Matt Dillon’s “new favorite word is verisimilitude.” It’s not the cadence of the adjective that draws him in, though my own tongue twists while he mouths it with ease. It’s the getting at the truth that he’s after. “Big things happen to little people,” he says self-deprecatingly, his voice a deep baritone, lacking in pretension. At the age of fourteen while cutting class, Mr. Dillon was discovered by a casting director for the film, Over the Edge and subsequently cast in the lead role as Ritchie, a troubled teen.
As he explains it, “I used to cut class in high school, but then go to the library to read.” After the phenomenal success of his early films, My Bodyguard, Little Darlings, Tex, Rumble Fish, and The Outsiders perhaps it is his inner nerd that kept him from being swallowed up by a voracious public and led astray. We don’t expect our teenage idols to grow up and become serious. Surveying Mr. Dillon’s three‐decade long career is like taking bites from the canon of cinema (The Flamingo Kid, Drugstore Cowboy, Singles, To Die For, and Crash to name a few). When playing a character, he “sees things from the inside out.” A poetic observation, which describes how he makes his imprint as an actor, but also hints at how he sees himself and the world around him. Our conversation interrupted the editing of his documentary on the Cuban jazz musician, El Gran Fellove.
Having been holed up in a dark editing room for weeks pouring over archival footage, sorting through factual truths that will form his story, it was like emerging from his own self-imposed solitary confinement, and by his own admission, his perfectionism. I half - heartedly tried to keep our conversation to the present (Mr. Dillon will be starring in M. Night Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines as secret service agent Ethan Burke on Fox) but we agreed that the present moment, like the search for truth (in fiction or elsewhere) is elusive.
Malerie: I’m reading a book by Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams. It’s a collection of essays, some of which chronicle her experience as a medical actor. She was paid by the hour to act as a sick patient with different illnesses in order to evaluate the level of empathy of the medical students. It got me thinking about actors. You hear about the technical preparations for certain parts the accents achieved, the weight gain, the starvation, the shaved head, the muscles amassed all the physical transformations achieved to make certain roles believable, but is empathy the most important ingredient to nailing a character? Is it the underlying glue that makes a performance emotionally convincing? Or is it something else?
Matt: I think it is a really good question. To play a character you have to understand who the person is. There is a famous quote from Jean Renoir, the filmmaker, he said, “everyone has their reasons.” I often think about character logic. You have to understand who a character is, so you have to have empathy to know what it is motivating him to do what he does. I’ve had to play characters and do things that are completely alien to me and go against every instinct I have. In Crash, I play this cop who is a racist and violates Thandie Newton’s character in a despicable act. I had to understand what would cause this guy to do that. He feels as if he is a victim and is reacting in anger as if he has been victimized. Maybe it’s not exactly empathy, but it is a deep understanding of who the character is and what is driving him. To be able to look at the person as a human with real emotions, but not necessarily empathize with their actions.
Do you ever get lost in a role? Is it a rare occurrence like a runner’s high?
When I am working I get into a meditative state. I’m not chanting or anything, but I’m more mindful and sensitive to my body and my feelings. That being said, I know when I am playing a character. I don’t get lost in the character. I played a schizophrenic once and I did a lot of research and the one personal thing I learned is: I have my mental faculties. I’m always thinking to myself, ‘I have to be crazy, but I know I am not crazy.’ I sometimes delude myself as we all do, but I’m not delusional. I don’t believe there is a microphone installed in my earlobe.
Now I must ask - how do you delude yourself?
(Laughing) It is one of those things that if I was able to see, it would be a blessing.
Tell me about Laurie Collyer’s Sunlight Jr. It felt to me like a social realistic horror film where all the violence is bottled up in everyday terrors. What drew you to the role?
Well, I like Laurie. She had made a film, Sherrybaby that I really loved and I think there is something very honest in her core. Ultimately, Sunlight Jr. is a sad movie, but even though my character is disabled, he doesn’t allow that to become his real disability or to define him. He actually thinks that he is able to do more than he can do. I like that he isn’t a victim of his disability. He’s an alcoholic and he drinks too much but he has a big heart and he loves his girlfriend.
You were discovered at a young age. Do you think of that as being fated?
When Jonathan Kaplan made Over the Edge he made a decision to look for real kids, not professional actors. So, the majority of the kids in that movie, with the exception of three actors, were not professionals. I look at it after the fact and I think, of course, it is what I continued to do because I found something that worked for me early on and it made sense. You can’t expect a fourteen-year-old kid to know what to do for the rest of his life, but I didn’t see myself on the fast track to an Ivy League University. My manager never liked the idea that I was discovered because he felt it sounded too fairy tale-ish, the old Lana Turner on the drugstore stool. The fact is, I was asked to audition for the film and it happened to be a movie I found very powerful. It seems now like an exploitation movie, but it was based on real events of teenage vandalism in Foster City, California, a planned development that was designed without any regard for the kids that lived there. When I read the script it resonated with me immediately. If it had been a family drama set in a rich enclave of Connecticut I wouldn’t have identified with it and most likely would never have gotten the part. I was always a very independent kid and maybe I was getting in a little bit of trouble, but I always had curiosity. I used to cut class in high school, but then would go to the library to read.
It sounds like you were able to channel your own rebellious nature into something creative that grounded you.
I go back every year to my junior high school to visit and talk to the kids. I usually end up reading them The Outsiders, which was written by S.E. Hinton, a fifteen-year-old girl, who wrote so convincingly about a group of teenage boys. She tapped into something so real about those kids and it is amazing to see their faces light up when I talk about the characters because it speaks to them and captures their imagination. The same thing was true for me. My desire to become an actor wasn’t about performance. I was never, “Mama, I want to sing!” I was more interested in storytelling and finding the truth in a story. My new favorite word is verisimilitude. It’s a great word for those of us who are creative. It is the appearance of truth, but it isn’t falseness. It inspires authentic feelings.
