Stephen Dorff On 'Somewhere,' Sofia Coppola
Stephen Dorff is showing off his struggling actor side in Sofia Coppola’s latest directorial effort, Somewhere. Dorff was born in Atlanta, raised in Los Angeles. Not a fan of traditional education, he was expelled from five schools during his childhood. His acting career started off small with commercials for Kraft and Mattel and then moved to minor roles on television shows such as Diff’rent Strokes, Roseanne and Married with Children. Dorff worked his way up the Hollywood ladder after playing one of the lead roles in the horror film Blade alongside Wesley Snipes. He has had a lead role in a number of serious films since, including Cold Creek Manor opposite Dennis Quaid, Shadowboxer with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center with Nicolas Cage.
But now Dorff is taking on a whole new character in Somewhere. He plays an out of work actor living in a luxurious hotel who faces coming into adulthood when his daughter Cleo, played by Elle Fanning, shows up for an indefinite surprise visit. Dorff concedes he faked looking bored for a scene in which twin pole dancers perform for him. “So I kept thinking, 'What am I doing when I’m smoking a cigarette.' I thought, ‘Oh why not call the twins over for a show,’ says Dorff, “Musters up enough energy to give them a round of applause after, it almost felt like it was out of a Kubrick movie when we were doing those scenes.”
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We were friends since the early 90s through our mutual friend, Zoe Cassavetes – that’s one of Sofia’s best friends, and she was always one of my good friends. We met in New York in the early 90s. We would hang out sometimes. They came to a few of my birthday parties when they were in town. And then I kind of lost touch with Sofia for a number of years, and Zoe moved to Paris, and they started families of their own, so I hadn’t seen Sofia in a few years. And randomly I got a phone call, right when I was finishing Public Enemies, that Sofia wanted me to read this script. I was incredibly excited – this is her fourth movie; she hadn’t made very many movies – and I immediately flew to Paris and had about a week with her. At the end of that week, she gave me that part.
It had something of a double meaning with what I was going through at the time. So it was not only for professional reasons, but it hit me more as sort of – “Wow I’m finally going to be able to play this character that I’ve been wanting to play.” You know, playing a character with flaws because that’s human, but at the same time having the ability to show emotion, not just play the villain all the time. For a while I couldn’t get those parts. Sofia is powerful enough in her final-cut director sort of way to say, “I want Stephen.” That really meant a lot to me, that she embraced me at the perfect time in my life to play this character. I probably wouldn’t have been able to play it a few years ago. It’s a very naked part. Very behavioral. Almost a silent movie in a lot of ways. It’s very tricky to act with nothing. It’s a lot wider than when it’s given to you in make-up or a voice. Accent. Limp. That’s all showy stuff and fun, but this called for a more subtle build and build and build and then we end, and he’s at his beginning. It’s a very specific thing that Sofia’s going for.
One thing — I mean I’m not a father — so the core of the movie to me was about an adolescent father becoming a man. That’s to me what this movie’s about. These two people. But of course he’s a movie star. He’s living that sort of lifestyle. That Chateau sort of ambiance. I think the loneliness and the isolation of an actor, most people think we've got everything – and it’s not a bad gig; I’m not complaining, I love my job. [But] I think it’s a lot harder – my job – than most people think. I mean we work. Whether it’s promoting the movie, for so many hours. It’s a job, but I think any sort of performance, if you’re a performer, as you go along, when the movie and the show stops, we don’t go to an office and have much rhythm to our lives. Especially now. I don’t have a family yet. I don’t have that responsibility, so now what? Until that next call comes in and I find a new role I like. There’s something kind of weird about being an actor in the between moments, and she totally nails that. Every actor at our premiere was like, “This is my life.” I think it was Michael Shannon or James Franco that were there and said that. I think Sofia really taps into some realistic stuff there.
