New Again: Matt Dillon
In New Again, we highlight a piece from Interview’s past that resonates with the present.
Regarded as the James Dean of the ’80s, New York State native Matt Dillon made being bad look so good. Priding himself as an actor who values quality over monetary pursuits, Matt Dillon’s selective nature has kept him out of the tabloids over the past two decades. That doesn’t mean, however, that Dillon isn’t working or has lost his fan base; with five films due out this year, clearly the actor is doing something right.
We’re looking forward to Matt channeling his comedic side alongside Kristen Wiig and Natasha Lyonne in his newest film, Girl Most Likely. In celebration of its release this Friday, we decided to take a look back at Dillon 30 years ago, at the beginning of his acting career.
Clad in a tweed coat, the 19-year-old actor sits down with Maura Moynihan and Andy Warhol on a chilly New York day in December 1983. Despite being years their junior, Dillon holds his own with an air of confidence far beyond his age. Unfazed by Warhol’s stature, Dillon tells it how it is in this candid chat. The rebellious Aquarian talks getting discovered at 14 years old, his unrelenting nerves and what he does to “keep loose.” Matt Dillon has come a long way since The Outsiders, but we feel the sublime confidence of youth he exudes in this interview will endure forever. There’s just something about Dillon… —Genevieve Glass
By Andy Warhol & Maura Moynihan
At 19, Matt Dillon is one of the most bankable young stars around, with eight films behind him and another, Sweet Ginger Brown, presently in the works. After the release of Little Darlings in 1980, Matt Dillon’s star began to rise over every American home. Unlike some overnight sensations, he did not evaporate when the seasons changed. His star has continued to soar, not only because of his staggering good looks, but because he’s proved that he is an actor who takes his work very seriously.
Matt has adjusted with remarkable ease and has accomplished a rare feat: he has earned the respect of the serious film establishment without alienating his adoring teen audience. He is perfectly attuned to his contemporaries. He loves rock music and speaks with jargon comprehensible to any teenager. He is very close to his family and faithful to his old school friends. But he takes a keen interest in his career and the movie business and has learned a great deal about it. He knows other actors, can and does discuss their work; he’s up to date on the details of the distribution and marketing of his pictures too.
Yet, this emerging self-awareness hasn’t depleted any of his youthful appeal. The magnetism he radiates is very powerful: it is something tangible. On his taut physique clothing falls in loose disorder. Buttons seem to come undone and fabric slackens. He is blessed with dramatic Gaelic coloring: glossy black hair, luminous skin with flushed cheeks and enormous liquid eyes. His attention is elusive but, once captured, focuses with great intensity. He explores his thoughts more with instinct than intellect; often his movements convey his meaning more effectively than his words. The qualities of maturing self-possession and ingenuousness are gracefully commingled.
Cutting class at Hommock Junior High School in Larchmont, New York, one afternoon in 1979 occasioned an auspicious meeting with some talent scouts who were combing the neighborhood in search of young talent for the film Over the Edge. Matt followed up the offer to audition for the film and met with casting director Vic Ramos, a veteran of Hollywood who’s been appraising talent for years. After a mere five minutes with Matt, Ramos penciled in his notebook: “Should be a movie star.” Shortly thereafter, Ramos became Matt’s personal manager and since that time he has skillfully and meticulously navigated Matt’s ascent to stardom. Over the Edge was critically well-received, though not widely distributed. But Matt made a distinct impression in the role of an alienated suburban adolescent, and word started to get around. His second film, Little Darlings, was released in the summer of 1980. Matt instantly became a national sensation, receiving up to 7,000 pieces of fan mail a week. But Ramos did not allow Matt to be transmogrified into a pin-up icon, and carefully steered him through the bombardment of teen fan magazine press, which has only abated somewhat in the last year. Matt’s stock zoomed and so did his asking price. Ramos’ office was inundated with scripts and offers. Ramos was cautious when he might have gambled. The vehicles for the young star were chosen with the utmost care and discrimination. The projects that followed, My Bodyguard, Liar’s Moon, and The Great American Fourth of July. . . and Other Disasters (an American Playhouse PBS special) were all quality films, and Matt’s work was singled out by almost every reviewer. Critics commended his acting and acknowledged his remarkable screen presence and charisma. Ramos’ original prognostication about Matt’s star quality was confirmed in the next movie, Tex, a low-budget Disney production based off a novel by S. E. Hinton. Hinton was one of Dillon’s favorite writers long before he ever imaged he’s being the moody protagonists of her novels to life on screen.
