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Contender Q&A: Stephen Dorff talks about 'Somewhere'

December 21, 2010 |  3:23 pm


Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere," about a lost and lonely movie star (Stephen Dorff) learning how to grow up alongside his daughter, has been getting some pretty good  reviews. And much of the praise is being heaped upon Dorff, who commands long stretches of screen time by himself and communicates with a minimum of dialogue.

Dorff's life recently imitated his art when the sat down for a round of interviews at the Four Seasons Hotel, the same place his character in the film, Johnny Marco, has to undergo an unhappy junket experience.

PKD: Thereís a scene in ĎSomewhereí where your character, Johnny Marco, attends a news conference and gets asked, ĎWho is Johnny Marco?í  So I feel obligated to start by asking, ĎWho is Stephen Dorff?í

SD: [laughs] Iím just a guy. Iím 37 now. I grew up in this business making movies. I feel like Iím at the best place in my life as a person in my own head space. Iím different from Johnny Marco. I was ready to take on this challenge that Sofia [Coppola] gave me. And I feel like I have a very clear idea of what I want to try and make. There are very few filmmakers and films like this that are allowed to be made, as you know. You can count them on two hands the filmmakers that are able to have final cut and are able to make films like ďSomewhere.Ē Iíd put Quentin in that group. Iíd put the Coens in that group. Iíd put Paul Thomas Anderson. A few others. But after that Ö

Every year you get a few of those, and those are the ones you try to get. This year, I really felt like I got the top prize. Sofia gave me the ultimate character study and gave me the ultimate way she wanted to make the movie. The most naked of characters, no tricks, no bank robberies happening, no period clothing. Nothing to hide behind, which I always find easiest in movies if I have an accent. Like Stu Sutcliffe in ďBackbeat.Ē Some of my flashiest characters, even though they were years ago, I found those parts very easy to play.

PKD: You have so many scenes in this movie where you just have to sit and watch.

SD: I get a beer, maybe.

PKD: How hard is that to do as an actor?

SD: Really hard. Because knowing what Sofia was making, or at least I thought I knew what she was making, because I noticed they werenít covering me in 10 sizes. They were thinking one lens size and play it here. So knowing how we made this movie, with so many talented people around, I didnít know how to approach it. I felt like if I were to act, if I was mugging for the camera,  if I was acting even slightly, it would unravel the whole movie. Because it would stand out like a sore thumb in a film thatís very subtle up to the point of crescendo, when this character does break down. Youíre almost like a fly on the wall, almost invasive watching this guy. And I feel like she does it on purpose. I love how [tough] she is in her choices and how she really made a '70s movie. This is the extreme of a character study. Sometimes I look at my movies; I really like ďPublic Enemies,Ē I worked really hard on that for six months. At the same time, I felt there were so many characters that we didnít even get to know who John Dillinger was. We didnít see the scenes we shot because everything was moving so fast. Sofia wanted to refresh everybody with something different.

PKD: The film reminded me of an independent graphic novel with small vignettes.

SD: The vignettes and the situations and the soulfulness and mood and the energy, thatís telling our story as opposed to exposition.

PKD: How could you see that story in the script? Because so much of it is based on subtle acting choices.

SD: Itís so weird because Iíd never read a script like this before. Iíd never had such an emotional reaction to a script this short before. Francis [Ford Coppola] says to me: ďCan you believe my daughter gets away with writing these little scripts? And I have to write these 140-page things.Ē I said thatís pretty amazing, Francis. Itís funny, because Sofia has a style, especially when sheís doing an original screenplay. The script for ďLost in TranslationĒ was 60 pages that she won the Oscar for. This script was about 48. So youíre talking a pamphlet rather than a script. But the script is very clear, beginning to end, where he goes. She just doesnít put everything in it. Sheís directing it. She doesnít want to share that with everyone.

Somewhere PKD: Does she leave room for you to bring anything into it?

SD: A little bit, yeah. Like the Guitar Hero sequence. But then there were very specific scenes, like the breakdown scene talking to Layla. Those lines were there. At the helicopter, when I say goodbye to Elle, I found that to be one of my most difficult scenes, where I really wanted to say more to her. ďI love you. Iím sorry Iím a [terrible] dad. Iím gonna get this [stuff] together.Ē I wanted to say all that. But thatís what we hear in all these movies. They expect you to say that. I think you should try to say all that with just one line. And that one line was in the script. So sheís the most detail-specific director Iíve worked with in my life.

At the same time, itís the most responsibility Iíve ever had, because I had nothing to help me. I love using tricks because it makes it a lot more easy. I could do these kids' movies all day long with big wigs. Thatís fun! But itís also a lot easier. I think this is by far the most challenging, because I didnít want to unravel this movie. I wanted to hold it together. I wanted to be this flawed character that people hopefully cared about through my looks, through my emotion. I think you want to root for him. I know he can come off like a spoiled jerk because he has everything. He has money, he has Ferraris, he has more girls than Jesus Christ. He has everything. I think thatís the beautiful message of the movie that came through to me in the script.

Besides the funny scenes and all these little great Sofia moments, it was the adolescent  father becoming a man. In so many ways the little girl is more sophisticated than her father. That was very interesting to me. Iíd never seen a young father, Iíd never been asked to play a young father, Iíd never seen any of my contemporaries play a young father that are in their 30s. I always see George Clooney playing fathers, the older guys. The Nicholsons. Iíve never seen an actor my age do that. And I think this is the age when weíre thinking about having the kids, so itís more interesting. And for me, itís interesting because I donít have kids. I have two half-sisters. I explained that to Sofia when I first met with her. I feel like this is a butterfly that landed in my lap, and I wanted to take it on and the immense belief that Sofia had in me. She could have had any actor she wanted.

