Creating Bukowski

Maui Time | August 22, 2006
Matt Dillon On Creating Bukowski

By Cole Smithey (1605 words)

Matt Dillon is a natural monologist. One question or idea will send the actor’s famously chiseled face into a wide-eyed outpouring of experience and insight into his craft. He’s still the tough looking kid whose break-out performance in Francis Coppola’s “The Outsiders” led him to work with such acting legends as Gene Hackman, Kevin Kline, and Michael Douglas and with such astute directors as Gus Van Sant, Ted Demme, and Bobby and Peter Farrelly. As a big fan of Cuban music and with a huge collection of vinyl records Matt Dillon doesn’t like to talk shop with other actors about the craft of acting. But get Matt Dillon alone in a room with a film critic and the 42-year-old actor from New Rochelle, New York will dig into his heavily populated memory for anecdotes and ideas that just keep coming.

For his current movie “Factotum” Matt was approached by Norwegian director Bent Hamer whose third feature film “Kitchen Stories” won critical accolades. Set amongst Minneapolis’ gray streets of factories and warehouses the film is an adaptation of Charles Bukowski’s novel “Factotum” where his alter ego Henry Chinaski struggles to hold down any kind of job to support his addiction to alcohol and loose women. A “factotum” is a person employed to do all kinds of work or business. The movie is an ideal showcase for Matt Dillon’s engaging brand of acting and gives him plenty to talk about in an interview more suitably described as a candid master class on acting.

CS: How were you first introduced to Bukowski’s work?

MD: Well I first read “Hot Water Music” in 1983 or ’84 maybe, this book of short stories that a friend of mine gave me. I read the first story and I kind of got hooked right away. I think the story was called “A Great Poet” or something. Anyway, I liked it right away. The humor was so irreverent. I think it really appeals to guys in their early ‘20s.

CS: Did you read any of Bukowski’s poetry?

I read most of the short stories and novels—none of the poetry. It was right around when “Barfly” came out that I just stopped reading him. Then I moved on to other writers. Then all these years later Tim Stark, the producer of the film, approached me. I didn’t know who Bent was, but he told me that Bent had done an adaptation of “Factotum” and they wanted me to play Hank. My first reaction was like, “Are you sure you’ve got the right guy?” I never thought about me playing anybody in his stories because I’m so physically not the type, especially at that age because he [Bukowski] achieved success so late in the game. I always thought of him as this white haired guy who wrote notes for dirty old men.

Tim [Stark] said, “Well, I’d love for you to see Bent’s film which is playing up at Lincoln Plaza.” It was a terrific picture called “Kitchen Stories.” I knew the guy was for real when I saw the opening of it. I read the script, and they both kind of reminded me, “You know you’d really be a good Chinowski, and by the way you are the right age now.” “Factotum” chronicles those early years when he was unpublished and it was when he was with that woman Jane Bukowski—the only woman that he ever truly loved.

I knew a fair amount about Bukowski. The persona that he has in the book sounds more grizzled like Ben Gazzara or Warren Oates. He sounds gravelly voiced, and then when you hear the real Bukowski, he’s kinda got this almost effeminate kind of sing-songy delivery which is interesting. I think in a lot of ways it was an affectation. He didn’t like to do readings and stuff. I didn’t want to get involved in doing an impersonation of Bukowski. They [the filmmakers] were like, “Well, we don’t want that either because it’s Henry Chinowski, Bukowski’s alter ego.” That actually gave me a little latitude and I felt more comfortable. Then I spoke to Linda Bukowski and she said, “Of course you know it’s autobiographical.” So then I’m right back where I started. So inevitably all roads do lead to Bukowski.

CS: How did you work on developing the character for the movie?

MD: Bent and I were walking in Central Park talking about the character and we both had a question and I said, “Let’s call Linda.” So we spoke for hours and she gave me all kinds of great insights into Hank (Bukowski). I started to ask specific questions about behavior and she said, “He was very, very clean and it was one of these misunderstandings that people had about him that really bothered me, that he was dirty and that he was a slob because he was none of those.” That gave me such a great insight into the guy and who this Chinowski was, into his dignity. His life is reeling out of control; he can’t hold down a job; he’s a raging alcoholic; he has this woman that he can’t stay away from but he can’t stand, but yet he manages to always keep some sense of order. That’s why Bent put the scene in the movie where he’s washing his clothes in the kitchen and hanging them up.

Sometimes you play a character and you can sort of roll with it. You don’t really have to stay in it all the time, but that wasn’t the case with this one. You have to stay focused and stay in the character. It’s not like I’m walking around saying, “You can only call me Hank.” I’m not pulling that shit. It’s really a practical thing for me. If I stray away from the character too much, then I have to ramp up and get back into it and I have to find that voice. For me it was a daily thing. Of course I didn’t feel like I’d gotten the character until the end of the movie. I would read his poetry. I actually didn’t go back to “Factotum.” I remembered the book and I thought that the script was a pretty faithful adaptation. The thing that really helped me were these interviews that really got inside of who he really was. I could kind of get his behavior. The interviews were done by Barbet Schroeder long before he did “Barfly.” So “Barfly was not anything that I went back to, even though I liked the film when it came out.

I had lunch with Barbet and I said, “I owe you a debt of gratitude because those tapes really helped me find the character.”

CS: You play a character who seems to be from a different era, a different decade, living in a kind of timeless contemporary setting.

MD: I didn’t feel like he was a contemporary character. I felt like some of the situations and some of the relationship stuff was universal. There’s a scene with him and his father where he goes back and sees his parents, his family, and he sits down with his father. To me, it’s really about much more than a son and his father. That’s one of my favorite themes, because the father and son represent something more. When he comes home everything he is doing is rejecting that. That is Hank rejecting conformity, fear, safety, and mediocrity in the world. It’s not just that he has an antagonistic relationship. It’s about more than that, and I remember that scene feeling like I hadn’t seen something like that. I thought that was really of another time. We don’t have that kind of rebellious time anymore and I think it’s sad. I guess the world is just totally wide open now. Everybody’s hip to everything.

I think it’s about a guy who defines who he is, and I think that’s very admirable. After having read Bukowski now, all these years later, he’s very different than the guy I experienced in my early 20s. I see him more now as vulnerable with more soulfulness and more shyness, like in the scene where she’s like, “Come on Hank you fucked me 200 times.” And he’s like, “ I feel kinda shy.” I thought that was really sweet, there’s something very real about that. I can see him as a working class hero. Not in the Bruce Springsteen/Woody Guthrie sense but as this guy who becomes this voice for all of these lost souls that work these dead-end jobs where work is just a thing of misery that helps them get through life and then they retreat to the bars. The dreams are after work; it’s not about the work, it’s what comes afterwards. Bukowski always said, “It was worth it to drink and to be hung over.” There was magic in the bar with the jukebox playing.

CS: What do you think about the way that Bukowski has been pigeonholed as a misogynist in some circles?

MD: I think it’s easy for people to label Bukowski as a misogynist. But I think that’s simplifying it, because I think if he was really a misogynist he wouldn’t devote so much time to women and the female characters in his stories. He’s really into the conflict between men and women and relationships. It just so happens that he’s a basketcase in so many ways, and of course the characters around him are going to be the same way. I really see him in a totally different way.


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