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The actor: Matt Dillon, who was still in high school when a casting director discovered him and invited him to star in 1979’s Over The Edge. Dillon became an instant sensation, and spent much of the early ’80s playing brooding teens with a thuggish charm. As an adult, Dillon has had an eclectic career, appearing in indie dramas, broad comedies, and pulp thrillers, often gravitating to movies where he gets to play troubled outsiders. Dillon can currently be seen in Armored, playing a veteran armed guard who conspires to steal the money in his charge.
Over The Edge (1979)—“Richie White”
Matt Dillon: There were five of us they brought out from New York. Only two of the young actors in the movie were actually professionals: Vincent Spano and Pamela Ludwig. The other three guys, Michael Kramer, Tom Fergus, and myself, we were just guys they found. We auditioned and we got the job. It was great. We shot in Colorado, and I might as well have been on Mars. It was a whole different world out there for me, coming from back East. I just remembered thinking, “Oh God!” Looking back on that film, I think it really reflected the times in terms of attitudes toward drugs and youth. A lot of the kids that were extras in that film were out of juvenile hall, and there were drugs everywhere. It was crazy. It was the ’70s. I can really remember the ’70s through that movie.
The A.V. Club: Did you harbor any aspirations of being an actor prior to that?
MD: I think that we’re all actors, really. I know this sounds kind of crazy, but I think we’re all actors. There’s this friend of mine who’s a musician, a great drummer, and he said, “You know, I never thought I’d be a drummer, but I got really good at it. I always feel like I’m an actor playing the drums.” His real calling was that he was going to be a magician. That’s what he felt like he wanted to do. And I understood what he meant. Like, sometimes I act like I’m an actor. It’s a funny thing. If you decide to act like a journalist, you’ll probably be a better journalist than just being a journalist. I hate to say that, but there’s something interesting about it. Because what you’re doing is, you’re taking the executive role and stepping outside yourself so that you’re able to make more objective decisions. I didn’t feel like that when I was younger, but I feel like that in my life now, sometimes. I’m able to step outside of it to a certain extent. That’s the actor in me.
The Outsiders (1983)—“Dallas Winston”
Rumble Fish (1983)—“Rusty James”
MD: Tulsa, Oklahoma. Black-and-white and color. Or I should say color and black-and-white? The Outsiders was like Technicolor, and it felt like that when we were making it. It felt big, like Gone With The Wind. And I think [director] Francis [Ford Coppola] was referencing those sorts of things. We did two films back-to-back, both based on books by S.E. Hinton, and yet they couldn’t have been more different. They were set in the same world of disaffected youth, the darker side of young America, the underbelly. Yet they were very different. With Rumble Fish, it was Mickey Rourke, Dennis Hopper, Tom Waits, Laurence Fishburne… it was just a different atmosphere. When I think back on making Rumble Fish, I see it in black-and-white, like the movie. And The Outsiders, that’s like Technicolor.
At that time especially, Francis was at the height of his mythical status, especially for young actors. It was so exciting to go to work for him, so everybody was hyper-committed. But the rehearsal process was really exhausting, especially on Rumble Fish, because at that point, we’d hit midsummer, and we were in a big gymnasium in the middle of Tulsa, with no air conditioning. We shot the entire film on green screen. Now it would seem really primitive, but it was ahead of its time back then, using green screen and digital stuff. Francis was deeply into that stuff back then. We really rehearsed in a very serious way. It was like we were doing a play sometimes, the way we would interact. Everybody was there, and there was a lot of improvisation, and it was great, because it was an interesting dynamic of actors on every level. People like Diane Lane and Chris Penn. And Nic Cage, making his first movie.
So it was an interesting time. I remember at one point, we screened Robin Hood in downtown Tulsa, which back then was really kind of like a depressed skid row, pretty down-and-dirty. Francis did a huge projection of Robin Hood in the middle of downtown Tulsa, so it was basically a lot of indigent, homeless people watching Robin Hood. Francis, he loves opera, and when he’s making a film, he likes to do things big. He always does things with style.
