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Rebel with a Cause

Matt Dillon Is trying to shed his angry young actor image.
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

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."

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