No more Mr. Tough Guy

Former punk (and now big-time actor) Hugh Dillon explores his softer side on new solo album.

Former punk and now big-time actor Hugh Dillon explores his softer side on new solo album

Musician and actor Hugh Dillon. ((Warner Music))

Hugh Dillon's natural instinct is to take charge of a situation. A streamlined bullet of a man with a shaved head, a laconic bark for a voice and a flinty take-no-prisoners gaze, he radiates authority. This is likely why directors cast Dillon as men who maintain order: as a haunted homicide detective in the moody murder mystery drama Durham County, and as part of a hostage-negotiation team in the hit series Flashpoint.

Off-camera, Dillon is still in control. During a recent interview in an east-end Toronto lounge, he leads me back into the inner bowels of the building, refusing to settle until he's found a setting that suits his fancy. A quiet consult, and drinks — only coffee and bubbly water for this recovered substance abuser — appear. The one element Dillon can't control is the soundtrack, and he grits his teeth at the cheesy pop-reggae blaring from the speakers. ("It's killing me!" he moans.)

Music is clearly a bit of a trigger point for Dillon's control issues. Hence the title of his new album: Works Well with Others.

"You know, my mom liked the title," Dillon snorts. "She said, 'That's what your report cards said until about grade four.'"

Before he was a regular fixture on the small screen, Dillon was the frontman for the Headstones, a hard-edged Toronto rock band that had considerable success in the '90s. Works Well with Others is billed as the first official Dillon solo effort. (His 2005 album, The High Co$t of Low Living, was credited to his band The Hugh Dillon Redemption Choir.) Dillon's gruff vocals are framed by a rich mix of styles — from Lost at Sea, a spare, pensive ballad with shades of Tom Waits and Lou Reed, to burnished power-pop like the lead single, Friends of Mine.

Dillon credits co-writer and bassist Chris Osti and producer Paul Langlois (the Tragically Hip) with helping him develop this new range of sounds.  Works Well with Others is a considerable departure from the grimy aesthetic that used to be his stock in trade. Back in the '90s, he threw himself into the role of rock 'n' roller with gusto, and picked up some bad habits — like well-publicized drug and alcohol addictions — along the way.

(Warner Music Canada)

"I've hit bottom a couple times in life," sighs Dillon, now 46. "I'd started over even before the Headstones. I grew up in Kingston[, Ont.], got into some serious trouble, and had to move. I had to write a little note to my mom saying, 'I won't come back to Kingston for five years.' I signed a contract with my parents! I was 20, and I got on a plane and moved to London, England.

"I started to write songs and played on the streets to make money. I was there for about a year and a half, and I came to Toronto because I wasn't allowed to go back to Kingston. I landed in Toronto, and I had nothing, but I wanted to play rock 'n' roll."

And that's what Dillon did — first, briefly, in a band called Sean Penitentiary ("Just a nasty little rock band with a stupid name"), and then with the Headstones. In 2003, Dillon and his bandmates parted ways, which he claims "was the toughest thing I ever did, 'cause there was nothing waiting for me when I left that band."

On the brink of an existential crisis, and only recently sober, Dillon decided he needed a change of scenery. Accompanied by his wife, Midori, Dillon relocated to Los Angeles, which promised opportunities for him to establish himself as an actor.

Dillon had dabbled in film and television before. He created at least one iconic character in the mid-'90s, when he starred as Joe Dick, the prickly lead singer of a self-destructing punk band in Bruce McDonald's film Hard Core Logo. To this day, Dillon insists that McDonald was responsible for showing him how to channel his passion and creativity without the help of booze or drugs.

"I remember, it was in a bar in Calgary, and I said, 'I don't wanna do Hard Core Logo.' He said, 'Why? What are you afraid of?' I was surprised and snapped at him: 'Whaddaya mean? I'm not afraid of anything!' I was so defensive. And he got me to go back and try to understand my feelings, which sounds ridiculous. But that's what it was. So I had him as a friend, this filmmaker, who'd say things like, 'OK, you're the singer in a band — how do you feel?' We don't talk about that! That's what opened the door, and then I met Callum Rennie, who took it even further and taught me how to be myself.

"Bruce just opened my mind to [the notion of] being a really well-rounded artist, as opposed to just a singer in a rock band. He asked such intimate, intelligent questions that it forced me to be present. Before, I'd write stuff, but I'd hide it behind a mask of rage."

VIDEO: Hugh Dillon's five favourite Canadian bands of all time

Dillon maintains that the difference between Works Well with Others and his old punk anthems is that the new stuff just "wouldn't have fit" on a Headstones album. It's conceivable that the Dillon of yore would've spit beer in the face of this new guy, who sings softly about emotions and includes a slide guitar on one of his tunes.

That newfound willingness to tap into his emotions has served Dillon well in his acting career. His characters on Durham County and Flashpoint face off with the worst aspects of humanity in the interest of setting things right. What makes Dillon's performances believable is his ability to subtly suggest the ways in which hard-nosed cops are scarred by the horrors they witness daily.

Dillon was nominated for a Gemini for his work on Durham County in 2008; this year, he earned a nom for his Flashpoint role. He thinks audiences and critics are connecting with these characters because "it's where the rubber hits the road in terms of humanity."

"We often think of cops as the bullies or whatever," says Dillon, "but they're also the people at horrific car accidents, the people who [are exposed] to people dying. 

"You meet those guys, and some of them have the weight of the world on their shoulders because of what they see. I worked at a hospital, I've seen dead bodies, but most of us don't see anything. We just see the sanitized version of our world, and when things go horribly wrong, we never see it. These are guys who really do, and that's something we forget about the job they do."

Works Well with Others is in stores now.

Sarah Liss writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.