Matt Dillon


It’s a disconcerting sight. Along one flank of the breakneck chicken-run that takes you from JFK into Manhattan, a vast, dark, grey cemetery stretches out like a small, separate city.

Beside the freeway, overlooking the acres of slate and stone, a solitary bright billboard welcomes you to New York with the shiny slogan ‘Just Say YES.’ There’s a double-take to see whether Nancy Reagan has changed her mind before the parenthesis underneath (‘To a Drug Free Life’) becomes clear.

In the East Village the following day, Matt Dillon is sitting in the cool city sunshine, considering whether the next possible stage in this progression (‘Just Say Maybe’) sums up the message behind his new Gus Van Sant film ‘Drugstore Cowboy’. A convincing and unusually frank drugs story, the film manages to advocate ‘a drug-free life’ without sensationalism or sentimentality or ever resorting to preaching about the sick evils of drugs.

Dillon plays Bob Hughes, the fast-thinking leader of a small-time crew of junkies who acquire their junk – principally Dilaudid and Morphine – by robbing local pharmacies. He opens the film in an ambulance with the voice-over declaring ‘It’s tough being a dope fiend.’ ‘I’m a junkie – I like the drugs, I like the lifestyle, but it just didn’t pay off’ he says later, as his lifestyle, his luck, his young-punk enemies and a dogged local cop close in on him, forcing him to decide between riding his luck or taking the cure and changing the way he lives.

Despite the effects of the dope, the risks he runs, and the eventual death of one of his young outlaws, Hughes narrates the heists, deals and trips with a decided fondness and a likeable, warm charm. When writer William Burroughs turns up as a junkie priest proposing ‘the idea that anyone can take drugs and escape a horrible fate is anathema to this government’, it’s as if the film’s message is to suggest that first you have the drug lifestyle, and then you quit it.

Dillon doesn’t quite buy this but readily admits the part was a brave choice – after all, no actor of Dillon’s standing really needs to shoot up on screen.

Despite the dog-bark drawl familiar from his films, Dillon’s speech is considered and articulate. He picks his words carefully.
“It was risky, yeah, definitely. But it felt real to me. I decided straight away, although at one point I was wondering what I was getting myself into. Certain people, friends, said ‘Why do you want to do this ?’ as if I was crazy or something. And it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for at that point, you know ? I was thinking of something more mainstream. But you gotta be flexible in this business.”

Luckily for Dillon, the risk paid off. Helped by excellent support from Kelly Lynch (as Hughes’ wife and fellow addict) and Max Perlich in particular, and despite Burroughs’ blatant attempt to steal the film, American critics have hailed Dillon’s performance as ‘arguably perfect’ (‘LA Herald Examiner’) and even ‘hauntingly beautiful’ (‘LA Times’). Dillon is modest and bashful about such compliments.
“I always think I coulda done it better, you know ?”

Other US critics agreed that Dillon has ‘come of age’ with ‘Drugstore Cowboy’, finally extending himself after years of promise and buying time with a number of all-American boy/rough-kid-on-the-make roles in surprisingly minor, undistinguished films such as ‘Native Son’, ‘Rebel’, ‘Target’, ‘The Big Town’ and 1988’s ludicrous ‘Kansas’, where at best, Dillon manages to do little wrong.

‘Drugstore’ is certainly Dillon’s best work since Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Rumblefish’, where he was effortless enough to convince you Rusty James wasn’t that unlike the adolescent Dillon. It offers final proof that, even in gang scenes or in the occasional melodramatic moments of his career where he can be quite wooden, Dillon has a screen presence that compels you to watch him.

When we meet in New York, Dillon is directing the video for his friends Unity 2’s ska/funk fusion song ‘Shirlee’ – a video he also scripted. He seems to be feeling the pressure.
“A video seems like it’s tough man. A film, you have a script, real actors… A video, you have to sync the music and stuff, you know ?”

