Stephen Dorff says he had one of the toughest but one of his most rewarding work experiences of his life with his critically acclaimed role in the dramatic movie “Somewhere.” In the film (written and directed by Oscar winner Sofia Coppola), Dorff plays Johnny Marco, a divorced, hard-partying movie star who is feeling burned out and jaded, drifting along in a world of hangers-on, strippers, and other people who come in and out of his life..
While he is living at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in West Hollywood, California, Johnny gets an unexpected visit from his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (played by Elle Fanning), whom he barely knows. Cleo ends up staying longer with Johnny than expected, and which forces him to take a hard look at who he is as a man and as a father — and what he might want to do to improve.
When I met up with Dorff for the New York City press junket for “Somewhere,” it was the morning after the movie’s New York premiere and after-party. With a sheepish grin, Dorff said hello and confessed groggily, “I didn’t sleep that much. I’m having a Johnny Marco moment.” But despite his lack of sleep, Dorff had no shortage of enthusiasm when talking about “Somewhere” and how doing the movie gave him a renewed passion for acting, his lifelong profession that at one time he admits that he considered quitting.
There’s a scene in the “Somewhere” with Johnny Marco at a press junket with the Hollywood Foreign Press, and he’s hating every minute of it. How do you personally feel about press junkets in real life?
They’re a lot smarter in New York than some of the Hollywood Foreign Press. But that was the real Hollywood Foreign Press in that scene. I had my press conference [for “Somewhere”] the other day, and we were in the same room at the Four Seasons as in the movie and the same desk. The only thing that was different were the tape recorders and instead of the Johnny Marco sign, it said my name. A couple of the same people who were in the room were in the movie …
They asked me a weird question the other day. The question was how do I feel about cats and dogs, if I have a pet, because the magazine [the journalist] writes for is a pet magazine. But they’re a quite quirky group of people, so you get that.
I just saw Sofia in the hallway, and I said, “I’m having a Johnny Marco” moment, because we had our New York premiere last night. It was a more intimate premiere. L.A. was the big one. I like the New York premieres, because they’re a little more intimate, and you get all these cool New Yorkers. And then we had a wild party. I’m tired.
Johnny Marco is a famous actor, but he is also a fairly mysterious character for viewers since not much is known about fim, other than what is seen in the film. How did you go about portraying this character?
I created a back story for where I thought he came from in his life and his career and maybe what happened to him very fast. I tried to lose myself, because I think we’re different — Johnny and I — in a lot of ways. I think he’s a lot more naïve. I’ve been kind of doing this my whole life, so I feel a little more seasoned than Johnny Marco.
So I wanted to live like Johnny Marco. I checked in to [the Chateau Marmont]. By making me a kind of partner on this, Sofia gave me the hotel for seven weeks to live, to have to go from my bed to Johnny Marco’s bed. I wanted to live pretty hard because as we open with the character, he’s in a very dangerous place. He’s broken inside and kind of foggy and numb. I wanted to be in that place. I’m pretty much asleep in a lot of those scenes. I really went for it. I had to balance enough to where I could do my job, but at the same time I wanted to be out of it, so I kind of lived pretty hard.
And then I wanted him to start to wake up and look clearer. And the fog starts to lift once he’s able to look at Cleo and start asking himself these questions. And I think by the end, he’s a new man. I think by the end, he’s a new man and on his road to recovery. It’s kind of a balance we tried to build.
But as far as research, there wasn’t really much. I know what it’s like to be an actor. I know what it’s like to live in a hotel. I’m not a father, so that was something that was, to me, the core part of the movie. I pulled things from my 10-year-old sister — she’s my half-sister — we have a unique kind of banter. I told Sofia about her, and I used a little of my and [my sister’s] vibe with me and Elle.
And also, I kind of created a friendship with Elle that was very private, just between me and her. Sofia let us have this time to bond. By the time we got on set, we were like a little team. We could look at each other and know we could do scenes with no dialogue and tell the dialogue without saying it. That was the challenge, and all the work was cultivating those relationships and then letting it happen.
How is it being in a movie like “Somewhere” that requires a lot of quiet and introspection?