Drugstore Cowboy (1989)—“Bob”
To Die For (1995)—“Larry Maretto”
MD: Yeah, Drugstore Cowboy, I really loved that experience, making it. [Director] Gus [Van Sant] was definitely iconoclastic in the way he liked to do things then. I mean, he still is. I think we kind of felt going into it that this guy was a serious filmmaker, y’know? A real artist. It was a very creative process. Other than the enormous talent Gus has—and I say “talent,” ’cause let’s just call it what it is—the process never stops with him. He continues to make adjustments, and is creative through every step of the process. I know that sounds like I’m stating the obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many times you work on a film and they go, “Well, it’s all in the script,” and nobody makes adjustments as they go. In my experience, the films I’ve made where the director was willing to make changes as he went along were the films that generally came out the best. There’s a looseness to it. I don’t mean “looseness” in a bad way. I mean it keeps things alive.
AVC: Was working on Van Sant’s To Die For any different? Did anything change in those five years?
MD: The only thing is that I think I knew how he worked more than some of the other people on the set. I mean, the crew had been the crew that he’d always worked with. At that point, he’d had the same crew over his last three or four movies, so they knew how he worked. But some of the people in the production and in the cast, they were unfamiliar with his style, so I think I had a heads-up on that. I did that movie because I liked the script so much, and of course because of Gus. And I liked the whole family dynamic. Families with all their quirks; that was really fun.
The Saint Of Fort Washington (1993)—“Matthew”
MD: The Saint Of Fort Washington, that was heavy. I think it was ’92 when we made that, when the homelessness problem and the crack problem in New York were at their height. I played a homeless schizophrenic; Danny Glover played a homeless Vietnam vet. I think playing somebody who’s schizophrenic is such a lesson as an actor. It gets you totally out of your comfort zone, because you can’t rely on your technique, your external stuff. You’ve really gotta look inward, in a way. And what I learned from that was that I’m absolutely sane, you know, in the big picture. [Laughs.] I got issues, but I’m sane.
I spent a lot of time doing research for that, and you just see how people struggle. We were filming at the Fort Washington men’s shelter at like 178th Street in Washington Heights, and there were 900 men living in a room the size of a football field, with cots lined up right on top of each other. It was really a grim situation, but also a very soulful experience. You can’t walk away from that without feeling that life is precious, and that you’re blessed. But unfortunately, when you make a movie about the homeless, nobody wants to see it. So like four people saw the movie. We had a screening of it years later for about 20 or 30 people, and [director] Tim Hunter was there, and he said, “This is about how many people saw the movie when it opened.”
Singles (1992)—“Cliff Poncier”
MD: Cameron Crowe came to me for that maybe eight months before he first had the film set up, and he talked to me about doing the role that Campbell Scott played. But in the end I couldn’t do it, for a number of reasons. So then he came back to me later for Cliff, the rocker. And I said, “Okay, Cameron, I’d love to work with you, but I don’t even remember that guy in your script.” And he goes, “Oh, don’t worry about it, we’re working on it.” And sure enough, the character was a nice, interesting character that weaved through the story.
I didn’t know much about the Seattle rock scene, to be honest with you. Cameron said, “Look, these guys are coming in, they’re called Mother Love Bone.” It was Eddie Vedder and all those guys who went on to become Pearl Jam, and I hung out with those guys around New York, and we stayed out all night, and I bonded with them. We connected. I really liked those guys. Anyway, we shot in Seattle, and it was interesting. Musically, it was really alive, and I really enjoyed that cast. I remember meeting all these guys who went on to become rock stars, and only the people in Seattle knew who they were then.
And I liked Cameron. He’s got a lot of integrity as a filmmaker, and I think he really loves and empathizes with all the characters he creates. I think he really does care about the people.
AVC: There are very rarely any villains in his movies.
MD: I know, that’s the one area I remember kinda questioning him. I had this scene with Sheila Kelley where I felt like my character should be sarcastic, and Cameron says, “Oh no, you guys really get along.” And I’m going, “I don’t think we do!” [Laughs.] I remember getting into a debate with him about that. “Why would he like her? What does he have in common with her?” But I think I like that about Cameron. I think he really cares for those people that he creates, and his stories. I think that’s good. But it’s kind of unusual.
Wild Things (1998)—“Sam Lombardo”
MD: There was something about that movie. The twists and turns… it was a world, an atmosphere, and there were elements of it that were pretty tongue-in-cheek, but it was great. There was something about the atmosphere that [director] John McNaughton was creating. It was kind of swampy, in Florida. I remember Bill Murray playing that sleazebag lawyer, and I really liked doing those scenes.
AVC: You mentioned the time and effort you put into The Saint Of Fort Washington, a very serious movie that not a lot of folks saw, but then you have Wild Things, which seemed on the surface to be a throwaway, but ended up being a hit.