In Tex, his portrayal of a troubled, neglected kid coming of age in the South ranked him as an important young actor in contemporary cinema. Pauline Kael praised his “mysteriously effortless charm . . . a gift for expressing confused and submerged shifts of feeling.” Richard Schickel wrote: No one has more accurately captured the mercurial quality of adolescence than he has . . . to create a wholly believable vulnerability.” The Hinton/Dillon collaboration proved such a success that the writer and actor teamed up for two more films: The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, both directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
In The Outsiders, Dillon took the malevolent Dallas and somehow made him evolve into a sympathetic character in a way that was authentic and uncompromising. In Rumble Fish, Dillon was likened to James Dean and a young Brando, though friends insist that he makes little of such comparisons. Matt spent most of the fall in Brooklyn and Coney Island filming Sweet Ginger Brown, a period romance set in 1963. Ramos likes the project because it’s a comedy and will give Matt a chance to expand his range. On a damp Saturday in October, Andy Warhol and I were engaged in making coffee and watching TV in a friend’s townhouse in New York when Matt ambled through the back door in a tweed coat, hair modeled in a 1963 flat-top for his role. He was perfectly at home in the kitchen, slouched in a chair, his feet tapping the floor with a rhythmic pace. Throughout the conversation he chain-smoked, eyes darting around the room, interjecting bits of rock lyrics into his conversation.
MATT DILLON: I was at the Roxy all last night.
ANDY WARHOL: Who was there?
DILLON: Some really good band, but I forget the name. I was just basically checking out the breakdancers.
WARHOL: They haven’t made a movie of breaking yet—
DILLON: Yeah, I know, it may just be too on the nose to make a movie about it.
WARHOL: But there are so many people doing it now. And graffiti artists, too.
DILLON: Yeah, it’s all kind of coming together, rap graffiti. There’s this rap tune about Jean-Michel (Basquiat) that the Clash wrote the music for, and Mick Jones produced it. It’s really good, but it’s hard to find here.
MAURA MOYNIHAN: Do you like the Clash?
DILLON: Yeah, I do.
MOYNIHAN: They disappointed me because I don’t think the way they’ve politicized their music is particularly sincere.
DILLON: Yeah, it’s hard to be true to it. In politics there are so many holes, so many contradictions, you don’t know what’s happening.
MOYNIHAN: Do you like reggae?
DILLON: Oh yeah, I was at the Reggae Lounge—
WARHOL: What’s the Reggae Lounge?
DILLON: It’s downtown.
WARHOL: Do you want to be a rock star?
DILLON: No, I just follow it with an objective eye.
WARHOL: Do you sing?
DILLON: Not really.
MOYNIHAN: I’ll never stop listening to rock and roll. It was the first music I was ever exposed to.
DILLON: The first music I was ever exposed to was Irish folk music, like the Clancy Brothers. My father plays that and Christmas songs.
MOYNIHAN: Do you go to concerts often?
DILLON: No, not that much anymore.
WARHOL: But we saw you at the Police concert.
DILLON: Yeah, that was wild, but it was the Police.
MOYNIHAN: Do you play an instrument?
DILLON: No, not now, but eventually I want to get around to playing the sax.
MOYNIHAN: But the sax is difficult.
DILLON: I know it’s hard.
MOYNIHAN: For a novice starting late in life I would recommend the guitar.
DILLON: I don’t know why, but I like the saxophone.
MOYNIHAN: Would you be interested in portraying a rock star in a film?
DILLON: Oh yeah, that sounds really interesting. I really like that idea.
MOYNIHAN: Why is it that most rock movies don’t work?
DILLON: You know what it is? You have to have good music. It’s got to be new, it’s got to be good and written for the scenes. And it’s hard to do that.
MOYNIHAN: Do you always put oil on your hair?
DILLON: No, it’s for the role actually.
MOYNIHAN: What are you doing?
DILLON: It’s called Sweet Ginger Brown. It takes place in 1963.
MOYNIHAN: Would you like some orange juice or spring water?
