Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused

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 role did Matthew McConaughey play in Dazed and Confused? How did the role of David Wooderson help propel McConaughey to fame?

Matthew McConaughey’s role in Dazed and Confused helped get him to Hollywood. His infamous line “alright, alright, alright,” was improvised in that movie.

Read more about Matthew McConaughey, Dazed and Confused, and why it was the greenlight that let him pursue acting.

Dazed and Confused: McConaughey’s Big Greenlight

Matthew’s breakthrough into the world of feature films occurred when met producer Don Phillips at the Hyatt bar in Austin. Phillips was in town to work on a movie, and when Matthew introduced himself, they hit it off. Before the night was over, Phillips had offered Matthew a small part in the movie he was casting. Its title was Dazed and Confused.

When Matthew read the screenplay, he loved the line spoken by the character of Wooderson, a twenty-something stoner who hangs out with teens, about loving high school girls because they stay the same while he gets older. Today, Matthew refers to lines like that—lines in a script that generate pure delight and make him want to be involved in a movie—as “launchpad lines.”

When Matthew developed his performance as Wooderson, he looked to his brother Pat for the basic inspiration, since he had worshiped Pat since childhood and found him cooler than James Dean. Matthew’s first scene as Wooderson, and thus the first scene that he ever shot for any feature film, came about spontaneously when the director, Richard Linklater, talked to him about the kinds of things that a character like Wooderson would love the most. Then, on the spur of the moment, Linklater decided to shoot an unscripted scene where Wooderson tries to pick up a nerdy intellectual girl. He told Matthew just to improvise.

Matthew prepared by reflecting deeply on who Wooderson was and what he loved. He decided that Wooderson loved four things: his car, getting high, rock and roll, and chicks. He had already had three of these on hand. The fourth was represented by the girl he was trying to get. So when Linklater said “Action!”, Matthew-as-Wooderson drove up, thought about those three achieved desires, and said, “Alright, alright, alright.” That improvised line became an iconic moment in his career, proving to be a life-defining greenlight and following him forever afterward.

Off to Hollywood (and Europe)

After graduating, Matthew earned $4,000 in Austin for playing the lead villain in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. Then he drove 24 hours to Hollywood with a loaded U-Haul, having arranged to stay at producer Don Phillips’s house for a while. When he arrived, Phillips refused at first to let him in, telling Matthew through the closed door that he would see him later. Matthew kept insisting, and finally Phillips opened the door naked with an erection and said to please give him 20 minutes.

While Matthew was living with Don, he lost a planned job as a production assistant on the Coen Brothers film The Hudsucker Proxy. When Matthew asked Phillips to get him a meeting with an agent because he really needed money, Phillips told him that with that kind of attitude, he ought to leave Hollywood for a while because the movie business would chew up and spit out a needy person.

Matthew decided to put Don’s advice in action. In short order, he left town and flew to Europe with two friends from Dazed and Confused, Cole Hauser and Rory Cochrane. After convincing a motorcycle shop owner named Johan In Rosenheim, Germany, to rent them three bikes for a month for just $1,200 (all they could afford), they rode through Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy, taking a grand tour and enjoying life. Afterward, Matthew headed back to America with new friends, new stories to tell, and a head newly cleared of the neediness that Don Phillips had warned him about. The trip was a greenlight. 

Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused

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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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