Rebel with a Cause

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

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Dillon apparently has been offered a few big action films in the past, but he has declined the offers. Of course, he didn't know when he turned down the parts that they would be huge successes at the box office. Besides, he doesn't like to talk about the ones that got away. But does he ever regret turning down a role? "It's hard to say, because I have a tendency to always think, to thine own self be true," he says. "I really believe that. You shouldn't do a film for the wrong reasons. I've got no regrets. I always feel like if I did a film, especially a big audience picture [for the wrong reason], maybe Tom Cruise or someone else would do it and it would be a hit, but if I do it for the wrong reason--maybe I'm not into it or whatever--then it's not going to be a hit. It's a tough one to say, because it's that 'what if?' scenario. Sometimes you can get into that [mind-set], and it doesn't make sense to do that."
To date, Dillon is happy with the choices he has made. "I've worked with some really great actors," he says. "I remember one time saying to my manager, 'Why do I always have to prove myself?' And he says, 'Guess what? You always will have to.' And that shut me right up. I don't like to throw clich├ęs out, but there is a kind of truth to the one that you are only as good as your last picture. Your whole body of work is really important, but it's your last picture that people remember."
Part of the problem with not getting the big part in a major movie is that Dillon remains typecast in some people's minds. Some continue to remember him as the angry young man. "There's a lot more that I am capable of doing than I have done," he says. "There's a lot more that I have to offer people. Some people would be surprised. If you really look at my body of work, it's not nearly as typecast as one might think. I have done a lot of roles and not just played brooding, angry young men."
What makes sense to Dillon at this point in his career is to try his hand at writing and directing. "Lately, I've been leaning toward developing my own material, because you end up spending a lot of time waiting for something good to come along," he says, adding that he has already directed several music videos for friends such as members of the alternative band Dinosaur Jr. "Of course, there are intangibles, like does the director want you or not, or maybe you like the project but they don't like you for the project. So I'm thinking, I have ideas, I should be putting them into something, try to bring them to fruition. That takes a certain kind of focus and discipline."
Living in New York, Dillon must contend with a lot of diversions. He's basically a bon vivant of cigars, restaurants, wines, museums, films, parties, exhibits, music, books and, of course, family and friends. It was a buddy, a chef named Pep Meyer, who got him into cigars. "I always enjoyed cigars before," the actor says, nursing his Trinidad down to the last inch. "I would go out to a good restaurant and I always would have a cigar. But I wasn't really into them. I couldn't tell a good cigar from a bad cigar. But Pep got me into it. It's another world, man. It's such an enjoyable thing. It's all about taste."
Before he got into cigars, Dillon smoked cigarettes, often up to two packs a day, especially when he was working on a film. "I wasn't smoking more then because I had to have a cigarette or because I was nervous for some reason. I just became more compulsive when I was working." Was it because he had to keep up some sort of image? "No, no," he says. "You know, that's the crazy thing. You smoke when you're a kid because you think it looks cool or whatever, and when you get older, you find that it's just this ugly habit. It's constant. It's like feeding. But one of the biggest surprises of my life was being able to quit cigarettes without that much trouble. I think a lot of it had to do with knowing that I could have that one cigar a day. I mean, I could smoke more than that, but generally speaking I smoke at night, maybe after dinner, or in the late afternoon."
Dillon loves thick, rich cigars, especially torpedos and robustos. His favorites are Cuban, particularly Sancho Panza Belicosos, Bolivar Belicoso Finos and Royal Coronas, and Montecristo No. 2s. His main humidor, which holds a couple of hundred cigars, is packed to the brim with them. He also likes a few Dominican cigars, mostly Arturo Fuente's new Opus X. He must have a good connection at Fuente, because the cigars are almost impossible to find. He also loves a Cuban Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch Double Corona, although he admits that it's difficult to find the time to smoke them since they last so long.
He still remembers the first time he bought a Cuban cigar. It was in Paris during the filming of Target. He was leaving Charles de Gaulle airport and bought a box of Cohiba Corona Especials in the duty-free shop. "The first thing I remember liking about Cohibas was that great bang of flavor," he says, taking another puff of the Trinidad and savoring it as if he was smoking that first Cohiba. "Now, of course, I think they are kind of overpriced. They are not my favorite cigar, to be honest."
As a young boy growing up in New York's suburbs, Dillon knew a family friend named "Uncle Tom," who seemed to always have a cigar attached to his hand. "He always smoked a big cigar. At least, it seemed big, but I was a wee lad at the time," he says with a comical Irish accent. "Then there was also the taxi dispatch office I used to go to with my mother. Offices like those always smell of cigars. It was there that I remember the first cigar I ever tasted. It was a stub sitting in one of those sand-filled ashtrays outside of elevators. I pulled it out of the ashtray and stuck it in my mouth. This gnarly old, nasty cigar. I sort of imagined I was one of those characters from the comic books, like Sergeant Rock.
"Of course, I also remember using a cigar to light fireworks on the Fourth of July. People would use matches all the time, but we would walk around with cigars. You know, I never had problems keeping those cigars lit. I wasn't even really smoking them. It's these expensive Cuban cigars that are difficult," he says, laughing, while holding the smoldering Trinidad.
Other fond memories of cigars include a trip to Havana. He was there a few years back for a film festival. "It's a fascinating country. Havana is a beautiful city," he says, adding that he was amazed he could smoke five or six cigars a day and not feel the worse for it due to the climate. "Aesthetically, I think it's beautiful, Havana, but there's a little sadness there. There are very few places in the world where time has stopped, and I want to see these places because they're going to change. I mean communism--it's pretty much obsolete. There are very few places in the world to stop like that. Most of them are in Southeast Asia like Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma. I've been to Cambodia and Vietnam. I thought they were really interesting. They were a little bit like an old haunted mansion, like that in a funny way, you know. And the people are beautiful down there; the people are great. They are beautiful places."