Within seconds of stepping outside, two people walk by and say: ‘Hey Matt, you were great in ‘Drugstore Cowboy’. Then, when we get to the restaurant, the chairs are already up on the tables, giving the owner the opportunity to open his arms, give a fat smile and utter the immortal line, ‘Hey Matt, Matt, for you, we’re open any time.’

Obliging, likeable, engaging company, Dillon seems to take it all in his stride. Taking a seat, Dillon shouts ‘Yo Rockets’ to actor Rockets Redglare, asks me if I want him to call over Allen Ginsberg, and downs a Budweiser. He seems pretty much the young man (exactly between a youth and a man) we see on screen – the hooded eyes, rolling walk, magnanimous, grinning charm, exceptionally earnest. His speech is more thoughtful, less ponderous than the laconic gamblers, gang kids, and summer camp boys he’s played. Sure he has the bravado when he’s in the mood, but not too smooth with it. He’s actually quite shy.

Mercifully, perhaps unusually, there’s no star trip with Dillon, no bullshit. He’s relaxed and friendly enough to let us hang around with him rather than just do the formal interview. And though he gives the impression that his easy-going cool and casual charm is partly the result of being cool and smart enough to know it’s actually pretty cool to do that, he still does it.

So Matt hangs out, hangs loose, hangs tough. He hangs, saying things like ‘yaknowadarmsayin ?’ at the end of his sentences and displaying all the requisite streetwise gestures and swagger of romantic self-cool you see in his movies. Having practiced it in every movie he’s made, Dillon has perfected the coolest way to light and smoke a cigarette. The cigarette hangs just so while you light it and lean your head slightly back to the left and frown heroically.

Shot in 7 weeks for less than $4million, ‘Drugstore’ has a quiet power and understated tension, but it’s not the great drug movie the 80s has been waiting for. It’s a long way from being ‘Midnight Cowboy’. Director Gus Van Sant cleverly captures the look of Oregon circa 1971, though almost spoils it with old-fashioned ‘Rumblefish’ shots of fast clouds on silver buildings, lopsided angles and clocks. Despite a few golden clichés (cop-with-a-heart etc), it’s an intelligent and unusual film and Dillon gives Hughes a credible maturity and depth his other work has lacked.

Hughes is, unusually, a pretty charming junkie, who believes in his own romantic cool, like a lot of Dillon characters, and much like Dillon himself. (Dillon says the character’s decency appealed to him). Whether he looks like a dope fiend though is debatable. Dillon looks older and scruffier than usual, but as the story unfolds gets progressively slicker and better-looking. He never has the haggard, hounded look of someone as sick and damaged as a junkie doing all the drugs Hughes does would.

Dillon acknowledges there could be more drugs in the film but, reasonably, points out there are still more than you might expect from a movie these days.
“We all had tracks on our arms. I know it’s very darkly lit and stuff… I had bags under my eyes, yellow pallor to my face. I was prepared to do all that, yeah.”

‘Drugstore’ is not squalid enough. There’s no sickness, no bad trips, no puking up. None of the gang ever looks as Burroughs wrote in ‘Junkie’, “so thin, sallow and old-looking, you would have to look twice to recognize him. His face was lined with suffering in which his eyes did not participate.” Burroughs also says, brilliantly, that junkies all look the same: “They all look like Junk.”

“I thought we looked pretty scroungy,” Dillon protests, sounding hurt. “Sure it could have been bleaker. There are no abscesses, no open sores. But, you know, do you wanna look at that for 140 minutes ? I wasn’t afraid of that. Junkies have their own gimmicks. There are junkies that clean their works. Bob is not the type of guy to get abscesses on his hand. He’s just not. He knows too much about the drugs. He’s a pro at what he does. I visited James Fogle (the original author) in Walla Walla Penitentiary. He said the real crew saw themselves as elitists in a way compared to the sniveling junkies out on street corners begging to get high. Bob’s obsessive about not becoming that.”

