Matt Dillon: Tough Guy

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He sits alone, slouching on the phone at an outdoor table at the Maritime Hotel, in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. All grown up now, a little scruffy around the edges. Not in a bad way, just not trying to look perfect, wearing the kind of canvas jacket and jeans you might see on a handyman-style hipster.

Matt Dillon has been a movie star since 1979, when a film director spotted the 14-year-old, black Irish altar boy from New Rochelle cutting class one day, and promptly cast him in the anarchy-in-suburbia, teen angst drama Over the Edge.

For young girls, Dillon’s low, slow, gravelly voice suggested he definitely knew his way around a game of spin-the-bottle; it didn’t hurt that his bone structure was as pretty as Ali McGraw’s. Next, perhaps inevitably, came Little Darlings, the seminal teen devirginization film, where Dillon played the agent of Kristy McNichol’s deflowering.

So began Dillon’s iconic reign as the tarnished crown prince of early ’80s, troubled teen films. He filled a gap in the brotherhood of leather jacket rebels somewhere between Fonzie (too light) and James Dean (too dark). It’s not that his characters weren’t brainy; it’s more that brains weren’t the point of them—they required feral instincts. His boys weren’t bad, per se—just sort of not conscious enough—street toughies with surplus animal magnetism who were too uncivilized to know they were a little too slick. His characters had no sudden blasts of realization that profoundly redeemed them; they were barely redeemable.

Matt Dillon fans post montages of his glamour stills on YouTube, enshrining the boy in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. Girls just can’t seem to forget that skinny white cobra spine curving up from his hips, that torso that always looked a little too long for his pants. Even in those hard-boiled, gutter-boy roles, one could recognize the humanity in Dillon, in the one condition he has always delivered especially well: bewilderment while confronting uncontrollable circumstances. Weary awe in the face of his plight as a small cog in an unknowably large machine. Parenthetical arches crease his forehead. His eyebrows, thick bars as straight as black Band-Aids, form an inverted V over quizzical round eyes, still and reflective as cold coffee. A cigarette dangles out of his wide Kool-Aid lips. White shoulders shrug the straps of a wife-beater. It’s a face that registers the ultimate human question: What’s a guy supposed to do?

After the luckless pretty-boy roles came a spate of comedies, in which Dillon, an unlikely candidate for such fare, proved to be surprisingly capable. Then came 2005’s Crash, the most unexpected turn of all, for which he earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a racist cop, signaling a new phase in the evolution of Matt Dillon’s screen persona: the serious heavy.

In this mode, Dillon has three films on the near horizon, including Armored, a heist movie with Jean Reno and Laurence Fishburne, and December’s Nothing But the Truth—a drama inspired by Judith Miller’s role in the Valerie Plame Wilson case—costarring Kate Beckinsale. The latter film, he says, focuses primarily on the First Amendment, and a journalist’s right to protect sources. Dillon plays a character loosely based on the lawyer Patrick Fitzgerald. “I think the script was written maybe before all the facts came out,” he said, of the Plame case. “It’s a different take on the thing.”

For a gal of my generation, interviewing Matt Dillon is more or less the equivalent of your average Joe journalist trying to responsibly interview Pamela Anderson. He’s a guy whose teenage body I’ve seen topless on bedroom walls a thousand times. Meeting him also carries with it the fear of too many potholes, too many ways to project one-way intimacies and unprofessionally flirty vibrations.

And so, I ask him, Were you smoking when you were first discovered for Over the Edge? “No,” he replies. “Back then we used to smoke in the girls’ bathroom.” You were a badass? “I thought so. At 14, I thought I knew everything.”

From the looks of it, he kind of did know everything. For instance, that scene where he meets Kristy McNichol in Little Darlings was so sophisticated. Their chemistry looks so adult. It’s so frankly sexy. One can’t imagine that movie going over at all, today—everyone would be arrested. “Oh, watch The Bad News Bears,” he agrees. “It is so politically incorrect, you cannot even believe. It could never be made now. Walter Matthau driving drunk, the kids drinking beer, smoking cigarettes. Using racial slurs.”

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Dillon, a sex object at such a young age, says today that he doesn’t feel exploited by the outpouring of glossy photos back in the day showing him in a variety of All-American shirtless hunk poses. “It was an outlet to promote the films,” he recalls. “I probably wouldn’t have done that today. I didn’t think of it as a big deal. I never liked that stuff. I guess I did a fair amount of it… It was part of the journey. It was fairly innocent.” Such was his preeminence as a Tiger Beat heartthrob that teenage girls screamed, Beatles-stepping-off-a-plane-style, at the sight of him.

