Degen Pener
April 12, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Author John Grisham and director Joel Schumacher bickered for a solid year. The two could not agree on who should play the male lead opposite Sandra Bullock in A Time to Kill, Grisham’s latest book-to-movie, due out this summer. ”We went over everyone from Macaulay Culkin to Paul Newman and back again,” says Schumacher. Some of the actors discussed for the part included Woody Harrelson, Val Kilmer, and Brad Pitt. But the guy who won it was Matthew McConaughey.

Matthew who? It’s that kind of question that has Hollywood intrigued. This year, A Time to Kill and three other major studio pictures are shucking conventional wisdom and gambling on unknown leads. Tom Cruise’s love interest in the comedy Jerry Maguire? Renee Zellweger. Keanu Reeves’ next action-film costar? Rachel Weisz. The scene-stealer opposite Richard Gere in the courtroom thriller Primal Fear? Edward Norton.

With no-watt names like that, the studios have a right to be anxious. ”The disadvantage is simple. No one who buys a ticket to the movie knows who it is,” says Schumacher, who had wanted McConaughey, 25, a supporting player from Boys on the Side, but did not send a tape to Grisham until all other options had been rejected. ”Grisham called me and said, ‘I love this guy,”’ says Schumacher. ”Everybody took a chance.”

Weisz, a 24-year-old stage actress from London, dropped into Reeves’ Chain Reaction, a Fox film about industrial espionage, in December, after negotiations with Mira Sorvino came undone. ”I flew out to Chicago,” says Weisz. ”It was quite a tough audition — a drunk comic scene and a scene where people have been murdered and then a scene being cross-examined by the FBI. I didn’t think I would get it.” And Norton, a 26-year-old Yale graduate with no film credits, won the part of the accused killer in Primal Fear after Leonardo DiCaprio declined and after a coast-to-coast talent search that saw some 2,000 actors audition. Often, stars prefer another big name alongside them to help shoulder the blame if the film fails, and Gere apparently balked at first. But, says director Gregory Hoblit, ”when I could show him very clearly that Ed was the right choice, he saw it and let go and said fine.”

”There’s a spontaneity that comes with an unknown that’s exciting,” says Schumacher. ”There’s a kind of thrill and fear about the person. And there’s not a lot of karmic baggage.” But in an age of spiraling budgets, studios are mindful of an even more practical upside. At the time writer-director Cameron Crowe cast Zellweger, 26, in next winter’s Jerry Maguire, the story of a coldhearted sports agent played by Cruise, she was coming off flops like Empire Records and The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Still, she reportedly beat out Bridget Fonda, Marisa Tomei, Patricia Arquette, and Winona Ryder (whose current asking price, for example, is $3 million to $5 million). ”The initial feeling around [TriStar] was, to be quite truthful, ‘Good — you saved money,”’ says Crowe. ”The second reaction was ‘You’d better pull this off, buddy.”’

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