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Rebel with a Cause

Matt Dillon Is trying to shed his angry young actor image.

It's Halloween night in New York City. Matt Dillon is cruising down Fifth Avenue toward Soho in a white stretch limousine. The 31-year-old actor peers through the tinted windows at the spectacle outside. The streets are wall-to-wall people, not to mention the hundreds of goons, goblins and freaks in full Halloween regalia.
About half an hour earlier, Dillon had attended designer Todd Oldham's fashion show at Manhattan's Bryant Park, where even more elaborate costumes and audacious characters were on show. It was the designer's Spring 1996 collection, and the chic, the trendy, the fashion critics and electrified paparazzi were out in full force. The scene was surreal as Dillon calmly watched the half-hour spectacle. The bright lights, blinding flashes, ear-piercing music and suffocating crowds numbed the senses. One minute Cindy Crawford, the next, Kate Moss--the display of women and clothes was head-spinning. The battery of giant lenses at the end of the catwalk wasn't sure whether to blast away at the supermodels prancing and spinning in front of the audience, or at Dillon with his fellow actors Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon sitting in the front row.
Back in the limo, Dillon is quiet and continues to gaze outside at the hysteria building on the pavement. The limo is crawling down the street due to the crowds. "I've had enough of this," Dillon says, feeling cooped up in the back of the car. He makes a quick move for the door. "I'm getting out. I wanna be out there in the city."
The heavy door of the limo swings open and Dillon emerges into the middle of the street. He grins ear to ear while he steps between the stationary cars, surveys the scene and flows into the crowd. He breathes deeply and walks briskly down the sidewalk, smiling and saying hello to just about anyone who recognizes him. He fires up a panatela-sized Hoyo de Monterrey Margarita. "Man, I love this city," he says, taking a drag on the Cuban cigar and walking through the masses of people. "This is what it's all about."
Unlike many young actors, Dillon is more at home in New York than Los Angeles. He loves its energy, and confesses that he can't get enough of its diversity. It is on the familiar streets of the city where he feels his roots and finds his inspiration. Standing 5 foot 11 inches, 170 pounds, the drop-dead handsome actor with his classically sculpted face and brooding good looks appears like a classic New Yorker--but more the aristocratic Italian than his immigrant Irish heritage. Those are the same features that early in his career led to the inevitable comparisons with a young Marlon Brando or the legendary James Dean. Dillon isn't one to rest on comparisons, or to let his New York base slow down his appetite for movie making. He already has 28 films to his credit. Some of his more successful ones include: My Bodyguard, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, The Flamingo Kid, Drugstore Cowboy, Singles, The Saint of Fort Washington and To Die For. His four most recently (or soon-to-be) released films are: Frankie Starlight, Grace of My Heart, Beautiful Girls and Albino Alligator.
"New York is a vibrant city," Dillon says during an interview in his Upper West Side apartment a few days after Halloween. "There is so much to do here. It's so diverse. But in L.A., the whole town seems to revolve around the industry. That's a good thing when you need to go for work and stuff like that, and I have a lot of friends out there--a lot of longtime friends--but I don't want to live there. I just don't like it. In L.A. you can spend days without seeing another person. You see other people in your car, but without really making contact with them. I mean you really exist that way!"
At least in New York, Dillon is open and friendly to people, especially when he's out on the streets, which might just be called Dillon territory. Dillon seems to enjoy meeting people, and often looks around the room in a restaurant or bar as if he were looking out for a good friend to join him. A small grin or the opening of the eyes from an unknown face usually receives some sort of acknowledgment or smile. He sometimes goes out of his way to recognize strangers.
"I don't have problems interacting with people for the most part--you know, just being polite," Dillon says. "Sometimes, of course, it is a nightmare. It can be a real pain in the neck. I don't think anything prepares you for it. It is a different thing, not being anonymous, and at a certain point, you realize if you really let this bother you, it will drive you mad. Better to accept it. Just enjoy yourself. If I was somebody who really wanted to be alone all the time and not have contact with people, I wouldn't live in the middle of the city."
There are limits. A scruffy passerby almost pushed the boundaries one afternoon when Dillon was sitting outside Manhattan's Les Halles restaurant on Park Avenue South. With slightly crazed eyes and a beard that hadn't seen a razor for the better part of a week, the young man demanded that Dillon sign his T-shirt with a large blue marker. "Hey, man," Dillon says in his rich voice. "I can't do that. No way, man. That's too much. But I will tell you something. I will sign this piece of paper here and you'll be fine." Puffing away on a Cuban Bolivar Belicoso at the time, he ripped a piece of the butcher paper table cover and signed his name. A warm smile came over the street stroller as he continued his way down the endless sidewalks of a New York afternoon, clutching his autograph.