DILLON: Spring water. You eat too much junk food on the set. I eat 12 donuts a day.
WARHOL: Well, in your contract you should say, “No more junk food.”
DILLON: The film I worked on with Francis (Coppola), Rumble Fish, was incredible. With Francis you eat really well. The caterers were really good.
MOYNIHAN: Do you have a good relationship with Coppola? Is he a tough director?
DILLON: No, he’s not tough, he’s patient, but at the same time he likes to move. Coppola’s a real good actor’s director. He gives you a lot of room to experiment, and he gives you time. When we did Rumble Fish, we did 12-hour rehearsals every day two weeks before we shot.
WARHOL: What’s Rumble Fish about?
DILLON: I’d rather not explain it because if I did I’d probably mess it up. It’s like poetry on film. It’s hard to describe.
MOYNIHAN: Can you describe your character?
DILLON: He’s tough, a street guy. He has an older brother, played by Mickey Rourke, who is the legend in the neighborhood: really tough, but really intelligent and the leader of everything. My character looks up to his older brother; he’s following in his footsteps, but he can’t cut it. He’s living in the past remember what his brother was, but his brother couldn’t care less.
MOYNIHAN: Where was it filmed?
DILLON: In Tulsa, but it doesn’t really take place there.
MOYNIHAN: Do you enjoy your own films?
DILLON: Sometimes I watch the whole film, but sometimes I just see pieces of it. I’ll go to a screening and walk out and see the rest of it later.
MOYNIHAN: Do you get nervous?
DILLON: I get really nervous sometimes. I shake. Cause you work so hard on a film, and if it doesn’t work out the way you were hoping it to or the way you expected to, it’s a heavy shock.
MOYNIHAN: What kind of obstacles do you come up against when you’re working on a role?
DILLON: When you’re doing a film you have all these long pauses in between shots and takes, so you have to keep the energy going—stay in character, stay in the scene. It’s not one continuous flow like in a play or something. You do a piece here, there, stop, take a long pause and do another piece. You gotta keep concentrated, and that’s difficult.
WARHOL: How did this happen to you? When did you start making movies?
DILLON: It started when I was about 14. I was discovered, I guess.
WARHOL: Did you want to be in the movies?
DILLON: When I was 14 I didn’t even think about it. I remember I was walking down the hall. I was supposed to be in class and I was cutting, and these two men approached me and asked me if I wanted to do an audition. I didn’t know what to think. At first I thought it was a joke. I was trying to figure out where the rest of the part was. They said no, it’s legitimate. So I said sure. I met the people from the film and went through several callbacks before I finally got the part. That film was called Over the Edge.
MOYNIHAN: When you were called back did it occur to you that you might want to be a serious actor? You weren’t going to treat it like a fluke.
DILLON: Yes. When I first went in to read, I felt everything out, and I said to myself, I’m not going to let this pass me by. I was going to be cool about it, but I wasn’t going to let it slip by. I saw the scene they were audition people for, and I said, “This is me.” I went home and I told my mother. I didn’t even say, “Mom, I tried out for this movie today.” I said, “Mom, I’m going to be in this movie.” I said it like that. And she kind of like just laughed. It was sort of a ridiculous statement, saying it out of the blue like that. I mean how the hell did I know they wanted me?
MOYNIHAN: Of all the films you’ve made, do you have a particular favorite?
DILLON: Basically, I’ve really got to admit that of all the ones I’ve made so far, at different times I didn’t like ’em, at other times I’ve liked ’em, but I would say overall that now I like each one of them.
MOYNIHAN: Why are you so good at playing tough, angry characters?
DILLON: Those are the kinds of roles you can really sink your teeth into. Characters with an edge. When you’re playing someone who’s sort of seedy, there’s less limitation, there’s so much space you can travel. There’s room to move in.
MOYNIHAN: Why is it harder to play the straight man?
DILLON: Because you can’t find him.
MOYNIHAN: I think it’s easier to create someone crazy.
DILLON: Yeah, because you’re acting. First things first, there’s the voice. You can’t do anything with the voice. You can do anything with the clothing, with wardrobe. You can explore the whole character. When you’re playing the straight guy it’s hard to be loose, because you have your audience rooting for you the whole time. It’s important for the film to think that way.
