Strange days indeed for Stephen Dorff: thanks to his performance as a Hollywood lost boy in Sofia Coppola’s new film, Somewhere — which took the honors at his year’s Venice Film Festival — the actor has found himself thrust into the celebrity limelight, attending junkets, premieres and interviews much like Johnny Marco, the character he plays in the movie. Fittingly, RT met with Dorff in a hotel suite — Marco spends much of the film listlessly marooned at LA’s famous Chateau Marmont — though he wasn’t quite at the existential crossroads he faces on screen. Read on for our chat with Dorff about working with Coppola on Somewhere, but first — here are his five favorite films.
I can’t leave out Kubrick. I think my favorite Kubrick movie is kind of tied between A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. The Shining meant a lot to me. It was the first movie that made me really want to act. I love Jack Nicholson in that movie. I didn’t know who Jack Nicholson was at the time — I was like 11 when I saw it, but something about what he was doing in that movie just fascinated me.
Next, Stephen Dorff on getting into character for his leading role in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere.
RT: This movie’s something, isn’t it? Like all of Sofia’s stuff, really.
Stephen Dorff: It’s a special movie — it’s like a jam, I think. I mean, there are only so many filmmakers who have final cut and can make movies like this — whether it’s the Coen brothers or Sofia or Quentin [Tarantino] or Paul Thomas Anderson. I was just so humbled and happy that she came to me for this one. I think she made such ballsy choices — she went to the other side, literally just letting audiences be a fly on the wall; almost just watching this portrait of this man. So much of the movie, without Hollywood, to me was about an adolescent father becoming a man, and just this unique kind of set up — this very simple, yet very poetic way of taking a guy in his mid 30s, taking this 11-year-old girl [Elle Fanning, who plays his estranged daughter] and just putting them together.
What’s Sofia like to work with as a director?
Sofia is the most detail-orientated, specific director I’ve ever worked with — everything from my boots down to the jeans I’m wearing, to the way I wrinkle my forehead, she’s thought about it. I’ve never worked with such a short script and with a director who gave me the freedom to… to, well, she wouldn’t let me say some things and I had to say these other things without saying them, you know. There were no tricks involved. It felt like the most naked character portrayal that anyone has ever asked me to do — and probably that has been made in a long time. Movies are always moving, you know, they’re always cutting and you don’t get the time, sometimes — this, on the other hand, gives you more time. She sets it up from the beginning: “You’re gonna stick with me, you’re gonna go with my pacing, and hopefully you’ll feel rewarded in the end.” And I think in the end most people are.
How do you prepare for something like this? I know you stayed at the Chateau Marmont for a while.
Yeah, I lived at the Chateau during the shooting, so I would walk downstairs from my room and go into Johnny’s room. As far as research goes there wasn’t that much to do. I mean I knew the guy and I just wanted to hit all the notes; for me I had to carry this movie for pretty much every frame… especially when the camera’s kind of holding on me for four or five minutes at a time. That’s tricky; that’s hard to do. I can mimic anything: give me a wig or a funny outfit, dress me up as a woman — I mean, that’s easy, I’ve been doing it my whole life and it probably made me wanna be an actor. But I’ve never done something as physically close to me, with no tricks — just raw behavior and trying to tell a story that way.
How did you connect with this character, emotionally?
Well, he’s a genuine person — he’s just having a major personal crisis. He’s numb and lost and it doesn’t matter how many Ferraris he has or how many supermodels he has looking at him, he’s got a hole in his heart — and to me, that’s very true as well. I think being an actor there is a loneliness and an emptiness, and that comes with being any kind of performer: you give to the audience and then when that show’s over, when that movie’s wrapped, it’s all done. The phone doesn’t ring until the next one, you know, and it’s like, “Well, what do I do now?” It’s tricky, especially if you don’t have your shit together. A guy like Johnny, you get thrown into that world, you get super famous, super quick for a movie he’s probably not even proud of — he’d much rather be making Somewhere but he’s now in Berlin Agenda holding a gun. He doesn’t know what he wants to do — until this amazing 11-year-old comes along and he spends a few more days with her.
You and Elle seemed like father and daughter — is that good preparation, or just great casting?
I think it’s great casting. From the moment I met her I knew she was the girl. But then Sofia did these things where she created fake memories, because there were no lengthy, eight-page backstories in the script.
How long was the script?
48 pages. Francis [Coppola] even said, “How does my daughter get away with writing these short scripts?” and I said, “I don’t know, but she’s a damned good filmmaker.” But he gets a kick out of it too, because she’s always been her own person. I remember when I met her when she was doing Milk Fed, her fashion line. She’s always had her own unique way of doing things.
So you knew each other from way back?
We knew each other for years, yeah, through a good friend Zoe Cassavetes, who she thanks at the end of the movie, — I think they had similar upbringings, because Zoe’s dad was John Cassavetes.
When she was living in LA were you around at that time?
Yeah, I went to see her. We weren’t the best of friends but we definitely liked each other a lot; she came to my 30th birthday party and I went to a lot of the events around Lost in Translation. I was so proud of her: she was the first peer of mine, that I was friends with, that won an Oscar. That was my favorite movie of the year by far — Bill Murray was robbed.
How many takes did you drive that Ferrari around in the first shot?
A lot. [laughs] It’ll be interesting to see, every time that movie starts, to see what the audience thinks.
Somewhere is in theaters this week.