How Matthew McConaughey Beat Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson for the Lead Role In ‘A Time to Kill’

Matthew McConaughey made such a strong mark in A Time to Kill, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Had anyone else played it, McConaughey’s career could have gone a lot differently, too. McConaughey said Kevin Costner and his future EdTV and True Detective co-star Woody Harrelson lost the role that would eventually make him a star.

Matthew McConaughey at the GMA desk
Matthew McConaughey | Lou Rocco/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY

McConaughey appeared on the Feb. 17 episode of Rob Lowe’s Literally! podcast to discuss his autobiography Greenlights. Speaking of A Time to Kill, McConaughey discussed the actors who didn’t get the role before he landed it. 

Before Matthew McConaughey, ‘A Time to Kill’ rejected Kevin Costner

McConaughey would ultimately play Jake Brigance in A Time to Kill. Brigance takes the case of Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), on trial for killing the men who raped his daughter. It’s a high profile case that attracts a lot of attention to Brigance’s struggling practice, which is what ultimately made Costner wrong for the role. 

Kevin Costner in the JFK courtroom scene
Kevin Costner | Warner Brothers/Getty Images

“John Grisham has casting approval over that role because it’s based on him,” McConaughey said. “I think Kevin Costner was in consideration. But if he’s that old, you’d wonder why he wouldn’t be a successful lawyer earlier.”

Woody Harrelson lost ‘A Time to Kill’ over another movie he made 

Harrelson was more of a contemporary with McConaughey. However, his role as a serial killer in the 1994 movie Natural Born Killers turned Grisham off. Grisham would publish an editorial blaming the film for inspiring two teenage murderers and called for a boycott, according to the New York Daily News. 

“They were looking at Woody but Woody had come out in Natural Born Killers,” McConaughey said. “Oliver Stone and John Grisham get in an editorial fight because there was a copycat murder in Mississippi of someone that garnered some news. I heard John Grisham was going, ‘Oh, no way that guy, Woody, who played Mickey is going to play me.’ That moves him out.” 

Matthew McConaughey was the last choice for ‘A Time to Kill’

McConaughey was still considered too new to play the lead, only two years after Dazed and Confused. However, the rest of the cast blew up.

“Sandra Bullock was already in the role of Roark,” McConaughey said. “While You Were Sleeping comes out, now she can greenlight a movie after she was already cast in the third lead. Can’t find the lead. Those things happen which make the studio think maybe we could try something out with a newbie in the role.”

A Time to Kill: Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock in court
Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock | Warner Brothers/Getty Images

Matthew McConaughey Telepathically Told ‘A Time to Kill’ Director Joel Schumacher How to Film His Memorable Closing Argument

Schumacher even screen tested McConaughey in secret. He had a feeling he could sell Warner Brothers on a newcomer, but didn’t want to bring McConaughey onto the lot just in case.

“All of a sudden I get a call,” McConaughey said. “‘Wanna screen test you, Matthew, for the role of Jake Brigance. We’re going to do it on a Sunday.’ I believe it was Mother’s Day. ‘We’re going to do it in a little studio off Fairfax [Ave]. The reason we’re not doing it at a studio is even if you do you great, you’re probably not going to get the role and as you’re coming into Hollywood, I don’t want you, Matthew, to have it on your resume that you tried to get a role and screen tested for A Time To Kill and didn’t get it.’ How thoughtful is that from the guy? That’s Schumacher.”

They did cast McConaughey, the film was a huge summer blockbuster and launched McConaughey’s leading man career.

Source: Literally! With Rob Lowe podcast, New York Daily News