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The Angry Zen of Matt Dillon

He’s the reluctant icon, a simple kid from the suburbs who has battled the system and himself for decades, so why the hell is he still fighting?

Matt Dillon

Matt Dillon at Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, California, June 22th, 2006.

J.Sciulli/WireImage/Getty

I‘ve got to tell you something,” Matt Dillon says. “I’m not particularly interested in my past. I’m interested in my life now. I’m into the future. I mean, I feel like every time I do one of these things, everyone’s always like, What was it like to be discovered?’ When, sort of, like, really, at this point in time, I’m just here with you.”

Dillon pulls his gigantic eyebrows together, just his chin forward and puts on a fairly big “don’t take it personally”-type smile that may or may not be real, him being an actor — Oscar-nominated for his racist-cop part in Crash and about to show up as a fictionalized version of tender tough guy Charles Bukowski in an adaptation of Bukowski’s novel Factotum. He seems like an OK enough fellow, though, and it’s certainly understandable, his desire not to have to once again tell the tale of his discovery at the age of fourteen, a rough kid with long hair and two broken front teeth ambling through the halls of a public junior high in Mamaroneck, New York. But one thing soon becomes clear: Dillon loves the sound of his own deep voice, and he’ll probably get around to telling the story anyway.

Meanwhile, the present awaits, inside a hidden-away old-school Italian restaurant called Gino, in midtown Manhattan. As it happens, Dillon is partial to lots of things Italian. A few years ago, he decided he needed a second language, so he studied Italian (“I’m conversational”) and along the way, courtesy of an Italian girlfriend, picked up a few Italian hand gestures, including the one for “Let’s get together a little bit later and not let anyone know.” Today, though, he forges ahead in his native tongue.

“How’s the prosciutto?” he asks the waiter.

“If it’s not good we don’t give it to you.”

“Terrific. What’s the veal Capri?”

“Thin slices of veal dipped in an egg batter, with lemon, white wine and capers.”

“OK. I’m going with the veal piccata.”

“All right. The same veal, dipped in nothing.”

“Yeah,” Dillon says, not even cracking a smile. “And broccoli rabe. And let’s have the clams, too. The little big ones.”

And so there you have it, a thin slice of Matt Dillon, 42, dipped in nothing, at this point in time, just here with you, clams on their way, and not particularly interested in the past.

Mangia!

Dillon’s made quite a slippery-slidey name for himself dring his twenty-eight years in the moviemaking business. No sooner does he get tagged a Tiger Beat-worthy teen idol for his first starring-role film, Little Darlings (1980), than he factors in a twist of angst-ridden rebel, with Francis Ford Coppola’s twin 1983 adaptations of S.E. Hinton’s novels The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, than he displays a flair for comedy, in The Flamingo Kid (1984), than he fades into B-movie obscurity for a few years, then returns spectacularly, by shading himself dark as a likable junkie in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (1989), than he finds himself drifting once more, than he returns triumphant in the classic sicko comedy There’s Something About Mary (1998, as a funky-toothed, dog-electrocuting detective) and the sexed-up noir drama Wild Things (1998).

From there, he fades yet again and nearly loses his marbles, while struggling to make his own movie, the melancholy caper flick City of Ghosts (2003), which earns only around $300,000 at the box office. After that, he gets paid doodly-squat to play that bigoted LAPD cop in Crash and a similar amount for Factotum, demands a handsome fee to appear with Lindsay Lohan and a Volkswagen in Herbie: Fully Loaded, and in 2006 becomes bankable once again, due to his Oscar nomination, only to then make his first outing of the year in the great big summer stinker You, Me and Dupree. It’s not a unique journey by Hollywood standards, but it does amply illustrate his longstanding ability to confound the pigeon-holers; only Johnny Depp does it better.

And because of this steadfast refusal to play the game — he lives in Manhattan, doesn’t even own a place in L.A. — his acting peers tend to gush over him. “Matt makes his choices based on things other than money and fame,” they say. And, “The character choices he makes … there’s an artist in his heart.” And, most spectacularly, from Cameron Diaz, in the midst of their three-year love affair in the late Nineties: “Matty, he’s the best. He’s one of a kind…. He’s never taken that commercial route. He’s an intelligent, poetic, full, real human being. And he’s down-to-earth. Matt is the greatest!”

He’s also pretty good with the one-liners (“You know, more and more I don’t have one-night stands,” he says. “I have four-or five-night stands”). At the same time, though, he often says puzzling things like “Not that I have anything to hide, but there’s lots of things I don’t want to talk about. Like, why do people need to know about my life?” Well, because it may suggest explanations that might not be self-evident.

