Wednesday 16 January 2019

I literally thought, 'I'm not sure if I can do this' - actor Matt Dillon on his serial killer role in one of 2018's most extreme films

Former teen idol Matt Dillon explains how he ended up playing a serial killer in Lars von Trier's latest project, one of 2018's most extreme films

'Crucified in Cannes': Dillon has teamed up with controversial director Lars von Trier for his latest film, The House that Jack Built
'Crucified in Cannes': Dillon has teamed up with controversial director Lars von Trier for his latest film, The House that Jack Built

Tim Robey

In 1983, critic Roger Ebert interviewed Matt Dillon at the apex of his teen-idol celebrity. The 18-year-old had just made a hit of Francis Ford Coppola's The Outsiders, luring in hordes of hyperventilating female fans. Ebert found him puffing on a cigarette, in a leather jacket, in Santa Fe's old town square. With his brooding, all-American sex appeal, Dillon could hardly avoid the comparisons to James Dean that were falling all about him, from Ebert and everyone else.

Dean died at 24, of course, and we'll never know what stamp he'd have placed on films into later adulthood. His could have been a Brando-esque trajectory of blazing highs and wasteful, wilderness stretches, or a diligent but stalled career, more like Montgomery Clift's. Or it could have been like Dillon's, which seemed to plateau early - to settle into a wandering mode, as if he weren't quite sure that the promised peaks of megastardom were worth ascending.

Not even Brando took a role as extreme as Dillon's latest. In Lars von Trier's The House that Jack Built, he plays Jack, a serial killer, whose hideous exploits - slaying every female character, along with several children - we follow over 12 gruelling years. The film's five chapters (or "randomly selected incidents", none cheery) tot up to a highly sarcastic self-critique on von Trier's part, before an epilogue set in Hell.

Unveiled in Cannes this May, it burned all the more brightly for being thrust, by and large, into a critical inferno. Untouchable pariah, dead-of-night cult shocker, or however we wanted to receive it, the film went straight into hiding, before its resurrection now in a cinema uncomfortably near you. "Crucified in Cannes, back for Christmas!" exclaims the distributor's own gleeful marketing campaign.

If it's hard to imagine seeing it without red-alert caution - amid all the ghoulishly comic set pieces, a nadir is reached when the victim played by Riley Keough has her breast sliced off - imagine choosing to star in it. At 54 and still one of the most handsome men in movies, Dillon settles in to explain himself across an outdoor table in Cannes with that spookily deep, whispery voice of his.

"Before this film, most of my feelings about Lars came from the films I'd seen. My first sighting was a movie of his called Europa" - von Trier's fidgety, Kafkaesque noir from 1991 - "then the next thing was Breaking the Waves. I had friends who spoke very glowingly of him, like Stellan Skarsgård. And then you hear stuff about people - the whole thing that happened in Cannes seven years ago."

He's referring to the notorious press conference for Melancholia in 2011, when von Trier's garbled claim to "understand Hitler" before joking "Okay, I am a Nazi," sent the gathered press corps into conniptions. The director was banned from the festival, until this year's Jack premiere. Dillon says he "didn't really spend much time dwelling on" that earlier furore before accepting the role. "My impression before meeting him was that he'd be incredibly heavy, and serious, and not funny, which couldn't be further from the truth," he says. "He's really witty, and very sweet."

The Jack script came to his door in the usual way. "I thought it was unique. Disturbing, but paradoxically really funny in places, too. I was in Italy, reading it, and I started laughing, and my girlfriend" - he's been dating the ballerina and actress Roberta Mastromichele since 2014 - "asked why. I began to say, 'This script is really funny - this guy just ran a woman over with his van!' And then I was like, 'Oh… forget it'." The internal tug-of-war went on. "I was predisposed to want to work with Lars, because he's such a gutsy film-maker. However…" - and his gaze shifts inwards - "the subject. You know, I was concerned about that. The violence. How and why he wanted to do that."

Von Trier is never a cakewalk. He already gave us graphic sexual abasement in Breaking the Waves (1996), clitoridectomy with rusty scissors in Antichrist (2009), and all manner of extreme antics in Nymphomaniac (2013). But, even by his standards, the grisliness quotient of Jack is through the roof. Dillon says some of the tableaux, of dead children and so on, reminded him of the disturbing artworks of the Chapman brothers. It's also alone among von Trierian psychodramas in adopting the point of view of a dispassionate male perpetrator, rather than a female martyr.

"Lars said Jack was the closest character to himself," Dillon goes on. "Because a lot of the aspects of Jack - the OCD, the frustrated artist - that stuff is very personal to him, somehow. That's the stuff that kind of made me interested." Preparing for the role did not come easy. "It was challenging to stay inside the character without stepping out and judging him. I had my reservations… especially the hunting scene with the family, and some of the stuff with Riley Keough's character. I literally was like, 'I don't know if I can do this'.

"It was the psychological cruelty - I was afraid I would reject seeing myself do that. And a little bit of that is ego, you know. You don't want to be… I don't know. I shouldn't say it's ego. Maybe it's just human."

Back in 2004, Paul Haggis's Oscar-winning Crash gave Dillon his most important role in years, as a racist cop, winning him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. But it is the scene in which he manually violates Thandie Newton's character while rescuing her from a car wreck that everyone remembers. Dillon walked out of the premiere at that point, and Newton has said she would have played things very differently if she'd been properly prepared for how far Haggis intended to go.

Still, it's easy for Dillon to draw a line between Officer John Ryan and Jack. "The character in Crash is not a complete sociopath - with Jack, you have to strip away feelings of empathy and remorse. He's like a person born without a leg - he's a sick person, he's damaged."

For all his qualms about committing to the film, Dillon has only positive words for von Trier's approach, especially the chances to play around - "to try something and fail", as he puts it - which he found liberating.

He's worked with one or two other auteurs - Coppola early on, Gus Van Sant twice - but there are many, many more Dillon films whose director you would struggle to name. Amid his 60-odd credits, there are comedies about layabouts, grungy heist movies, scenester romcoms. Was he happy, through those plateauing 1990s, with the quality of scripts coming his way?

"Not so much," he replies right away. "Listen, it was great to be working. There were things that I did that 11 people saw, like playing a homeless schizophrenic in some film. But there were lessons learned. And then I went and directed my own film at the end of that" - 2002's City of Ghosts, about an insurance scam in Cambodia - "and that was great. And it was fun to do comedies. You know, There's Something About Mary."

Dillon was involved with Cameron Diaz before making that career-reviving hit, but they broke up in 1998. He's said since in interviews that he's open to settling down and starting a family. But for an actor of his relative prominence, he's always managed to keep his private life impressively discreet. This connects with the reasons he got into acting in the first place - driven not out of exhibitionism, but rather by a desire to make stuff. "I don't have to be the centre of attention. Maybe I should have been more tactical, I don't know. I was just sort of responding to the opportunities that presented themselves."

Love the film or loathe it, a role like Jack doesn't come along more than once in a career, and feels almost comically incompatible with any long-since abandoned A-list game plan. "I remember naïvely saying to Lars one time - not naïvely, but it was more like the understatement of the day - 'You know, this Jack… he's really a bad guy!' And he looked at me, deadpan, and said, 'You really cannot be worse than Jack'."

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