The Player

THE razor-sharp cheekbones are slightly blunted by age and the muscular body is no longer whippet-slim. But the black-clad figure is unmistakably that of Matt Dillon, all 6ft 1in of him, sprawling across a sofa in the foyer of Galway's Harbour hotel.

As guest of honour at the Galway Film Fleadh for a retrospective of his movies, including his little-seen directorial debut, City of Ghosts, Dillon seems perfectly at home in Ireland. After all, he is, as he says "of pure thoroughbred Irish Catholic stock, going back a few generations". He was born in New York in 1964, the second of six children to Mary Ellen and Paul Dillon, second-generation Irish immigrants.

A quiet intensity hovers around Dillon, his habitual black wardrobe of jeans, jacket and T-shirt complimenting his dark features and heavy brooding brow. But his face has filled out a little since his callow youth, in the early 1980s, when he was cast as the thug-next-door in films such as The Outsiders and Rumble Fish.

At the age of 41, Dillon could be described as a recovering teen idol. One of the biggest stars of his generation, there was a time when he would have been mobbed as soon as he stepped into the hotel foyer. Now glamorous Galway girls waft by without breaking their stride to give him a second glance. Changed days. At the age of 17, he was getting up to 7,000 fan letters a week, and teenage girls would camp outside his parents' house, hoping for a glimpse of their idol.

But somehow Dillon's mass appeal never lasted beyond his 20s, and he failed to achieve the superstar heartthrob status of, say, Tom Cruise, who played alongside him in 1983's The Outsiders. Maybe that's because he didn't want it enough. But does he miss the adulation? He sits up and leans forward, the dark brows knitted, talking in his low New York drawl. "I never thought of myself as a teen idol," he says quietly. "I was never comfortable with that. I was always very serious about acting, and it kind of deprecates what you do. But I can see why it's an easy handle for people to use."

In a prolific yet erratic screen career, which has had its share of dips and blips, does he regret not chasing the mega-buck action roles that went to some of his contemporaries? "I never thought like that. It's futile to dwell on things that never happened," he says with a shrug. "I mean, I never looked at Titanic and thought, 'That son of a bitch DiCaprio beat me to it.'"

He laughs like a schoolboy at his own sarcasm, but I get the impression that, despite having 41 films to his credit, he still has a lot to prove to himself. And perhaps to the critics, who are slowly beginning to realise that Dillon is much more than just an ageing teen star. "When you start acting young, there are certain labels you get stuck with, but I think that's changing as I get older," he agrees. "I'm not concerned with those perceptions of me now. Patience is the name of the game for an actor; longevity is what it's about. If anything, the most frustrating thing for me is that I feel my versatility is an untapped resource."

Dillon had all but disappeared off the radar in recent years. But now, in a sudden blur of activity, he has rocketed into a full-blown renaissance. This year has seen a few old faces resurfacing - most notably Mickey Rourke (who appeared opposite Dillon in Rumble Fish in 1983), with Sin City - but Dillon can easily stake his claim as this year's comeback king. He appears in three wildly different high-profile films, including, to the consternation of some critics, as a panto-villain racing-car driver in Disney's Herbie: Fully Loaded.

And there are already whispers of Oscar nominations for his performance in two independent films: Crash, in which he plays a racist Los Angeles cop, and his latest release, Factotum, which sees him taking on the role of reprobate poet of the gutter Charles Bukowski, or rather his alter-ego Harry Chinaski. And as the heavy-drinking writer, he delivers what is being universally recognised as a career-best performance, reaching a new level of subtlety and command. "I'm drawn to playing characters who have an edge," says Dillon. "And the darker roles are often the more interesting ones. That's what I look for. I have nothing against action movies, but for me there has to be an element that's unique, and that doesn't happen too often in studio films right now. But I don't like to do any one thing. I try to diversify as much as I can."

For all his cool seriousness, Dillon retains a youthful enthusiasm. He still has the air of the potentially dangerous yet slightly goofy guy at the back of the class, although his well-publicised 'bad boy' partying era is behind him. These days, he says, he prefers "rooting around junk shops" to poolside parties, and has been spotted in Galway's town centre, searching through second-hand record racks (he has a reputation as a massive music fan and vinyl junkie) and bookshelves, no doubt looking for another project to direct.

Since he has been in Ireland, Dillon has displayed none of the excesses expected of him. The most daring thing he has reportedly done is take his film festival driver to dinner and a few pints - much to the young Irishman's amazement.