“Growing up, I wasn’t a great student,” he says at one point. “When I was seven, I’d get these really bad hallucinatory fevers. I remember once seeing a print of this woman wearing a huge hat, and I could see her head just caught on fire. Flames. Flames. It turned out that I had a blockage in my bladder and had to have an operation and was out of school a lot. So, for me, I’ve always had this feeling that I didn’t know what I was talking about or what I was doing. Nobody ever said I was dumb. I often impressed teachers, a surprise. But I sort of heard that stuff in my head.” He drums his fingers on the table and shrugs, like it’s no big deal, but those kinds of voices are always a big deal, if only because they influence how you act and, most especially, how you react to the great big wonderful world around you.

In junior high, in the leafy suburbs of Mamaroneck, about an hour north of Manhattan, Dillon hung out with the misfits. He had four brothers (among them Kevin, nearly two years younger and now a big star himself, on HBO’s Entourage, playing an actor long overshadowed by his actor brother, not too different from real life) and a sister and a nine-to-five businessman dad and a stay-at-home mom. He was fourteen and had already developed a fondness for cigarettes (the same brand as his pop’s, Chesterfields), booze and weed. “I was a little bit ahead of the game for most people,” he likes to say. He loitered in restaurant parking lots and got into fistfights. “I would fight in a second,” he says. “It wasn’t out of rage. It was an adrenaline thing and the machismo and everything.” His friends were Italian toughs with names like Anthony and Bruno. One day, late as usual, he was making his way to art class when he saw these two adults talking to a few students. He didn’t know who they were and didn’t care. He avoided them. Then they saw him.

“Hey! Can we talk to you for a second?”

“Uh, eh, what do you want?”

“We’re making a film and looking for people to be in it.”

“A movie? Really?”

In the days that followed, Dillon took the Metro-North train into Manhattan multiple times to audition for a movie about troubled teenagers titled Over the Edge. One rainy afternoon, before the trip, he got into a fistfight (“I’d say I came out on top”) and arrived soaking wet, with his shirt ripped. He had those two busted front teeth. He eased up to a mirror, hauled out his comb and slicked his hair back sweet, like right out of an early Bruce Springsteen song — much to the delight of the movie people, who thought he looked perfect, with the perfect attitude to go with it. They began ad-libbing, the adults as cops, Dillon as a mouthy punk.

“What does your dad do?”

“He’s a fucking businessman.”

“What does your mother do?”

“She don’t do shit.”

“More of that!” director Jonathan Kaplan shouted happily. “Yeah! Curse more. Yeah!”

Dillon got the job and from then on knew what he wanted to do with his life. Twice a week he took acting classes in Manhattan, at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. Afterward, he’d further educate himself by seeing movies like On the Waterfront and Rebel Without a Cause, and then he might go out to clubs like CBGB, Max’s Kansas City and the Mudd Club, where he rubbed shoulders with Andy Warhol and Sylvia Miles.

And then there was his other world — “hanging out in the park,” says Dillon, “fucking up in school, getting loaded with my friends, listening to rock music. Nothing heavy, but kind of heavy when you think about where that leads. Imagine being in a bedroom with a friend who’s a year older, and he starts fixing up right in front of you. Liquid morphine. Like it was nothing. Yeah, I was a little wild and on a course for misspent youth, you know what I mean? But my parents made it very clear what was unacceptable, and that saved me. I have to be honest. I got out lucky.” He pauses to collect his thoughts and then says what he often says at moments like this: “I normally wouldn’t talk about it. But I can talk about it now, because time has passed.”

When Dillon’s second movie, Little Darlings, was released, he almost instantly became a teen idol, appearing on the cover of magazines like Tiger Beat, which posed goofy questions such as, “Can you give him all the love he needs — and wants?” Determined to find out, chicks cruised by his house day and night and dropped by his school in their Camaros to see if he could come out for a ride and maybe make out a little. This was good stuff. But for the most part, Dillon wasn’t happy: “As far as the hype and the fame thing, the novelty wears off pretty quick. And I hated the perceived lack of respect. Heartthrob? Teen idol? Nobody wants to be called that shit. It wasn’t what I was about. And it wasn’t anything I was ever comfortable with, period.”

Actually, all protestations aside, Dillon has done quite nicely with the retelling of his discovery story and in more detail, he says, than ever before (“I gave it to you better than I gave it to anybody”). But that’s the way he is: Get him going and he easily loses himself in the drama of it all. When he says, “Nobody wants to be called that shit,” he spits the line out, like he’s right back there. His big bushy brows twitch with dismay, his rock-solid chin grows even more rock-solid. You have to watch out with Dillon, however, because if you give him too much slack, he’ll turn all poetic on you and start talking about “the sad grandeur of Manhattan” and quoting haikus by Jack Kerouac (” ‘The lonely businessman walks across the football field at night,’ or something like that”).