Responding to criticism that Dillon’s Oregon accent is the same dog-bark drawl as his usual New York roles, Dillon explains: “I tried not to use any kind of actors’ tricks with this part. By tricks, I mean accents, walks, mannerisms, the little tricks you can use. I tried to keep it as honest as possible.”

The strange thing is, Dillon is actually an excellent mimic, doing a useful London accent, and perfectly mimics the way Burroughs stretches out every word of his part (which he wrote himself), as if he’s torturing the language.
“Right. Like the way he says ‘sys-tem-at-ic-al-ly de-mon-ised’. It’s slightly affected, yeah, although he does speak somewhat like that. He’s completely unnatural as an actor, and yet completely natural as a human being. I just had to sit back and enjoy it, which is what I did.”

Rather reminiscent of Wilfrid Hyde-White in ‘The Third Man’, Burroughs appears like a vulture on the scene, muttering: ‘There is not much demand for elderly addicts in the priesthood’, before slyly predicting today’s dominance of Colombian cocaine over speed and heroin and the International Drug Organisations.

Dillon liked him. “Yeah. I read ‘Junkie’. Burroughs is kind of bored of talking about drugs now. The things that interest him most are poisonous snakes, weaponry, methods of torture… Anything sadistic or violent. He loves that stuff. I always expected him to pull off this mask and to find this young guy underneath, like he was faking being an old man.”

Although none of his recent films have been masterpieces, Dillon has resisted the popularist dross of the likes of Cruise, Estevez, Sheen, and took the part of Hughes seriously enough to indulge in fairly intensive preparation and ‘research’, talking to ex-addicts at Narcotics Anonymous meetings, shooting up water, scouting out shooting galleries in Harlem and even buying syringes in New York’s Tompkins Square Park.

“That was a little too intense. I really became it for a while. I have a somewhat obsessive personality sometimes. I got really obsessive about this part. It was really getting to me, until we started shooting and improvising. Then I could shake it off, you know ? Before that, I was living it. I was waking up, feeling constantly aware of the part, the mentality. I’d wake up in the morning, go in, pick up the syringe on the coffee table, play with it, everything, that kind of head where you’re always thinking about drugs. The hardest part, which got to me the most, was going to those NA meetings. ‘Cos when you’re out there on the street with the addicts (he drawls the word almost oafishly) that’s sad but that’s not half as depressing as when you’re in a room with some guy trying to recover. That to me, in some ways was really beautiful, that was sad, ‘cos you saw the struggle and you could see that some guys were not going to make it through, you know ?”

Although he admits to getting “very curious” about the effect and addiction of heroin, he stresses there was “absolutely no question” of doing anything like what John Belushi once discussed with Robert de Niro – such as trying the stuff himself.
“I didn’t feel like I needed to go out and get high to get the character. Nah, ‘cos I had friends doing a lot of drugs when I was growing up and I was round them all the time… I’ve gone through that fear, that anxiety. I knew enough about that.”

Dillon certainly gets the effect of the hit right, has the world-weary street-wisdom of the gang leader, and neatly captures the hazy, boring mutterings junkies have: “The ants in the grass were just doing their thing.” Likewise, Bob is more interested in drugs and robberies than sex, his wife complaining: “Aw Bob, you never fuck me anymore and I always have to drive.”

Dillon says having tracks on his arms, and shooting water into his veins worked.
“I felt high when I was doing it sometimes, yeah. I had to figure out how high he was. The scenes where they’re the most fucked up are when they’re clean. The scene with the golf clubs, I shot water twice. When he gets into a rage about the superstitions, he’d definitely done some more there. He has that selfishness, that paranoia and petulance junkies have.”

Had you ever shot up before ?
“Nah, I never shot up, no. I never shot drugs. I never shot heroin, no… If you’d asked me 6 months before the film, I was still squeamish. I remember watching my friend tying up and shooting up this vial when I was a kid – the first time I’d ever seen it. I was pacing the room saying ‘Why do you have to do that, man ?’ It really put me off you know ?”