That said, although Dillon has never married, he has had his movie-star moments, including a string of model girlfriends. He also enjoyed a three-year romance with Cameron Diaz, his co-star in 1998's There's Something About Mary. The laughably exploitative thriller Wild Things, also dating from 1998, featured a notorious on-screen mnage--trois with the pouting Denise Richards and Neve Campbell, which cemented his image as a Hollywood lothario.

But Dillon says his womanising reputation, like all salacious legends, has been exaggerated. Of his alleged excesses of the past, he quotes Charles Bukowski, the writer hero of his new movie. "Some people never go crazy. What horrible lives they must lead."

And it is in Factotum, adapted from Bukowski's second autobiographical novel by Norwegian director Bent Hamer, that Dillon delivers what is arguably his greatest performance to date. Filled with a burning rage, he defines with a compelling authority the gruff stoicism and romantic idealism of the poverty-stricken alcoholic writer.

Bukowski was born in Germany in 1920 and raised in the United States. The author of 45 books of poetry and prose, he lived the life he wrote about, on the edges of society. Supported only by odd, menial jobs, from which he was often sacked, his stories are akin to a long, livid odyssey through the dead-end streets of the US. "I was a very big fan of Bukowski round about Rumble Fish. In my early 20s I had read all of his novels and short stories," enthuses Dillon. "I thought he was very truthful and very funny, and I was drawn to his rebelliousness, the irreverence. But going back to him now, I found a vulnerability and shyness, which I used in the film."

Bukowski wrote about bars and gambling joints as if they were the Acropolis and the Alhambra, deliberately locking himself into a lifestyle that would kill most of us within a year. (Bukowski himself died in 1994, at the age of 74.) His fuel was alcohol, and he found a terrible beauty in the doss-houses and late-night dives. Sifting through the wreckage of the American dream, his tight, graphic vignettes were soaked with drink and sex and seasoned with gallows humour. A late contemporary of Jack Kerouac, he was that most un-American of things - a proud, defiant failure, only achieving fame later in life as a best-selling cult author in the 1970s.

Factotum, which was published in 1975, is one of Dillon's favourite books. But when Hamer, the film's director, approached him with the project the actor initially turned it down. "I was surprised when they offered the part to me. I said, 'Are you sure you got the right guy?' Everybody thought he was this dirty old man, but it turns out when he was my age he wasn't like that at all. The idea of him as a slob was wrong. He just wasn't into material things, but he did like to drink and get laid. The interesting thing is that he wrote all the time - he was a functioning artist and a professional drinker. But very few of us can live like that. The graveyards are full of those who tried."

Dillon plays Bukowski as a quiet, clean and extremely polite man, one who has his own moral code in the face of a world of authority that comes crashing down on him at regular intervals. This is something Linda, Bukowski's widow, appreciated. "When she saw the film she was very touched, and she gave me one of his drawings. That meant a lot to me. She said I got close to him on screen, and people who knew him said the same thing. Nobody gets rich making these kind of films, but when you get a reaction like that it's all worth it."

And critical reactions have been equally enthusiastic for Dillon's role in Paul Haggis's Altmanesque ensemble piece, Crash, which is set over two turbulent days in Los Angeles. Released this summer to great acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, Dillon plays a racist LAPD cop who violently harasses a black Hollywood director (Terence Howard) and his wife (Thandie Newton). Tackling the subject head on, Dillon created his reprehensible character from personal experiences he had when he first arrived in Hollywood, as a cocky yet naive teenager. "When I read the script I thought it was very accurate about some elements of the police force," he says.

"I've encountered the aggressive tactics of the LAPD myself. When I was 14, I was arrested for jaywalking. It was nothing, but they took me down to the station and they were very aggressive. So I thought, 'Okay, it's payback time.'"

It was around this time that Dillon was spotted by talent scouts, while he was skipping classes at his New York school. Casting agent Vic Ramos liked his sneering attitude, so Dillon was flown to Los Angeles to debut as a swaggering school bully in 1979's Over the Edge. The film never made it to the big screen, but it became a cult hit on cable television and video. Apparently it was a favourite of Nirvana's tragic frontman Kurt Cobain.