MOYNIHAN: Often I root for the bad guys.
DILLON: That’s okay. I do, too. There are the good bad guys.
MOYNIHAN: And the evil ones.
DILLON: Yeah, the evil ones are fun.
MOYNIHAN: What kind of roles are you after now?
DILLON: Well, I still want to do character. It’s harder though.
MOYNIHAN: Do you want to stay away from romantic leads?
DILLON: Not necessarily. I just don’t want to do it in a conventional manner.
WARHOL: Did you go to acting school after your first movie?
DILLON: No, it was after the third movie, to the Lee Strasberg Institute.
MOYNIHAN: Do you socialize with other actors?
DILLON: Yeah, I do. I mean, I still like to keep in touch with my friends at home. That’s a nice escape. But I do keep in touch with a lot of my actor friends. Vince Spano has been a friend for a very long time. And Mickey Rourke is a really good guy.
MOYNIHAN: Have you remained friends with the girls you’ve acted with, Meg Tilly and Diane Lane?
DILLON: Yeah, I mean I don’t talk to them a lot. I haven’t talked to Meg in a while. Meg’s a great girl. She’s got The Big Chill. She’s doing really well.
WARHOL: Are you living at home?
DILLON: I’m not living at home now, but I had been up until now. My family’s out in Westchester so it’s nice. I can go out there and escape.
MOYNIHAN: Do you go to the movies often?
DILLON: I haven’t as much lately. When you’re filming it’s hard. I just realized today when I got up and made a mad dash from some clothing that I haven’t been doing, my laundry.
MOYNIHAN: Have you taken any time off?
DILLON: I took a long break right after Rumble Fish. I just took it easy. I went to Europe this summer: Germany, England and Paris.
MOYNIHAN: Did you visit all the museums?
DILLON: I visited some of them. I went to the Pompidou. I missed the Louvre actually.
MOYNIHAN: Where did you stay?
DILLON: Near the Pompidou, right down the street in this little, kind of crummy hotel. My room had a little balcony looking over the street. It was kind of exciting. It was fun.
MOYNIHAN: Where you alone?
DILLON: No, I was with someone . . . .
MOYNIHAN: Did people recognize you over there?
DILLON: No, not really. That was good. I felt like I was on some secret mission.
MOYNIHAN: Are you in love with anyone right now?
DILLON: Am I in love with anyone? Yes . . . yeah.
MOYNIHAN: Do you keep the relationship very private?
DILLON: Yeah, very private.
MOYNIHAN: Is it hard being separated when you’re working on location?
DILLON: Yeah, that’s the whole thing right now.
MOYNIHAN: Do you get lonely? Do you miss her?
DILLON: Yeah, and I think that she gets upset, because I can’t give all my time. It’s difficult to keep a relationship together.
WARHOL: Is she a model?
DILLON: No, not a model. A Buffalo girl.
MOYNIHAN: When you fall in love do you fall really hard?
DILLON: I fall really hard. I get myself in trouble. For some reason I do, but I have a hard time keeping it going.
MOYNIHAN: Sustaining your passion?
DILLON: Well, not my passion necessarily, not my interest, but commitment. It has nothing to do with getting bored with the person, it has something more to do with my priorities. My work has to be first.
MOYNIHAN: Have you ever had your heart broken?
DILLON: Sure, I’ve had my heart smashed, stepped on, crunched, everybody has. Vice-versa, too. I know that. I don’t screw anybody over, but I know that happens. It’s tough.
MOYNIHAN: Do you feel a responsibility to your fans?
DILLON: As far as responsibility goes, I feel responsible for turning in the best performance I can and entertaining them.
MOYNIHAN: I recently read that you are interested in writing.
DILLON: Yeah, I like to write. But it’s hard, it’s discipline, you know. I have a hard time sitting down and actually doing it.
MOYNIHAN: Are you very disciplined?
DILLON: In some areas. The hardest thing is self-discipline. You know what Suzie Hinton said? She said she wouldn’t have written Tex if she hadn’t had a deadline.
MOYNIHAN: Are you still very close to her?
DILLON: Yeah, she just had a baby, a boy, her first kid. I’ve got to give her a call.
MOYNIHAN: You’ve made three films based on her novels. Do you have plans for more?