Does he have some kind of nostalgic feeling when he visits such places? "Yeah. Not for anything I experienced but what I imagine," he says. "Havana is definitely one of the most beautiful cities in this hemisphere. It's falling apart now, which is unfortunate. One thing you hope when they finally do lift the embargo and things start really turning around there, you hope that they restore it all without doing it in a really cheesy way. I don't mean just rebuilding, but restoring carefully the old parts. If they just knock down the old buildings and put up high-rises, then it will just be like any other place in the Caribbean.
"There is something about Cuba," he adds. "There's no doubt. There's something romantic about the place, even now with everything going on. Just look at the music, among other things. Some of the greatest music ever came out of Cuba in the '50s, '40s and '30s. Some great music people were there, like the Orquestra Casino de la Playa and Chico O'Farill. I met O'Farill recently. He was just great. I remember going to see him play at the Blue Note [in New York City] and brought him a Cuban cigar. He said that he didn't smoke; but he is one of the greats. The arrangements on his music are outstanding. He played with all the great jazz musicians from the U.S. as well as playing Afro-Cuban music. He really was 'the' guy."
Thousands of vinyl records crowd Dillon's small living room in his two-bedroom Manhattan apartment. The majority are jazz, although he likes all music. Listening to some mellow Cuban jazz, sitting in one of his comfortable leather chairs and smoking a cigar, you feel as though you might be in downtown Havana. The room is a cool cream color with light green borders. A French mid-eighteenth century fruitwood armoire, filled with CDs and his stereo, dominates the room on one wall. A Victorian-style burgundy velvet couch abuts another wall, with a centuries-old carved wood table from India acting as a coffee table. There are two leather armchairs, as well as loads of plants, mostly ferns, and a half-dozen well-worn suitcases from the '40s in one corner that he uses for storage. The walls harbor a mixture of contemporary paintings and drawings, as well as oils by some of the old masters.
Although Dillon also owns a huge collection of CDs, most of his thousands of titles are still on vinyl. He says you can't get the same sound with CD or cassette, and he likes the way vinyl feels, the whole ritual of records. He frequently goes to flea markets to buy old records. "I have pretty eclectic taste, but it's funny--usually when I'm listening to something like jazz, Latin music or that kind of thing, I'm usually not listening to a lot of alternative music," he says. "I don't like that word, 'alternative,' but that's what everybody seems to call new music. I'll fluctuate. Sometimes I'll not listen to jazz at all and I'll listen to only new music. But right now, I've been listening to jazz. I like Fats Navarro. There's not much Fats around, as he died when he was 26, but a lot of trumpet players have really been kind of digging out on him. Guys like Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, those guys could really wail--less introspective than Miles Davis or Chet Baker. I have also been listening to a lot of Latin music--mostly early Mambo and Afro-Cuban jazz like Chico O'Farill and Machito."
With his music around him, Dillon enjoys entertaining at home, although it's usually pretty informal since his place is small and doesn't have a dining room. Dillon claims to make a great mushroom risotto, and he loves opening and, of course, drinking good wine. "I'm a Bordeaux guy more than anything," he says. "I really like Bordeaux and California Cabs and Spanish wine. I'm not a real white wine guy. I have a tendency to like the right bank of Bordeaux--Pomerol and St.-Emilion. I really like Cheval Blanc, Figeac and Le Pin. That is, if you can find Le Pin anywhere."
He also appreciates great white Burgundy, but finds the whole region slightly overwhelming. He feels it's all too complicated with its numerous appellations and producers. "My appreciation for wine is a purely honest thing," he says. "The flavors of wine are great. A nice dinner and a bottle of wine, you can't beat it.
"But wine doesn't really go with a cigar. You have to wait until after dinner. You can't taste a wine with a cigar going. I went to a couple of cigar dinners and I can't say that I'm the hugest fan. I know this probably won't go over too well, but with a room full of smoke, it's not the best way to enjoy wine, unless the room has great ventilation. I have been to a few cigar dinners where there has been only one open window, and you see some of those guys smoking three or four cigars at a time. I just don't understand it."
Such restraint isn't one of Dillon's fortes, but he's mellowing with age. Since he's been in the business for so long, some people still think of him as the abrasive teenage actor.
He admits his early image as a rough and tough teenage idol has been one of the most difficult things to shake in his career. "I think sometimes when you're younger, your perceptions of what people think of you are different," he says. "They have a harder time accepting your transitions than you do. It's very easy to get pigeonholed and I remember that was difficult to overcome. I'll always be a little frustrated with being perceived as somebody who is just a heartthrob instead of being an actor. People make references like that, and it's just frustrating."
Nonetheless, people who know his work remain impressed. The image of the bad-tempered teen idol is fading. Take, for example, the views of influential syndicated movie critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. He wrote in last year's review of To Die For: "Dillon, the former teen idol whose acting has always been underrated, here turns in a sly comic performance as a man dazzled by beauty but seduced by comfort." A few years before, Ebert called Dillon's lead role in Drugstore Cowboy "one of the great recent American movie performances."
Yes, Dillon would certainly prefer it if more people would remember him for his acting ability and not as a star or celebrity. "I think more in terms of the work," he says. "I don't think about being a celebrity. I don't preoccupy myself too much with being famous. I don't try to hold on to some kind of image. I remember sometimes thinking people thought of me this way or that. But I did not want to be considered a star. I always just wanted to be considered an actor. That is what I do and that is what I pride myself on--my work. That is what counts."
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