Like Fast Times at Ridgemont High in the early 1980s and American Graffiti a decade before that, Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused captured a moment in time for high school kids. The cult classic film was hyper-specific in its focus on a small Texas town in 1976 but also universal enough to earn fans from differing backgrounds and generations.
Its appeal is fueled by the memorable depictions of the jocks, stoners and nerds that populate almost every high school, and the ensemble of then-unknown actors highlighted by future Hollywood heavyweights like Ben Affleck and Renée Zellweger.
But, with the possible exception of Parker Posey's freshman-tormenting Darla Marks, the film belongs to Matthew McConaughey as David Wooderson, the older, lecherous graduate with the wispy mustache on the hunt for a good buzz and those high school girls who eternally "stay the same age."
It was a signature role for McConaughey and his first appearance in a feature film, but it could easily have gone to another actor if it weren't for the serendipitous meeting that opened the door of opportunity.
McConaughey met the film's casting director at a bar
According to a Maxim oral history of the film, McConaughey, a 23-year-old film major at UT-Austin, reluctantly gave in to his girlfriend's push to go out for drinks on a Thursday night at the end of the 1992 spring semester.
Upon arriving at the Hyatt hotel bar, where they could get discounted drinks, their bartender friend pointed out another patron – casting director Don Phillips, who tapped Sean Penn for his iconic role in Fast Times – and said he was in town to produce a film. McConaughey went over to introduce himself, and the two quickly hit it off.
Some four hours later, McConaughey's girlfriend was long gone, and the intoxicated and overly exuberant film student and casting director were shown the bar's exit by the bouncer. Livid, McConaughey escorted Phillips back to his room, where he called the hotel manager and demanded an apology.
Appreciating the gesture, as well as the time spent with his new friend, Phillips suggested he come try out for the role of Wooderson, as it made little sense to fly an actor in from Los Angeles for what was expected to be a minor role.
The director initially didn't think McConaughey was right for the part
Despite Phillips' recommendation, Linklater had his doubts when McConaughey showed up to audition. The Wooderson character was supposed to be creepy, and he doubted that the athletic and handsome McConaughey was the right fit.
However, as he told Rolling Stone a few years later, Linklater was stunned when McConaughey seamlessly transformed himself into the character: "So he took a step back, shrugged his shoulders like an athlete would, his eyes kind of narrowed – a little stoned, like – a certain swagger came over him, he lost about an inch, and he’s a new guy, right in front of me, a 30-second dissolve into a new person. ... I just said, 'Hey, man, you are this guy.'"
The cast and crew were similarly floored when McConaughey began working his magic on camera. Jason London, who starred as protagonist Randy "Pink" Floyd, said they were "in heaven" when McConaughey began churning out signature lines like "alright, alright, alright" in that smooth Texan drawl.
McConaughey's expanding role came at the expense of another actor's screen time
Meanwhile, if there was a polar opposite to McConaughey on set, it was Shawn Andrews, who was cast for the prominent role of Kevin Pickford. His fellow actors remembered him as standoffish, and at one point he reportedly had to be separated from London – a big problem, since the two were supposed to be playing best friends.
As a result, Andrews found his role whittled down in an ever-changing script, with the magnetic McConaughey filling in the blanks. Suddenly, it was Wooderson who would be joining Pink, Don, Slater and the others for a "joint subcommittee" on the football field's 50-yard line, and it was Wooderson who would be there at the end to drive the crew on their mission to score Aerosmith tickets.
Despite the good times enjoyed by the cast on and off camera, the experience wasn't a total lark for McConaughey, who learned of his dad's death a few days into the shoot. Still, he managed to channel the devastating event in a productive fashion; after telling Linklater that he had to keep plowing ahead through the tough times, the director suggested he adopt that mantra for the football field scene.
The outcome was one of the most quotable lines of an eminently quotable movie, with Wooderson informing the conflicted Pink that he was going to have to make his own choices in life: "You just gotta keep livin', man. L-I-V-I-N." To Linklater, it became the most important scene in the film.
He recalled 'Dazed' in his 2014 Academy Award speech
Shortly before Dazed and Confused hit theaters in September 1993, McConaughey moved to Los Angeles to crash with Phillips. Fame didn't immediately follow, as the film took time to build a devoted fan base, but by the time McConaughey was cast as the surprise lead for 1996's A Time to Kill, Hollywood was ready to embrace the star.
McConaughey became one of the most successful leading men in the industry, his ascent from big-screen hunk to legit thespian punctuated by an Academy Award win for his role in Dallas Buyers Club in 2014.
And if there was any doubt as to whether he'd forgotten the early role on which he'd built his career, the actor showed that Wooderson remained close to his heart at the end of his memorable Oscar acceptance speech: "Whatever it is we look up to, whatever it is we look forward to and whoever it is we're chasing, to that I say Amen; to that, I say alright, alright, alright... to that I say just keep livin'."