“Yeah, I got chased down the street in Tokyo,” he recalls. “I remember being so drunk. I was 15 years old in a bar. They had hostesses who would pour your drink for you, and put their hand on your knee—pretty innocent stuff. People were getting up, singing karaoke. I sang ‘On the Road Again’ with some people. And then… it’s almost like, did I do that? Did I pick up the hostess, run up the stairs and run down the street in the Ginza area of Tokyo? It was crazy. If a 15-year-old actor today was doing a press tour, it would be frowned upon if he was drinking whiskey and getting hammered in a karaoke bar and running down the street carrying a hostess. In those days, people could have fun.”

Watching the nuances of his acting in films back then, it’s clear that the young Dillon used different muscles to interpret his character, most notably those in the eyebrows and tongue. “You did a lot of tongue acting,” I tell him. “I don’t know what that means!” he protests.

But he ought to know. The tongue figures heavily in a lot of earlier Dillon close-ups, up to and including Drugstore Cowboy. It is especially evident in a scene from Little Darlings. The camera lingers an extra beat while Dillon’s tongue unconsciously rolls around in his mouth in a subtle wolf pant. Even now, the scene is so jam-packed with innuendo, it’s amazing that it didn’t lead to the reinstatement of the Hays Act.

Dillon’s shift to comedy in 1998 may have initially confused his fan base. Suddenly, the greasy lover-boy sported a mustache across his upper lip, coming across like a slightly more mookish version of Dan Ackroyd or John Cleese. Not exactly the straight man, but not exactly the screamingly funny guy either in There’s Something About Mary and You, Me and Dupree, Dillon built nuanced characters who entertained precisely because they weren’t overtly milking the audience for laughs. Were these performances fully appreciated? Could anyone really notice refined artistry in “dick-in-the-zipper” comedies? I wondered if Hollywood, and moviegoers in general, were confounded by Dillon’s switch.

“There are a lot of people out there who don’t go to movies that often, and they catch a comedy and they think of me as being ‘that guy,’ ” Dillon says. “Certain people latch onto certain roles. There are guys who grew up in New York in the early 1960s, who latch onto that Flamingo Kid, car-parking, cabana-boy thing. There are recovering drug addicts who focus on Drugstore Cowboy.”

If I had to explain Matt Dillon to aliens and had to do it in one video clip, I tell him, it would probably be Rusty James from Rumble Fish. “You would explain me as that?” he counters. “I was still developing. I mean, I was 18 when I did that. Naturally, I’d pick the movie that I wrote and directed [City of Ghosts, 2002]. That was a truer expression of what I was doing at the time. Let me ask you something. What have you seen of my recent stuff? You know what the worst thing you can tell an author is? ‘I loved your first book!’ ” “But I’m writing about you as an icon,” I say. “I’m thinking about your whole body of work.”

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He’s not having it. “If you look at the lineage of my movies, I would connect Over the Edge to the two Coppola movies (The Outsiders, Rumble Fish), to Drugstore Cowboy to City of Ghosts.” Of all the things underappreciated about Matt Dillon, City of Ghosts perhaps best captures the man’s taste, work ethic and creative powers. A six-year labor of love, the film, co-written and directed by Dillon, was shot primarily in Phnom Penh in 2002 and studies the karmic payback of an insurance salesman gone bad. But that’s not the only project that Dillon is proud of, and it’s not the only one that shows his mastery of challenging material. “I did a film with Danny Glover,” he says, “called The Saint of Fort Washington where I played a homeless schizophrenic. Did you see that?”

“I’m sorry!” I say sheepishly. This makes Dillon flail with gestures of mock desperation. “You did all this research on the Internet,” he says, “but you didn’t see any of my movies! Please… catch up!”

There are far less pleasurable ways to spend one’s time. A close look at Dillon’s resume reveals that he is an actor who is comfortable taking risks, including a couple of haphazard, improvisational projects like an episode of Fishing with John [Lurie], in which an unregistered prop-plane deposits Messrs. Dillon and Lurie into a remote jungle outpost of Costa Rica to learn a native “fish dance.”

Another of Dillon’s favorite below-the-radar performances is his ode to Charles Bukowski’s alter ego, Henry Chinaski, in Factotum. “It was risky,” he says of the 2005 drama. “I had to do a scene where I have the crabs, and Lili Taylor puts this sumo diaper on me and I’m walking around… I never thought I’d do that.”

