Matt Dillon
Photo by Matt Doyle

Matt Dillon: “There’s always something to look for”

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Short Profile

Name: Matthew Raymond Dillon
DOB: 18 February 1964
Place of birth: New Rochelle, New York, United States
Occupation: Actor, Film director

Matt Dillon stars in Lars von Trier's new film, The House That Jack Built, in theaters on 29 November 2018.

Mr. Dillon, what does the truth look like on screen?

Well, my favorite word is verisimilitude. That means the appearance of truth. And that’s what we’re doing when we make films, we’re making something that appears to be something we recognize, but it’s not the truth. It’s not real, it’s fictional. But it appears that way! And that is a very powerful thing because it makes us feel. It is an illusion that gives you a very real emotion.

Do you feel like you speak your truth through the characters that you portray?

No. There’s the characters I play, and then there’s me, right? I don’t think that getting into characters makes me more comfortable psychologically or anything, I think, quite simply, I like to work. I don’t rely on the fictional characters I’m playing to give me any kind of solace in my life, you know? When I’m playing a role, I personalize things but I’m really just interpreting.

“Everyone has their reasons. And that’s good to remember when you’re trying to figure out your character.”

There was a New York Times interview with you in 1993 and the author wrote: “For years, the press has suggested that Mr. Dillon has merely been playing extreme versions of himself.”

(Laughs) I never felt that way! I didn’t write those scripts so how could they be? I look for things, I try to find something personal to connect with but it isn’t me. That’s one of the nice things about being an actor is that you become somebody else. For example, one time played a racist cop in the film Crash and this guy… What an asshole this guy is, he was horrible. But his reasoning was that he felt like a victim — whether that’s right or wrong. I think Renoir said something like, “The terrible truth is that everyone has their reasons.” And that’s good to remember when you’re trying to figure out your character. There is a logic behind everything, a human logic, character logic.

Is character logic important for your method?

That’s my biggest thing, character logic! And I’m not talking about two plus two, I’m talking about rationale! Why would somebody behave this way? I will always fight for that. I remember reading something, a pilot or something, and the protagonist who you’re supposed to be relating to is double crossing people for no reason. And I’m thinking, “Where is the logic?” And that’s something I didn’t have to worry about when I worked on The House That Jack Built with Lars von Trier because he was never sacrificing the character for the sake of the plot.

What do you mean?

Something that drives me crazy as an actor is when it’s like, “Oh, we want to go here so we’re going to have the actor go there,” but they haven’t thought about why or how that would work. In fact, it’s more important to me that a character makes sense than if a character is likeable, for example. I remember it was very difficult to get City of Ghosts financed because you would inevitably be asked, “Who is likeable?”

Does likeability really matter?

I mean, characters have to be interesting, yes, but I think especially on television, these unlikeable diabolical protagonists are really starting to stack up.

Walter White from Breaking Bad comes to mind.

Right! You’re absolutely right! Tony Soprano would be another. And they’re all following that lead. My feeling is that the characters don’t have to be likeable, they just have to be compelling. Audiences really are less interested in whether the character is likeable than they are if they’re engaging or compelling. There’s really interesting characters on television lately, there’s always something to look for.

Whereas I don’t think you could necessarily say the same about film.

There’s less of that in film, yeah. It’s a time when there are very few films being made that are pushing the envelope or exploring things that aren’t commercial — certainly for the big screen. In television, sometimes it seems like they’re taking more chances for characters. I really like being challenged as an actor but sometimes I find that in film, the leading man, the protagonist can be the least developed character or the least interesting character to play. I think maybe that’s a reflection of me, that I want to be challenged as an actor and do things where I can really do something creative.

“Those simple things make me more comfortable. I like my work; that’s where I’m happiest.”

A few years ago, you said that your versatility as an actor hadn’t been fully explored yet. Do you still feel that way?

I wouldn’t say it’s been fully explored, no. That’s what made The House That Jack Built so interesting because within that film you have a character who is many different people, and that’s how he adapts. But when you ask about versatility, you know, it’s interesting because when I came up and started acting as a teenager, I went to the Lee Strasbourg Institute. And as actors, what we valued in acting was truthfulness, obviously, first and foremost… But versatility was also a very big deal! One of the reasons Brando was the greatest was his courage to take chances, his freedom, his personalizing moments, his vulnerability.

Things that were ground-breaking in terms of acting at the time.

Exactly, and that was what we all strived for! And I still do. It’s still important. But if you look at nowadays, it’s just different because of the world that we’re in. What does it mean to be versatile as an actor today?

Have you figured it out?

When I’m talking about versatility, it’s about exploring behaviour, really. That’s something that’s very exciting for me as an actor, exploring behaviour… The challenge of doing something that’s kind of fresh or uncharted territory is always something that is what I’m looking for as an actor. Making movies can be really creatively fulfilling, especially when it’s a good environment, when there’s a positive energy, when the director fully embraces the potential for failure because without that there can’t be freedom. If you’re so tight that you have to get it perfect, you don’t have the freedom to try something different. Those simple things make me more comfortable, make me more happy. I like my work; that’s where I’m happiest.