Stephen Dorff wants an Amstel Light and an afternoon cigarette, but as we head out to the courtyard of the Chateau Marmont — the famous Los Angeles hotel where he spends the bulk of Sofia Coppola’s new film, Somewhere — one young woman in the lobby won’t let him go. “Stephen Dorff!” the blonde repeatedly exclaims. A casual acquaintance named Holly (at the Chateau, everyone is a casual acquaintance of everyone else), she is insistent that Dorff adopt an animal from her and has the disconcerting habit of always addressing him by his full name. “Stephen Dorff, are you going to take the dog?”
“Maybe,” says Dorff, flashing the amiable half-smile of his Somewhere character, the dissolute but softhearted actor Johnny Marco. “I have to meet a dog before I take him.”
“Well, when are you gonna meet him, Stephen Dorff?”
“I dunno. Let me get through the next few days.” Like Marco, who’s ushered from event to event by a phalanx of publicists and agents, Dorff is in the middle of a crowded schedule of press obligations. He’s just arrived at the Chateau from a luncheon that he and Coppola attended with awards bloggers and industry pundits, and he’s beaming, proud to be front and center in such a well-received movie (Somewhere took home the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion).
How was the awards luncheon?
The “Pundits Express”? It was good. I’ve never really done this before. I’ve never done the Academy dance … I’m happy to do it, though. My biggest thing is I was just so stoked when we won Venice. I was so happy and humbled to be included in the mix, because you’ve got great movies there, great filmmakers. To just be there was awesome.
Were you still there when it won?
No, I was back in L.A. Sofia was in Paris, and usually if you win the Gold Lion, the director comes back. She still didn’t know we had won the big one, but me, of course, I knew all the awards you could win and how the rules worked — you can’t win Best Actor if you win Best Movie, things like that. She said, “I think we won, but I don’t know what we won.” I said, “Look, I’ll tell you what it could be. Best Director, Special Jury Prize, or the big one, the Gold Lion.” So then when she got there, she was like, “We got the big one!” We had a Champagne celebration from Malibu to Harry’s Bar.
What was the screenplay like when she sent it to you? So much of it feels improvised on the day.
She’s kind of famous now for writing shorter screenplays. Lost in Translation was 60 pages?
And this one?
This one was about 48. They’re usually about a 120, and this script was a pamphlet, almost. I felt the whole movie there, but I had a lot of questions. Obviously, I completely wanted to work with Sofia going in, so if she had given me something that was two pages, I would have said, “Let’s do it, I’m down for this experience,” but I’ll give you an example. The script was completely laid out as far as the dialogue that’s there, but the Guitar Hero sequence was scripted in one line: “Scene 48, Johnny and Cleo play Guitar Hero, sun’s blasting through the windows of the hotel room, Sammy’s on the couch.” So in shooting, we start playing our songs, we start vibing and making things up, she’ll say, “Ooh, I like when you said that thing about the whammy bar, but go back and do it earlier.” Though I would say that of the whole thing, maybe only 20 percent was improv. The rest was there.
She’s not interested in telegraphing things. Your character has an arc of being transformed by the presence of his daughter, but you have to underplay it in the extreme.
She never states the obvious, she wants to have it all said with one line. I found it the most raw and naked performance I ever had to give, so in that way, it was the most challenging thing I’ve done. I find that if you give me makeup or a machine gun and there are explosions going off … I mean, there are a lot of cheats with acting. I can mimic anything, and if I sat with you for a few hours, I could mimic the hell out of you. When I played Candy Darling in I Shot Andy Warhol, that was easy to play that part. They made me into a woman, I’m in heels, I’m waxed, I’m gonna find the femininity and lay on the bed and take the voice of an old movie star. This part, I had nothing. No tricks, no accent, no game, nothing — no prop, really, except for my smoke and my beer, sometimes.
Sofia asked you to move into the Chateau to prepare for the role. How much of what we see in the movie sprung from that?
