Matt Dillon gives out a low, vibrating rumble of a chuckle. "I know a little bit about drinking," he says, when asked about the preparation for his role as an alcoholic ne'er-do-well with a literary soul in Factotum.
The film is based on an autobiographical novel by the heavy-drinking Los Angeles writer Charles Bukowski, who died at age 73 of leukemia in 1994 and who acquired a cult following in the 1970s for his tough poems, short stories and novels about his hard life. Like the book, the film uses the author's alter-ego persona of Henry ("Hank") Chinaski as a device to portray him as an impoverished younger man already set in his literary ambitions and alcoholic ways. Lili Taylor plays opposite Dillon as Chinaski's on-again, off-again lover.
There is a bright, cheerful confidence in Dillon's voice -- a touch of braggadocio -- as he talks about alcohol. His eyes have a gleam beneath his dark brows. He leans back on the couch in his hotel suite, then pushes forward. He's become quite lively considering the early hour.
"I heard that Richard Burton -- he drank all the time -- said the only time he didn't drink was when he played a drunk. That was the case with me; I never drank on the job."
Then Dillon calls a halt to where this conversation is leading -- his drinking proclivities. "I'm only kidding, I'm kidding, I'm kidding," he animatedly repeats, smiling. "I'm not like Hank. What I mean is I have enough experience that I don't need to go out and do that to get into the character."
At 42, Dillon is in a great place. His career had been perceived as slipping until his supporting performance as a racist but redeemable cop in last year's Crash, in which he was the only cast member to receive an Oscar nomination. His performance reminded many of the promise he showed as a conflicted, rebellious drug addict trying to get straight in Gus Van Sant's 1989 independent hit Drugstore Cowboy.
Now, he's able to use some of his more mature attributes, such as that gravelly voice given to dropping an "r" here and there, and an ability to be frighteningly gruff yet also warily introspective, to play characters completely unlike himself.
Yet at the same time, he's still as tall, dark, handsome and lean as he was when as a New York high school student he was cast in 1979's Over the Edge. Dillon subsequently attracted idolatrous attention in a series of early-1980s films like The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. He often played troubled teens. He's still a potential heartthrob. He looks young enough -- and stylishly attractive enough -- to get cast in the romantic dramas and comedies for which he's become most well-known lately, like Beautiful Girls, There's Something About Mary and this summer's You, Me and Dupree.
"It's funny how that works," Dillon says of his Crash nomination. "I don't think it's my best work. I think it's good, there's nothing wrong with it. I'm comfortable with what I did. But that's the sort of randomness of the way the business works. That was the movie people recognized me for in that way.
"You know what I think it is?" he continues. "Audiences, even fairly sophisticated audiences, look for big, powerful emotional moments in a film. And Crash had that, and I had one of the scenes that was one of those moments. That's the thing that often grabs hold of people."
The scene, Dillon explains, is where his cop rescues Thandie Newton's character from a car wreck.
Personally, Dillon says, cautioning that this is not meant as a criticism of Crash, he tends to like a different kind of movie.
"The films that are my favorites have a tendency to not be emotionally manipulative in any way, like film noirs or films that are harder, usually," he says.
Factotum is that kind of movie. Bukowski certainly has a hard edge. Dillon had first read his fiction when in his twenties, and admired the author's iconoclastic nature.
Bukowski came to the U.S. from Germany as a child. While he published his first story at age 24 in 1944 and kept writing, he also kept drinking and eventually developed a literary mystique for his boozy ways. Bukowski wrote a screenplay for an earlier film modeled on his life, 1987's Barfly with Mickey Rourke, and was the subject of the 2003 documentary Bukowski: Born Into This. Ben Gazzara also played a character inspired by him in 1981's Tales of Ordinary Madness.
In Factotum, Dillon is good at playing downbeat. He's mastered a quizzical facial expression, a restrained and often-hushed sense of world-weary confusion and even depression. There's also deadpan humor in the performance, as Chinaski tries but just can't keep or stay sober while performing a series of stultifying manual-labor jobs. He's stuck in a repetitive cycle, hoping writing is his way out but not at all sure.
"He's a maintenance drinker. Drinking is a part of who he is," Dillon says. "He's an unrepentant drunk. It's his muse in an odd way. For me, this isn't like an Arthur-type drunk, a guy who is this bon vivant rolling around in the bathtub. He's a professional drinker, that's what he does. That's how I saw it. On very few occasions did I play him reeling-out-of-control drunk.
"I just think he's got this fallible personality, he's all-too human," he explains. "The thing I've always liked about Bukowski when I read him was his ability to laugh at circumstances, be self-deprecating, see the middle of things. Factotum, despite these horrendously tragic circumstances, is ultimately a comedy in a certain way. I always joke around and say the film is a cross between The Honeymooners and Days of Wine Roses," he says, with a strong laugh.
With Factotum following Crash in reestablishing Dillon's credentials as a serious actor, it's become accepted wisdom to say he's revived a career. But he doesn't feel that at all, and points out that people who say that don't realize he spent time in Cambodia as the director, star and co-writer of a little-seen 2002 film called City of Ghosts. He's proud of the film and his decision to go to Cambodia -- not a movie-industry capital -- to make it.
"Right around when I got nominated, actors came and asked me, 'Wow, did you drop out of the business? You must have hated Hollywood because I haven't seen you around,' " Dillon says. "And I'd say, 'Honey, if you knew where I was you'd understand.' But nobody knew because the film really didn't get out. It didn't get any kind of release. So nobody understood where I went. But in many ways it was one of the greatest moments for me as a creative and professional." ©