Matthews acts naturally in 'Winn-Dixie'

February 21, 2005|By Glenn Whipp | Glenn Whipp,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Dave Matthews isn't making any apologies for the easy way he landed a part in the charming family film Because of Winn-Dixie, which opened nationwide Friday. The way he figures it, he paid his dues -- and then some -- driving around in vans with his band, playing his distinctive blend of funk-rock-jazz-fusion in clubs and colleges for years until he won a record deal.

"I did my clawing on the other side," he says.

In fact, when Matthews was beginning what was to be a phenomenally successful career in music, he was also acting, performing in plays in the college town of Charlottesville, Va., where his family had moved from South Africa. He was also attending (sporadically) classes at Charlottesville Community College, where his main interests were philosophy and partying -- passions that would serve him well in his eventual profession.

"I'm not sure if I would have pursued acting if music hadn't worked out," Matthews says. "At the time, I enjoyed it. But the band thing became concrete right away. It didn't take us long to have this repertoire and take it out. ... Once it started and the response began, it was a no-brainer."

Fourteen albums and hundreds of sold-out stadium shows later, Matthews is making his movie debut and, to paraphrase Ringo Starr's song on the Beatles' Help album, all he has to do is act naturally.

In Winn-Dixie, Matthews plays a soft-spoken, serious-minded man who finds a release from life's troubles in playing music. In person, Matthews is a soft-spoken, serious man, shy about looking you in the eye, somewhat meandering in his thoughts. His sense of humor runs to the dry side. Talking about working with the film's animals (Matthews' character is a clerk in a pet store), Matthews notes that "the parrot was well-trained. It played the part of a parrot very well."

That's about as funny as he gets, at least until he knows you. Among friends, Matthews has the reputation of being a practical joker. And like a lot of quiet people who make their living as performers, he's transformed once he steps on stage. But in day-to-day life, Matthews is thoroughly low-key, a father of twin 3-year-old girls who calls his wife, Jennifer, and daughters the "luckiest part of my life."

"He has an enigmatic quality, soulful, someone who's more comfortable singing than talking," says Winn-Dixie producer Trevor Albert.

Matthews' introversion, his sensibility and his love for family all drew him to Winn-Dixie. The movie is based on the award-winning children's novel about a girl and her stray dog who bring the lonely people of a Florida town together.

"It's kind of a quiet, calm story in an environment nowadays that's filled with fast editing and high volume," Matthews says. "There's not too much moral pounding over the head, but there are things in it that are beautiful lessons about not judging people and that loneliness isn't necessarily uncommon. It deals with things that a lot of kids are afraid of. Kids want to belong. It's the most natural thing in the world."

His appearance in a movie, however, doesn't mean the end to his music. In fact, Matthews and his longtime band are putting the finishing touches on a new album, still untitled, that he says will be released in May, and a U.S. tour will likely follow.

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