Hugh Dillon is dying to tell some war stories. But his manager and publicist have coached him to not talk about the bad old days, when he was a rock ’n’ roll outlaw packing heroin and dodging the law. Now he’s a clean and sober TV star, packing guns and playing tough cops on two hot series, Flashpoint and Durham County. His handlers keep telling him to move on, forget the past. But Dillon finds that hard. As one of the most successful actors in Canadian television, he no longer inhabits that heart of darkness. But he knows that’s where all the good stories are buried.
Besides, as he slips into a restaurant booth, looking as trim as a bullet, his head clean-shaven, a black shirt buttoned at the neck, Dillon has come to talk about his return to music. At 46, the former frontman for the Headstones—a hard-living, hard-rocking band that tore a jagged strip through the Canadian music scene in the 1990s—is about to release his first solo album for Warner, Works Well With Others. The tongue-in-cheek title reflects the newly industrious, mellowed attitude of an ex-angry young man. The rage is still visible, but now it’s channelled into his screen roles as a scary, simmering intensity. Dillon, who’s emerged as a thinking man’s Bruce Willis, has learned to keep his hair-trigger temper under wraps. He can still lose it, he says, “if someone cuts me off—but now you’re in a traffic altercation and it’s, ‘Oh you’re the guy from Flashpoint!’ ”
Works Well With Others has the sober, reflective ring of a recovery album. The songs range from spare rockers that flirt with pop to dark, intimate ruminations like Lost at Sea, which sounds more like Leonard Cohen than Lenny Kravitz. The songs are obsessed with turning the page on a past that won’t go away. “The flames they hover under every waking moment you own,” Dillon sings in My Mistakes, as if locked in the purgatory no addict can ever fully escape. The video for Friends of Mine, the album’s first single, shows him singing alone in a dark suit on the cement floor of a deserted Maple Leaf Gardens. “Those days are gone forever / and so are those friends of mine,” he snarls. But as a stark spotlight catches a glint of the old rage in those piercing blue eyes, the ghosts still seem very much alive.
Although Dillon once loved hockey, being in the Gardens conjured memories of arena rock, not the Leafs. “I remember seeing the Cult there when I was 25. I was just hammered and had s–tty seats way up high. So I climbed down with a bunch of airplane liquor bottles and got to the front of the stage.”
It was all fun and games at first. Growing up in Kingston, Ont., Dillon became friends with classmate Gord Downie, who would later form the Tragically Hip. (They remain close and the Hip’s Paul Langlois produced Dillon’s new CD.) When Hugh was 17, he remembers he and Gord watching a 70-year-old black blues musician smoking pot from a corncob pipe in the men’s room of Kingston’s King George Hotel. He had an epiphany: “I thought I’m never going to have to stop doing this.”
But on tour with the Headstones, Dillon would graduate to cocaine, then heroin and eventually hit the wall. “It didn’t just happen,” he says. “It’s like success. It takes years. The big one is waking up in the hospital and seeing your dad in tears.” Recently he bought a new car for his parents, who are in their 80s. “My dad loves it,” he says. “It’s a hybrid.”
Living in Toronto with his artist wife, Midori Fujiwara, and busy with two TV shows, Dillon is thrilled to be part of a Canadian TV renaissance. As a stoic police sniper on CTV’s Flashpoint, which launched its third season last week, he has a groundbreaking show that showcases Toronto yet draws millions of U.S. viewers on CBS. And as a troubled homicide detective in the creepy Durham County—a suburban gothic drama that the New York Times called “entirely addictive”—he gets to delve into darker, more complex terrain.
Some Flashpoint fans will now assume Dillon is just another actor dabbling in music, like Kevin Costner. But he says he owes his success to the risks he took on the road, when music became a matter of life and death. After all, he got the acting bug when Bruce McDonald typecast him as a self-destructive rocker in Hard Core Logo (1996). Dillon is still amazed he’s alive to tell the stories that his handlers are begging him to forget—like the time he hung off a 14th-floor balcony, blind drunk, though he was afraid of heights. He shudders at the thought. Then his eyes light up with a manic grin: the look of a man who rolled dice with the devil and won.