An excerpt from the new oral history Alright, Alright, Alright about the devastating days that birthed a star. BY MELISSA MAERZ NOVEMBER 5, 2020
One of the reasons people still love to watch Dazed and Confused is that it transports you back in time—not just to 1976, but also to 1992, when it was filmed. You can return to the days when Ben Affleck still had baby fat and Parker Posey still smacked her gum. We get older. They stay the same age. The cast is forever preserved onscreen at a moment of infinite potential, one of the last moments before they’d have to start acting less like regular goofballs and more like movie stars. “We went into the movie a bunch of kids, and we came out a lot more mature,” says Jason London. “It was the beginning of us becoming adults.”
No one felt that change more acutely than Matthew McConaughey. He was 23 years old when he filmed Dazed, and like his character, Wooderson, he was still mostly hanging out with younger people. He hadn’t yet finished his undergraduate studies at the University of Texas, and he was still partying with his fraternity brothers. But he was only on set a few days when two things happened that forced him to grow up fast. First, his father died. Then he delivered the line that transformed him from a bit player into a leading man.
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: I was about four or five days into shooting and I got the call.
MONNIE WILLS (friend): Matthew was shooting nights, sleeping during the day. His mom tried to call us and we didn’t answer the phone because it was early. We might even have turned the ringers off. His girlfriend Toni came to the house and came to my room because she couldn’t bring herself to tell Matthew what had happened. She was in tears. I could barely get it out of her. She said, “I can’t be the one to tell him.”
So I went down and said, “Matthew, something’s happened. You need to call your mom.”
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: My dad died making love to my mother. Six-thirty on a Monday morning. My dad had always told me and my two brothers, “Boy, when I go, I’m going to be making love to your mother,” and he did. Talk about a badass! The guy called his shot about how he was leaving this earth and did it.
S.R. BINDLER (friend): That’s perfect, right? It’s like Babe Ruth pointing the bat and telling people where he’s gonna hit the home run, and then hitting it.
SAM LAWRENCE (friend): Matthew called me the day his dad died. “Dude, I need someone to hang out with.” And we ended up at a strip club. By the way, if you ever want to feel completely invisible, go to a strip club with Matthew McConaughey.
It was weird. He was talking about his dad, really emotional stuff; we’re talking across the table, just looking at each other, and in the meantime, strippers are walking across the table.
MONNIE WILLS: Maybe the next day, he called me and said, “We’re having a little thing. Do you wanna come up to Houston?” I said, “Of course.” So I drove to Houston. It was a small, intimate gathering.
JASON LONDON (actor): He had one of those incredibly close families. I met his dad once, and Jim was like your typical John Wayne Texas cowboy, and his mother was lovely. You could tell that they were all madly in love with each other, and if the world ended, they would be out there on their compound and they would be the last to survive. I mean, they had fucking tanks and shit! They had rocket launchers! I don’t know why. For fun?
MONNIE WILLS: Everyone was telling stories about Jim. We were drinking a lot of Miller Lite and trying to be upbeat.
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: We had an Irish wake. It was full-on roasting the snot out of him.
JASON DAVIDS SCOTT (publicist): Later, someone said, “What was the service like?” And Matthew said, “Well, my mom told the story about how my dad died. They were in the act of lovemaking.” And apparently his mom said—at the funeral!—“By the way, he did get to finish.”
My dad always said, “Boy, when I go, I’m gonna be making love to your mother,” and he did.
MONNIE WILLS: The telephone book story made the rounds at the funeral.
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: Dad was in the oil business, and he had a lot of people that owed him money. He had hired two guys to go collect for him. Well, one of them was like six feet four, his name was Big Ray, and he had dark shades, dark suit. And the other one was this little Asian guy, about five feet two. And what they evidently did was, Ray went over behind the desk of the person who owes Dad. “Hey, I hear you owe Mr. McConaughey. We’ve been trying to collect this in a congenial manner. We’ve given you a few chances. Time’s up.” And he’s like, “Yeah, it’s comin’! I’m gettin’ it right now!”
