Matt Dillon plays a racist cop with a chip on his shoulder in Crash, the new ensemble drama costarring Ryan Phillippe, Sandra Bullock and Don Cheadle. It's a far cry from his days as a druggie criminal (Drugstore Cowboy), a smarmy con man (There's Something About Mary) and his costarring turn opposite a Volkswagen (in Disney's lighthearted Lindsay Lohan flick Herbie: Fully Loaded). Even though his Crash character, Officer Ryan, is a bad apple, the 41-year-old actor tells PEOPLE he gained new respect for the police while taking on his latest role.
Have you ever had any run-ins with police?
I was arrested for something minor like jaywalking and they were really tough with me.
Did your opinions of them change while making the movie?
I've had this built-in prejudice and fear, not of them personally, but more of a fear. Then, as I was doing research on the film I discovered that my opinion, my attitudes were wrong for the most part. Most of these guys are just working for a very small wage, doing a very difficult job.
Did you sympathize with your character?
Yes. I think he's embittered. He's so frustrated with his life and his own shortcomings that he uses his job as a power base. And he abuses that power. He's deplorable, but you see what it was born out of. Not that it's justified, but it is complicated. He's not just a bad guy.
You seem to have this manageable level of fame. Is that by design?
I don't think I am designing it, but I like having my freedom. Fame is part of me and my life as an actor. I enjoy the creative aspects of my life as an actor. I enjoy directing and acting as well. But the bottom line for me is not prestige and power. It's about having an exciting, creative life.
You have an interesting career arc. Right after There's Something About Mary, you seemed to disappear. What happened?
That's the perception. But what I did was perhaps the most ambitious thing I ever did in my life. After Mary, I did one film called One Night at McCool's and then I went off and did City of Ghosts. It was a major investment of time and energy. I didn't just act in it. I wrote and directed it too. It took years out of my life.
Was it worth it?
Yes, it was worth it. I wish more people saw it and appreciated it but, hey, I have nothing but great memories of that experience.
Is it true you turned down a role in Pulp Fiction?
That's not necessarily true. I did talk to Quentin (Tarantino) about a part he wanted me to do but then he went a different direction. And then he wanted me to do a smaller role. I'd work with him, though. I'm a big fan of his.
Any memories of Drugstore Cowboy?
Just working with Gus Van Sant. He's such a talented and brilliant guy. I have such admiration for him. Certain films, you walk away and you have such fond memories. That's one of them.
What's next for you?
I have to go to Norway and then Cannes for this film that I did called Factotum, which is the Charles Bukowski novel. I play his alter ego in that.