Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Matt Dillon

Return of the Barfly

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Matt Dillon loves to read and has worked with some great writers, from Barry Gifford to William S. Burroughs. But he never thought he'd play one of his favorites, Charles Bukowski.

More realistically, "he's a guy I'd like to get drunk with," Dillon said when he visited San Francisco for last spring's International Film Festival.

It helped, though, that Dillon would not actually play Bukowski, but rather his fictitious alias, Hank Chinaski. The character comes from Bukowski's second novel, Factotum, adapted into a new movie opening this week in Bay Area theaters.

Dillon had never met the real Bukowski, who died in 1994, but had read all his novels and short stories while in his twenties. "I just never read the poetry," he says. "I had no interest in poetry at that time in my life. So it was interesting to revisit Bukowski when I was doing the film. I started to see things in a different way. At 40, you start to see the vulnerability. The poetry is really beautiful. It's not his favorite word, but it's beautiful."

The actor went to Bukowski's widow, Linda, to get her blessing and ask for advice. "I was trying to get insight into the way he dressed. She said clothes were totally uninteresting to him; just make sure there's a pocket to put pencils in."

The most important thing Dillon learned was that the famous writer was actually a very neat person, as opposed to the slob he could be portrayed as. "It bothered him," Dillon says. "That gave me a window into a certain kind of dignity."

One of the themes in Factotum comes from a Bukowski poem, "Roll the Dice." It's the notion that to really be a writer, one must be ready to sacrifice everything. Dillon says he felt this most deeply when he embarked on his 2003 directorial debut, the underappreciated City of Ghosts, co-starring James Caan and Natascha McElhone.

Last year, when Crash became a success and Dillon earned his very first Oscar nomination, people began asking him where he had been for so long. "You're spending hours and days and days working on something, and then all of a sudden you turn around and you've committed years to it," he says.

But Dillon seems unruffled by such things. He describes Bukowski as a comedian who saw the funny side of life, and even when things were at their worst, there's always a wink. Unlike his hero, however, Dillon takes a different view: "I'm not a laugher. I have a sense of humor, but I don't laugh. I'm amused by people."

(This story also appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.)

Selected Filmography: City of Ghosts, Crash, Herbie Fully Loaded, Target, To Die For, Wild Things, You, Me & Dupree

April 21, 2006

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