What was it like being famous when you were young? And, what are your perceptions of fame now?
When I made My Bodyguard I was fifteen and Over the Edge opened in the movie theater in Chicago, I was there filming and the production manager threw me the newspaper and said, “Hey kid, you made the papers.” It was a Roger Ebert review of Over the Edge and I don’t remember what it said exactly, but it was a good review. The poster for the movie was of a high school that looked like a mental hospital - it was in flames and there we were, the five main actors in the movie standing in front with our eyes rolled back in our heads like we were zombies. They were selling it as a horror movie and they showed it in the red light district in Chicago where all the Kung Fu movies were playing and I was ecstatic. I went to the theater and sat in the back. It was a full house and I loved watching the audience’s reaction. I love being able to move people and speak to them in an honest way, but if you ask me about fame there are a lot of things that get old very quickly. There isn’t an age that prepares you for it. Anonymity is a luxury most people take for granted. There are people that are obsessed with becoming famous, but look at how few people really love being famous, even with everything that goes with it. It’s nice to be able to fly first class, get a good table at a restaurant, be invited to a party, but the trade off is tough.
It seems like a Faustian bargain since it creates a divide between you and the public and you need that interconnectedness in order to portray everyday people and everyday life. It strangely separates you from your original goal.
I’m not a huge fan of the camera phone. Who is it benefiting? Everything becomes a photo op. It’s hard not to feel self-conscious. I remember seeing a picture of President Obama after he was elected and everyone
in the audience was holding up their phone to record the moment instead of being present in the moment.
You worked with Francis Ford Coppola on Rumble Fish and The Outsiders. How much of an influence was he on you? What was your relationship like?
One thing about Francis that has always impressed me is how loyal a guy he is and his sense of family. He always kept his family close even when he was working. He has always been a very family oriented person so you become part of a family when you work with him. With Francis, I’ve always felt close, even when I haven’t seen him for a while. When I was working on my script for my film, City of Ghosts, Francis was there to read it and he gave me his notes. Even if I didn’t agree with all his ideas, they were simply better than everyone else’s. He has a streak of brilliance that is undeniable.
Do you have postpartum after finishing a project?
Leading up to finishing, I usually get excited and then I get a transitional kind of postpartum because it is coming to an end. And then it is over and I feel the absence.
I was looking over all your films and I was struck by how often you stand out in ensembles, (The Outsiders, To Die For, Singles, Beautiful Girls, and Crash). Even in films where you are clearly the male lead like Rumble Fish, Flamingo Kid and Drugstore Cowboy they are stories populated by other characters.
It’s not conscious. I don’t do it deliberately. And, some aren’t really big ensembles. But, yeah (laughing,) it’s not like J. Chandor’s film with Robert Redford, All is Lost, where it’s just one guy out on a boat at sea. I loved that film! I remember doing a play, Boys of Winter and they wanted me for the lead, but I gravitated toward a part that wasn't the lead and they were a little surprised by it, but I liked it. So it is true, I won’t shy away from ensemble work and I don’t feel like I have to be the center of everything. For a long time, I would feel responsible for every movie I made and I would be greatly disappointed if it didn’t turn out as I felt it should. But, I’ve realized, I am only the actor and I only have so much control. I have to detach for my own sense of sanity. I can only make my performance the best to help the director achieve their vision. I feel a sense of pride for certain movies because I had more to say in what was happening.
Is that true for Drugstore Cowboy? My recollection is that I walked into the theater as one person and emerged as someone else.
With Drugstore Cowboy I had more of a hand in certain things and more of an influence because I had a strong
relationship with Gus Van Sant. I remember stepping on set and feeling, “Wow! He really put a lot of thought into this.” Gus is such a visual storyteller and a very clever guy. It’s gratifying as an actor to feel so supported by a filmmaker’s vision.
What about the part of filmmaking that isn’t scripted?
When I made Factotum with Lilly Taylor, there is a scene that is a five‐minute master shot where they did not move the camera. I remember nervously asking the director, Bent Hamer, “Are you sure you don’t want coverage on this?” It’s a very emotional scene and nothing was edited out, so it was more like a play in that moment. That’s the only time I’ve ever had a director come up to me and say, “Slow it down, take your time.” Usually, there are a lot of heavy breathing financiers worried about pace and running time, who would be very happy to have every film they released be exactly 90 minutes. So, that was a real gift as an actor. To be given the license to have an unadulterated performance.
Your decision to make the comedy, Something about Mary, was it liberating for you?
I had a lot of fun making that film. I have a huge respect for the directors, Bobby and Peter Farrelly. Like in Dumb and Dumber they hired Jeff Daniels, a more serious dramatic actor and paired him with Jim Carey, an actor who does straight up comedy. So, they don’t always work with your usual suspects. I knew when I read the script it would be hilarious.
The theme of this issue is minimalism. What in your life could you strip away and what would you need to keep?
Tough question... “Desire is the root of suffering...” Usually when we get rid of something we feel really good, even if it is something we really love, but I hate to have seller’s remorse.
Photography: Dennis Golonka
Stylist: Romina Herrera Malatesta
Grooming: Asia Geiger @ Celestine Agency Using Nars Cosmetics
Prop/Set Stylist: Teri Cotruzzola
Digital Tech: Shane Lavancher
Stylist Assistants: Carolyn Brennan, Caitlin Cowger, Giorgia Fuzio & Emma Nolan
Producer: Chelsea Maloney @ See Management
Special Thanks: Giovanni Cervantes @ colonystudiosbk.com