Ultimately, she knew that by living here, that things would happen to me as Stephen the way they probably would for Johnny. Sofia would come in the morning and say, “Any gossip from last night?” I’d say, “Funny enough, I had a dry rehearsal of our elevator scene. I was in the elevator with that actor Olivier Martinez, and I didn’t know him all that well — I’d just met him once. We were riding in the elevator and he had scripts under his arm and he said, ‘What room are you in?’ And I said, ‘69.’ He said, ‘Oh yeah? I had a party in 69 once … ’” And she said, “Oh I like that, let’s use that in the scene with Benicio [del Toro, where he shares an awkward elevator chat with Johnny Marco].” I don’t think there were any lines written in that scene — originally, it was supposed to be Vin Diesel in the script. Then he decided he didn’t want to do the part — he didn’t get the joke, I guess.
Elle Fanning plays your 11-year-old daughter in the movie. Is this the first time you’ve ever been a father onscreen?
Oh yeah. It’s the first time I’ve ever been around kids this much. My friends are having babies, I’m a godfather to one of my friend’s babies. It’s like, “Wait, man, when am I gonna have a baby?” One day, hopefully … The movie, to me, is about an adolescent father becoming a dad. Elle’s character is way more sophisticated than her dad, and ultimately through her, the end of the movie is his beginning. It’s been so special and unique, man. I’ve made 30-some movies, and nothing’s ever been made and executed the way this film was. I mean, it’s on another level for me, creatively.
How long of a shoot was it?
Not long. All in, shooting-wise, maybe eight weeks. When we shot Public Enemies, that was six months?
That’s Michael Mann for you, though.
Oh yeah. I love Michael, but I don’t know. We shot that movie for a long time, and when you see the movie, there’s a lot of parts I like in it, but there are so many characters. I was like, “Where did it all go?” I didn’t even know where Johnny’s character was, and he was Dillinger. I loved the gun-battle scenes, I loved the look of the film, but I kind of lost my character in there, and I was, “Oh-kay, that was half a year” … But I love Michael Mann. I was going through a tough time when he offered me that movie.
Personally or professionally?
Personally. I didn’t think I could do the movie because I was losing my mom — she hadn’t left me yet, but it was headed that way — so I bailed out of the film. He was really a mensch about it. He said, “I’ll catch up with you later, and — “
[Dorff brightens as Coppola’s 4-year-old daughter Romy runs up to him, accompanied by her father, Phoenix front man Thomas Mars. “Can I have a hug?” he asks. “I missed you!” Romy excitedly tells Dorff about her recent trip to Disneyland, where Pirates of the Caribbean was deemed too scary a ride for her to go on. He taps her hand before Mars pulls her away: “You’ve got some new tattoos, I see.” “Those are not tattoos,” she says, smiling. “They’re stickers!”]
I have a young niece right now, under a year old, and I can’t wait until she gets to that age.
I met Romy when she was 2, in Paris, when I was meeting with Sofia for this movie. I never had a relationship with a young person, but Romy and I connected. She was laying on my arm and I said, “I’ve really gotta talk to your mom! I want this part!” And she wouldn’t let me — “I want to show you my room.” Sofia said, “I’ve really got to talk to Stephen,” and she said, “Okay, but I’m coming.” So we had this reading in the living room, and she was sleeping on my arm.
That can’t have hurt your chances at winning the role.
I don’t think it did. [Laughs.] She’s a special one.
With Sofia having grown up the daughter of a director, it’ll be interesting to see how Romy turns out.
I know. Some of the time she was on set calling “Action” to me!
Let’s talk about hotel life. You grew up mostly in Los Angeles, right?
Yup, L.A. since I was 6 months old.
I usually think that the hotels here are for out-of-towners, but you lived at the Chateau for a while. How did that happen?
When I was 17, I was going to go to college because I couldn’t get a movie. Hey, do you want a drink or something?
I would love a beer.
