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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

(continued from page 2)

"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."


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