Dave Matthews hits new note as film actor

February 14, 2005

By NANCY MILLS - DAILY NEWS WRITER

021405.jpgDon't worry, Dave Matthews is not quitting the Dave Matthews Band and going Hollywood.

"To ever leave the band to pursue a solo career exclusively would be absurd to me," he says.

That's including a solo movie career.

In his first major acting job, the gravel-voiced Matthews plays Otis, a lonely pet- shop employee who charms animals with music in the family drama "Because of Winn-Dixie," which opens Friday. It's based on Kate ­DiCamillo's best-selling young adult book about a girl and a dog she adopts.

"I didn't have to stretch too far to put myself in my character's situation," says Matthews. "If things in my life had not unfolded the way they did — if the disappointments and obstacles had been different — I think I could have been outwardly more similar to Otis."

Matthews, 38, became a connoisseur of disappointment and obstacles while setting up shots as a bartender in Charlottesville, Va., before he started his band.

"I listened to a lot of heartbreaking, wrenching stories behind the bar," he says. "Late afternoons were when the crazy people came in. They weren't the best tippers, but often they had really good stories.

"I run into a couple of them sometimes now when I go to a bar, but a lot of them are probably dead."

As a songwriter, Matthews knows how to spin a good tale. But as an actor, he turned to co-star Daniels for help.

"Jeff told me, ‘Don't act,'" Matthews says. "‘It's a curse if you try. And don't move. Less is more.'"

Those words would be anathema to most rock stars. But Matthews prefers being low-key anyway.

"If it's trouble that I'm in," he says, "I try and keep it to myself. I try to keep the strangeness of my personality — reserve it as much as possible — for my ­creative side, as opposed to my social side."

Unlike Otis, an ex-con, Matthews has never been in jail.

"But I could have been," he says. "I had my wild youth, although it's nothing I'd ever want written down. It's fun to save your madness for the things you make."

Trevor Albert, who produced "Because of Winn-Dixie," says he approached Matthews "because we wanted somebody soulful with unpredictable energy.

"Dave can also be enigmatic, although he's very witty and can sometimes be a jokester. On stage, he's soft-spoken, but when the music clicks in he transforms into some other being. That's what Otis does. He's more comfortable communicating through music."

Matthews was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, but came to the U.S. with his family when he was 2. His father, a physicist, died when he was 10, and the family eventually moved back to South Africa. "I left after high school when I got my call-up for the Army," he says. "I always wanted to live in America."

He moved to Charlottesville, began bar-tending in a jazz club and eventually wrote some songs. He got a few musicians together to play them, and they decided to form the band. In 2000, he married Jennifer Harper. They have twin daughters, Grace and Stella, 3½.

"Had I not met the guys in the band and started driving around in a van, I'm not sure where I'd be now," Matthews says. "Three months into the band, I was ­already hoping we would be together at least until somebody heard us."

That was 14 years ago, and Matthews, who has an album coming out in May, has no desire to quit singing for acting.

At most, he allows, "moviesprobably give me more energy for music. I've created a family and a home around the band."

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