I would, too. I used to live in this place, so … [Calling to a waiter] Hey bud! Two Amstel lights and an ashtray, please? So, the hotel question. I think if you’re from L.A. and into the creative energy of things, you always have heard of this place. It’s different than The Four Seasons and the Beverly Hills Hotel — it’s not as luxurious, but there’s character here. I grew up knowing that Lennon used to hang here and that Jim Morrison hung out the window and we lost Belushi here; I knew the famous stories. Then as I got older, I came back from Backbeat and I didn’t have an apartment because I had done a couple movies in Europe — I had gotten accepted by Julliard and NYU but I got The Power of One, so I took the movie route. [The waiter returns.] Perfect. You called it, I wanted a beer too. Cheers.
So I came back at 19, I did that Aerosmith video with Alicia Silverstone, and I didn’t have my own place. I didn’t want to stay with my mom and dad. I thought, I’ve got a little money, I’m checking into the Chateau. I think my stay here when I was 19 was about six weeks, and then my business manager called and said I had to check out. I said, “Why, what are you talking about? I have money.” And he said, “No, you don’t. Have you seen your bill?” I didn’t have the concept that when you make a certain amount of money, half of it is gone to paying people for taxes. So I checked out and took a movie because I needed to make some money. I pretty much lived movie to movie in my younger years because I loved spending money and I didn’t really have a concept of “assets,” but as I got a little older, I bought art. I got all these cool pictures — a Warhol painting, a Basquiat drawing, a little Keith Haring — every time I had a little extra money. But for a while there, I was just living movie to movie. “Oh, I need a job? All right, what’s out there? Okay, I’ll take that one.”
As an actor, do you get sick of hotels?
I mean, being an actor is pretty much like being in the circus. It’s like Thomas [Mars] — he’s been on the road the whole year. He’ll be in Venice and then fly to Turkey to do a concert, or go to London and then fly back here for the KROQ Acoustic Christmas. You’re in hotels a lot. When we did Public Enemies, I finally got an apartment, because it was ridiculous. Half a year in this stupid hotel, I just didn’t want to do it anymore! But I don’t mind hotels. I think there’s safety with a hotel.
[Two French women approach Dorff. “Nice to see you,” one says. “We met at Bob Shaye’s house.” Dorff nods and makes small talk, though it’s impossible to tell if he remembers them. “Life is good?” the woman asks. “This is my friend Nicole. You have to come to the gallery, Stephen!” “Yeah, I will,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “Doin’ all the press for our movie right now, but I’ll try to get over there, for sure … “]
How often do people come up to you and they’ve met you briefly before —
— and I don’t know them? It’s tricky, because I always want to be respectful. I know faces, but not names. Now that we’ve done this interview, I have a very good memory, and I’ll always remember you — if I see you in New York, I’ll be like, “Hey man, what’s up?” But I always feel like if I’m eating a dinner and some nice person comes up and wants a picture, I’m not going to be one of those guys who’s like, “Well, let me eat my dinner, and then I’ll come over to you.” Some of my friends don’t want that invasiveness, but I feel like that’s part of my job. I signed up for this. I’ll always be respectful, I’m not gonna be like, “Get the fuck outta here.” I think when I was younger, I was a little more self-absorbed, didn’t really think of other people. Over the last few years as I’ve gotten older, and actually since I’ve lost my mom, I’ve found that I’ve become a nicer person inside, even though at first I was very angry and upset. I hated everybody.
Why did it make you nicer?
I think I just want my mom to look down and be proud of me. I wanted her to know before I lost her that she did an incredible job. I do credit my mom and my dad that even in my more rebellious years, I didn’t cross the line. There was never an E! True Hollywood Story about me, I never got arrested. Yeah, I partied, and went a little crazy with the girls and had my drinking days, but I never got addicted to hard-core drugs, and I really do believe it’s because I was lucky enough to have a family that really guarded me in a city like this. I rebelled against it when I was 18 and making movies — I thought, I’m gonna do it my way — but in retrospect, I look back and my mom was right about a lot of things.
