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Hugh Dillon draws on rocker mindset for raw role in Durham County

Hugh Dillon

Ashley Hutcheson/The Globe and Mail

Against all odds, Hugh Dillon has become The Man. In recent years, the Kingston native and onetime rock-'n'-roll animal has matured into a serious authority figure on Canadian television. On the hit homegrown police drama Flashpoint, Dillon has drawn notice for his portrayal of lead sniper Ed Lane; on the much-acclaimed cable series Durham County, he's even more intense as the troubled homicide detective Mike Sweeney. The transformation is dramatic considering Dillon's previous existence as the angry young front man for the hard-rocking group the Headstones, during which time he battled alcohol and drug addictions. Perhaps more impressively, he had never acted before his debut in Bruce McDonald's 1995 indie feature Dance Me Outside. Cleanly shorn and sharply focused at 47, Dillon recently sat down for an interview in Toronto.

Cop show? Surrealist drama? How to categorize Durham County?

It's a very strange thing. The show has a hypnotic quality and that addictive vibe. There's something about it that pulls you in, even though it's disturbing. It's like we're doing fly-bys of this little weird town, and looking into these people's lives.

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How draining is the Durham shoot?

It's tough. Shooting the show takes its toll because it's so dark and so raw. There aren't many characters written with this much turmoil and depth. We shoot in Montreal and we're cut off from the world for three months, getting into this dark, emotional stuff every day.

How does your Durham role differ from your cop character on Flashpoint?

They're both intense guys. Both are tough for different reasons. Flashpoint is a lot of fun, there's chemistry between the characters and it's dynamic and all action. On Durham, you're cut off from the outside world and getting into this dark, emotional stuff. At the end of the day, it seeps into your subconscious.

How much of the Durham tone comes from co-creators/executive producers Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik and Adrienne Mitchell?

It's totally their vision. These chicks know how to make it rock. They're like Jagger and Richards, and you're the bass guy. They know every detail before they shoot and they believe viewers are intelligent. They're not dumbing-down anything; in fact, they're raising the bar.

Does that allow you to draw on your ex-rocker mindset?

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Yeah, I think that's why I relate so strongly to what they're doing. I was a storyteller before, and this feels the same. And everyone on Durham is so passionate about the story, which is unique. It's not easy to get these things made, and to not compromise. That's why I try so hard to bring it, because they truly believe in the material and that's a righteous cause. That's art, for lack of a better word. It isn't commerce.

Any parallels between actor and rock star?

What struck me with rock 'n' roll was the apathy and how difficult it was to play through, but it could be done and we did it. We had great chemistry. For a bunch of guys who drank a lot and did drugs and all that goes along with it, those early days were all practice and rehearsal. That's when the best version of me comes out - when I'm working hard on something with really devoted people.

Do you now consider yourself an actor rather than musician?

Yeah, but it's something more than that. I don't look at it as just acting. Like I did with music, I'm still telling stories. With acting, there's a lot to be said for being in a positive, creative environment every day. When you're surrounded by people who really love what they're doing, it just makes you a better person.

You've contributed to the soundtracks on both Durham and Flashpoint? Any plans to return to the rock realm?

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I know I'll go back and play at some point because my old band will want to play. Music is such an instant gratification. Playing live is the payoff.

And the payoff of acting?

There's still an element of naiveté on my part. For a Canadian kid who grew up in Kingston, to be living in L.A. and seeing Flashpoint on CBS each Friday night was pretty cool. I never missed an episode.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Durham County returns tonight on HBO Canada at 10.

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