“See, we’ve been really patient with you, sir…” And as they’re having this creepy, quiet conversation with this man, Big Ray moves behind the desk, and the Asian guy’s putting on a pair of black gloves. Big Ray grabs the Houston phone book, lifts the guy up, holds the guy’s arms back, and holds the Houston phone book against his chest. Now, the Asian guy lifts up a pistol. Well, the guy just fell to the ground, shit himself, crying, “I’m payin’! I’m payin’!” Goes to the safe, gives him the money, blah, blah, blah.
Big Ray says, “Don’t let it happen again, or next time my man here won’t just use a .22.” Because a .22 will only make it to M in the Houston phone book.
Isn’t that great? Dad loved shady deals, man. He collected on that, but what was better than collecting the money was having that story.ADVERTISEMENT
S.R. BINDLER: Jim was a great storyteller, charming as hell. He had a twinkle in his eye, man. Matthew is a movie star, and charms everybody he meets, but you put him next to Jim McConaughey, you’re gonna watch Jim McConaughey, you know? And Matthew would love to hear that.
Matthew wasn’t dwelling on the fact that he lost his father. It was, how can I honor my father? What are great stories I have from my father? What did my father teach me?
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: I was trying to figure out what that means, when you lose a father.
MONNIE WILLS: I know Matthew was probably processing all that was happening, but there’s no universe where K-Mac, his mom, is gonna let those boys wallow in any kind of self-pity.
S.R. BINDLER: At Matthew’s house, if we went out and spent the night there, it’s 7 a.m., K-Mac storms into Matthew’s bedroom, flings open the blinds and the drapes. Texas summer sun is ripping in. And she gets a big gallon pot of water with ice in it, and would dump it on us. “It’s 7 a.m.! You guys can’t sleep all day! Get out of the bed!”
MONNIE WILLS: Matthew told me if he got up in the morning and came down with a bad attitude, she’d send him back to his room and would literally say, “Get back in bed. Get out of bed. Try again.” She did not let Matthew have any sense of, “Oh, you’re a victim, you poor thing.” It’s like, something’s not going right? Go look in the mirror. That’s the guy right there that can handle that for you.
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: We had very simple rules in my house. You weren’t allowed to say can’t. You can say, “I’m having trouble.” I remember that lesson very clearly. It was a Saturday morning, I was supposed to mow the lawn; I was having trouble getting the lawn mower started. I went in and told my dad, “I can’t get the lawn mower started.” And he’d hear that word, and you’d see his ears perk up, and you saw his jaw start to kinda grindin’ his molars, and he slowly got up, walked outta the house, tried to start the lawn mower, didn’t start. He took the thing apart, put some new gas, put a new spark plug, whatever, and about 45 minutes later, it started.
He hadn’t said a word this whole time, and then he looked at me, he goes, “See? You were just having trouble.”
MONNIE WILLS: I think Matthew would tell you the way his dad died is about as good as you could ask for. The logic of that made sense to Matthew, that his dad was a happy man and had no real regrets and it wasn’t tragic. And I think that nexus between being right in the middle of production and his father passing created some kind of energy in him.
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: My family was like, “You’ve got to go back.” It was obvious to go back. What my dad taught us was resilience. No way was I going to be moping around and miss what I was in the middle of doing.
JASON DAVIDS SCOTT: Don Phillips [the casting director] had flown in for the funeral, and everybody was like, okay, he’ll be gone for a couple of days. This was the beginning of the Emporium week, so it was like, we’ll shoot around Matthew, he’s not a major character, he doesn’t have to be in every scene.ADVERTISEMENT
JASON LONDON: Matthew wasn’t on set. So it was like, “Where’s Matthew?” And Rick takes me aside, like, “We’re flipping the schedule around right now, we’re trying to figure out what we’re gonna do. Matthew’s father died.” And we’re like, “Oh my God oh my God oh my God.”
We look up, and Matthew’s right there. And I’m like, “Are you sure his dad died?”