MD: It’s interesting how that film’s been embraced by film people. I mean, it was a very well-constructed plot, and there’s a whole other layer to those characters.
AVC: And it’s gone on to have what, two, three sequels?
MD: Yeah, but that had nothing to do with the movie we made. I mean, let’s just be honest. They were taking advantage of the obvious commercial parts of that film, the lesbian love scenes.
AVC: Is it strange to work on something and then see it have an afterlife without you?
MD: Yeah, but I don’t see it like that. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that you only do what you can do as an actor. You do the best job you can, but you have no control over so many elements that are going to determine the outcome of that film. I never pay attention to what happens after. Like, I really liked Crash, but I never think about the TV show, you know what I mean? I have no problem with it, but it has nothing to do with the experience that I had.
Crash (2005)—“John Ryan”
MD: Well, the moment I met [writer-director] Paul Haggis, I knew that this guy was the real thing. He was really focused; that’s what I remember about him. Crash was like Drugstore Cowboy, in that it was a film nobody wanted to make. Why would you want to do a film that deals with racism? It wasn’t exactly something that was on people’s minds at the time. It wasn’t an issue of the day, and yet it’s still an issue in society. When we made Drugstore Cowboy, it was the era of “just say no,” “drugs are bad,” and no one wanted to make a movie that had some ambiguity about the subject. And that was the same thing on Crash. Everybody’s focused in the film industry on money, and often on playing it safe, but I think risk-taking is rewarded in this industry, and I think that’s important. People say, “You can’t make a movie about that,” but then you make a film about it, and people are like, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that.” Powerful. It’s funny how it went, that film. It was sort of like when the Giants won the Super Bowl.
AVC: And now it’s to the point where there’s almost a backlash against Crash. It was the little underdog film that people loved, and then it became the Oscar-winner that people push against.
MD: Look man, if people are reacting to films based on their degree of success or failure, then they’re not really looking at the movie, right? If people have a problem with Crash, that’s okay, but it’s not worth taking them seriously if their problems are based on whether the film is successful or unsuccessful, or if it won an Oscar or didn’t win an Oscar. I don’t really care about that. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but at least base your opinion on the merit of the work itself.
There’s Something About Mary (1998)—“Pat Healy”
MD: Well, that was probably the funnest time I ever had on a set. It was like a big party, in a way. It was the first time I’d ever worked with two directors, brothers, and it was really great. They’re both so creative. A lot of what you see is stuff that came up on the spot. And I love to improvise. I like to get on a roll and have some fun, and they’re really into that too, but they’re also ad-libbing as they’re going. So the camera would be rolling, and Bobby [Farrelly] would come up to me and throw a line at me, and then I’d have to get it together and stop laughing, and then do my part again with this new line. So it kind of kept things very alive. They’re constantly creating. It was a great experience, and I remember it was like the shortest hours I’ve ever worked. I never remember ever working where we’d get done so early in the day.
AVC: What’s the line from that movie that gets quoted to you the most?
MD: “I work with retards.” Yeah, that would be the one.
City Of Ghosts (2002)—“Jimmy”
MD: I could probably could speak the most about that one, since I wore so many hats. It was probably one of the most fulfilling experiences that I’ve had, creatively or even in my life. It was the one time where I created something from the ground up. I had good people to collaborate with, but I saw it through to the end, and it was a really great experience. As the filmmaker, I felt an enormous responsibility and embraced it for every aspect of the movie, including the performances. I felt I had a responsibility to put on the screen the best performances I could get, because there’s been times where that hasn’t happened on movies I’ve been involved in.
Anyway, it took a long time to get that film made, which took a little money off my table in terms of working as an actor, because I made a commitment and put a lot of time and energy into it. But it was totally worthwhile, and I think the fact that it took so long made it a better movie, because there were a lot of changes that were made as I went along, and the script evolved. It took about six years to finally get made, and I took what I had learned from some good filmmakers to keep it alive. One thing I’d learned was how not to compromise what’s important. How do you do that when you only have so much money? You come up with alternatives. If you can’t have this crane, or if you can’t have that actor, or if you can’t have that location, you have to find one that works for you just as well, even if it’s less money.
