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In response to Joel Schumacher’s death on Monday, Matthew McConaughey says his career wouldn’t have taken off if the late director hadn’t cast him as the lead in the 1996 film “A Time to Kill.”

McConaughey was relatively unknown before starring as Jake Brigance in the courtroom crime drama. He had small roles in “Dazed and Confused,” “Angels in the Outfield,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” and “Boys on the Side” in the mid ’90s, and Schumacher gave him his first leading role.

In an exclusive statement to Variety, McConaughey reflects on the big break Schumacher gave him and thanks the director for kickstarting his career:

“Joel not only took a chance on me, he fought for me. Knowing the studio might never approve a relatively unknown like myself for the lead in ‘A Time to Kill,’ he set up a secret screen test for me on a Sunday morning in a small unknown studio because as he stated, ‘Even if you do great, you may not get the part, so I don’t want the industry to ever think you screen tested and DID NOT get the job.’

I remember on days where I would be having a tough time on the set, he would always remind me with the most simple and sound advice a director could give a young man, ‘Hey, you are Jake Brigance. You, Matthew, are the character.’

I don’t see how my career could have gone to the wonderful places it has if it wasn’t for Joel Schumacher believing in me back then.”

In a statement to Variety, George Clooney, who starred in Schumacher’s “Batman and Robin,” gave praise to the career-turning moment for McConaughey.

“His career was absolutely started by Joel fighting for him in ‘A Time To Kill,'” Clooney said. “The studio wanted a star. Joel wanted him.”