Hugh Dillon was in Toronto from his home in Los Angeles earlier this summer to talk about Love + Fury, a new album from the Headstones after the punk-hard-rock band re-united 11 years after calling it quits.
But the 50-year-old singer-songwriter wasn't able to contain the discussion to the subject of his music or his successful acting career (The Killing, Durham County) boosted by the five-year run of CTV's police drama, Flashpoint. This was a conversation that could have been called Darkness + Pain = Redemption + Light. And the lessons he wants to impart can be explained in this equation: Patience + Kindness + Generosity = Possibility + Hope.
The simplicity of the math belies the complexity of the journey, though, which roils behind his eyes, ready to be channelled into an intense, on-screen character. What it required – the conversation, that is – was the forbearance of his publicist, who sat in an adjacent booth, and several times raised a hand of warning for him to stop, which Dillon gleefully ignored. He flirted with his past as a boy with a crush, recounting the worst bits off-the-record like deliciously sordid sex scenes, all of them delivered in whispered confession between bites of expensive salad.
"Darkness and existential angst," he explains at one point, holding his fork in mid-air, when asked about his troubled youth spent in Kingston, Ont., the youngest in a family of three children. He was restless and malcontent, rebelling against his conservative upbringing with a mother who was a teacher and a father who worked for a large multinational.
"I had a great acting teacher in high school. But I didn't like acting because it took too many people to get the job done." At this observation comes a snort of laughter before he continues: "You have to talk to too many people and listen to others' opinions. With music, you get a few friends together and just make it." His parents sent him off to Ashbury, a private boys' school in Ottawa to try to discipline him.
Did that work? "Are you kidding?" he replies with boyish impishness. He finished high school and set off for Queens University, where he lasted a year. "I took sociology, history and the study of drugs," he deadpans with a devilish smile. He almost landed in jail. His parents were frightened, so his mother sent him packing: he wasn't allowed to come back to Kingston for five years. She gave him a passport and $1,000. Off he went to London, England, where he lived in a squat and busked on the street, performing his own songs. When he returned to Canada a year later, he faced two truths. He knew he could make music, but he couldn't afford to. His parents refused to help him unless he returned to university. He lived in a cheap Toronto apartment and worked in factories stacking boxes and later, for five years, as an orderly at the Hospital for Sick Kids. Finally, he saved enough money to record a demo tape, which led to a record deal.
"You're young, you like to drink beer, smoke a little pot, you get a record deal and incrementally three or four years into it, you drink too much, your nerves were shot, so you take Valium. It kind of slows you down a bit, and then you're like, 'Hey, what does heroin do? Cool!' And you think you're the smartest guy in the room. You drink all night, take a little heroin, which takes the edge off, and you have all these people expecting to see you perform, so it works. Heroin prolongs your drinking until it gets you, too." That little passage was delivered as melodically, as seamlessly, as the lyrics of a song he has performed a thousand times.
But then he throws his shiny bald head back and booms with laughter. The romance with his addiction was going to end with something worse than a STD. "Oh, I would have died!" he points out with unexpected enthusiasm. Here's another bit of math: 20 detox attempts + 5 rehab stints = 0. "I had to turn my back on [the band]," he says, explaining that each time he went on tour, he would relapse.
"I went up north and was cutting trees down. It wasn't romantic and cool. It was $4.10 an hour and I was 40." A voice-over job for a Chrysler came along. Then, an award-winning movie, Down to the Bone. (He had been given his first acting opportunity by Bruce MacDonald in 1994 in Dance Me Outside.) He wouldn't have spearheaded a reunion of The Headstones if it weren't for an out-of-the-blue phone call from Randy Kwan, a friend from high school who had co-written some of his early songs. They had gone separate ways. But Kwan called to tell him two things: he was husband and father, and he was dying from cancer. (He died six months later.) Dillon offered to help by getting the band back together to play a few gigs. "And because we spent so much together, we wrote a song, BinThisWayForYears." They decided to fund an album through pledges from their fans. (Universal later distributed it.) "It was great because we were not interested in doing it for vanity."
He has been clean and sober for eight years, a period his parents, now in their 80s, have been able to witness. "I am confident in who I am," he states. And of course, there's his wife of 25 years, Midori Fujiwara. "I'm here because of her. She didn't give up on me when everyone else did and I had given up on myself."
And there's another woman he credits: Anne Marie La Traverse, the executive producer of Flashpoint, who gave him his breakout role of Ed Lane. "What it comes down to, from that Flashpoint experience, is a kindness and generosity and a work ethic that I have taken away with me."
No more struggles with meaninglessness?
"Check it out!" he exclaims. "I have a car waiting for me. My wife is waiting for me. I'm going to Muskoka. I'm talking to The Globe and Mail. I'm connecting to people. And I'm at a restaurant ordering salad! I love it!"
It's about what you add up, and what you choose to subtract. "Life is too short to spend in negativity," he says. "So I have made a conscious effort to not be where I don't want to be."