Talking to the American press about visiting ‘shooting galleries in Harlem’ certainly sounds pretty wild, but when I ask him about them, Dillon, with a rather sheepish grin, admits: “Well, actually when we went to a shooting gallery, we didn’t go into the shooting gallery. If you go in, you can’t not get high – they’re going to think you’re undercover cops. They’re not going to know who I am – most of these junkies don’t go to the movies. We were with a guy who’s a recovering addict, and you don’t want to go up to the gallery when he’s struggling, you know… It’s just not right… So anyway, then some kid yells ‘Howard Beach’ at me (Howard Beach being the neighbourhood where a gang of whites killed a young black). It was kinda funny. So my friend took me to Tompkins Square Park to cop a set of works.”

Dillon has an almost innocent glint in his eye as he recalls this adventure and an admiring respect for the hustler who took him.
“Took him about 2 seconds to see who was selling. ‘Who’s got works ?’ (clicks his fingers), ‘You got works Johnny ?’ (click, click). Three dollars a pop from this Vietnam vet in a wheelchair. He had a whole box of them… He said he was a diabetic, which I don’t believe for a second. He was probably a junkie… He could have been both. It was funny. I hadn’t had that feeling since I was in Junior High, like 14 or 15, buying a bag of reefer in the park, where you’re on the lookout, you know ?”

He talks with an excited, rather naïve relish about other escapades – talking with characters he knows like ‘Railroad Johnny’, ‘Dirty Johnny’, Crazy Mary, Puerto Rican Andy; the junkies with sores the size of quarters, shooting parlours with pit bulls chained up outside; “a girl banging up in her neck, in a gallery up on the Upper West Side.”

Any talk of his own personal drug use, especially cocaine, meets with an awkward, cagey response. “Nahhh, I don’t really wanna get into that stuff you know. I’ve done enough of other drugs, yeah, to know the euphoria of junk. Somehow I knew the feeling – the rush going in, I’ve done enough of that kind of thing.” He adds quickly, “not that I ever had a drug problem. I experimented, yeah. I didn’t do a lot of heavy drugs – drinking and smoking pot was basically it, I dabbled in some other stuff… I just really…er, really… oh, I don’t know.”

Being photographed, being interviewed, Dillon becomes gradually more frustrated, tetchy about anything too personal. He just doesn’t take himself that seriously. It makes him uncomfortable. Although he visibly makes an effort to be patient and polite, he has a short attention-span for talking about himself and once or twice ends up complaining: “Argh, I don’t wanna get into that shit right now, ‘cos it’s boring for me to talk about.”

When I put it to him that a lot of the Dillon characters – notably Bob Hughes and Rusty James – have difficulty distinguishing between a romantic ideal and their harsher reality and that his characters often have a romantic idea of themselves, of their own kind of cool, he listens, then says, “You want me to say something about that ? Well ahm, yeah, I had an imagination when I was young, I always liked creative writing, things like that. I used to dress up when I was a kid. What did I want to be ? Ahh, I don’t know – a baseball player, a fireman. I didn’t have a real awareness of cinema or anything like that. I’d see ‘Jaws’ and then ‘The French Connection’ and then ‘Planet of the Apes’. It was all just going to the movies. I decided I wanted to be an actor after my first film.”

Now 25, an Aquarius (“independent, that’s their thing”), with 14 films behind him, Dillon was brought up in Larchmont, New York, the “cocky”, “intense” second eldest brother of six children with five brothers. His career started at 14 when he was still at High School in Johnathon Kaplan’s powerful portrayal of disaffected adolescence, ‘Over The Edge’.
“It didn’t change my life. I still lived at home with the family, went to the same school system even though I was on location most of the time. By the 11th Grade, I’d stopped going to school. School wasn’t my favourite thing, no.”