In fact, he can be exceedingly long-winded. A story he tells about going to L.A. at the age of fourteen to work on Over the Edge, for instance, ends up involving the Chateau Marmont hotel; Walter Matthau and Shelley Winters (who, he says, “kept calling me Malcolm. ‘Malcolm.’ Over and over again. I kept telling her, ‘It’s Matt.’ ‘Malcolm. Malcolm’ “) and the old McCarthy blacklist; Lana Turner and Schwab’s Drugstore, “which is now the Virgin Megastore”; “a magician on Hollywood Boulevard — I stayed on the guy’s sofa”; cops who say, “Kid, why aren’t you in school?” and then proceed to haul him downtown and say, “OK, punk, how many times you been down here?” and “We know how to deal with punks like you,” and him saying, “I’m here making a movie!” and them saying, “What, a skin flick?” and finally letting him go, and it all being “really interesting now that I play this cop in Crash, because I had my own prejudices that’ve been there since that trip”; food at the legendary Musso & Frank Grill; a visit to his manager Vic Ramos’ office; a cup of coffee; a sighting of Richard Gere and “all the beautiful women, too old for me,” although at the age of nineteen, he did have a twenty-nine-year-old girlfriend; and so on, etc., at the end of which he sits back in his chair, refocuses on the present, including his order of little big clams, and says, “Anyway, it’s nothing that interesting to talk about.”

For the most part, he’s right about that. The main problem is that he never gets to the point, or maybe the point is so submerged it’s beyond understanding by anyone but him. But does that deter him? No, it doesn’t. He’s relentless like that, when he wants to be.

How old were you when you lost your virginity?

“I was young. I’m not going to talk about it.”

You aren’t?

“No.”

But just the age?

“I’m not telling you the exact age.”

Get out of here!

“OK,” Dillon says. “I was fourteen. To my first girlfriend. And all I can tell you is, she was hellbent on marriage, maturity and disco, and I was the antithesis of all that. Rock & roll. Led Zeppelin. The Who. Still, we were young, and I loved her.”

And he’s apparently loved a lot since then, too, especially during his early days of living in Manhattan, when he really got around; indeed, about seven years ago, one local twinkie said, “Ask any attractive girl in her late twenties in Manhattan, and she’ll tell you a Matt Dillon story.” This is something Dillon doesn’t mind talking about, however.

“At one point,” he starts off, “I was going out with this semifamous actress, real trouble, and we had a really weird relationship, and I was just crazy about her. But she left me high and dry right before Christmas, and for the next year this friend and I just hung out at this place called Blanches, on Avenue A, playing pool, and it was like we were on a pirate ship. Very roguish. Hard-charging, total womanizing and debauched bohemianism. I mean, I definitely needed help.

“But that was then,” he goes on. “That was another time. Certain things I did I would never do now. Like, in the back seat of a moving taxi going up Sixth Avenue. It’s totally dangerous. You put your seat belt on now. Back then” — he smacks his hands together — “you got busy. Those, ha-ha, are the subtle distinctions between then and now.”

So you’re no longer a womanizer?

“I don’t even like that word. Bukowski always said a womanizer is a guy who leads a woman on and breaks her heart. That’s not what I was.”

What were you?

“I don’t know. Just a young guy enjoying New York.” He pauses, waiting to see what occurs to him next. “I mean, there was one time I knew I was going to score with this girl, because I sort of provoked her, needling her, and she slapped me. That was it. I knew I was in. I could see she had that fire. And she was hot. Actually, there were three of us that hung out together. One guy was Sloppy, one guy was Shaky, ’cause he used to shake a lot, and one was Slappy. I was Slappy. They were insane, silliness, wild times, drinking until the sun came up and, again, a long time ago. It’s less like volume now and more like meaningful one-night stands that happen again and again. Some people might call them booty calls. No. Ha-ha. That’s not right. But you know what I’m saying,” he says, and you kind of do and you kind of don’t, which is how Dillon sometimes likes to play things, making himself hard to pin down, which may also partially explain the demise of his three-year relationship with Cameron Diaz.

“It had to do with geography and just, you know,” he says, uneasily. “When something isn’t happening — look, I loved her and we were very close, but it just ran its course. We’re both actors, she was living in L.A., and I was living in New York, and I didn’t want to commit to moving out there. But I don’t want to say it was about any of those things. It just ran its course,” he says again. “You know?”