Dillon hasn't always lived in Manhattan, but for most of his life, he's been in and out of New York City. He grew up in a Westchester County suburb, less than an hour's drive north of the city. His parents, both Irish Americans, still live in the same large 1910s house where Matt grew up with his sister and four brothers. His family has always been very important to him, and he telephones his parents several times a week and tries to visit them as often as possible. Holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas are always spent at home. "I am very close to my family," he says. "That's another reason why I choose to be in New York. Also, I still have a few friends that I have had since grammar school. They are very close to me, since before I was famous, and that's good....I had a very middle class upbringing," he adds. "There were always lots of kids in the neighborhood. So, you could always get enough together for a pickup game of baseball. We had a field at the end of the street."
Dillon never thought of being an actor in those days. His father was a sales manager for Union Camp, a manufacturer of packaging materials. His mother stayed at home and took care of the children. "I grew up in a very close family but by no means sheltered," he says. "None of my friends were sheltered. Most of the guys came from dysfunctional homes. I can't imagine coming from a too perfect family. That would be too sheltered. I wouldn't be the way I am today. I had a healthy balance.
"I ran with some pretty colorful characters [in high school], but I never doubted what would happen," he says. "I had direction in my life at a young age. Some guys around me were a little lost and some paid the price for it. I was fortunate to have direction and clarity. My career helped with this, but also it was my family. It was a very loving house. I know it may sound corny. But it was like that."
He started at 14 in the critically praised but seldom seen film Over the Edge, a story of disaffected youths living in a suburban housing project. The story most often told about how Dillon landed a part in the movie is that he was cutting class and some talent scouts who happened to be at his school asked him to take a part in the movie.
"That's kind of true," he says, slightly irritated to have to tell the story yet again. "But it wasn't so much that I got discovered off the bat. What happened was that they were looking for kids for the movie, so they went to my high school. I had seen them walking about and talking to kids. They asked 10 kids from my junior high school to audition. I remember I didn't want to audition, but they saw me in the hall because I wasn't in class. So, they asked me if I wanted to go for an audition. I said yes. For some reason, I knew I was going to get the job. I don't remember why. Maybe I was just naive or stupid."
He never really thought about a career in acting after Over the Edge; it just worked out that way. The casting director for the movie, Vic Ramos, became his manager and still is today. Dillon never graduated from high school. He was just too busy. Is he sorry he quit school? "No, not necessarily," he says. "I learned a lot anyway. I don't recommend it [dropping out] but it's the best thing I ever did. It's not like I really dropped out.
"A lot of people say I've missed out on a lot because I started acting at such a young age," he says. "What's so obvious to me is that I actually was really lucky. I gained a lot and I got a head start in what I wanted to do in life. A lot of people in their late 20s, early 30s are just beginning to figure out where they want to go."
You get the feeling that the older Dillon gets, the more he is enjoying himself. The days of being the pinup in just about every American teenage girl's bedroom are behind him. He is much more comfortable as Matt Dillon, actor, than Matt Dillon, teen idol. As a result, you don't get a lot of the "star" behavior out of Dillon. Most of his free time is spent with longtime friends, most of whom work outside of the film industry: businessmen, writers, painters, even chefs. "To be honest with you, there's nothing that bores me more than sitting around with a bunch of actors talking shop," he says. "I love actors and I've got friends that are actors. They're interesting people. But for some reason, usually when it comes round to talking shop, there's a part of me that doesn't like it."
This may be why he's seldom dated actresses and other celebrities. Periodically, his photograph appears in a tabloid newspaper or glossy magazine with a well-known pretty face. The most recent was actress Ellen Barkin in a December issue of Women's Wear Daily. "This happens all the time," he says. "I am just friends with Ellen. I haven't seen her since July. I wonder where they got the photograph.
"I am not involved with anyone seriously at the present time," he adds. "Generally speaking, I have not been involved in relationships with actresses or celebrities. If I meet an actress that I worked with, I might be interested. But it might be too complicated."
He says that he has never felt in a hurry to settle down anyway. "I do think about settling down one day, but I guess in some guys, it seems more imminent than others. Sometimes I'll be in a department store or something and I'll hear some kid scream and I'll think that's really scary. The thought of dealing with that. But of course what I really think, is that if you are with the right woman and you decide to have kids and the time is right, it's great. But in the abstract the thought is kind of frightening.