PKD: You spent some time living at the Chateau Marmont in your 20s. The Chateau seems so sad in this movie. Is it really like that to live there, or was it the character that made it sad?

SD: I really think itís that guyís world. Sofia likes hotels and writes for hotels because thereís a safety there. Johnny would never be able to have his own house because he canít even cook for himself. He needs room service. He needs people who can take care of him. The idea is, if youíre that lonely, you can walk downstairs and get a beer and maybe run into someone you know. The Chateau is probably the most iconic hotel in the country as far as whatís gone down in there. There are ghosts in that place. Thereís a sadness to it, but thereís also a comfortability to it.

While we were shooting, Baz Luhrmann, Alfonso Cuaron, all these directors were checking in, and they love writing there. Dominick Dunne used to write all his pieces there. Hunter Thompson cut himself and sprayed blood all over the walls of the room Johnny Marco was living in. The room I lived in is the room where two people conceived their baby. And so much has happened in that hotel, but itís hidden because they respect their clientele so much. Itís a magical place.

As a kid, when I came back from making ďBackbeatĒ and I had a little money, I did a photo shoot with Bruce Weber there, and I thought Iíd check in. I didnít have an apartment, I didnít want to go back to the Valley and stay with Mom and Dad. So one week led to two weeks led to three weeks. I was there for about five weeks when I realized Iíd spent all my money that Iíd earned on ďBackbeatĒ on my bill. So I thought, OK, I have to go to work again. So I took another movie. I had some great experiences there. Sofia has too. Everyone has their moment. Yesterday I was doing some press there, and I walked out and it felt like a scene in the movie. Young actors sitting around in the lobby, probably arenít staying there, theyíre just taking meetings. Itís ludicrous in a way, but at the same time itís very important to creative people. Although some directors I know would rather stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel, thatís their home. Itís a little more plush. Some would pick the Four Seasons. I would always pick the Chateau myself; thatís probably a similarity between me and Johnny Marco. 

I love the place. Itís almost been torn down a couple of times, but theyíve never really revamped it. Theyíve done it in subtle ways so that people can still feel that the Chateau is the Chateau. The tile in the bathroom is chipped; they never did a polish. I think all they ever did was change the elevators, and frankly I miss the old ones.

Somewhere-Italy PKD: Itís quite a contrast when Marco stays at the hotel in Italy Ė the rundown charms of the Chateau with the luxury hotel in Europe.

SD: That hotelís like something out of a Fellini movie. Itís a real room at the hotel. Itís like no other room Iíve ever seen. Sofia stayed there with her dad. She writes a lot about her own personal stuff ó she puts herself into my character as well as Elle Fanningís character. Itís funny, Francis came by the set a couple of times, and every time he came by I was literally naked. Physically naked, in bed, in the shower. Iíd see Francis on set and Iíd say, ďUh, can I get a robe?Ē And then Sofia would get red cheeks and heíd say, ďWhat kind of movie are you guys making? What movie am I producing, Sofia?Ē [laughs] Sofia said, ďHe probably thinks weíre making some kind of dirty movie.Ē

PKD: Does ďSomewhereĒ accurately portray the way an actor feels during the downtime between filming movies?

SD: I think when youíre an actor, itís a very isolating, lonely profession. When Iím not on set, Iím sitting at home not sure what to do because I donít get to go to the L.A. Times and write on the next movie. I donít have a rhythm once my rhythm stops. I donít have a family yet, so I donít have that responsibility. So I get to catch up and see friends. I get to have meetings, but Iím not really running a company, Iím not running an airline. All my other friends run studios or they work in a restaurant or theyíre trying to become a painter.

For me, moviemaking experience is like creating a family for three or sometimes six months, and then they end. And sometimes you retain relationships here and there, but for the most part people grow up and go off and make other movies. I donít know what the plan is, so all I know is that when it stops, itís very lonely. You donít have an infrastructure, and after a couple weeks I need another  movie or I donít know what Iím going to do. And after the junket ends, the phone stops ringing and the studio doesnít need me anymore, unless they need me for the next movie. It is kind of like dating a girl for two years and having her end it and then having her come back and say, ďI love you so much.Ē And then end it again. Thatís hard, and itís probably hard even for people who are way more famous than me. Because Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise and those guys, they have to try and reinvent their own thing. In a way, Iím safe. Because even though Iíve made all these movies Iím more of a mystery with my career. Maybe now itís coming into focus a little bit, with my best roles coming now because Iím ready maybe more. Everybody has their own path. Talk to Jack Nicholson about it. He was acting for years and couldnít get his first gig until his late 30s. Sometimes things happen for people later. I had an opportunity to do bigger films earlier, and I turned them down because I only wanted to make art films when I was young. So I wouldnít even talk to you if you were a concept movie. And that was just my own crazy. Now I realize thereís a whole economic side to the business, and itís good to give everybody their movies. Iíd like to give a great Comic-Con movie to that crowd. Iíd love to give a great comedy to that crowd. Iíd like to give a great personal, award-type movie Ė and itís this one. So thatís what Iíve been trying to do this year. Frankly, Iím looking for the next ďSomewhere,Ē and as I told you before, thereís very few of these movies.

ó Patrick Kevin Day

Photos: Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning are father and daughter in "Somewhere." Credit: Focus Features.