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Sometime last winter the drumbeat began sounding in Hollywood for an unknown actor named Matthew McConaughey. The 5-foot 11-inch, curly haired, unfailingly polite Texan had just completed filming A Time to Kill, an adaptation of the John Grisham novel.

Suddenly the word was out all over town: The fellow who had been discovered in a hotel bar in Austin, Texas, was going to be a star. A big star.

By the time he returned to Los Angeles after shooting was completed in Mississippi, McConaughey was overwhelmed with calls from agents, directors, writers and studio executives who had seen the movie trailer. He fled.

"I went off to Peru for 16 days, hiked through the jungle," he said, seated barefoot on a narrow deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean in his ramshackle beach rental in Malibu. "The best decision in the world. After a while I started to respect and appreciate what I had just done. So when I came back I was prepared."

No one can predict with certainty whether Matthew McConaughey (pronounced ma-CON-a-hey), 26, will turn into Tom Cruise or just one more talented actor like David Caruso who tried _ and failed _ to become a movie star.

Yet based on his appearance as a good natured Tucson, Ariz., policeman in the small comedy Boys on the Side, a role he got in his first Hollywood audition, and his nabbing of the plum part of Jake Brigance, a white lawyer defending a black man in the big-budget Time to Kill, McConaughey has convinced Hollywood executives he is not only attractive and talented but also has that extra dimension _ charisma, mystery and sex appeal _ that makes for movie stars.

For the film, which opens today, McConaughey was selected after Kevin Costner, Brad Pitt, Ralph Fiennes, Bill Paxton, Aidan Quinn, Woody Harbrelson and Val Kilmer were considered.

Brigance, an upper-class Southerner, is called upon to defend a Mississippi factory worker (Samuel L. Jackson), who killed two racist thugs in a rage after they had raped his 10-year-old daughter. The novel, which was adapted by Akiva Goldsman, was inspired by a case that Grisham, who lives in Mississippi, witnessed as a young lawyer.

Actually, so fast has McConaughey's star risen that he was not even given top billing in A Time to Kill. That honor went to Sandra Bullock, who plays Brigance's potential love interest, an ambitious Boston-born law student at the University of Mississippi.

Also making appearances are Donald Sutherland, as a grizzled veteran lawyer and mentor to Brigance, Ashley Judd as Brigance's wife and Kevin Spacey as a smug prosecutor. Although Jackson, who got second billing, is at the center of the film, McConaughey clearly dominates; for a young actor, it's pretty heady.

McConaughey's price has climbed from $250,000, his fee for A Time to Kill, to at least $2-million. He already has rejected several action films and romantic comedies and is set to star with Jodie Foster in Contact, a thriller based on Carl Sagan's book about an astronomer who comes in contact with extraterrestrials. Robert Zemeckis, who directed Forrest Gump, is making the film.

The actor has jumped from being one of a handful of young male stars on the April cover of Vanity Fair (along with Leonardo DiCaprio, Benicio Del Toro) to being the sole person pictured on the magazine's current issue. He is also the subject of articles in Premiere, Entertainment Weekly, Harper's Bazaar and Interview.

Joel Schumacher, the director of A Time to Kill, first noticed McConaughey three years ago in Dazed and Confused, an offbeat 1993 comedy directed by Richard Linklater about a group of stoned Texas teen-agers.

Schumacher invited the actor into the editing room of Batman Forever, which he also directed, with the purpose of casting him in a small role in A Time to Kill. But the more they talked, the more Schumacher became convinced that McConaughey could play Brigance.

Schumacher later called Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, president of worldwide theatrical production for Warner Brothers, who had worked on Boys on the Side. The two agreed on a screen test for the actor, who flew in from Texas where filming was taking place for John Sayles' Lone Star, in which he appears as a town sheriff.

McConaughey did two scenes, and the next day the results were shown to Grisham, who had casting approval, and to Warner Brothers executives, who were plainly reluctant about offering an unknown a top role in a film that cost almost $50-million.

Schumacher was dazzled.

"He jumped off the screen," the director said. "There's a certain cockiness, a self-confidence and sense of humor. He's fresh but certainly not the boy next door because there's a dangerousness to that good-old-boy quality. I don't think you'd let your daughter go out with Matthew."

The actor's on-screen presence is as striking as his looks.

"He's a true leading man," said Schumacher. "He has incredible features. His nose, his eyes, his lips, his body, his body language."

Grisham was equally enthusiastic. "I watched the tape several times with my wife, Renee," he said, "and I called Joel up and said, "I love this guy.' "

A bit nervously, Warner Brothers executives agreed to cast the actor, convinced the Grisham name coupled with the weight of the rest of the cast would lure audiences. "The camera loves him," said Di Bonaventura.

Born in the city of Uvalde, Texas, McConaughey grew up in Longview, near Dallas. His mother, Kay, does volunteer work with abused women; his father, Jim, who died several years ago, sold oil pipes and oil couplings, the same business that the actor's two older brothers, Pat and Michael (whom everyone calls Rooster), are engaged in.

After high school, McConaughey spent a year in Australia as an exchange student, then enrolled at the University of Texas, in Austin, where he toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer but started taking film courses. Shortly before his senior year, in 1991, McConaughey and a girlfriend went to the bar at the Hyatt Regency in Austin, where the bartender told him that a casting director at the end of the bar was working on a film.

McConaughey introduced himself to Don Phillips, the producer and casting director, with the intention of talking about the movie business. Instead, Phillips asked if he ever had acted. (The answer was no.)

Phillips asked him to read for Linklater, who is now a close friend.

"Matthew took a breath and kind of transformed into that guy. He went from being this good-looking guy to this kind of stoned, swaggering dude. I said, "You're it!' He looked too good, of course, so we had to add a mustache and a tattoo."

After the film was completed, McConaughey completed his senior year at school and made two more films: Chicano Chariots and The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

After that he packed up and drove his U-Haul to Los Angeles in August 1993. On his fifth day in Los Angeles, he was signed by the William Morris agency (he has since moved to Creative Artists Agency). He landed the male lead in Herbert Ross' Boys on the Side, playing Drew Barrymore's sweet-natured policeman lover. He also appears in a Bill Murray comedy, Larger Than Life, due in October.

McConaughey's lifestyle, so far, is modest. His two-bedroom house is sparsely furnished, with dozens of scripts lined up neatly on the staircase. He shares the house with his business partner, Todd (Gus) Gustawes, a buddy from the University of Texas.

He keeps a journal, and every morning and evening he reads from Og Mandino's Greatest Salesman in the World, a set of inspirational contemplations.

"God has helped a lot, honestly," he said. "My relationship with Him is up at the top right now. We were raised to believe in God, always have. And there have been so many coincidences, so many great things happening to me in the last three years, I'm not arguing at all, you know."