By Zoe Stagg
photographer: Robert Ascroft
“My new favorite word is verisimilitude. It’s such a great word for actors and people who are creating characters. “
“These people don’t have the opportunity or they don’t have the power to be able to say, “Hey this is what we need” and so somebody’s gotta speak up for that — and that’s what Refugees International does.”
Leave it to a Hollywood bad boy to find rebellion, even in the pages of a book.
“There’s a certain point when the characters refuse to behave.” If an artist finds that point, nothing is in black and white — not even the words, “The End.”
Matt Dillon has spent three decades creating those characters and allowing them to disrupt us into believing. “My new favorite word is verisimilitude,” his voice is rough yet quiet, mirroring those characters audibly. “It’s such a great word for actors and people who are creating characters. Roughly the translation of verisimilitude is the appearance of truth, right? And that’s an interesting thing because it’s not something that’s false. But it’s not necessarily the truth either….”
From Rumble Fish to Drugstore Cowboy to Singles to There’s Something About Mary to Crash, there’s continuity almost nowhere but in Dillon’s search for that appearance of truth. “Renoir said everybody has their reasons, you know in life…characters, people, everyone has their reasons for doing what they’re doing. It doesn’t necessarily have to make sense to us but they had a reason for doing what they did.” No longer the kid who was plucked from the hallways of his high school and thrust into Hollywood, Dillon’s learned he’s a collaborative force in the unfolding of the plot. “There’s a certain point when the character starts to not do what the author started…when the characters don’t behave the way they were conceived in the beginning. I think that the author has to be sensitive to that, or the creators or even me the actor…we have to be like cognizant of that.”
You can see him attempt this for the first time, taking a character from an author and making it his own. He’s skinny and tall, with the shaggy hair of the times and the straight balcony of dark brows he’s been smoldering behind ever since. His face is softer, with angles he hasn’t quite grown into yet, but it’s unmistakably him. With a long career in the age of video, there’s not much lost to the ether. Paired with the equally baby-faced versions of who would become most of Hollywood’s leading men, the slightly grainy archival footage shows Matt Dillon clutching his script and and grinning lazily, all bravado and leather — nailing his audition for the part of Dallas Winston in The Outsiders. He might not have known the word “verisimilitude” then, but that’s exactly what he brought to the part.
An actor from the cusp of adulthood, he side-stepped the difficult chasm child stars have to navigate — but the learning curve was steep. “When I was young I felt that I was responsible for EVERY…for the outcome of every film that I made, and all I could really control was what I’m doing. That’s all I can really do.” With a career studded with awards for everything from his broad comedic turns to the more dramatic, it seems like he’s always picked projects with the eye of an artist. “I mean look you know, you have to take care of yourself…anybody does.” It’s still show business, after all. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just do the things that we’re passionate about, and get paid and be able to sustain ourselves and pay the rent and do everything that we need to do — put food on the table — and it was just the thing that you loved doing? But it doesn’t always work out that way.”
His filmography won’t tip his hand as to passion vs. paycheck, and neither will he. “I’m not gonna mention those jobs either specifically where you feel like you’re just showing up and it is a job. I’m a professional so I bring a performance no matter what, you know, but…”
Though he keeps diplomatic when it comes to facets of his career, he’s all for the right to speak up, regardless of the red carpet underfoot. “People should be able to say whatever they want whether it’s political, social, or just their own opinions about whatever. However, it can be a can of worms.” It’s a notion that’s not new. Search the vault and you’ll find the “Matt Dillon Quiz Book,” a heartthrob paperback published in 1983, which asks the very pointed question: “Is Matt Dillon into politics.” His position then? “No.” And more than 30 years later? He says a run for office is, “Nah. Not for me.” It could be this rock-solid belief system that turns him off the whole idea. “It seems like politics is synonymous with lying.”
Dillon doesn’t have time for fabrication, he’s got real work to do.
“I have interests outside of my work and career. I’ve gotten more involved in more humanitarian oriented stuff.”
To call it “stuff” is a giant understatement. He’s a board member with the advocacy group, Refugees International, and forget every character he’s ever brought to the screen — this is the real Matt Dillon. His New York swagger turns pointed. “I helped to kind of keep that board alive, to keep that organization up and running ‘cause I believe it’s a great organization that does great work. Basically, Refugees International becomes a voice for internally displaced people…a lifesaving voice.” There are no cracks in his fluency on this complicated topic. This isn’t a cause he’s given his name to or just signed a check. Bringing voice to the displaced is Dillon’s passion. “These people don’t have the opportunity or they don’t have the power to be able to say, “Hey this is what we need” and so somebody’s gotta speak up for that — and that’s what Refugees International does.”
It’s an important task in an overwhelming situation, one he’s seen first hand. “I’ve gone on these missions with our advocates and it’s, you know, it’s impressive what they do actually, but when i first went over I was like, “Yeah, but when are we going to start doing something? You feel like you wanna do something…you want to help them dig a well, you wanna do… but that’s not what its about. It’s about getting the information.” Because the organization has a laser-focused goal, it helps them benefit an area that needs so much. “We don’t build schools or provide medicine. They don’t provide services like, you know, mosquito nets or shelters or food. What they have to become is an advocate for displaced people. We go and talk to the people and gather information and the report back to the people who are doing those services or providing the support in these crises.”
On one trip to South Sudan, he remembers a conversation about pressing problems with some village leaders. “There were guns everywhere — and when I say guns, leaning up against trees — there were guns readily available. The problem wasn’t with their geopolitical enemy which was the north part of Sudan, they told us the biggest concern they were facing was the lack of security. They said that they would happily turn over their arms if there was some sort of security in place to protect their children going to and from school.”
So 1983 Matt Dillon was right. The power isn’t in the ballot box, it’s where you make it. “Refugees International isn’t political and there’s not a line with any politics. It doesn’t line itself with any group. The focus is on those people who don’t have that ability or power.”
In his work at home, the focus has taken a dark turn. More than three decades after bringing The Outsiders from the page to the screen, he’s set to do it again, in the M. Night Shyamalan produced series, Wayward Pines. In the hands of the king of surprise twists, it’s no wonder that Dillon wants to be kept in suspense. “I stopped my research half way through cause I didn’t want to know the ending. By all accounts, there’s twists ands turns right up to the very end.” He relishes the luxury of the time television allows to create characters and tell a story, and figures might be the new preferred medium for an established art form.
“If all the great playwrights of the 1950s, were working today they’d be working in television.”
He’s no stranger to the traditional set-up, confrontation, resolution pattern — it’s followed him since he was the lanky kid with the outsized bravado and well-worn leather jacket. “I’ve basically lived my whole career in like a three act structure. His new long-form project blows the lid off the idea of a tidy denouement. “The ending ultimately isn’t…there is no ending. It’s sort of like life is, you know, you just kind of keep going.”
A rebel to the end.