I think in a weird way, my mom had something to do with this film. Sofia gave me the part on the anniversary of my mom’s death, a year to the day. I felt my mom clearly in Paris that day, and it was a very emotional moment to me — not just business-wise, because I’ve gotten great parts before. This was something deeper. I think I’m just trying to be a nicer person for my own self, too. We’re all sensitive people, whether we’re writers, artists, musicians, actors, whatever, and I was vulnerable and had an anger about things that I don’t think helped me in my career or in my life. I think I’m letting go of a lot of that, and as I do, a lot of nice things are dropping in my lap. I can only think that maybe my mom is up there looking out for me.
It’s a similar arc to Johnny’s. You never see him do anything so terrible — he doesn’t break any hearts during the movie, though you get the impression he’s left a trail of them in his wake already.
No, even at his worst, he’s nice. My mom was always saying, “Stephen, why can’t you play a character who’s flawed but has some vulnerability and heart?”
Did she see all your movies?
Oh, she’d run out of the theater with a movie like Blade! I would say to her, “Mom, I wish I could get that [nicer] part, but every time I go in for the leading man, they see me in this edgier way.” I don’t know if it’s because of my image or what. I’ve tried to do everything I can to play different roles. I’ve played a woman, I’ve tried to mix it up, but people in Hollywood don’t have the greatest imaginations.
You’ve got Immortals coming out next November, directed by Tarsem. His visuals are off the charts, but what is it like to be an actor in the midst of all that?
The guy’s a visual master, and if you look at his reel, it’s like, “Wow, he’s unreal.” I think this is his big shot, because he hasn’t made a movie in a while since The Fall, which he paid for himself — beautiful movie, didn’t totally make a lot of sense, [but] gorgeous to look at. This one, I think, is hopefully going to deliver something that we don’t normally see from the sword-and-sandal picture, whether it be Troy or Clash of the Titans. It’s definitely in that genre, so we’re all naked and wearing leather.
Who are you playing?
Henry Cavill’s younger than me, so he plays, like, the Luke Skywalker. Freida Pinto plays the oracle who becomes the love interest to Henry. I play the Han Solo of the movie, this slave who hooks up with them, and then we all go against Mickey Rourke, who’s the bad guy. I’m a little older than Henry and I’m flirting with Freida, and I’ve got all the good lines in the movie.
I heard that Tarsem has all the actors on insane workout regimens to build eight-pack stomachs and huge bodies.
Yeah. Funny enough, I kind of trained with a separate group, because I didn’t like the way they were training some of these guys. It all felt like they were giving some of these actors fake breast implants. It was a lot of “tit acting,” and the opposite of what I think you’d want on film, so I kind of went against that grain and brought my team up there. But yeah, we’re pretty much naked in the movie.
I’ve seen your cover of VMan. I would think you’re used to being naked by now.
Every time I want to wear clothes, these photographers won’t let me! If you’re working with Testino, I’m sure he’s going to say, “Take your shirt off, Stephen.” I’ve worked with these guys before enough to know that. I just saw the new Interview magazine, and they had told me to take my shirt off in the last shot, and of course that’s the one that’s in there. I’m like, “Sofia, I tried to keep my clothes on.” She’s like, “No, you look cute.” All the magazines that are coming out are like, “Abs abs abs abs abs!” But what are you gonna do?
You’ve got to sell the movie, I guess.
You’re sensitive about your art when you take these chances. Even more for Sofia — as an actor, I’m doing what my captain wants me to do. I protect this one, though, like it’s a baby of mine. I think of how important it was to my life. I think in a way, this part saved me — not just professionally but personally, more than anything.
[“I’m here again!” Romy returns with Sofia Coppola in tow. “Do you want to do my interview with me?” Dorff asks. “Your mom said you were walking around the other day and you saw me on a magazine cover and said, ‘There’s Stephen!’” She nods, and he laughs: “That was weird, huh?”]