"The last time I was in a serious relationship was about a year ago. When I was younger, I would go from one relationship right into another. But it takes time and energy. It's not so much that I don't want to get into another relationship right away. It's just that I'm more particular about somebody I'm going to spend at least three or four days a week with--a serious relationship with that type of commitment--or spend every day, which is really what it comes down to. Certainly with me, I don't plan to do it more than once--you know, getting married. It's not some whimsical thing for me. I see that a lot, man. I can't believe so many people seem so whimsical about it."
Marriage would certainly be difficult on Dillon's schedule. Last year, he traveled a great deal due to the three films he made. He barely had time to enjoy life in New York. It has been tough for him to get back into a daily rhythm--working out in the gym in the morning, light lunches, reading scripts or doing other business in the afternoon, and going out to restaurants for dinner with friends. "I'm supposed to spend a lot of time reading [scripts] and I should do more of it than I do," he says. "My agent sends me a stack of scripts and says, Did you read this or did you read that. Sometimes you get behind. You can be the fastest reader, but sometimes you just look at it and go, 'I dread having to read another script.' It's not the best way to read, because script form is not a pure writing form. It's writing for something else. So usually you don't get a lot of pleasure from reading a script, even if it's good. It's something you don't want to do."
But surely he comes across a few good scripts that he can get into? "Yeah, oh sure," he says. "Yeah, that's a sign of a really good script, almost written to enjoy, like a novel or something. It's usually less technical and then you get caught up in it...more like a story which is really well written."
Dillon's script selection has certainly been interesting, to say the least. He has seldom opted for mainstream movies. He's never worried about whether the movie would be a huge success. Instead, it's been a question of a great role or simply a good plot, something that sparks his interest. "If there's something to work with that's good and if there's a conflict of the characters, that makes it more juicy, something colorful. A good script and director, of course, are the most important things. Sometimes I feel like I've done really good work, but it doesn't matter if the film doesn't work. The kind of films where I think the film worked, like The Flamingo Kid or Drugstore Cowboy or even Rumble Fish or The Saint of Fort Washington--they didn't do that well at the box office."
For example, two of his best films (in his opinion), Drugstore Cowboy and The Saint of Fort Washington, never pulled much at the box office. Stories about four junkies who rob drugstores or a pair of homeless men in New York are hardly going to fill theaters throughout America. However, both received some excellent reviews. Rumble Fish and to a lesser degree The Outsiders were the first films that began working for Dillon. Both released in 1983 and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the black and white films were based on novels by S.E. Hinton and explored the sociology of disaffected adolescents in small towns in the Midwest. In Rumble Fish, he played rough and tough Rusty-James, the younger brother of the super cool Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). "A lot of it had to do with working with Francis," Dillon recalls. "He's great. You get the feeling that anything can be possible with him. He has such a huge scope....He is a bigger-than-life kind of guy. We were down in Tulsa [to shoot Rumble Fish and The Outsiders] and we felt like an army came to town or maybe better yet, more like a circus. He came in and created this whole whirlwind, making these two films."
The next year, Dillon had another winner with The Flamingo Kid, a comedy that showed his range for something other than tough, sullen teenager roles. Dillon brought warmth and sincerity to his role as a young man from Brooklyn called Jeffrey, who lands a summer job at a Long Island beach club. He also drew a lot of laughs. Some critics said the movie was too sentimental, missing the opportunity to be something comparable to The Graduate or American Graffiti, but you
couldn't help but enjoy the film.
"In a funny way, when I was doing Flamingo Kid, it felt like college days [even though he never went to college or finished high school]," Dillon says. "I became friends with the guys in the film and they're still friends. It kind of felt like a big college experience. That's why I don't think I missed anything when I started acting at such a young age."
Nevertheless, he might have had his doubts by the time Drugstore Cowboy was released in 1989. Dillon had done seven movies since The Flamingo Kid in 1984, but none was very successful. Although a highlight was working with Gene Hackman in Target, released in 1985, most of the films during this period such as Rebel, Native Son, Big Town and Kansas went unnoticed. Some critics were beginning to label him as a B movie actor. He even admitted to a Boston Globe reporter in 1989 that his career had "fallen off a cliff."
Dillon's performance in Drugstore --as he calls it--was superb, and it lifted his career to a new level. He had the starring role as Bob Hughes, the leader of a band of four junkies who live by robbing drugstores. You wouldn't think a thieving junkie could be someone with whom you could empathize, but Dillon was more than convincing. Some people say it remains his best film to date. "Some jobs, while you are making them, you find yourself living the part," says Dillon, who spent time in some of the roughest parts of Manhattan watching and talking to drug addicts to prepare for the role. "You dream about them. You wake up thinking about it. That is a good sign. That was Drugstore. It was cool. It was fun to make. It was a small crew. The actors were great. It worked. It was one of those things where if it worked, it would be one of those things that was different and unique. And it turned out that way. Gus Van Sant [the director who also did the more recent To Die For with Dillon] was great. He thought more like an artist than just a straight-headed filmmaker. It is great to work with someone like that."
