A couple of weeks ago, Matthew McConaughey became the third Dazed And Confused cast member to win an Oscar, following Ben Affleck (for co-writing Good Will Hunting) and Renée Zellweger (who is uncredited in the film and has no significant lines, but is clearly visible in multiple scenes). All three were essentially unknown when the movie was made, and so, to varying degrees, were Jason London, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, Cole Hauser, Joey Lauren Adams, Adam Goldberg, and Anthony Rapp. So it’s understandable that people look at the movie two decades later and marvel at how much raw talent Richard Linklater and his casting director, Don Phillips, managed to unearth. It’s not even as if Dazed And Confused was a massive hit that helped launch careers (like, say, American Graffiti)—it did modest business relative to its budget, and its future stars all made their breakthroughs later.
All the same, what’s arguably even more extraordinary is how many terrific performances were given by actors who didn’t go on to fame and fortune. Linklater seems able to coax a convincing performance out of just about anybody—his latest film, the forthcoming Boyhood, features superb work from his own daughter, Lorelei, shot over a period of a dozen years as she grew up—and Dazed And Confused boasts so much potential talent that it’s easy to imagine an alternative universe in which a completely different crew hit the big time, while people idly wonder whatever happened to the guy who played the creepy drawling jailbait specialist, or the maniacal hazing enthusiast. A complete account of all the possibilities would take longer to read than the movie takes to watch, but here are a few of the choicest what-ifs.
Who he played: Don Dawson, the overalls-clad blond who’s hot for teacher.
What he’s done since: Jenson worked steadily for seven years before making Dazed, appearing in numerous horror films and the original Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But by 1997, he’d pretty much left the business, though he’s had a handful of tiny roles in obscure projects over the last decade.
Who he might have been: Seann William Scott. This is by far the most mysterious failure to launch in the cast, as Jenson’s Don Dawson is a lovable lunkhead for the ages. He comes across as the sort of guy people always want in their corner: fun, loyal, good-natured, relaxed, even a little wise. Don’s advice to young Mitch about how to attract Julie (”Like, if she asks you to ride out there with her, you don’t do it. You say something like, ‘Nah, got my own ride, but maybe I’ll see you later.’ Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? It works.”) might be the best speech in the movie, and Jenson rattles it off like a consummate pro, beautifully representing an idealized helpful upperclassman. (Bear in mind that Mitch is, in part, Linklater’s alter ego.) On top of which, he was classically handsome in a sort of Peter Gallagher way, with those bushy eyebrows. No reason he couldn’t have gone on to play Stifler-type parts in Hollywood comedies. It just never happened. Maybe the name ‘Sasha’ was still an impediment back then? It certainly wouldn’t be today.
Who she played: Jodi Kramer, Mitch’s misguidedly protective older sister.
What she’s done since: A lot of television, most notably as Jo in the Canadian series Little Men, based on Louisa May Alcott’s sequel to Little Women. Her only significant film appearance following Dazed was as Charlie Sheen’s ex-girlfriend in Major League II.
Who she might have been: Katie Holmes. Burke seems a bit too wholesome for movie stardom, but it’s surprising that she didn’t have more success on the small screen, as she would have been ideal for one of the various teen soaps that became popular later in the ’90s. As Jodi, she’s the least sadistic of the girls conducting the humiliating initiation ritual, even furtively apologizing for her lack of enthusiasm (“I’m supposed to be being a bitch”)—though it certainly helps to be opposite Parker Posey at her most manic. At the same time, Jodi isn’t above dragging Pink out to the woods for a makeout session, then suddenly reminding him that he has a girlfriend when he starts feeling her up; Burke conveys the character’s playful, slightly lascivious side as well as her fundamental decency, and she might well have excelled as the most superficially straitlaced female member of a romantic ensemble. On the other hand, she didn’t end up starring in Teaching Mrs. Tingle or fleeing a marriage to Tom Cruise, so maybe it was all for the best.
Who he played: Hirschfelder, the tubbiest of Mitch’s friends, who helps engineer their revenge on O’Bannion.
What he’s done since: Virtually nothing. Six credits after his debut in Dazed, in movies nobody’s ever heard of, and only one credit since 1999. However, judging from his IMDB photos, he’s changed his appearance radically, to the point where he’s nearly unrecognizable as the same person who played Hirschfelder.
Who he might have been: Crispin Glover. That may seem like a stretch, but there’s something mesmerizingly offbeat about Fox even in this tiny role—an intensity that makes the character seem like he’s perpetually on the verge of snapping. At one point, Hirschfelder’s two buddies show up at the year’s final junior-high mixer and find him making out with a hot blonde, who seems distraught when they pull him away; because Fox was short and overweight at the time, this seems like a potential incongruity, but his presence is such that it actually makes perfect sense that he’s the one who’s “getting there,” as he puts it. Consequently, it’s not at all surprising to discover that Fox grew up into a rail-thin, vaguely elfin-looking fellow who looks like he’d be right at home playing slightly dangerous eccentrics. Actually, it’s odd that Linklater hasn’t used him again—he got a “thanks” in the closing credits for 1996’s subUrbia, so they clearly kept in touch, at least for a little while. Perhaps there’s a story here we don’t know, and perhaps it’s somehow related to his credit as “Himself” in Jonas Brothers: Living The Dream. We can hope, anyway.
Who she played: Sabrina, the sweet incoming freshman who gets involved with Anthony Rapp’s Tony.
What she’s done since: Exactly five more roles, all on television, between 1993 and 1997. She apparently gave up acting after that, at least onscreen.
Who she might have been: Christin Hinojosa. Which is to say, had she gone on to greater success, it would likely have been in her own unique mold, as her wonderful performance in Dazed, much more than any of the others in the film, feels as if it’s an extension of her own personality. In this case, it’s not really surprising that bigger things never beckoned, since Sabrina’s bashful awkwardness is central to the character’s appeal—it’s not easy to think of existing parts Hinojosa could easily have played. At the same time, uncertainty, like any other quality, is hard to project onscreen without looking phony; it’s entirely possible to look awkwardly awkward, but Hinojosa deftly avoids any cringe-making spectacle. Had somebody gotten excited about her and decided to craft her a showcase, the result might have been amazing. She wouldn’t have been at all right for My So-Called Life, but that’s the kind of vehicle she could potentially have found a home in, given a Linklater-caliber showrunner to shepherd her along.
Who he played: Mitch, boy hero.
What he’s done since: Be quietly awesome.
Who he might have been: Paul Dano. Unlike the folks noted above, Wiggins has had a couple of high-profile post-Dazed roles: Linklater cast him as the central figure in his 2001 animated feature Waking Life, and in 2013, he appeared as a programmer in Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, looking wonderfully befuddled as he struggled with software that seems alternately suicidal and homicidal. He’s also a well-known writer/blogger with a keen interest in the intersection of technology and copyright law. He’s doing fine. Still, given how perfectly he nails both Mitch’s sour-lemon expressions of frustration and Computer Chess’ retro-geek sensibility, it’s a shame he hasn’t done more acting over the years. In particular, he seems like the ideal fit for many of the wispy man-child roles that go to Paul Dano, who tends to oversell the “child” half of that equation. Wiggins, to judge from his recent work, embodies the same sort of spacey ingenuousness without indulging in so much look-at-me angst. If Linklater and Bujalski can coax great work from him, think what, say, P.T. Anderson might have done in There Will Be Blood. If nothing else, given Linklater’s penchant for continuing stories, maybe it’s time to revisit Mitch.