Matt Dillon, actor

Matt Dillon, actor

(This profile originally appeared in the Actors issue, published Dec. 12, 2005)

Playing a police officer in Paul Haggis' gritty Los Angeles race-relations drama "Crash" (Lions Gate) was an interesting proposition for Matt Dillon. "I had a built-in prejudice against L.A. cops -- like all prejudices, born out of fear," he says. "I always had a fear that at any moment I pulled up to a light, I was going to be in trouble. There is something about the (Los Angeles Police Department) that is very menacing and kind of scary: They have a reputation as far back as Rodney King and even to the 1950s."

But taking on the role of the hard-edged, bigoted Sgt. Jack Ryan for the critically lauded film helped Dillon overcome many of his preconceptions, granting him opportunities to interact with officers one-on-one and to understand how they approach their everyday tasks. Dillon's performance is simultaneously heartfelt and terrifying, making him integral to "Crash's" remarkable ensemble and a leading supporting-actor contender for a variety of kudofests.

While researching the role, Dillon contacted the LAPD and asked to spend time with several officers. "There was one guy, officer Mike Diaz, and I rode around with him," he says. "We rode around Hollywood, and I got the basics of what their routine is like. Then, sometimes, I'd call him at the last minute and do a ride-around and pick his brain."

Although he was on hand when the real-life cops wrongly arrested a man for stealing his own car and had to apologize profusely afterward, Dillon says nothing dangerous happened while conducting his research. Nonetheless, the actor was shocked at how vulnerable he felt inside the squad car -- and only then did he realize what it must be like to work for the police department.

"You are basically that thin line between order and anarchy," Dillon says. "People see a police car, and that spells one thing: trouble. There is such a heightened awareness when the police are around; you stir anxiety and apprehension, and you feel it."

Dillon adds that his real-world experience proved invaluable when shooting some of "Crash's" difficult scenes, even though many of the officers with whom he had spent time were far removed from the militaristic creatures of his imagination -- and, on the whole, equally far removed from the cop the actor was portraying.

"I was playing my actual fears -- a hard-nosed, narrow-minded, ruthless cop who also happens to be a toxic racist -- but what I found was that most of them were regular guys working a difficult job for a very low salary, under difficult conditions," Dillon says. "There's an interesting dichotomy: On one hand, they get these minuscule salaries; on the other, they have this abundance of power."
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