My favorite scenes are my favorite for different reasons. Some because they were the most challenging. I love the scene in Italy when I wake up, and [Elle Fanning] just gives me those looks. That scene is almost straight out of a silent movie, because it’s done almost entirely without any words. I love that scene. I love how she acts in that scene. The guy’s just so stuck. He’s just like, “Just let me get through this breakfast; I’m gonna get rid of her. Just relax.” For so much of the movie, she’s his parent. She’s making him food, waking him up, tucking him into bed. It’s quite pathetic, and I think this guy starts to realize that in a major way and starts to make some changes. It’s quite an interesting, unique set-up. It’s kind of a unique heartfelt story, because it could easily happen. It’s possible for anybody. Even if you’re a journalist or a writer, if you have a daughter, you’re busy, and you miss those moments, and you get caught up in your own things. It’s a very human thing to have happen.
Sofia was so smart in giving me preparation, because she basically cleared it with Elle’s family that I would be able to spend some time with her. Whether it was me picking her up from school — her real school — and it was just me and her. It wasn’t like some film head was going to come in. Sofia was like, “No, I want you guys to have your own time.” She trusted who she cast to create our own chemistry. So by the time we went to set, we could do anything. We had a trust. She could look at me if she needed help with something, and I could look at her if I needed her to do something. It was just all in the early planning, and Sofia just kind of lays the foundation in this very easy way that’s sort of the same way she makes the movie. It’s all specific choices, but by her choices all the energy is bleeding onto the film. That’s what makes her a very special filmmaker. That’s why her films feel very different from other films.
Well, in the first one, I’m really out of it and I wanted to live hard for the opening 20 minutes to set up this character, so some of these scenes I really am kind of out of it. I’m falling asleep for real. I tried to be really foggy with it. So, no offense to them, but I didn’t want to be so alert that I wasn’t getting the scene right. So those scenes are some of the most difficult ones, because they really set the tone for who this guy is, where this guy is. If we don’t get those right already, we’re going to lose people, because it’s slow in the beginning. I had to really nail that behavior, because I knew it would work so great if I did nail it, because then you immediately know by that scene when he’s falling asleep, what we’re dealing with. And by the time the twins come around the second time — I think it’s such a great cut, because he’s coming from this long cigarette scene that’s moving slow for him. I think anyone’s who’s depressed, you look at your watch, and it was 2:00, now it’s 2:15. Time just moves slow. You’re hurting. So I kept thinking, what am I doing when I’m smoking a cigarette, and I thought, “Oh why not call the twins over for a show.” Musters up enough energy to give them a round of applause after, that’s such a unique … it almost felt like it was out of a Kubrick movie when we were doing those scenes.
Yeah, for like seven weeks. I still do that for a few weeks here and there, if I didn’t have an apartment, or coming back from Europe. I've always loved coming to the Chateau. I had some great experiences there in my earlier years, like my 21st birthday party. If you’re in L.A., and you’re in our business, you’ve definitely crossed paths with the Chateau or something’s wrong. They do meetings there. Auditions there. Directors stay there so much, so they’ll usually do casting. So you’re definitely going to pop in there. And I have my own connection. I did stay there. I always love going there.
No that was an Internet thing, there is no Blade prequel. That came from an idea that me and my friend, Stephen Norrington, who directed the first Blade, had, to do a prequel because vampires seem to be getting so popular now. We thought, “Why don’t we do this sort of Scarface movie without Blade,” and everyone sort of got into it online. I think I mentioned it in an article, but there’s so many legal things with characters, because New Line owns the characters. Marvel is now its own entity. Disney just bought Marvel. So we have to create our own treatment. We’ll see. I’d like to work with Stephen.
I did a comedy for Adam Sandler’s company, and I did a big 3D movie called Immortals with Tarsem Singh, the guy who did The Cell and this movie The Fall. He did this great 300 meets Gladiator movie with me and Freida Pinto, Mickey Rourke, this kid Henry Cavill, John Hurt. And that’s coming out 11/11/11. They already have a date. I have no idea how the movie will be, because so much of it’s done in post, but I think Tarsem is really talented so hopefully he’ll make a good popcorn movie.