Meanwhile, Ramos became Dillon's manager, and heavily promoted his teen appeal. But the actor's breakthrough came with The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. Both directed in 1983 by Francis Ford Coppola, the teen gang films served as the launch pad for a remarkable collection of raw talent, including Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Mickey Rourke and Patrick Swayze.

But as the others raced towards superstardom, or occasionally self-destruction, Dillon appeared in several rom-com efforts and became labelled as the leader of the Hollywood Brat Pack.

This was untrue. In fact, Dillon has steadfastly remained a resident of New York. He was never tempted to move to Tinseltown, even when he was dating LA-based Cameron Diaz. "I was never a Brat Pack kind of guy. I never ran with a certain crowd," says Dillon. "I only remained friends with certain people, and none of the big names. Anyway, I lived in New York and all these other guys were in Los Angeles."

Despite following Rumble Fish with The Flamingo Kid, the light, comedic sleeper hit of 1984, Dillon was not a natural romantic lead. There was something too jagged and raw about him, and his career struggled until 1988, when his acclaimed performance as a junkie in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy reinstated his credibility. But it was in To Die For in 1995, playing Nicole Kidman's disastrously dim husband, that he unveiled a genuine comedic talent. He used this to great effect as the sleazy private detective in There's Something About Mary.

In In and Out, as a preening Hollywood action hero who publicly outs his former teacher, played by Kevin Kline, Dillon displays a rare self-deprecating ability to satirise himself and the precious Hollywood fraternity. "I think there's room for comedy in this business, because we tend to get a little self-obsessed," he says. "I mean, I wouldn't say I was never ambitious - I always wanted to be as good an actor as I could be. But I wasn't as concerned with being a big star as some people were."

Another reason Dillon has been missing from our screens for some time was his three-year commitment to his long-cherished directorial debut, City of Ghosts. Filmed in Cambodia in 2003 and starring Dillon alongside Grard Depardieu and James Caan, the film went straight to video in the UK and had a limited US release. But it is a surprisingly engaging thriller about corruption and murder in the country scarred by the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.

Even more impressive was Dillon's handling of chaotic conditions that would make even hardened directors weep. He had to deal with sweltering humidity, torrential rainstorms, former Khmer Rouge warlords and mischievous monkeys and elephants. "I think we ran the gamut of every possible thing that could happen on a film shoot without anyone dying. And, yeah, we had to smuggle a monkey over the border because we couldn't find a trained one in Phnom Penh. But I loved it," says Dillon. "It may be a clich, but now I want to throw my hat in the ring as a director. I've never felt so good getting up at five in the morning as I did when I was directing City of Ghosts. I'm developing a couple of projects right now, but it takes a while and I don't mess with fate. Things happen when the time is right."

Dillon is something of a loner and has a history of playing alienated characters. From the boy rebel of Rumble Fish to the Drugstore Cowboy junkie to the alcoholic author of Factotum, he agrees that he is often at his best as the troubled outcast. "But the great thing about this business is that you never know what's coming around," says Dillon. "And I like that. I never thought I'd play Charles Bukowski. Then again, I never thought I'd be in a Herbie movie either."

Decidedly uncomfortable with the generic action roles and romantic leads, Dillon's mainstream commercial appeal now seems to lie in comedy, for which he clearly has a dazzling natural gift. But did he really have to do Herbie: Fully Loaded? He bristles slightly, the heavy brows lowering. "Look, that was just light relief. Herbie came up when I had just finished Crash and Factotum back to back.

"So after being an alcoholic and a racist cop, I wanted to make something my nieces and nephews could happily go and see, where I wasn't a thug or a drunk. Something where I didn't have crabs, like I do in Factotum, I'm not a junkie robbing drugstores, I'm not having a mnage--trois with high-school students. It was like, you can take the kids without worrying and shout, 'Where's Herbie?' It was a fun thing to do at the time. It's no big deal."

But the wheel has turned full circle, and Dillon is once again a big deal. With talk of Oscars and his return to star billing, what has been his favourite moment in a long and varied screen career? Surprisingly, he names his brief cameo in The Pogues' video for 'Fairytale of New York'. "I'm a big Pogues fan, so when I got the call I said yes immediately," he grins. "I remember going downtown in New York, and Shane McGowan was passing around a pint of port. He was dressed as Santa Claus and I was dressed as a cop who arrests him. I loved it. I still have a picture of me and Shane hanging in my bathroom, right over the toilet. Perfect spot."

• Factotum is released on Friday