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."
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."
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 clichés 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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