JASON DAVIDS SCOTT: He was back the next day. I remember seeing a couple of people crying. Everyone’s coming out, saying, “Oh Matthew, I’m so sorry.”
RICHARD LINKLATER (writer-director-producer): I saw him walking up. I just ran over to him and we talked for a while. I was just trying to gauge where he was at. But he was like, “No, man, I’m good.”
JASON DAVIDS SCOTT: That was the day he does, “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.”
ANTHONY RAPP (actor): “I get older, they stay the same age”? That’s funny, but it’s really fucked up.
RICHARD LINKLATER: It’s meant to be harsh. Sasha’s character, Don, says Wooderson should go to jail for saying that.
BEN AFFLECK (actor): In light of the Me Too era, it’s not an entirely appropriate thing to be quoting. It probably never was. “I keep getting older and they stay the same age”? That’s R. Kelly’s anthem.
But to this day, people still quote that line to me, and I’m not even in the scene. That’s a testament to Matthew’s enormous charm.
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: I mean, if we’re gonna sit here and do any kind of psychoanalysis or objective judgment, if you’re gonna try to break Wooderson down, you’re already in a different narrative than he is. The everyday world, the manners and social graces, and the way life is supposed to go on and men are supposed to evolve—yeah, he doesn’t fit in that. He’s on his own frequency. He is living in ignorance.
Wooderson is not the kind of guy who’s gonna get conscious of, like, “Oh, this is creepy.” He’s just the kind of guy that goes, “I’m sorry you see it that way. Whatever’s going on in your life, I hope you get through it.” I love characters and people in life with great convictions that are outside of the mainstream. At least you see where they stand. At least they’re not trying to placate and pander. You can trust Wooderson, man. He’s right there in the open with you. There’s nothing about him that I ever saw as creepy—which might be exactly why that’s even creepier. But you can say that, not me, you know what I mean?
In every script, you hopefully get at least one what I call a “launch-pad line.” You go, okay, if I deconstruct the meaning of this, there’s a book on this character.
That line Rick wrote, you unpack that line. Who not only thinks that, but believes that? That’s this guy’s DNA. He has gotten to a place where he’s like, “I’ve out-Peter Panned Peter Pan! I have got this figured out!” I mean, he’s not thinking ahead: “Oh, this will be tougher in 10 years.” No, no, no, no. Wooderson steps forward to the curb and says that, like, to the world. To the ether.
It’s a mantra. It’s a philosophy. He’s pleased with his place and his coordinates in the universe. You could say he’s delusionally optimistic.ADVERTISEMENT
VALERIE DEKEYSER (production assistant): The minute those words came out of his mouth, I swear to God, he immediately took us all: the cast, the crew. It was like, “Holy shit. Who is that guy?”
JASON DAVIDS SCOTT: Don [Phillips] turned to [producer] Jim Jacks and said, “This is a movie star.” It was weird because he wasn’t a big character. He wasn’t even on my radar.
JOHN CAMERON (first assistant director): He was just a guy, right? Just another one of the cast, and one of the lesser-known people. We had people who had already established a reputation, even in their youth, and Matthew just came in and blew everybody away. And it really elevated the film. It made it something, to me, beyond just funny. He brought a sense of sadness.
DEB PASTOR (set decorator): He was processing this deep, deep loss as he was doing his job. How could all of us not love this guy after experiencing that? And this was going to stay with him, through all the successes he experienced.
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: It was very cool that I had already started the film when my dad passed away. He got to be alive for what ended up being what I do with my career. There’s grace in that for me.
MONNIE WILLS: After his dad died, a switch flipped for sure. You know, you hear these stories of, like, Bill Clinton meets John F. Kennedy when he’s 16 years old and he decides, “I’m gonna be president one day,” or the moment that makes Tiger Woods decide, “I’m gonna be the best golfer.” After his father passed, I think some sort of ambition clicked into Matthew. Like, life is short and I’m gonna do the things I’m good at. And I don’t give a fuck what anybody else thinks.
From the book Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused by Melissa Maerz. Copyright © 2020 by Melissa Maerz. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.