DILLON: I know they’re working on one now, but I’m not going to do it.
MOYNIHAN: That Was Then, This Is Now?
MOYNIHAN: Other projects?
DILLON: I have a lot of projects, I haven’t set anything yet. There are a lot of ideas in the works I’m trying to put together.
MOYNIHAN: Are you very selective about your roles?
DILLON: Yeah, very, which is good, but you can’t be overly selective. It is important to be selective, I think. Your heart really has to be in something.
MOYNIHAN: Do you have trouble finding scripts you like?
DILLON: The trouble is, right now, I think it’s changing. For a while everyone was going in a set pattern, saying, “This will be commercial, this will be successful.” I looked in Variety a few months ago and it looked like the top 10 movies were all sequels. I hope it’s changing. You should always be taking chances.
WARHOL: Have you done any plays?
DILLON: No, I haven’t. I’d like to, but I’m really looking for some more good films. That’s where I’m at right now.
MOYNIHAN: Who are your favorite authors, aside from S.E. Hinton?
DILLON: Recently, I’ve been reading some Flannery O’Connor. She’s really good. She writes about the South.
MOYNIHAN: You’re really interested in astrology, aren’t you?
DILLON: Well, yeah, I’m interested in it. You’re a Leo, aren’t you, Andy?
WARHOL: Oh, yeah.
DILLON: Leo, that’s a really creative sign, really creative.
WARHOL: How did you get involved with all this?
DILLON: It’s just interesting for figuring our relationships between people. I don’t really follow it. It’s fun to follow, but everybody’s a little of everything. If you told me you were a Gemini, if you told me you were a Pisces, I would believe you, so what’s the difference? I just think astrology is interesting, so why not?
MOYNIHAN: I can see from your birthdate that you must be Aquarius.
DILLON: Oh, yeah. Aquarians tend to become rebels.
MOYNIHAN: Most of your movies have been about teenagers and their particular frustrations. What do you think kids are concerned about these days?
DILLON: I think after Vietnam everyone was sort of mellow. It was like, yeah, we’ve done out fighting. Let’s be peaceful, let’s mellow out. People release frustration now through music, through dress and style. But there’s a lot of frustration. That shows where the world is headed.
MOYNIHAN: Do you ever worry about getting drafted?
DILLON: No. But I guess it’s scary. You can’t control it. You keep going.
WARHOL: How do you keep your good looks?
DILLON: I don’t do anything. What good looks?
WARHOL: Do you work out?
DILLON: I work out periodically, spasmodically. Sometimes I work out, sometimes I won’t. I don’t think about it too much.
MOYNIHAN: What do you do in your spare time?
DILLON: I like to keep loose. I like to read. When it rains it pours, either you have a lot of spare time or you don’t. That’s the best way of describing it.
MOYNIHAN: Did you do some traveling in Asia?
DILLON: Yeah, when I did the film My Bodyguard I went to Japan and Hong Kong. I liked Hong Kong a lot. Everywhere you turn there’s something to see. Soon China’s going to have the option of taking it back, but I think the reason China leases Hong Kong there is because it gets so many tourists, they make so much money. China has so much land as it is.
MOYNIHAN: What places do you want to visit?
DILLON: I’ll go anywhere. I’ll tell you a place I wouldn’t want to go: Moscow. I might want to go and see it, but I wouldn’t like to stay.
MOYNIHAN: I like being an American.
DILLON: Me, too. Hell yeah! But it’s all relative. If you’re a human being, you just try to find happiness wherever you are.
MOYNIHAN: How do you create the feeling of anger or despair when you act?
DILLON: It’s more of a feeling than a thought. Working with your senses, sense memory, the stuff you get at Strasberg. But you do that intuitively.
MOYNIHAN: Some people can’t.
DILLON: I can’t imagine anyone not being able to do it.
MOYNIHAN: Do you think reviews are important?
DILLON: Not to me.
MOYNIHAN: Who are your favorite actors?
DILLON: There are a lot of good actors. I like specific performances. I think De Niro is a fantastic actor. Andy, you made that statement that I always hear: “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”
MOYNIHAN: Do you think it’s true?
DILLON: It’s not really true, but it is, you know?
THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY RAN IN THE DECEMBER 1983 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.
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