2016-06-30
Matt Dillon's signature roles--his glowering, disaffected youths and drug-numbed thieves--leave the impression of a guy who would have a spiritual life if he could figure out how to steal, cheat or beat someone up to get it. In real life, Dillon, not yet 40 and a 25-year veteran of Hollywood, is hesitant to discuss his spirituality, as if refusing to equate his celebrity with profundity. But when we spoke to him about "City of Ghosts," the movie he co-wrote, starred in and directed, Dillon expressed his admiration for both the Buddhism he encountered during filming in Cambodia, and the Catholicism he knew growing up. He also turned out to be comfortably conversant on faith, prayer and the power of redemption.

You just directed your first movie, "City of Ghosts," set in Cambodia, and it's full of Buddhist ideas. How did that happen?
I took a trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, and it was the first time I encountered Buddhism on any kind of scale. In Thailand, I visited the Reclining Buddha, and I met some monks and it was there that I discovered monks who had been criminals and monks who had a history of drug abuse. I was exploring this sort of redemption with the protagonist in my film, Jimmy, who has lived a life of a liar and a crook and who is spiritually dissatisfied. He's not sure what he's looking for, or where he was going to find it, but he's looking for something else.

I always knew I wanted that to be a part of the movie. But it's one of the most difficult things to convey in a film. You don't want to be heavy-handed or insincere. You don't want to be caught doing it.

How much did you know about Buddhism before you started filming?
I'm not a Buddhist, or a card-carrying member of any religion. But it was important to me in making the film to be respectful in dealing with Buddhism. I had the help of this guy Heng Mony Chenda. He was our consultant on Buddhism, and he had an amazing grasp of the lore and history of Buddhism in Cambodia.

For instance, in the movie a body is burned on a pile of rubber tires and wood sticks. That might seem gruesome to Westerners, but that's considered a respectful Buddhist burial. The Cambodians said it was important to treat the body in a respectful manner. So we did that in the film. We went through the whole process of the cremation, taking the teeth and bone fragments that remained and washing them with goat's milk, and putting them in cheesecloth and tying them and putting them in an urn.

The movie also showcases Cambodia's Buddhist and pre-Buddhist temples.
When Barry Gifford and I started working on the script, I asked, What if Jimmy ended up hiding in a monastery? Barry pointed me to an old comedy with Edward G. Robinson called "Brother Orchid," in which a criminal on the lam hides out in a monastery. You see the monks with cauliflower ears and busted noses and you realize they are all ex-goons. The tone of it is wildly different from "City of Ghosts," but that became part of the journey of creating a story. We shot a sequence on the grounds of a pagoda. Jimmy has been beaten and when he comes to, he's in this pagoda.

At another point, Jimmy bumps into a Buddhist nun, and later has a dream about her. She's burning a photo of herself with long hair, a picture from her former life. I was told that a woman who goes through heartbreak, prostitution or drug addiction, when she leaves that life, she may dedicate her life to Buddhism for a time as a nun. And again, this is a parallel to Jimmy.

Jimmy reminded me of Bob, your character in "Drugstore Cowboy." What do these two guys share?
Change. A need for change. I can certainly identify with that as a person. One of my greatest fears is not being able to change, to be caught in a never-ending cycle of sameness. Growth is so important. So I think that's something they share in common: the desire for change.

How do you grow?
By attempting to get out of your comfort zone. To push yourself in areas where you might be afraid. To have a little faith-replace fear with faith. That's something I try to do. I was given a Buddhist amulet by two of the girls working on the film. I still wear it. The positioning of the hands on a Buddha mean something, each one different. This one had its hands positioned to protect me from fear. I like what it stands for: that fear is really the enemy. It reminds me, whenever I'm afraid, to replace it with a faith that things will work out.

You've been an actor since your were in your teens. Is it difficult to keep pushing yourself to change when you've had success so early? How do you do it?
By being honest with myself. And asking for help when I need help. That's really important. There's an expression--"God speaks through people." It's important to air your concerns and fears with someone you trust. When you're honest about how you can change and grow, and where your weaknesses are, then you open the door for improvement and change.

What did you take away from your exposure to Buddhism?
What's really great about Buddhism is its rational, informal quality. Coming from my experience of growing up a Catholic, I found Buddhism to be refreshingly easygoing and forgiving. I don't think there is anything wrong with Christianity-I was raised in it-but there is a rigidity to it. In Buddhist culture, I love this idea of the Middle Path, of staying balanced.

You grew up a Catholic?
I was raised in a practicing Irish-Catholic household. I went to parochial school until 3rd grade. I didn't have one of those experiences where the nuns were cruel. There was one nun who frightened everybody-I loved her name, Sister Luke. She was scary, but she wasn't one of my teachers. I really admired the nuns I had. I thought they were wonderful. I know that's contrary to what people say about getting beaten with a ruler and so on. I didn't have that experience.

Did you have a religious period as a kid?
I really did. I didn't go as far as saying I want to be a priest when I grow up, but I was willing to be an altar boy. That was as far as it went, I guess. And I saw "The Bells of St. Mary's" or "Going My Way," as a kid, and I was moved by them.

What happened?
I don't know. Obviously, all religions get corrupted by man. The initial ideas are interesting, but once they get organized, they seem to become about politics and other things and they get misinterpreted.

I find myself immediately put off by magical realism. I like surrealism, creatively and artistically. But magical realism--it must be connected to my Catholic upbringing. There's an old Muslim saying, "Pray to Allah, but tether your camel." Have faith, but do the work. Live your life right. Don't expect things to happen. That's why I'm put off by magical realism.

You mean because it's too much like the Catholicism you left?
Yeah, miracles just happening, people walking on water. I struggle with that. I'm convinced that Jesus was a great holy man. He had a great message, but I question the walking on water. I might get struck down by lightning for saying that.

It seems like you object on aesthetic grounds as much as anything.
I have trouble believing it-I'm skeptical. And that's why I'm skeptical about those types of miracles.

There's been a lot of talk these past few years about how spiritual Hollywood has become. Do you think it's genuine, or is it a fad?
I have a tendency to believe that people who claim to live a spiritual life normally don't. I don't want to be one of those people in Hollywood preaching. I think it's important to have a spiritual rituals or program in your life. I pray every day. I don't pray to any specific deity, but that's my thing. That's important.