Matt Dillon’s Riding High Again : Black comedy ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ changes actor’s image from teen-mag idol to adult movie star


Before Matt Dillon started work on “Drugstore Cowboy,” a movie in which he heads a motley crew of junkie drugstore thiefs, he did more than skim old William S. Burroughs paperbacks to prepare for the part. He went down to New York’s East Village and copped some “works”--the paraphernalia that addicts use to shoot up.

“I’ve got an old friend who’s a recovering heroin addict, so he took me out to see what the life’s like,” Dillon said over a beer at a West Hollywood cafe. “He knows his way around. First we went up to Harlem, then we went down to Tompkins Square Park and got a set of works.

“It was amazing. I’ve been down there 1,000 times and I never noticed this stuff. Everyone’s pretty low-key, just hanging out. But when they see there’s some activity--someone buying--all these low-lifes come alive. They thrive on the action.”


Dillon displayed an easy, self-deprecating laugh. “I gotta admit I started getting worried. I’m thinking--what if someone recognizes me, acting like I’m trying to score down here!”

He shrugged. “Then I said to myself, ‘Come on. How many of these guys are going to see my movies?’ ”

Matt Dillon can laugh about it now . . . now that his career’s on the rebound. He’s getting rave reviews for “Drugstore Cowboy,” a low-budget black comedy that mixes the edgy paranoia of an old Lou Reed song with the loopy charm of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders.”

Variety enthused: “It would be an understatement to say this is the finest thing Dillon has ever done.” The New York Times calls it “the role of his career.”

No one was talking that way about Dillon last year. Since he starred in 1984’s much-acclaimed “The Flamingo Kid,” he’s appeared in a series of bombs, including “Targets,” “Rebel,” “Kansas” and “The Big Town.” (He’s also in “Bloodhounds of Broadway,” which will be released Friday after a year of languishing on the shelf.)

Even before “The Flamingo Kid,” Dillon was typed as a tough teen, appearing in such offbeat pictures as Tim Hunter’s “Tex” and Francis Coppola’s “Rumble Fish.” Dillon’s sex appeal earned him a long run as a teen-mag cover boy, but he’s often been dismissed by critics as a forgettable silver-screen stud.

“Matt definitely came to the part with a lot of baggage,” said “Cowboy” director Gus Van Sant. “He was unfairly typed as a teen idol. I remember when he and Coppola really got slammed by the critics after making ‘Rumble Fish.’ But I was very impressed by Matt. So I guess it became a special project with me, to change the critics’ minds.”


Though Van Sant had an “early thought” of casting Dennis Hopper, who is more than twice Dillon’s age, he quickly gravitated toward Dillon. “The character in ‘Cowboy’ is a real maniac, but a likable maniac--a cute maniac,” the director explained. “And I thought Matt was perfect, because he’s not as crazy or scary as Dennis. He has a gentle side--and a real knack for comedy--that I thought would be perfect for the role.”

After spending the afternoon with Dillon, it’s easy to see what convinced Van Sant he had the right guy. At 25, the native New Yorker is still boyishly handsome enough to attract soulful stares from female admirers. After he ordered a beer at the cafe, he bummed a cigarette from a woman sitting nearby. As soon as he stubbed out his butt, she hurried over with a handful of fresh cigarettes, as if worried he might duck out before she’d had a good look at him.

Bright and inquisitive, alternately shy and fidgety, Dillon has dark eyes, sharp cheekbones and a wry sense of humor. Ill at ease talking about himself, he preferred to swap baseball tales (“I’m a big Mets fan--it comes from my dad. He’s the original baseball bachelor”), draw caricatures in his visitor’s notebook and joke about the pitfalls of visiting Los Angeles (“Something always happens when I’m out here--the last time I thought I got through unscathed, then I’m going to the airport and I see this guy get run over, right in front of me!”).

A gifted mimic, he can do a dead-on impression of Burroughs, the aging beat guru who has a small part in “Cowboy” and is a Dillon pal. “I love his face--it’s so old and sunken and pasty that you feel like you could reach out and peel it off.”

Though he’s willing to yak about his career, he was clearly happier roaming around Melrose Avenue, gleefully describing a recent encounter with the jazz great Art Blakey (“the guy’s still sharp as a tack”) and rummaging through record racks, looking for dusty 45s.

“The first album I bought was ‘Led Zeppelin IV,’ ” he said. “But jazz--it’s the champagne of American music. I’m not a fusion guy--I like the old stuff. I remember buying Coltrane’s ‘Ascension’ album, on a whim, and I was hooked.


“I just started bugging the clerks at my neighborhood record store with questions. By the third time I came in, I could see them looking at me, saying, ‘Oh, no, here he comes again!’ ”

Dillon’s acting career truly began on a whim. He made his striking debut in 1979’s “Over the Edge” when a talent scout was impressed by the 14-year-old’s chiseled good looks. At the time, Dillon, who had never acted before, was more interested in Little League, where he played against B. J. Surhoff, now a star for the Milwaukee Brewers. “He used to smoke the ball,” Dillon recalled. “All I’d remember was the crack of the bat and the ball suddenly bouncing off my chest. My dad used to kid me--’Hey, you held him to a double!’ ”

Pressed about the ups and downs of his movie career, Dillon, whose brother, Kevin, also is an actor, was philosophical. “Failure can be a good thing sometimes,” he said, lighting another cigarette. “If something doesn’t work out, you try to be honest with yourself and figure out what went wrong. I’ve never questioned my abilities, but there’s not a lot of imagination in this business. If they see you play one type, they always try to cast you in that type.”

