Driven to Drink
Factotum Reveals There’s More To Matt Dillon Than Unoriginal Macho Energy
Charles Bukowski was a Beat Generation poet who composed his best work a generation too late, an inmate in an asylum who, like Ken Kesey, knew better than the society that wanted to rehabilitate him. Contrary to all good sense, Matt Dillon turns out to be Bukowski’s ideal cinematic stand-in. Dillon stars in Factotum as working-class boozer Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, and, despite eschewing the writer’s lilting voice and acne-scarred looks, still manages to nail the spirit of one of latter-day bohemia’s greatest heroes.
"No, they approached me," Dillon says of Factotum’s producers during a press day at Los Angeles’ Beverly Hilton. "I was really surprised, you know, because I’m obviously not the Bukowski type, physically. My first reaction was like, ‘I’m not the right guy for this, and obviously, me, as Matt Dillon--I’m not the right person to play him.’"
Even Dillon, it appears, is aware of the meathead stigma that has always dogged him. In person, he looks every bit the part, too, with his wife beater peaking out from underneath his designer shirt. It’s only when he gets talking, with his deep, resonant voice and naturally laconic delivery, that it becomes clear how pensive and, believe it or not, well-read he is. In fact, he references Knut Hamsun, George Orwell, and Henry Miller with an effortlessness that could’ve been great acting, but much better than anything he’s ever done on-screen. When Dillon says he read a good deal of Bukowski in his early 20s, both poetry and fiction, you believe he drew strength from Chinaski’s defeats and that’s why, when the producers offered him Factotum, he hesitated out of respect and maybe even reverence.
"I thought that, you know, I was not going to do a Charles Bukowski impersonation if I did it," he says, citing some of the writer’s unique mannerisms and almost-effeminate voice in poetry readings. "And I think the freedom was that, in me taking on the role, it was the alter ego of Bukowski, Henry Chinaski, which gave me some latitude to work with."
During a long canyon walk with Factotum’s Norwegian director, Bent Hamer, Dillon finally found all the confidence he needed when Hamer put him on the phone with the writer’s widow, Linda Bukowski. "We talked for hours, you know, and she immediately said, ‘Oh, no. You’d be a great Hank,’" Dillon says. "I think she thought of Hank as this beautiful guy. I don’t think she was so concerned about, you know, the physical part of it. It was more who he was as a person."
But she also managed to scuttle Dillon’s plans to ignore the man Bukowski was in his portrayal of Hank since, as she pointed out, Chinaski was really just Bukowski--maybe an idealized version of him, but Bukowski nevertheless. "What I took away from [the Linda conversation] was that Bukowski, this guy was not really that concerned with the material world," he says. "You know, I remembered he said beauty was something that was really boring and not interesting to him. And he certainly wasn’t interested in fashion and clothing. He was really not a materialistic person in any way. So I don’t think that that was the most important part of his character."
And Linda Bukowski--"for whatever reason," Dillon says--found this in him, too. So Dillon says he went back to the character-building drawing board, forced to accept that "all roads go back to Bukowski." He studied old footage in order to marry Bukowski to Chinaski. And that idolized, idealized Bukowski also proved illuminating all these years later when Dillon, now 42, realized his mental reference of the author was through a window more than 20 years old. He says, with a melancholic smirk, "I was reminded by Jim Stark, the producer, who said, ‘Hey, Matt, you’d really be a great Hank because you’re really at the right age to play [Bukowski now], in those years that chronicle when he was struggling to get published."
In other words, Matt Dillon had grown up. Maybe he even got a bit old and a little defeated like, Dillon says, Chinaski and, of course, Bukowski. "I think the thing I admired about him was his ability to sort of see life as a comedy in spite of the disasters surrounding his life," Dillon says of the writer and his alter ego. "How dysfunctional his world is. You know, there’s a part of you that, no matter how bad you feel like your life is, it’s never as bad as Chinaski’s."
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