Tripe he won’t eat. He sometimes uses phrases like “beats a sharp stick in the eye” and sometimes calls people Chief or Jack, and once said, “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager, and the best advice I can give is ‘Let the teeth do the work.’ ” He used to smoke, but no longer. His biggest vice these days is coffee, lots of coffee. He’s a serious bowler. He is “pretty sure” that Quentin Tarantino wrote the Butch the boxer role in Pulp Fiction with him in mind. In his fridge he’s got a lot of cod-liver oil, as well as a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.

He’s an avid reader. It turns out that in his early twenties, Dillon was a huge Charles Bukowski fan and read almost all of his novels and short stories, about lowlife drinking and lowlife women on skid row. It’s funny, horrible stuff, and when it came time to playing Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Chinaski, Dillon called the writer’s wife to find out more. Among other things, she told him that Buk wasn’t interested in clothing but that, contrary to popular perception, he wasn’t a slob. In fact, he was neat and clean. “Knowing that really helped me,” says Dillon. “It helped me tap into his dignity, in the fact that he had a certain sense of order and carried himself well. Anyway, in my twenties, what I loved was the hard living, the irreverence, the honesty, the laughing and seeing the world as a comedy. That’s really great. That’s what I liked more about Bukowski than anything.”

Around the time of The Diaz breakup, Dillon decided that he needed to write and direct a movie of his own and embarked on the four-year journey that ended up being called City of Ghosts, a 2003 psychological thriller shot in the dust and confusion of Cambodia. “I was at a frustrated point in which my life was unacceptable,” he says. “And when I was done with the movie, I was off the deep end. You know what I mean? Really off the deep end.”

What happened was, he took a trip to Bali, found himself disgusted by “the world of wealthy bourgeois people” and decided that he wanted to be “back in the gutter, back in Phnom Penh, getting beat up by drunk men on the dirty sidewalk. That was my head.” Where he ended up, though, was in Luang Prabang, in Laos, a beautiful jewel box of a town. To Dillon, however, it was boring as hell.

So he started drinking, then ran into a friend and drank some more: “I wasn’t used to being idle and just being alone with my thoughts or feelings. And then one night I got into an altercation with some asshole Australian backpacker. I figured it was a head butt. I didn’t see it coming. I went down and was momentarily out. I hit the ground with two joints in my hand and threw them, saying to myself, ‘Now I’m going to have to do something.’ I got up. I don’t talk about it much, because it’s kind of embarrassing. I started pounding him. He was trying to get away from me. I was out of my mind.”

And then, falteringly and with much exertion, Dillon says, “Look, I wasn’t in a war and in a post-traumatic-stress situation. But making that movie was kind of a war. It didn’t have the same stakes, obviously. But it felt like it.” He sighs. “You learn tolerance and patience when you become famous or you get in a lot of trouble. I work on my selfdestructive behaviors. I try to get past them. There’ve been times when I’m very prone toward anger. And if I look at my anger, there’s usually fear behind it. Some sort of fear of something. I’d been drinking that night. I made some bad decisions. My judgment wasn’t the best.”

But that kind of introspection and honesty only lasts for a minute.

Was that the last time you were in a fight?

“I don’t know,” he says, looking away. “Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t keep track.”

He’s got a sweet little pad on the Upper West Side, not too far from the Museum of Natural History, that’s got lots of art on the walls (Chris Burden, Weegee, John Waters), lots of record albums in a cabinet (mostly ethnic music and jazz of the Afro-Cuban variety). He points to the frame on one wall and says, “These are wanted posters for kids that ran away from a reform school in California, 1899.” He begins reading the description belonging to one Clell Dempsey: “Powerfully built boy, weight 150, large head, long face, median furrow of upper lip accentuated, has a mean sneering and a stubborn countenance.”

He takes a seat on a couch. Yesterday, he wore black jeans and black lace-up shoes, which is pretty much what he’s wearing today. He says, “Deep down I think I’m pretty easygoing, but life circumstances get to you. My mom used to say to me, ‘What happened to you, Matt? You used to be such an easygoing kid.’ Starting to act at a young age puts certain pressures on you. You sometimes feel you’re in a battle when other kids are just being kids. You’ve got to sink or swim, Jack.”

Then, a while later, looking back at his long career, he says, “I like playing unlikable characters. I’m surprised by how many actors are afraid of coming off like a bitch or not a good guy. But playing an unlikable character can be very interesting sometimes. We all have these character defects and flaws,” he says. “We’re all human.” 

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