Stephen Dorff is an actor who has been around Hollywood for quite a long time, from his appearance as a teenager in the 1987 cult film The Gate to playing a string of baddies including one in Blade. For his latest role in Sofia Coppola’s newest film Somewhere, Dorff plays a role that may be familiar to him, playing actor Johnny Marco, a successful movie star who has been lounging around at Hollywood’s prestigious Chateau Marmont, partying with strippers and doing things we only dream of while the world passes him by. When his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) shows up on his doorstep, he learns that he has to start taking responsibility, because she relies on him as much as he does on her.
The amount of time that Coppola’s latest movie spends inside a hotel (and later on, in Italy) makes it hard not to be reminded of her Oscar-winning film Lost in Translation, though Somewhere is more of the type of cinema verité film that we’ve seen from Gus Van Sant where much of the film requires very little dialogue as the camera lingers on Dorff’s character for long scenes of him silently going through his normal day-to-day narcissistic routine.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Dorff last week to talk about the film.
ComingSoon.net: “Somewhere” is kind of unconventional for you, I would say, kind of cinema verité, fly on the wall, and very different from other things you’ve done. How did Sofia approach you about starring in it?
Stephen Dorff: She did explain she was writing it for me and she sent it to me, and it kinda just landed in my lap like a butterfly. I just went to Paris and spent about a week with her in Paris and then that was it.
CS: Had you two met before?
Dorff: Yeah, we’ve been friends for many years but never worked together. I’ve worked with Francis (Ford Coppola, her father) over the years for an experimental thing he was doing and we just end up making a movie, yeah. I’ve been embraced by that family before, but not in this way. I mean, she gave me the best role of the year, I think.
CS: Did you know that she was writing something for you while she was in that process?
Dorff: No, no, we hadn’t talked. We had always been good friends because our mutual friend Zoe Cassavetes, and basically I hadn’t seen the girls in a while, since “Marie Antoinette,” since Sofia and Zoe moved to Paris and they started families, and I’d kinda been in LA working. I had no idea, that’s why it just kind of came outta nowhere.
CS: Was it a fairly well fleshed-out script? There isn’t a ton of dialogue in the movie so I was curious how much was written out.
Dorff: Yeah, the whole movie’s very specific and written. Sofia doesn’t write everything down on paper, but as she’s making the movies, it’s all coming from her. “Lost in Translation” was a very short script too, which she won the Oscar for, and this was an even shorter script. It’s a different way of working, going from 120-page script to about 50. She doesn’t really like to specifically say (how many pages), but it’s a shorter script. The whole script’s there just, for example, the scene where we played Guitar Hero, there’ll be one line in the script. In a real script, it’ll be seven pages explaining everything. Sofia, she doesn’t follow any… she just made a very daring movie, a very radical movie, but a beautiful, poignant one. She doesn’t buy into any of the clichés of what you see in normal movies as far as overwritten dialogue saying everything. She just goes against the grain with every choice I made and that’s why I love the movie so much. It’s pretty hard to make people feel more than they feel in a normal movie with all the things that we don’t have like set pieces, plot, script, words, etc. etc. etc. In some ways, it was like making a silent movie and it’s the most naked performance I’ve given with no tricks, nothing. It was a straight-up, unconscious kind of let the audience feel like they’re in the bedroom with Johnny and let your audience feel like they’re in the shower with Johnny. You’re supposed to feel like a fly on the wall, which I think is exactly what the audience feels while watching the movie. It’s just a completely different way of working, and that’s why I probably loved it so much.
CS: Foreign filmmakers tend to make these kind of movies a lot as well as indie movies with filmmakers like Gus Van Sant having done stuff like this, but it feels different for Sofia after such a lush period piece like “Marie Antoinette” to then go back to something that’s so raw.
Dorff: Yeah, she made it real clear in the nine million interviews we’ve done so far that she wanted to do something completely minimal. Do a portrait of a guy’s point of view, which she’d never done. She created Bill Murray’s character obviously, but it was still written kind of from a girl’s point of view in that movie. This was something more from a man’s point of view, as she explained, so for the first time in her life, she wanted to explore that and she was kind of missing LA living in Paris, being a little homesick, and decided to just write an intimate portrait of this actor and this little girl that ultimately awakens him and rescues her own father. I always thought the movie was about an adolescent father and she’s taking care of Johnny where she’s tucking him into bed and making him food or waking him up in the morning. She’s running the show and this guy’s a very broken man. He needs to find himself and make a change and ultimately, that’s what he does at the end of the movie and he’s probably got his priorities in check for the first time.
CS: How was it working with Elle? Did Sofia not want you to spend a lot of time together when you weren’t filming or did you have time to meet before you began shooting to get to know each other?
Dorff: Yeah, we spent a lot of time in the beginning. She just wanted us to hang out and get to know each other and develop our own trust. One of the first things is that I picked her up from her normal school and we went to have yogurt together. We would do little things. I went to her volleyball game. Basically, Sofia was never really there. It was just about me and Elle creating our own kind of relationship. When it came time to the set, we could just do anything, we were a team.
CS: You mentioned the Guitar Hero scene, which I thought was really interesting, because it’s really just father and daughter playing Guitar Hero, but was that a scene you shot for a long time and then Sofia just picked the best bits to use?
Dorff: Yeah, like some of that stuff with Sammy and Chris Pontius and her, every time Chris would say something crazy, Elle would have these great reactions and that was kind of loose. The Guitar Hero bantering was kind of loose. I mean, the specific scenes are always there, like when I get the phone call about my mother’s book and the girl flashes me outside. That was all in the script. It’s just kind of more fill in the blanks when it comes to the Guitar Hero scene. Johnny and Cleo are playing poker downstairs in the lobby, and my response, maybe I’ll add little things, but for most of the time, it’s was pretty specifically written. It’s not like an improv movie, I’d say maybe 20 or 25 percent was improv. The rest is scripted.
