If face dictates function in Hollywood, then Matt Dillon's bristling black eyebrows, bottomless pit of a gaze and stubborn jaw have stamped him for the moody, explosive rebel roles; he has even said admiring things about Mickey Rourke.
And, with a few exceptions, surly, street-smart guys are the sort of roles that find him, in films like "Drugstore Cowboy," "Over the Edge," "My Bodyguard," "The Outsiders" and "A Kiss Before Dying."For years the press has suggested that Dillon has been merely playing extreme versions of himself, and interviewers repeatedly have found him tardy, coy, arrogant, withholding.
But Dillon is the first to arrive for a drink at a neighborhood bar on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, and his grin is genial, even expansive. Then he flops back in his chair, long legs sprawling and, throwing up his hands, says by way of an opener, "So, like, what's with Mogadishu, huh?"
Earnest and yet hilarious in a spacey sort of fashion, Dillon, who is closing in on 30, is not so much resistant to scrutiny as he is made awkward by it. That's part of his charm, a quality that reviewers have praised him for in "Tex," "The Flamingo Kid" and, to a loopier extent, in last year's "Singles," in which he played the planet's dumbest would-be rock star.
"I do get bottled up in interviews," he says. "You're thinking about what you're saying, and suddenly you get all tangled.
"So people think I'm sullen, or that I don't have much to say." He leans across the table, looking hapless. "But my friends will tell you: a lot of times I talk too much."
It is hard to be a certified grown-up when you're dogged by the public persona of a scowling teenager, a situation that Dillon nonetheless exacerbated by playing variations of that role on screen well into his 20s. Following "The Flamingo Kid" in 1984, in which he played a ripe, seducible cabana boy from working-class Brooklyn, he floundered in a half-dozen or so turkeys, with the critics sniping at him for being a low-rent James Dean or Montgomery Clift with pouty mannerisms.
While the heroin addict and thief Dillon played in "Drugstore Cowboy" in 1989 plowed some old ground, Stephen Holden of The New York Times called it the role of Dillon's career and described the character as "alternately appealing and appalling."
Now Dillon has returned with back-to-back roles that seem like mature versions of his best earlier work. In "Mr. Wonderful," Dillon plays a Con Ed worker who tries to marry off his ex-wife, played by Annabella Sciorra. He is a sweet, rough-edged fellow who could be an older brother of the cabana boy in "The Flamingo Kid."
And in his newest film, "The Saint of Fort Washington," Dillon plays a gossamer-fragile, disturbed homeless man befriended by a Vietnam veteran played by Danny Glover, whom he meets in a city-run shelter.
Dillon, of course, will not speak about having grown up or coming into his own - that sort of thing is utterly beyond him ("I find talking about myself really boring"), though his friends heartily agree that he has calmed down.
Instead, over the course of two evenings, Dillon does his dutiful best to promote his films. "Don't we have to talk more about `Mr. Wonderful' ?" he asks with a squirm.
Although he has been a working actor for more than half his life, promotional pieties don't come readily to him. Asked about any lingering effects from his harrowing role in "The Saint of Fort Washington," in which he is menaced by thugs in the shelter, chatters back nervously at the voices in his head, and spends nights on subways and park benches, Dillon replies, "People asked me if I wanted to start a charity, but when I was done with that movie, I just wanted to get the hell out and go to Martha's Vineyard."
It is hard to imagine such candor tumbling from the lips of Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio or Emilio Estevez, all of whom appeared with Dillon a decade ago in "The Outsiders," directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Not surprisingly, Dillon's career has been less conventional and less commercially successful than those of his co-stars. But Tim Hunter, who directed Dillon in "The Saint of Fort Washington" and in "Tex" almost 12 years earlier, says that he is first among his peers:
"He's not yuppie lead material," says Hunter. "He's Matt. He's down-to-earth. But I've always felt that while he's not the easiest person to cast, he has more depth and soul than anyone else in his acting generation."
Dillon's critical stock has fluctuated over the years; Hunter says he is a good actor who has made some unfortunate choices. "I know from working with him on `Tex' that he has a vulnerable side that isn't always exploited in the films that he does. He can really break your heart."
While Dillon's funny blue-collar hero in "Mr. Wonderful" is about as close to the mainstream as he ever gets, in "The Saint of Fort Washington," he can't get any farther from it: as Matthew, a promising photographer crippled by mental illness and institutionalized, he lives in a shadowy world of fears so profound that he is too jittery to count the money he earns from washing windshields at stoplights.
And though Dillon doesn't break into his version of the Actor's Guide to Meaningful Social Policy (the actor, bless his soul, says things like "when I finished that job"), his dithering about whether to accept the role and the subsequent frenzy with which he prepared for it amount to a quieter, though no less passionate statement.
His reluctance to take the part, he says, had nothing to do with the questionable commercial appeal of a movie about the stark life of two homeless men who cling to each other for survival. "I was concerned about whether it was an honest depiction of the homeless," he says. He didn't want the project to come off, he adds, "as too sentimental or a buddy movie."
Dillon spent three months researching schizophrenia and homelessness, reading books, watching documentaries, going on forays with Project Help, a program in New York City that ministers to the homeless mentally ill. "This film was very subjective," he says, "not some intellectual exercise, some PBS thing: `This is why these people are homeless, blah, blah.' If it works, it's because you get caught up in their lives."
He says making the film, which included numerous scenes shot in the Fort Washington Armory, a city-run shelter, and which used many residents as extras and in bit parts, "wasn't emotionally draining. It was emotionally saturating."
Dillon himself has moved to the Upper West Side, after spending most of his 20s in lofts and apartments downtown. "He's wonderful to watch in New York City," says Hunter. "Matt goes around like an unselfconsciously natural aristocrat: he knows everybody in every restaurant, the cop on the street and now some of the homeless people. It really is his town." Annabella Sciorra, his co-star in "Mr. Wonderful" and a fellow New Yorker, calls him "life-smart."
Lynn Snowden, a writer who, with her husband, has befriended Dillon, says that his digs, filled with a stylish, eclectic mix of French and American antiques that he has been avidly collecting for years, fly right in the face of his scruffy image. Indeed, while Dillon describes his interests as "basketball, baseball and, uh, music," his pals talk about his knowledge of vintage wines, his voracious reading habits, his gifts as a sketch artist.
Dillon's father, a former investment manager, now paints portraits; the family, which includes Dillon's mother and five siblings (including his brother Kevin, also a film actor), lives in Westchester and by all accounts is rambunctious and close-knit. Dillon lived at home until he was 19.
One day when he was cutting class, loitering by his locker at the Hommocks School in Larchmont, N.Y., the 14-year-old Dillon was spotted by a casting agent who was searching for nonprofessionals to star in Jonathan Kaplan's film "Over the Edge."
Dillon continued making movies, but he never managed to get his high school diploma. "I didn't drop out in the classic sense," he says. "But I kept getting incompletes constantly because I was on movie sets." He looks exasperated: "Gym! Now how was I going to get my gym credits?"
After that first movie, he became entranced with acting, so that unlike many friends from his school days, he has long had a focus, a career. "But I really regret not having a collegiate education," he says. "Like French literature? You get to discuss it in a class. You don't do that when you read by yourself."
The upside of becoming a movie star, he says, are "the chicks and the checks. I'm joking, I'm joking!" The downside, he says, is losing his anonymity: particularly in his earlier years, Dillon was a bona fide teen idol, with all that entails.