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Tuesday, December 28, 2010
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INTERVIEW: STEPHEN DORFF GETS HIS LIFE AND CAREER BACK ON TRACK

Last week, I had the opportunity to spend about 90 minutes — 45 of them recorded — at New York’s Bowery hotel with the actor Stephen Dorff, 37, who is earning the best reviews of his career for his performance as a movie star in quiet crisis at Hollywood’s fabled Chateau Marmont hotel in Sofia Coppola’s meditative film “Somewhere” (Focus Features, 12/22, R, trailer). Dorff and I had planned to chat in the lobby, but when the hotel staff blocked me from filming him there he graciously invited me up to his room to have a couple of beers and shoot it there. Suffice it to say that it was more than a little surreal to walk in and find a scene very much like the one his character inhabits throughout Coppola’s picture — sans stripper poles, sadly.

Over the course of our conversation, Dorff and I discussed a wide-range of topics:

  • his early moviegoing experiences/favorites
  • his “discovery” at the age of 11 (an agent spotted him at an acting class), which led to his first work in commercials and his first big screen role in the horror flick “The Gate” (1987), which found a cult following, but after which he couldn’t get another film job for five years, leading him to apply to colleges (Juilliard and NYU both accepted him)
  • then, just as he was about to head off to school, two great opportunities came his way: a chance to play young Indiana Jones in a TV show for George Lucas, and a chance to star in John G. Avildsen’s inspirational film “The Power of One” (1992); he accepted latter out a desire to have a career in the movies, and says it “changed my life”
  • subsequent noteworthy roles came in Iain Softley’s “Backbeat” (1994) as Stuart Sutcliffe, “the fifth Beatle”; Mary Harron’s “I Shot Andy Warhol” (1996) as a transsexual Superstar; Bob Rafelson’s “Blood and Wine” (1996), as the stepson of his real-life friend/mentor Jack Nicholson; Stephen Norrington’s “Blade” (1998) as an evil vampire
  • “Blade” was a big hit — it knocked “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) off the top of the box-office charts — but Dorff now feels that he failed to capitalize on the widespread exposure that it offered him, choosing instead to return to making small films that he cared deeply about but few others ever saw, such as John Waters’s “Cecil B. DeMented” (2002), in which he played an insane indie filmmaker; furthermore, he found that when studios did think of him for roles, they almost always wanted him to play “the bad guy” (“It made it hard for my star to rise,” he says)
  • after a number of years out of the limelight, many — including, at times, him — began to wonder if his career’s best days were behind him; things slowly began to turn around, though, when he auditioned — and really fought for — a role that offered him the chance to play “a guy with a good heart again,” a 9/11 rescue worker in Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” (2005)
  • after making Ric Roman Waugh’s “Felon” (2008), a little prison movie (which caught Coppola’s attention), he was about to start shooting Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” (2009), a high-profile film in which he was offered the chance to play a criminal associate of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), when he learned that his mother was dying of brain cancer; devastated, he told Mann that he would be unavailable for some time and would understand if he needed to cast someone else, but Mann waited until Dorff was ready to work again (he returned at the urging of his mother, who ultimately passed away in February 2008)
  • he chuckles at how many people have described his performance in “Somewhere” as a “comeback,” noting that he never really left but just needed someone to recognize that he had another side of him, which Coppola — whom he first met years ago through a mutual friend, Zoe Cassavetes (and whose famous father, director Francis Ford Coppola, had worked with him on a film that never got made) — did (he chuckles, “She made me cool again, with all of these magazine covers and people wanting me to take my shirt off”)
  • the road to winning the part of Johnny Marco in “Somewhere” was interesting — he got a call from his agent notifying him that Coppola was planning another movie and that he was on the short-list of people she was thinking about casting as the lead; was soon after sent a very short script (just 48 pages) with minimal dialogue (certain scenes, like Johnny smoking a cigarette or playing Guitar Hero with his daughter, were described with only one line in the script, but ultimately filled several minutes of screen time); and shortly after, at the suggestion of his agent, called Coppola and told her he would hop a plane to Paris to meet with her about the role face-to-face if she’d be available to see him (which she was)
  • during his week in Paris, he certainly “didn’t hurt” his chances of winning the role — which calls for the actor to not only play a movie star but also the father of an 11-year-old girl (Elle Fanning) — by telling Coppola about his close relationships with his 10- and 12-year-old half-sisters, or when her own young daughter took an instant liking to him and fell asleep on his shoulder during one of their meetings; at the end of the week, she called him and told he had the part (that news, plus the fact that it came on the one-year anniversary of his mother’s death, left him very emotional)
  • at Coppola’s suggestion, his preparation for “Somewhere” included staying at the Chateau Marmont (Dorff’s was room 69, Marco’s was room 59) for seven weeks (during which he experienced “dry runs” on many of the things that Johnny experiences, including an encounter in an elevator with another actor); hanging out with Fanning (he picked her up from school one day and together they got yogurt, made pottery, and attended her volleyball game); and watching several films with similar subject matter/themes, including Peter Bogdanovich’s “Paper Moon” (1973), Federico Fellini’s “Toby Dammit” (1968), and Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975)
  • Francis Ford Coppola, who was an executive producer of the film, made periodic visits to the set, during which Dorff always happened to be naked

Photo: Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning in “Somewhere.” Credit: Focus Features.

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  • nicky

    I concur with critics that Dorff really has hit his stride with this role. Coppola lingers for long periods of time on him and I never caught him acting — he was consistently interesting and vulnerable and deep and funny. I wholeheartedly enjoyed his performance – though not the movie unfortunately. I plan to give it another shot though, primarily because I did think the performances were so good. And he comes across so lovely in this interview – down to earth, kind and open. I am glad for his success.

  • http://twitter.com/KultureKameleon Miss Connecticut

    Really like how laid back and low key this interview was…and really liked hearing of how he landed the role etc. Enjoyed the movie as well. Definitely different from a lot of movies today.

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