bad call. The actor's charm and good looks could have distracted from the character's creepy tendencies, but McConaughey somehow made all the sides of the character inseparable. While filming went on, Linklater rewrote the script to give Wooderson more to do and McConaughey was free to improvise, coming up with some of its best lines.

The real Wooderson

For a character Roger Ebert called "the most pathetic" in the film, Wooderson is probably the first thing to come to mind for somebody recalling "Dazed and Confused." Between his Ted Nugent t-shirt, floppy hair and 'stache, and the ineffable cool of his Texas drawl, he walks a thin line, close enough to being the slickest guy in town that you forget how weird it is he hangs out exclusively with teenagers. He's got the purest kind of McConaughey zen, something the actor would continue to develop over the years in movies like "The Beach Bum."

Wooderson, like other characters based in the movie, are loose approximations of people Linklater knew growing up. Some of them (Wooderson included) would even go on to sue Linklater some 10 years after the movie's release, claiming defamation, according to the Washington Post. But it's that specificity of memory, no matter how exhilarating or funny or painful, that played a large role in the movie's legacy. Despite its weed-and-Budweiser haze, the movie understood small-town adolescence on a deep and cutting level, and it knew that every such town had a Wooderson character. That McConaughey was capable of making him the coolest character in the movie was a testament to his own talent and innate stardom.

Meeting in a bar

McConaughey hadn't done much screen acting before "Dazed and Confused." There were only a couple of roles on his CV, mostly commercial work and nothing on the level of what was to come (such as his "Interstellar"-esque commercial for Salesforce). Having graduated from the University of Texas in 1993 with a degree in media, he was at something of a crossroads. According to the New York Post, the role that became the foundation of his success was the result of a chance encounter, when McConaughey's friend, a bartender at a Hyatt hotel in Austin, told him to swing on by.

At the bar that night was Don Phillips, casting director. When he was approached by McConaughey, the two immediately hit it off and, as Phillips said in the movie's oral history, "midway through the evening he [McConaughey] says to his girlfriend, 'Look, I'm gonna stay here and talk to Don. Here's some money for a taxi.'"

While Wooderson's role was initially fairly small, the movie's organic, intimate process led to the role growing. Rehearsals orchestrated by Linklater and a fateful, lightning-shrouded flight to Texas helped to bond the cast, and McConaughey fit right in, handling Wooderson with such skill and confidence that he got added to the movie's climactic party sequence. In the editing, they got a sense of his magnetism, and continued to prioritize his role.

McConaughey's perspective

With its massive ensemble, "Dazed and Confused" doesn't have a lot of space for Wooderson to do all that much. He doesn't have a huge dramatic presence, mostly just looking cool as he leans against the walls of bowling alleys, smoking and drinking with his young friends. It's his Chevy Chevelle that takes the movie's main characters out to Houston to buy Aerosmith tickets at the movie's end, but he's something of a marginal character, passing out advice and wisdom that the characters will probably grow beyond once they leave town.

Like Ben Affleck's paddling bully O'Bannion, Wooderson could have been an easy character to play as a simple creep, but he wouldn't have been what McConaughey created. To make one of the most iconic and paradoxically endearing creeps in all of cinema, you need someone with the non-judgmental eye McConaughey brought, the perspective he had in mind when he said of Wooderson, "I always saw him as right on time, in his glory days — in his mind, and that's all that matters."