As for his Oscar-nominated turn in Crash, Dillon is disarmingly humble. “I didn’t know how it was going to play out,” he says. “I’d tell my friends, ‘Yeah I’m doing this movie where I play the racist cop.’ ” The role did more than work out for him; it was a pleasant surprise for critics that his craft had matured to such a high degree. Dillon finally got the respect he craved as a teen, as an actor who could really deliver gravitas. I ask Dillon if he thinks of himself more as a character actor these days, giving him an opening to discuss actor craft. It’s a suggestion that he sidesteps as quickly as if it had been on fire. But here’s a generous thing about Matt Dillon: Even if you ask him something he’s already said he doesn’t want to talk about, he’ll sigh, think about it and try to give you a genuine answer.

“I didn’t used to know how to do melodrama,” he says. “I didn’t have enough confidence in my technique when I was younger. I had a hard time acting in scenes where I didn’t necessarily believe what was going on. I had to believe everything the character was doing all the time, or I couldn’t bring conviction to it. Now, I feel confident that I can do that. Gene Hackman gave me the best acting tip. He said, ‘Before you do a scene: Fill up!’ Two words. I totally understood! It’s just about being conscious in an emotional way.”

Dillon seems happy to change the subject from acting to a recent concern for the situation in post-cyclone Burma. Inspired by the life and recent passing of his friend (a Kenyan activist who inspired the Rachel Weisz character, Tessa Quayle, in The Constant Gardener), Dillon recently joined the board of Refugees International, an advocacy group based in Washington D.C., to educate himself and raise global awareness about the catastrophe.

“There was a major humanitarian crisis in Burma prior to the cyclone,” he says. “Tens of thousands of kids died of preventable diseases there every year before the cyclone. They were suffering from malnutrition. Refugees International is something I’m doing more on a personal level to get involved, to look outside my minuscule universe. Actors, we get so self-obsessed. We are human ‘beings,’ not human ‘doings.’ There are other things—it’s not just about my career. There are a lot of great stories in Burma, a lot of great stories in the world. I’m still not sure what I can do that can be ‘dutiful.’ A friend of mine in Burma said he wanted to be ‘useful.’ He had been raising money from friends in the West, using the money to buy supplies and then ferrying these goods down to people in the delta. He was burned out from it! He was tired! But he was doing humanitarian work. He wanted to be ‘dutiful.’ If we’re no longer useful, then what the hell are we doing here? If I’m not useful in some way to somebody… That’s the beauty of the Buddhist culture. My friend said if you take the phrase “I want peace” and take away the “I” and the “want”… that’s Buddhism.”

In this spirit, I thanked him for the interview. “Hope I was dutiful,” he said. We shook hands, and he went off into the New York night.

I went home and watched Factotum. It is, in fact, a great, underrated little poem of a movie. The script is beautifully patient, tender—and non-obviously hilarious. The nuances that were somewhat wasted in Dillon’s work with the Farrelly Brothers were well used in the character of Henry Chinaski.

In Barfly, Mickey Rourke’s Chinaski was a ham-fisted, baloney-faced antihero—an accident of fine artistic feelings, crudely wrapped in a drunken buffoon. Dillon took a harder road. He used no bluster, and went for big, quiet ironies. He transmits a powerfully stoic acceptance of life on its grisliest terms, and finds a kind of masochistic royalty and delight in the wretched beauty of the human condition. Factotum is the synthesis of two diametrically opposed Matt Dillons: the rough-edged, asphalt lover boy, and the flawed, unglamorous grown-up, who has nonetheless gained a certain refined humility through hard hits, achieving a kind of monkish glory in his devotion to art.

Matt Dillon is likeable, if a little guarded. He tells you, “I’m guarded” and crosses his arms over himself. Then he tries, with admirable humanity, to un-guard himself for you. The adult Matt Dillon is a Matt Dillon who seems to have traded vanity in for something more useful: a color-palette of nuances and delicately tuned emotional truths. You don’t have to be an actor or a Buddhist to notice that Matt Dillon has impressive interior design—he’s done a dutiful job of his own character construction.

Not that he couldn’t still be vain if he felt like it. He still has movie-star good looks. He just prefers to wear the beauty inside out these days. He’s filled up now, and looks better than ever.

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Photography by Ben Watts, styling by Elizabeth Sulcer.