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What will Matt Dillon do for an encore?

Oscar-nominated role in ‘Crash’ is a watershed for this hardworking actor
/ Source: The Associated Press

Out of the expansive, talented ensemble cast of Paul Haggis’ “Crash,” the Academy has yanked Matt Dillon, the rock-jawed former teen heartthrob.

Dillon’s turn as a ferociously racist cop landed the 41-year-old actor his first Oscar nomination, and at the March 5 Oscar gala the statuette will go to either him, George Clooney (“Syriana”), Paul Giamatti (“Cinderella Man”), Jake Gyllenhaal (“Brokeback Mountain”) or William Hurt (“A History of Violence”).

Nominated for six Oscars including best picture, “Crash” details the impact of racism on colliding characters in Los Angeles. Though the cast includes Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard and Sandra Bullock, Dillon’s menacing but humanistic police officer has been singled out more than any other.

After starting out in Hollywood as a teen star, Dillon expanded out of that mold beginning with Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy” in 1989. He’s since mixed dramatic roles (“To Die For,” “Beautiful Girls”) with comedic fare (“Singles,” “There’s Something About Mary.”)

In August, he’ll star in “Factotum,” an adaptation of the Charles Bukowski novel, directed by Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer. Dillon plays the hard-drinking author’s alter-ego, Henry Chinaski.

“Crash” is clearly a pinnacle of Dillon’s career — though an unexpected one.

“It feels like it doesn’t really have anything to do with me,” he says, “except that I just showed up.”

AP: You’ve got to be the first actor nominated for an Oscar the same year as costarring in a movie about a living car (“Herbie: Fully Loaded”).

Dillon: It’s funny you should say that because I’d say at this point in my career I’m having a ball; I’m having a great time. I’m able to sit here and look at things and enjoy the surprises that come along. ... If you told me a little over three years ago when “City of Ghost” (Dillon’s directorial debut) premiered at Toronto, “In three years time, things will be going great. You’re going to be costarring with a Volkswagen in a movie” — I would have gotten a gun and shot myself. You just never know.

AP: A character like the one you play in “Crash” — who in one scene degrades a black couple [Howard and Thandie Newton] after pulling them over — has got to be uncomfortable to inhabit.

Dillon: That’s kind of what I liked about it, though. It felt accurate to me. Now, I’m not a cop, but, in the few experiences I’ve had with the LAPD, these kind of aggressive police tactics were something that I recognized. So that didn’t bother me so much. I don’t worry about whether the character’s likable; authenticity is more important. So here you have a guy who is this racist cop who is trying to get medical attention to his father, who’s possibly dying, and is really a loving son. That juxtaposition was really interesting to me.

AP: Is the key to withhold judgment?

Dillon: Exactly. I had to find the humanity in the guy. To me, this character sees himself as the victim — that he’s been done an injustice. The way the cards have played out for him: his sick father, his failed marriage, his misery and self-pity. For someone to get to that point, they must have fallen from a place where they had high ideals about the way the world was going to turn out. I don’t think this guy joined the police force so he can enforce his power and degrade people. I think the character that you see at the end of the film — the scene where he pulls the black woman from the burning car — that’s the guy who wanted to join the police force.

AP: Do you have a particular fondness for jaded characters?

Dillon: What do you mean? Junkies, drugstore robbers, alcoholics, skid-row poets, serial murders?! It’s [a resume] not as bad as some, but worse than many.

AP: What’s the attraction?

Dillon: I like doing character-based stuff. A character like Ryan [in “Crash”] is so conflicted that it really makes for a character. I’m not really that comfortable doing lightweight stuff. There’re times, I admit, I’ve seen things that I’ve done where I’ve been like ‘That’s sort of a wolf in sheep’s clothes, and that’s not who I am.’ I’m just not the guy who can sit around making cute little jokes. I don’t know, maybe I can, it just doesn’t feel like it’s the right thing. I like doing comedy, but I like doing comedy that’s got some bite to it.

AP: You directed “City of Ghosts” in 2002. Do you want to direct again?

Dillon: Yeah. I’m writing something now, but it takes a while.

AP: You had some disappointment about the backing “City of Ghosts” received, didn’t you?

Dillon: Yeah, it was disappointing the way it was released, but it doesn’t matter in the end. What really disappoints me is that I’m not there [directing] right now. There’s nothing that tops that. That’s what I said to Haggis, “It’s terrific all this stuff, these accolades and everything. But nothing beats when we were up there on the top of the hill in San Pedro, losing the light, Thandie [Newton] is upside down in the car, sliding around on broken glass, and I’m happy.”