Matt Dillon will play a secret service agent in TV mini-series Wayward Pines

Matt Dillon plays Secret Service agent Ethan Burke who uncovers a town’s dark secrets. -- PHOTO: FOX
Matt Dillon plays Secret Service agent Ethan Burke who uncovers a town’s dark secrets. -- PHOTO: FOX

Oscar-nominated actor stars as a Secret Service agent in miniseries Wayward Pines

Television has revived many moribund movie careers in recent years and the latest actor to make the move to the small screen is Matt Dillon, star of films such as Crash (2004) and Something About Mary (1998).

The 51-year-old leads the cast of the new miniseries Wayward Pines, which is airing in Singapore. He plays Ethan Burke, a Secret Service agent who gets in a car accident while investigating the disappearance of two colleagues, then wakes up disoriented in a strange town where nothing is as it seems.

Co-starring Oscar winner Melissa Leo, Toby Jones and Terrence Howard, it is the most high-profile project in more than a decade for Dillon, whose career seemed to have flatlined after it peaked in 2006, when he picked up Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for his role as a racist police officer in the acclaimed drama Crash.

The actor had never done TV before and admits he does not even watch it very much. But he was drawn to Wayward Pines because "the script was intriguing".

He says he was hooked when he read the scripts for the early episodes, which build up suspense with a series of twists and turns as Burke slowly uncovers the town's dark secrets.

"I knew that there was more that was going to be revealed and I was intrigued. And then I read the second episode and liked the direction it was taking - even though I still didn't know everything that was going on," says the actor, a versatile performer who has appeared in everything from romantic comedies (You, Me And Dupree, 2006) to gritty crime dramas (Drugstore Cowboy, 1989).

"It was very literary, in a way. And complex because there are a lot of unanswered questions."

The surreal, multi-layered story adapted from the cult Blake Crouch novel Pines has been compared to David Lynch's iconic 1990-1991 TV series Twin Peaks.

Dillon promises that the unfurling narrative will keep the audience guessing at every step. "It's a bit like a jazz riff because there are these shifting alternate realities going on in the show," he says.

While early developments and the involvement of executive producer and director M. Night Shyamalan - whose most famous work is the hit horror The Sixth Sense (1999) - might suggest a supernatural explanation for what is going on in the town of Wayward Pines, Dillon says viewers will quickly start formulating other theories.

"It might appear to be supernatural, but you don't know - it could also be psychological because my character's questioning his sanity," he says, noting that Burke is traumatised by a harrowing case from earlier in his career.

"And he's been in an automobile accident and then there's all this strangeness in this town... it's just surreal."

The actor has mixed feelings, however, about the comparisons to Twin Peaks that this narrative and tone have inspired.

"I'm a huge David Lynch fan, so I'm uncomfortable comparing this project to that, although I understand why because of the atmosphere, which is what I loved about this show."

While he adds that he knows Crouch was a huge fan of Twin Peaks and "was inspired a little bit by that", he reveals that the author was also inspired by his own experiences, including a holiday to a charming but eerie Colorado town surrounded by cliffs. Crouch found himself wondering what would happen if he were stuck there.

The Lynch comparison is apt in another respect: Wayward Pines is a show shaped by strong creative points of view, according to actress Carla Gugino, who plays Burke's ex-partner Kate.

"This is an example of what can happen in television, which is that auteurs can come to TV - and David Lynch was way ahead of his time in that respect with Twin Peaks," she says.

Shyamalan, Crouch, who co-wrote the episodes, and Chad Hodge, the series creator, "all have very strong visions", Gugino adds.

For Dillon, a film actor accustomed to reading the entire script before shooting begins, there was a bit of an adjustment required to get used to the fact that in television, the cast often gets to see only one episode at a time.

The uncertainty was "a little bit tricky for me", he confesses.

"We didn't really know what was coming down the pike in the next episode."

After a few weeks, however, it was like riding a bicycle.

"You know, acting comes very naturally to me, I've been doing it my whole life."

He also learnt that whatever the size of the screen, "the only thing that matters is working with really good actors and great directors".

"It's like, we'll make the scene work whatever my concerns are - we'll be in it together, we'll figure it out. And I think that's the key - the people that you're working with."

stlife@sph.com.sg

Wayward Pines airs on Fox (StarHub TV Channel 505, Singtel TV Channel 330) on Friday at 9.50pm.

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