Cover Story

Matt Dillon

The actor didn't go to college, but smart film choices and heartthrob looks have audiences and directors raving

We've just met, Matt Dillon and I. In a New York City café, a faux-courtly waiter pulls the table out, offering the best seat to whoever can get there first.

''That's where the lady sits,'' Dillon announces.

''It is?'' I say.

''I don't know why, but I decided that must be etiquette,'' he replies. He sits down, his face clouded, defensive. ''Anyway,'' he mutters, ''no space is right.'' He lights a cigarette, leans as far away as his chair will allow him, and lets the gray smoke twist between us.

Until Drugstore Cowboy (1989), I never believed that Matt Dillon was a real actor. He does that lost-and-angry-boy thing so well that I assumed he was one of us — the cynical children of the post-Nixon world — only better looking. Wrong. Dillon, in real life or not, is walking, talking drama, charged and instinctive. Don't ask him to explain himself. He can't. He doesn't analyze his ability. He just throws himself into the ring, in front of the cameras, ready for anything.

Here is Matt Dillon, silent with frustration and fury, standing in his trailer in Seattle, slamming his fist against the wall. A tantrum, yes, but a private, ingrown one. Writer-director Cameron Crowe (Say Anything), who cast the 28-year-old actor in his acclaimed new film, Singles, a sort of Husbands and Wives for twentysomethings, explains. Cameras rolling, Dillon — playing grunge rocker Cliff Poncier, caught somewhere on the evolutionary ladder between a caveman and a cow — would do a first take perfectly. Then he'd think about it, and the second take wouldn't come out nearly as well. The third might even be worse. At this point, Crowe says, Dillon would retreat into his trailer and flip out.

''It's Matt's work ethic,'' says Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused, Unlawful Entry), who directed Dillon, then 14, in the actor's first feature film, 1979's Over the Edge. ''When I worked with him, he thought I was coddling him. He thought you had to get it right on the first take. All the other actors said to him, 'No, that's how this is done,' but he wanted me to say after the first take, 'Cut. Print. Let's move on.'''

But Dillon's first brooding performance came even earlier. Kaplan met him after Edge casting scouts, looking for hood types for the suburban teen-rebellion drama, had spotted the strikingly handsome boy at the Hommocks School in Larchmont, N.Y. ''We happened to get him at a time in adolescence when he was acting,'' says Kaplan. ''I asked him, 'What does your dad do for a living?' and he says, 'He's a f---ing businessman.' And I asked, 'What does your mother do?' and he says, 'She don't do s---.'' Then I found out his father's a stockbroker or something, and this is all a working-class, Lower East Side Italian pose from a middle-class Irish kid from the suburbs.''

When asked what would have happened to him if he hadn't been given the opportunity to improvise in front of a serious director, Dillon now says, ''I can't look at it like that. It's really hard'' — he says ''hawd'' — ''to figure out a whole scenario of what would have happened had I not done this and that. 'Cause I kind of willed it to happen in a lot of ways. I read this character and I said, 'This character's me.' I just felt it — I knew it was going to happen. I mean, I came home and I said, 'Mom, I'm going to do this movie,' you know? She's like, 'What are you talking about?' I wasn't just cocky. I just...''

Perhaps it seems too easy — the tortured, sulking, bad-boy Brando/Dean routine that Dillon brings to a role, a meeting, a conversation. But it's trickier than that. Looking at some of the neglected hunks Dillon plays, one might assume the roles are not much of a stretch. But, as someone close to him put it, ''You don't get to be as successful as Dillon by being stupid.'' (His fee for the upcoming Mr. Wonderful is said to be $1.2 million.)

During our first meeting, I ask him if he has read a certain book, Carlos Castaneda's Tales of Power. He doesn't answer. For a good 10 seconds, he looks at me without seeing me. The wheels behind his eyes are turning, grinding at his thoughts. Where was this scene going? Finally, he answers.

''Ah, no.''

This is what brings us into theaters to see Dillon: silent drama.

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