Sunday, November 2, 2008

Another Side of Hugh Dillon

Cover profile of the actor and former Headstones frontman, from Driven magazine, September 2008.

There’ve been two Hugh Dillons jostling around in my head lately.

First there’s the spiky-haired rock and roller who fronted the Headstones. In my memory I see them racing through a set at a dive bar in 1993. Dillon snarls and spits, swinging the mic stand, singing about digging up his baby at the cemetery, while the band slams through power chords behind him.

Then there’s the Dillon who’s been on TV all summer, playing a police sniper on Flashpoint. Poker-faced and taciturn, slow to smile. He’s in fit, fighting shape: his head is shaved, his body always tense with checked energy. He crouches on a rooftop and his eyes narrow as he draws a bead on some lunatic waving a gun.

On a cafĂ© patio on a hot August morning in downtown Toronto, a third Dillon takes shape: a rising actor with a hit TV show, backed by the veritable star machine. Cautious and image-conscious, but still proud of his rough edges, he displays a curious mix of humility and bravado, and he has the star athlete’s habit of dropping ready-made sound bites. (On the intensity of his performances: “Life is intense, except when it isn’t.”)

To be fair, Dillon has earned some bragging rights. After premiering in July, Flashpoint, which centres on a Toronto emergency response team, scored solid ratings both on CTV here in Canada and – more improbably and, Dillon admits, more importantly – on CBS in the States. It isn’t Dillon’s only TV cop gig, either. He also stars in the dark drama Durham County, playing a Toronto homicide detective who moves out to the suburbs to escape big-city violence, only to be caught up in a serial-killer case.

Dillon actually dabbled in acting throughout his Headstones years, most memorably in Bruce McDonald’s 1996 cult classic, Hard Core Logo. He played Joe Dick, a down-and-out punk singer driven by rage and desperation; the role seemed to barely stray from his own stage persona, and initially, he says, “I had no desire to do it at all.” McDonald eventually convinced him, says Dillon: “He is one of those guys, there’s no hidden agenda – they just see something in you that you don’t see in yourself.”

By 2003, Dillon started chasing screen time in earnest. The Headstones had split after five albums, and he’d married his longtime girlfriend, Midori Fujiwara. He’d also kicked a longstanding heroin habit. “You realize that you can no longer put your family through that kind of torment,” says Dillon, who was five years clean and sober this past summer. “You realize that you’re going to die.” He credits Fujiwara and his sisters with convincing him to get help – and admits he didn’t make it easy. “The denial is fucking outrageous,” he says. “Especially being in a rock band, where that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Determined to reinvent himself as an actor, Dillon moved to L.A., land of bit parts and waiters. (Sound bite: “I started over; I like starting over.”) Here’s the twist: after moving to the States, Dillon landed breakout parts in two made-in-Canada productions. Another twist: in both of those roles, the rock and roll animal and former junkie is playing, well, The Man.

Not that Dillon considers it a stretch. “These guys have an incredible job and nobody ever gives them credit,” he says. For him, cops have been humanized since before the Headstones hit, when he worked as an orderly at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and saw police in action on a regular basis. The result, he says, is that he learned to “see them on a different level, as opposed to just authority figures.” To prepare for Flashpoint, Dillon hung out with ATF officials in the U.S., took weapons training and studied the Israeli hand-to-hand combat technique Krav Maga. (Sound bite: “You’ve got to totally invest. If you’re not invested, what can you expect?”) He still keeps in touch with some of the cops by phone.

The emphasis on prep is no accident: Dillon has to work hard at acting. (Sound bite on Flashpoint’s success: “It just makes me work harder.”) Music, on the other hand, always came naturally. The quick release of writing and playing songs still tugs at him. “There’s no thought put into it, and that’s the joy of it,” he says. “It is the art, because it just happens.”

Not that there weren’t compromises along the way with the Headstones, and Dillon admits that “there might have been a record that we weren’t thrilled with.” (DRIVEN elects Nickels for Your Nightmares.) But the group went out strong with its 2002 swan song, The Oracle of Hi-Fi. “We recorded an outstanding rock record,” says Dillon. “We walked away with our heads held high.” Characteristically, he also takes a little punk-rock glee in the fact that the Headstones’ major-label ride coincided with the near collapse of the record biz. “I was leaving as Rome was burning,” he says. “I had a smile on my face. It’s like my spaceship crash-landed in Los Angeles.”

He may have escaped the major-label machine and found his niche on the small screen, but Dillon isn’t ready to give up on rock. “I’ll do music my whole life,” he says. “I’ll always write songs.” That’s no idle boast. His second post-Headstones album, Works Well With Others, is about to come out. And if Dillon feels pressure about his acting (sound bite: “You put that pressure on yourself”), when it comes to music, the pressure is now definitely off. “I’m older, I don’t have as much to prove,” he says. “I’m not writing songs for a paycheque, or a record company, or to fit into a genre, or other people’s perceptions of who they think I might be.”

Dillon’s hoping to get a few live gigs together this fall in support of the new album, but his time is in high demand these days. After finishing out the summer filming Flashpoint’s initial 13-episode run, he’ll spend the fall shooting Durham County’s second season in Montreal, joined by new cast member Michelle Forbes. Her credits include Homicide: Life on the Street – one of the few cop shows Dillon admits to liking – and Dillon says the second season will be “very, very sophisticated, darker than the first one.” (For the record, season one was already quite dark.)

In the new year, he will be back at work on Flashpoint. Beyond that, he’s open to whatever comes his way, including a rumoured four sequels to Hard Core Logo. (Sound bite: “There’s no neutral. You’re either going forward as a performer or just backwards. And for me there’s never been any backwards, either. It’s just forward.”) He and Fujiwara divide their time between L.A.’s hip Silver Lake district and their house in Toronto’s Danforth area. Dillon’s recent success seems to gratify him for her sake as much as his own. “She’s somebody who never gave up on me, even when I gave up on myself,” he says.

“My life is what I want it to be. It’s been a long haul.”