Until now Dillon has largely been offered what he likes to call “fringe” characters. “I really want to play a professional. You know, a guy who wears a suit, has a job. I mean, the last three characters I played were a gambler, a drifter and a dope fiend.”

He laughed. “Pretty fringe guys, huh?”

Dillon was looking for one of those professional types when Van Sant brought him the “Cowboy” script. He admits that he got caught up in the role.

“Before I knew it, I was like Bob (his character in the film). I had a bad attitude. I started obsessing, thinking about drugs and superstitions. I was driving myself crazy. I started having problems with a relationship I was in--I finally couldn’t even handle being around myself.


“It was a typical actor thing--it was probably just panic. But I even called my girlfriend’s brother, who’s a doctor. He told me, ‘Don’t worry--everyone goes through this.’ ”

Dillon laughed. “It was probably the perfect thing for me to go through, to do this movie. Drive myself completely crazy.”

Still, he found his entire personality altered as the movie progressed. “If you’d shown me a needle before the film began, I’d have said, ‘No way.’ But by the middle of the movie, there I was, telling Gus, ‘Let me put the needle in my arm!’ ” (Dillon did shoot up in one scene, using a vitamin solution. Van Sant ultimately cut the scene, saying it looked unrealistic.)

The rigors of the role may have paid off.

His longtime manager, Vic Ramos, thinks so. “I think a big problem with Matt was that he’d played so many troubled youths that most people thought that’s who he really was. But, with the reviews he’s been getting in ‘Cowboy,’ he’s starting to get different kinds of offers. I think there’s a new awareness or image of him--that’s he’s an adult now. I think he’s going to have the opportunity to play more substantial roles.”

“This is the part that proves Matt can be a movie star,” said independent producer Lynda Obst. “He has the beauty of Tom Cruise and the demons of Sean Penn. I’ve wanted to use him in virtually every project I have with a character his age, but he hasn’t had enough box-office in recent years to convince studio people he was ready. But now people are talking about him. He’s done a very daring movie--and it’s paid off.”

Dillon believes that “Cowboy’s” strength is its candid portrayal of drug abuse--it shows the euphoria of junkiedom as well as its paranoia and degradation. “I think the timing is perfect for the film, because nobody wants to hear a preachy, unrealistic ‘Just Say No’ movie,” he explained. “If it’s controversial--that’s fine. Drugs are a controversial issue.


“I’m not putting down ‘Just Say No’ for people who’ve never done drugs. But what about the guy who’s a user or an addict? Is he going to ‘Just Say No’? No way.”

Dillon admits that he experimented with drugs as a youth. “I was no angel. I drank beer. I smoked pot, maybe popped a few uppers and downers. But I never got caught up in that other stuff--hard stuff like heroin.”

Unfortunately, some of his boyhood pals did.

“I had one friend who went to prison a couple of times for robbing cab drivers to buy drugs. He’d put a wire around their necks and take their cigar boxes full of money.”

Dillon still broods about another friend, Danny, who overdosed after trying to clean himself up. “He was in a drug rehab place for a year. The last couple of months, he’d come home on weekends--but if he didn’t go back to rehab, he’d have to go to jail.

“And the last weekend he came home, he just couldn’t wait--he got high and ended up taking off before he was scheduled to go to court. He went pretty crazy. He ended up robbing pushers in shooting galleries in Harlem with a sawed-off shotgun.”

Dillon fell silent, sifting through painful memories. “Danny had a pharmacist’s mentality. He’d have whole cabinets full of speed or steroids. He’d come over to my house, with big dark circles under his eyes and broken front teeth--and he had that wild, stuttering speed rap.”


With his mimic’s touch, Dillon neatly captured the desperation in Danny’s voice: “Ah, M-m-m-m-matt. I gotta g-g-g-get some more speed . . . .”

When Dillon was shooting “Tex,” he got word that Danny had overdosed. “His brother told me he was just sitting across from their building, nodding out after he’d been shooting speedballs. Later that night when his brother got back, he found him behind the sofa.”

Dillon spoke softly. “He was dead. His whole side had gone blue. What a waste. He couldn’t have been more than 18. Maybe he just never knew that everybody wasn’t laughing with him.”

Having seen a close friend go down in flames, Dillon seems to savor his good fortune.

“Yeah, I just keep reading scripts and hoping,” he says, finishing off his beer. “Right now, I need to find a real home. I’ve been living in a hotel--temporarily--for the past six months. So when I don’t work, I get to travel. It’s a nice luxury.”

He takes a deep drag on another cigarette. “But I never get too comfortable away from home. I’m always afraid of missing the call.”

Dillon is old enough now to laugh at his insecurities. “I worry they won’t be able to find me,” he says with a lopsided grin. “And they’ll just say, ‘Hey, Dillon’s not in town. Let’s get someone else.’ ”