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Matt Dillon boozes it up as author's alter ego

By Steven Rea

McClatchy Newspapers

Matt Dillon was in his 20s, making "The Outsiders" and "The Flamingo Kid," when he first picked up some books by Charles Bukowski. Like a lot of people, the young actor immediately latched onto the poet and novelist's tales of drunken losers, drunken lovers, and drunken race track habitues.

The words were crisp and clean (and dirty), the passion ran deep. Even the titles were cool: "The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills," "The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship."

"It spoke to me, for whatever reason," says Dillon, 42, who, a couple of decades later, found himself playing Bukowski's alter ego, Henry Chinaski, in the adaptation of his 1975 novel, "Factotum."

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Rereading Bukowski in preparation for "Factotum" -- written and directed by Norwegian Bent Hamer and shot in Minnesota last year -- Dillon had a different take on the author.

"I used to see him as a guilty pleasure," he explains, on the phone from his New York home the other day. "I thought, well, one day I'm going to start reading real writers ... because he was too much fun to read.

"But then, in revisiting him after all those years, I realized that along with his irreverent humor, there was real vulnerability there. He's a lot more soulful and serious than I realized.

"I see him as a really important writer in terms of American literature -- not that I'm any sort of expert. There are big holes in my education. But I think he kind of picks up where the Beats left off."

Dillon grew a beard, and a paunch, to play "Hank" Chinaski, a guy who wanders from job to job, and bar to bar, and girl to girl. The one constant in his life -- aside from the booze -- is his pen. He's a writer, even if no one's bothered to publish him yet.

Dillon, who was nominated for an Oscar this year for his performance as a bigoted L.A. cop in "Crash," also took to Hamer, whose offbeat "Kitchen Stories" was a hit on the art-house circuit in 2004. A Hollywood director, Dillon suggests, might have had a completely different take on the Bukowski tale.

"It might have been a disaster," he says. "Somebody who wanted to 'pace the movie up' -- that would have never worked for this character, for this film. It would have been like doing a wind sprint to nowhere.

"Because the film doesn't really go anywhere, the characters don't have that enormous arc. There's so much importance put on 'the character arc,' in screenwriting. It's the prevailing wisdom in Hollywood: like, 'Oh, where's the character's arc?' And I think people do change and grow, but it's a messy business. It doesn't happen in a neatly defined arc ...

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"What's more important than that is that the character is rich, and colorful, and you're going to discover more about him as you go along."

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