Although there were films such as A Kiss Before Dying, Mr. Wonderful and Singles, Dillon's acting career didn't really shine again until 1993 when The Saint of Fort Washington hit the streets. It's tough warming up to a young, homeless schizophrenic named Matthew, but that's exactly what happens in the film. It's mostly due to the chemistry between Dillon and costar Danny Glover, who plays his mentor and friend. There's a sad innocence and kindness to the two homeless men who find comfort in their friendship and companionship. Some critics found the movie a sugarcoated view of the plight of the homeless in New York City, but no one could deny that Dillon and Glover played their parts extremely well. In fact, some critics argued that the two men carried the film. Dillon says, "I felt like the character was a kind of blueprint for doing more. The story was beautifully written but the character needed a little more...a lot of detail. That's great, man, if you have something like that when you can bring a lot to making it your own."
Dillon released one film in 1994, Golden Gate, but the 1950s detective story was virtually overlooked by the public. Last year, he was in two films, Frankie Starlight and To Die For. People will better remember him for the latter. Although just a supporting role, Dillon's portrayal of Larry, the slightly vulgar Italian husband of the film's beautiful villainess (Nicole Kidman), attracted wide praise. He is on screen for a little less than two-thirds of the film--he's bumped off as the title suggests--but he gives the film an added dimension. "I felt like it was one of the funniest, most clever scripts I had ever read," Dillon says. "I really wanted to work with Gus. But I wasn't so sure about the film. [The character] is a little simple and he doesn't see through his wife. He just can't believe that his little sweetheart could kill him. It is a blind spot for him and he pays for it. It was fun doing it but it wasn't exactly a great challenge. I really wasn't satisfied with it personally for that reason."
Dillon has some more challenging parts in his forthcoming movies. He has three films due for release this year: Beautiful Girls, Albino Alligator and Grace of My Heart. Dillon is most enthusiastic about Albino Alligator. Part of this is due to the opportunity to work with Faye Dunaway, who Dillon says is "fabulous," but he also loves the plot. At the time of the interview, he didn't want to give away too much about the film, which was directed by Kevin Spacey. He said it focuses on three small-time crooks who pull a job and get cornered by police in a small bar with no back exit. "It becomes a lot more than just a hostage situation movie," he says. "I remember Kevin Spacey used to say to me, when people would say that this film is really a hostage drama, he

would tell them that they just don't get it. I love it...a hostage drama. So when I'm asked about the film, I'll just tell people that it's a hostage drama! It makes my life easier because it is about more than that. It takes place in more or less real time. We shot it in continuity and 90 percent of the action takes place all in one room, one location. It was a great experience because Kevin was the director and he's an actor, plus he's a pal and it was a great cast."
Beautiful Girls might be slightly less original by comparison, but Dillon remains very positive about the film. He calls it "a slice of life" movie about a small group of guys in their thirties, living in New England and driving snowplows, and how they relate to one another and sort out their lives--particularly their love lives. "It's funny that the title is called Beautiful Girls because it's really about guys talking about women, their relationships with women and, of course, their friendship. There were a lot of things in this film that hit home because the characters were so real. They're just regular guys doing their jobs and they make fun of what they do...there's a certain dignity that they have. I think a lot of people will relate to the characters."
Dillon has a supporting role in Grace of My Heart, a film about a young female musician, played by Ileana Douglas, and her various relationships. Dillon plays a musician, loosely based on Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who becomes involved with Douglas' character. "My character writes pop songs but he is kind of a genius," Dillon says. "It is a movie that follows the girl, who is a songwriter in the '50s, Carol King and that sort of thing. At first I am very sweet and then she finds that I am not all there. It was a good script and was interesting to do."
However, as interesting as all his films may have been to do, Dillon still lacks "the big picture" in his portfolio. He has never had the blockbuster film that will keep his name in the minds of Middle America and not just the movie cognoscenti. It's already happened to some of his peers who shared movies at the beginning of their careers. The most obvious examples are Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez and Patrick Swayze, all of whom Dillon worked with in The Outsiders. "I do a movie and I hope everybody gets to see it," Dillon says. "I'm not somebody who only makes cult movies. Sometimes they become cult movies and that's fine, but that's not why I make movies. I would love to do a really good audience picture, but sometimes it just doesn't get offered to you and that's just the way the ball bounces. I want to do big movies. I like big escapist films, certain action films, like The Fugitive."
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