The fact that it took so long made it that much more gratifying when we got there. I appreciated it more. And I had a very good group of people around the camera. So creatively, things were great. There was a real sense of freedom I had in making that film. We were in a part of the world where they hadn’t really made a feature film like this before, and we had an international crew. The wakeup call was in the cutting of the movie. It’s a process, it takes time, and it can be one of the most creative parts of making the film. I can’t say enough about the great people at MGM, but I had other financiers in Europe who weren’t as helpful. We didn’t see eye to eye, and there were things that happened that I won’t get into, but in the end, I won, and basically, the film that’s on the screen is the film I wanted to make, period.
I can live with the fact that people have a problem with the movie; they don’t like it. That’s okay with me. Are there things I would do differently? Are there things I’ve learned from it? Absolutely. But when I see the film, I’m comfortable. I feel good about it. I made the decisions in the way it was cut together and came together. I didn’t have the film ripped away from me and re-cut. My freedom was threatened in the editing process, but I got to make the film I wanted to make, and that’s huge. It’s not easy to do, with personal films. I mean, basically everything that could happen on a movie happened on City Of Ghosts. Well, nobody died. [Laughs.] But y’know, definitely all kinds of experiences. I’m still working on some stuff; I’m developing stuff. I love directing, and I feel very comfortable doing it, so I’m going to continue to do that.
Factotum (2006)—“Henry Chinaski”
MD: Factotum was a great experience. I worked with a great filmmaker, Bent Hamer. He’s Norwegian. He’s got a lot of integrity. I liked his film Kitchen Stories very much. You could see that clearly the guy is talented. I liked the way he used the camera, which really allowed you to get into the souls of the characters. And when we made Factotum, I felt that the way he used the camera really allowed us to do our work as actors. Bent loves doing things in one shot, using as few angles as possible for a scene. And most people, if they need to use a bathroom in a movie, they’ll find the biggest bathroom so they can get all the equipment in there. But not Bent. [Laughs.] He’s gonna find the smallest bathroom, and he likes the idea that the confines of that space are going to dictate to him where the camera has to go. He’s very pure in that way.
One of the thing he did with Lili Taylor and me was a scene that’s almost five minutes long, and the camera doesn’t move, and it’s all in one shot. That’s something that’s rarely done in American films, and yet it was totally emotionally grounded, and I remembered when we were doing it, thinking, “Yeah, but what if the first half of take two is better than the second half? How are you going to bridge it?” Then when I saw it, I was like, “Wow… this is really giving it back to the actors, allowing the actors to do the work, just putting the camera in one place and allowing everything to happen in front of it.” We made the movie for no money, and we shot it in Minnesota, and it was great. There’s something really wonderful about doing a film where nobody’s making any money but everybody’s committed. There’s something really soulful about it. You don’t want to do that all the time, or you’ll starve to death, but it’s nice.
I played Charles Bukowski’s alter ego. I read all of his books when I was younger, so that was like one of those nice surprises, that I’d be playing a character based on Bukowski. I never thought I’d ever be the type to play that character. I don’t know if that’s a mixed blessing or not. [Laughs.] But I’d spoken with Hank’s wife, and she was like, “Oh no, I could see you’d be a great Hank.” I didn’t want to have to fill Bukowski’s shoes in this role or anything, so I was like, “As long I don’t have to do any impersonations of Bukowski or anything.” And the director agreed on that. But it is Bukowski. It is his alter ego. You have to embrace that without it being an impersonation.
Armored (2009)—“Mike Cochrone”
MD: You’ll notice I keep starting with the director, because I do believe it all starts with the filmmaker. The script and the filmmaker. I like my character in this because he’s so manipulative, but I really I wanted to do the film because I thought Nimród Antal would elevate a pretty decent script, that he would take it to another level. My character is pretty well-defined, and yet he’s manipulative too, so in the beginning we only see what he wants to reveal. I think in some ways, you can see what’s coming in this film, and that’s okay with me, because it’s well-executed. Nimród was totally 100 percent committed, had real command of what he wanted, and he was a real force on the set.
It’s a pretty good job being an actor, but it’s work sometimes. And when I say work, I mean it’s a job. You’re going to a job. But this one, I was excited to go to work every day. I really love the cast, and you can feel it. If the director’s committed, the actors will commit as well. If the director’s going to be really committed and excited and determined to make something good, then it’s contagious, and the actors jump right on board. And that’s the way it was on that film. We had fun on that set. And when I went to the screening, I had fun. Fishburne and I were talking about it. “Hey man, it’s a blast.” If you had fun making it, then the audience will have fun watching it.