CS: Were there any big surprises like when you were accepting that award in Italy and it breaks out into a big song and dance number?
Dorff: All that’s written. Yeah, everything’s written in the script. It’s based on a real awards show and it was recreated for Sofia because that show doesn’t really exist in Italy anymore, but that was based on a TV awards thing where they give the filmmaker or a movie star an award in time for the release of their movie. It’s kind of one of these silly, crazy award shows. We even had to get the cats out of storage to put on the stage and basically fill it with a bunch of Italians. Yeah, we went over there to recreate that which was a very specific (thing).
CS: It just seemed like your reaction in that scene was very spontaneous as if you weren’t expecting it.
Dorff: Yeah, I didn’t do any rehearsal. I just like to be put into it. I think Sofia created this crazy world, another world in which Johnny’s gotta go to, which ultimately he takes Cleo with him, but yeah, I mean as far as the dancers and the stage number, they were rehearsing that stuff, but I kinda always like to just be thrown into the situation and see what’s going to happen.
CS: I live in New York and I’ve only been to L.A. once, so I’m not really that familiar with the Chateau Marmont or that culture. Do you feel the movie’s accurate being an actor who has been in that scene for a number of years?
Dorff: Yeah, I mean everything in the movie is so real, it doesn’t even feel like a movie. That’s the beauty of making this movie as well, you know what I mean? Everything from the emptiness and loneliness of an actor to the way the hotel smells, sounds. I mean, you get the sound designer Richard Beggs, who did “Apocalypse Now,” the best in the business, he captured the whole f*cking way that whole hotel operates. I don’t know how he did it. But yeah, that hotel is an iconic L.A. hotel that if you are an actor or if you’re in any creative outlet in any part of the business, I think you’ve ended up there or if you’re from L.A., you’ve stayed there whether it’s Baz Luhrmann or Alfonso Cuaron or all the directors that pretty much live there, too, when they’re not shooting. They were all checking in while we were shooting. The whole hotel is definitely a hotel that I would rather stay in than the Four Seasons or something. It has a different energy of safety there. Also, I don’t think Johnny could’ve lived in a house. Some people have asked me, “Why doesn’t he live in a house?” Well, he can’t take care of himself (laughs) so why would he live in a house? He lives in a hotel, so they help him with his life. By the end of the movie, I think he’s gonna buy a house and create a space for Cleo so she can feel safe.
CS: The whole industry has changed a lot in the last 10 to 15 years, so has the Chateau Marmont changed a lot as well? Is it harder to get the privacy that actors and filmmakers are used to getting there anymore?
Dorff: Well, no, the Chateau’s kind of always remained the same, that’s the kind of beauty of it. I mean, it’s never even really been totally refurbished. They kind of did modifications, but they always kept it the same, because everybody had always loved how it was. So when you talk to all these residents or long-term stay people, I don’t think they wanted it to change. So I think the most they’ve done is maybe change the elevators, maybe fixed things that they had to fix over the years, but that’s kind of the beauty of it. As the world’s changed, the Chateau really hasn’t.
CS: I know you’ve worked with Tarsem and did “Immortals” which is like this big greenscreen movie with him. I’ve met him and he’s an amazing guy. Was it very hard switching gears? Did you have any time between doing “Somewhere” and that movie?
Dorff: Yeah, I had some time. I did a comedy for Adam Sandler’s company called “Born to be a Star,” which comes out on Easter. “Immortals” was cool. I have no idea what that movie will be like because so much of it’s made in post, but I had fun with Tarsem. It probably couldn’t be more different than “Somewhere,” which is pretty much a complete character study on film, which doesn’t exist these days. I also think it’s important to get different audiences and give differences audiences movies that they might want to see. That was a good opportunity and it was a good character. I liked working with Freida Pinto a lot. I found her really cool, really refreshing and we’ll see how it turns out.
CS: Where would you like to see yourself in five years? You also did “Felon,” which is another really cool indie movie. Where would you like to see yourself in five years as far as like, doing more stuff like this or bigger studio movies? What’s your take having done this for so long?
Dorff: I’ve been kind of saying “no” for a lot of movies and in some ways, it’s just because I want to be real careful about what I do. I mean, I really liked Tarsem as a filmmaker, so I went and I did that. I did the comedy for Adam, because he wrote me this part, and I thought it was really funny and I’ve never been in a big studio comedy, so I went for that. I think I am still trying to find the next great character piece with whomever that director is. Those movies just don’t really exist, they’re very few and far between as you know. You watch movies all the time and you can count those filmmakers on two hands, those unique voices that come in and have final cut and really take risks and really tell great stories. I mean, as far as studio movies, they’re all kinda studio movies that I do. It just depends on the size, like the movie I did with Sofia. It’s an independent-spirited film but it’s still being released by a major studio. I feel like I’m just trying to take it slow, waiting for the next great part. I’m not really into rushing. I won’t be playing villains for a while, I don’t think, unless some incredible villain comes my way. For the first time in a long time, Sofia’s allowed me to play the leading man and a great character that could be flawed but had incredible amounts of vulnerability. I’m interested in playing characters like that right now, so I’m not really interested in the typical satirical villains and things I always used to get before which I found kind of boring. If I do that again, it will be a great villain role in a great movie, but those are kind of… I think Javier Bardem probably had the last great villain, which was in “No Country” and he was great in that, but yeah, something along the lines of something a little deeper. I just don’t want to be the guy running around killing people anymore.
Somewhere opens in New York and L.A. on Wednesday, December 22.