At 27, Matt Dillon still carries with him the startling good looks and the thuggish yet angelic air that both casting agents and teenage girls found so attractive when he made his film debut 13 years ago.
But just as when he was 14, he's still not a master of the easy showbiz patter that many actors develop over time. That's not to say he's stupid - he's not. And that's not to say he's not charming - on the day of this interview he was quite engaging and eager to please. Not all reporters have found him so, however.Dillon has a reputation among journalists for being pure hell to interview. A recent report tells of his knocking a notebook from a newspaper writer's hands in a fit of temper. The authors of recent magazine profiles have struggled unsuccessfully to get him to offer up deep, dark anecdotes. But self-revelation in the pages of GQ is not for him - maybe because underneath it all, he's just a regular guy with a particular talent who got extraordinarily lucky.
His luck - and talent - has held out recently with his superb performance in last year's critically acclaimed "Drugstore Cowboy." Now he hopes to make the leap to grown-up commercial success in the thriller "A Kiss Before Dying," opening Friday. "This is definitely an `audience' movie. It's not like `Drugstore Cowboy,' which is the type of film that's for a more limited audience," says Dillon. "This is more like a movie, y'know?"
In this movie, Dillon plays Jonathan Corliss, a nightmare yuppie who not only uses his wife (played by Sean Young), but also an occasional murder to aid him in his scramble to the top of the corporate ladder. The film is based on an Ira Levin novel that was made into a Robert Wagner vehicle in 1956. Dillon notes, however, that this film isn't a straight remake - "I never even saw the old movie or read the book." Of his part, he says, "It was kind of fun because the guy seems so rational. He seems to have everything planned out so perfectly.
"I kept thinking to myself about this part - don't push. It's important not to push this character. He's not a foaming-at-the-mouth sort of serial killer - he's not Freddy Krueger or Hannibal Lecter."
Maybe not, but he leaves a tidy number of bodies in his wake. Despite his character's complete amorality, Dillon doesn't think the movie is without humor. "A lot of the movie is tongue-in-cheek. If people think it's kind of tense but kind of funny, that's OK. I think it's James' (Dearden, the director) intention to bring out as much of the humor as possible.
"That demented sense of humor kind of drew me to it, too."
Dillon has a genuine fondness for substantial icons (like Bogart) of the pop culture that were around before he was born - perhaps because he grew up in the film industry at a time of great changes.
He was snatched up for showbiz at 14 while cutting classes at his Westchester, N.Y., junior high; that was effectively the end of his formal education (he never graduated from high school).
He likes films from the '40s and '50s and got a special thrill out of working in "A Kiss Before Dying" with veteran film actor Max von Sydow, who has made nearly 80 films. Now that he's grown up, Dillon, who has made 16 films so far, aspires to have that kind of a career.
"I think in the future I'd like to be a little more prolific than I have been," he says. "The big dilemma, though, is when you say you want to do more stuff, what stuff do you do? Where are your standards?
"Fortunately for me, I think the parts get a little better as I get older."
"Drugstore Cowboy" and "A Kiss Before Dying" have led Dillon safely beyond the teen roles, such as his starring role in "The Outsiders," that had been his staple. He professes not to feel odd about having done so much of his growing up in the public eye. "I never really thought of myself as a child actor, y'know? At 14, you're not really a child anymore - at least I wasn't.
"But when I look at those films," Dillon continues, "I realize that I was a kid but I never felt like one, so I never felt like it was that difficult to make a transition. It's funny, though - between my first film ("Over the Edge") and my next one, you can hear my voice change."
A lot of things have changed for Matt Dillon in his 13 years in the business, but his commitment to good work has remained as steady as ever.
Ask him his favorite of the films he's made and after a long pause he says: "I still feel like my best work is ahead of me. I really think my favorite movie hasn't been made yet. That's a great way to feel."