Any further probing and Dillon is distracted and vague, but probably just doesn’t remember. He remembers ‘Lords of the Flatbush’ with Henry Winkler and Sly Stallone being one early film that made an impression, and ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ as the first record he ever bought (at around 10 or 11). Susan Hinton’s ‘Rumblefish’ was his favourite book, long before, at 19, he played Rusty James.

“I thought I was really tough, ‘lotta fights, drinking beers when I was like 14. I was a bit of a troublemaker, yeah, had a gang, but Rusty James was a character, you know ?”

Asking him which character is closest to his own receives a long, long think, a big, big grin, but no answer.
“That’s really hard to say, I… I don’t know…erm, I can’t really, er… Bob Hughes is very human, except he’s a little bit more intensified sometimes. I do feel a bit typecast, not a lot. People say, ‘Matt Dillon ? I just don’t see him in this part’, if it’s a white-collar conservative type. It’s not that I feel the type of roles I’ve done is what I’m best at, or that’s the only thing I can do.”

After Coppola’s ‘The Outsiders’, ‘Tex’ and ‘Rumblefish’ broke the teen pin-up role he played in ‘My Bodyguard’ and ‘Little Darlings’; he followed them with the light comedy of ‘The Flamingo Kid’, the plain thriller ‘Target’, ‘Rebel’, ‘Native Son’, ‘The Big Town’ and ‘Kansas’.
“I certainly don’t always make great films, but good films. ‘Kansas’ was ill-fated, incomplete really. I liked what I did but I was disappointed overall.”

None of them made a breakthrough with the critics or the box office. Are you happy with your career so far ?
“This week I am, yeah, pretty happy. Just this week. I would’ve done more if the right things had come along. It’s quality I’m after, not quantity.”

As for the future, he gives me “the stock answer” about who he’d like to work with – “Woody Allen, Kubrick, Scorsese, Fellini. Jarmusch and Wenders in particular, some of the young new directors.”

His next film to come out, ‘Bloodhounds of Broadway’, taken from the Damon Runyan novel, featuring Rutger Hauer (“really eccentric guy”) and Madonna was “a funny job. Everybody did it for fun, I haven’t seen it yet. I didn’t have a single line with Madonna, but her attitude is great. She’s honest, very committed. I think the film’s gonna have problems. Too many characters maybe. Besides the director, Howard Brooklyn, passed away. Huh ? Oh, he died of AIDS.”

When I remark that nowadays that’s somehow always the answer, we get into an involved conversation about AIDS and condoms. When I belligerently slag the absurd IBA regulation that condoms can only be advertised inside the packet, he jokes, sharply, sarcastically: “Oh, what, like as soon as they see it out of the packet everyone’ll stop sleeping around, right ?”

Dillon says he hasn’t had the test and asks if I’d consider people who don’t wear a condom stupid. I ask him if he wears one, but he looks at the tape, says “Nah. Nahhh,” and gives me a ‘not while I’m eating my dinner’ expression. “Am I responsible sexually ? Yeah. Somewhat. I look out for myself.”

He seems to feel drugs rather than sex pose a greater threat, but can’t help but look interested when I tell him about London girls lusting after him. Before we can delve any further a couple walk in from the street and walk up to our table. Dillon eventually looks up to see the woman looking down at him, her mouth dropped open like a broken ventriloquist’s doll, grinning inanely, leaving the husband standing behind her.

Dillon casually continues until finally she says:
‘Matt. Matt Dillon, right ?’
‘Right. So anyway, Jim…’ (he turns back)
‘I just wanted to say hi.’
‘So’, (she laughs nervously), ‘Hi…’
‘I don’t want to interrupt your dinner or anything.’

Dillon turns back to eat but still she’s stood there as if she’ll just stand there and watch him eat anyway, until Dillon says: “Bye-bye now, take care” and she shuffles off. He does it very well, very coolly.
“Yeah, I feel pretty comfortable with it. It’s just part of the fame, goes with the territory.”

