Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Greenlights" by Matthew McConaughey. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What was Matthew McConaughey’s role in A Time to Kill? How did it cement his place as a Hollywood leading man?

At first, the studio would never consider an unknown like Matthew McConaughey for A Time to Kill. But McConaughey impressed with his emotional audition.

Read more about Matthew McConaughey, A Time to Kill, and the role that made him a true Hollywood star.

Starring Role in A Time to Kill

Matthew had graduated from film school. He had acted in two feature films. He had moved to Hollywood. Now he was ready to begin his career in earnest. In this part, we’ll look at his early years in Hollywood, when he found rapid success followed quickly by full superstardom. He struggled to handle his newfound celebrity, and the quest to maintain his personal center of gravity led him to New Mexico, Peru, the Amazon, and finally, to America’s backroads.

Insights and lessons from this period of his life include the following:

  • Freedom and preparation are not mutually exclusive. Freedom requires preparation.
  • We’re all perfectly made for whatever moment we find ourselves in.
  • The truth surrounds us all the time, but we aren’t always able to recognize it or receive it. 
  • To receive the truth, first you have to put yourself in a situation where you’re able to receive it. Then you have to be conscious enough to recognize it. 

Hollywood Beginnings

When Matthew returned to Hollywood from Europe, he immediately received well-paying roles in two high-profile movies, Boys on the Side and Angels in the Outfield. He was off to a promising start, but his early career wasn’t without a few wobbles. He learned the hard way that you have to balance spontaneous freedom with careful preparation.

He began taking acting lessons, but he soon discovered that his newly self-aware approach to the craft was getting in his way at auditions, and he stopped getting roles. When he finally landed a part in an indie film, Scorpion Spring, he thought he might improve his performance by returning to his instinctive acting skills, so he decided to take a different tack by not reading the script ahead of time. Instead of preparing, he spent some time mentally forming the drug runner character, and then he planned to give his performance in spontaneous freedom.

The plan blew up when he arrived to shoot his single scene and found that he was expected to speak a several-page monologue in Spanish. Things didn’t go well that day, and he learned his lesson. Going forward, he always prepared carefully for his roles.

A Time to Kill Makes Matthew McConaughey an Instant Star

A few months later, Matthew got an opportunity to act in director Joel Schumacher’s screen adaptation of John Grisham’s novel A Time to Kill. He came better prepared this time, having read not just the script but the novel. He was under consideration for the role of smalltown Ku Klux Klan leader, but he told Schumacher that he really wanted the lead role of the young attorney Jake Brigance, who defends a black man for killing the men who raped his daughter. Schumacher said it was a great idea but a complete nonstarter because Warner Brothers would never give the lead role to a relatively obscure actor. 

But then other events converged to boost Matthew’s case. One of these was the unexpected box office success of Sandra Bullock’s previous film While You Were Sleeping. When this happened, she had already been cast as the female lead in A Time to Kill. Now her name served as a powerful draw for the film, thus enabling Warner Brothers to consider a less bankable actor for the male lead.

Around the same time, a man and woman who said they had been inspired by the mass murderers Mickey and Mallory in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers murdered a friend of Grisham’s. Woody Harrelson had played Mickey. Presently he was under consideration for the role of Jake Brigance in A Time to Kill. After the murder, Grisham, who had casting control over that part, gave a hard “no” to Harrelson’s inclusion. Shortly afterward, Schumacher called Matthew to come in for a private audition. 

At the audition, Matthew first performed the scene as written, doing a passable but not especially noteworthy job. Then Schumacher told him to do it again, but without the script, just speaking from his heart. Matthew prepared mentally and emotionally by thinking about the horror of the crime against the young girl in the movie and contrasting this with his own lifelong desire to be a father. Then he performed the scene from that inner state. Two weeks later, Schumacher called and offered him the role—a career-defining greenlight.

Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Matthew McConaughey's "Greenlights" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Greenlights summary:

  • How "greenlights" help you confirm if you're on the right path
  • How McConaughey switched college choices because of family finances
  • Why family is at the center of everything for McConaughey, no matter what's happening in his career

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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