I’m curious to know how long it was before he got used to it, but he’s evidently fed up, gets a little heated.
“I don’t remember, you know ? It is what it is. It felt as ‘awkward’ as it felt. I’m OK with it…”
He thinks it over and decides: “I think I’ve learnt to deal with it a lot better, you know, over the years. I used to get so embarrassed you know, for the people I’m with have to get subjected to the fact that I’m, you know, famous. What would I like to change ? I could be more decisive. Yeah. I play both sides of the fence a bit. It can be good for you, but also (on the other hand, as it were) it’s bad sometimes.”
He continues, not really seeing the irony. “Not necessarily indecisive, but I like to weigh things up sometimes, yeah.”

In recent years, his manager Vic Ramos has taken the unusual step of vetting prospective photographers in case they make him look too good-looking. With the famous frown permanently creased, carrying the weight of the world hidden in his eyebrows, which it has to be said are magnificent, hair immaculate, Dillon looks every inch the screen star, though the lean build is rather slighter than you might expect.

“Am I vain ? I don’t know – vain enough. Not especially. I don’t like to look like shit when I go out, you know ? That’s for sure. When you’re recognizable, it’s more like self-preservation.”

Matt’s motto is: “The worse you feel, the better you should dress, I feel. If you’ve got a raging hangover, dress up. Dress really nice. When you look good, you feel good. That’s definitely true. It works both ways.”

He’s happier talking about sports or music – enthusing about The Replacements, The Pogues and The Clash, talking which Public Enemy LP is better, checking whether The Pixies and Swans are American or British, discussing the different customs and characteristics of the Irish, the Brits or the Yanks, and asking about young British writers.

These days it seems he spends less of his time in clubs, pursuing former indulgences with young women or illicit substances. His last holiday was in Barcelona.
“I got carried away there, yeah, not too much. I was slumming it, you know ? In the end, I thought I had to get to a three-star hotel so I could use the goddam telephone.”

Mainly he spends his time hanging out down at the baseball cage, the gym, the basketball playgrounds; does a bit of writing or reading (presently Henry Miller, Michael Tolken’s ‘The Player’).

He tells me he’s living in a hotel but looking to buy somewhere in the Village and hasn’t got a girlfriend. “But I wouldn’t mind one you know – I’d like someone.”
It shouldn’t be that hard I suggest. How much does it affect him ? Is he happy ?

“I’m happy, yeah. I’m very happy with the way I live. I say ‘happy’… Happiness isn’t really a priority. It’s not like the most important thing in the world – to be happy. I’ve been very happy for three days in a row and I think it’s like the worst – it’s like eating too much sugar or something. I want to be more at peace with myself, that’s a better way of looking at it – nothing to do with ‘happiness’ and ‘sadness’. A little bit of both is good, mixed in with just being in touch with my surroundings. Like sometimes it’s just nice to sit and eat here alone – hear a motorcycle go by or the radio coming out of a car, stuff like that. Watch people walk by. Be in touch with these things. Going into a bookstore, flick through a coupla pages. I like that.”

We walk through a basketball playground near East 13th and Second.
“Yo man.”
“Hey man. Howyadoin’ ?”
“Whatshappeningman ?”
“What’s up Louie ?”
“What’s goin’ on ?”
“Howyabeen anyway ?”
“How’s it goin’ ?”

This is a conversation between Matt and a mate. He takes off his smart green wool jacket.
“It’s good to work up a sweat before a meeting, knowwadarmsayin… Hey Jimmy, you wanna split ?” in an interesting mix of the friendly and blunt. “Cos I’m hanging here for a while.”

The last time I see him he’s trotting round in his brogues, like an eager young puppy, shooting a few hoops. Not THAT many of his shot seem to go in but it strikes me, maybe that’s part of his easy charm. Part of the easy cool that is being Matt Dillon.