Tough. It’s a difficult part, because it’s so naked. There are no tricks. The only thing I’ve got is my cast and a cigarette and a beer sometimes and my BlackBerry to look at once in a while. But he [Johnny Marco] is basically completely naked. That was hard, because instincts are to have words, rely on things. Usually, everything that happens behind a character that triggers the emotion, whether it’s an explosion or the room’s on fire or somebody dies. In this movie, there’s none of that. There’s just human emotion and a very simple little story that yet has such potency and makes you feel so much, which is what Sofia does so [well]. I don’t know how she does it, but I think it was the most challenging part I ever played for that reason.
As an actor, I can mimic anything. If you want to make me a woman, I can a woman very easily. Give me hair extensions and a weird outfit and a weird voice, I can do that character. That’s all very fun and kind of easy: to have an ailment, to have a limp. With this movie, there are no tricks; it’s much more [about] human behavior.
It’s almost so subtle that some people think it must be really easy. They think, “Oh, wow. You got to stay at a hotel that you’ve already stayed at in your life.” If you really think about it, it’s a much more difficult kind of acting and also make a flawed character like this and make you care about him, because if you don’t care about him, then you’re just watching an asshole. The truth is, I think he is a sweet guy underneath.
In real life, if you’re broken inside, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, you can still be broken until you get to a place where you deal with it or you fix it. You can win the lottery or you can have fun for a bit, but at the same time, you’re still going to be coming back to that same place if you don’t heal yourself, [even if] you’re a movie star, if you’re a plumber, if you work at hotel.
I also thought [Sofia Coppola] was dealing with some real human stuff that I really liked. I also love how it’s so quiet. It’s so refreshing that from the first opening shot, this ain’t going to be like what you normally see. We’re slowing this baby down, get to know my guy, and go with us on this journey. And you might be really rewarded by the end. I thought she made a really ballsy movie, my friend Sofia.
In “Somewhere,” Johnny Marco experiences emotional burnout and becomes jaded by his profession. What keeps you inspired as an actor?
There’ve been moments where I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to quit, because I couldn’t get the movie I wanted. That’s what’s so funny about this business. Somebody like Sofia gives me a part like this, and now I’m getting all these movies that other guys who were getting all the movies a couple of years ago are nowhere in the mix. Sofia made me cool again. Now I’m getting good parts again. I don’t know how it works. I think I get inspired by a movie like this. It makes me want to do it again, but when does the next Johnny Marco come along? I don’t know.
There are fewer and fewer movies … They’re either these tentpole, kind of silly sequels, or I can count on two hands the best directors who are in Sofia’s position where they get to make their vision, and they do it every couple of years. Then if you break those maybe 10 movies down, there are many five where young guys are the star. So there’s not much to kind of fight for.
So I felt like this time [with “Somewhere”], I got the best one when she could’ve had anyone. So in a way, I felt like that was the biggest coup: getting this part. In this day and age, there are very few parts. You’ve got all the guys going for them, whether it’s Matt Damon or this guy … So I felt like, in a way, I got the single-most, best character of the year — not only the character but I think in a movie that will be a real character study, and we had the time to film it.
I can do great characters in [a movie like] “Public Enemies” and I can work really hard, but … there are so many characters, you don’t even get to know any of these guys. I like the movie — don’t get me wrong — but I feel like things are always moving so fast with the cuts that we don’t even get the chance to slow it down and go with it. And as long as you’re interested, you don’t get bored. I don’t think [“Somewhere”] ever bores me. It’s kind of always moving, even if it does slow down.
It’s not a very long movie; it’s only an hour-and-a-half, like “Lost in Translation.” It’s a very unique way that she makes movies, I felt like in this time it keeps it more inspiring. But since [doing “Somewhere”], it’s hard. I’m waiting for the next great character … It’s all about “Mission: Impossible” and all that kind of stuff that I don’t really want to do.
So are you rethinking your career strategy?
Trying to. Yeah, I’m basically slowing it down myself. I just want to wait. I’ve taken some movies that are kind of different and you can’t really pinpoint. I’ve been waiting for the next great character. I’ve been trying to hold out for that. In the meantime, I’ve done some fun stuff. As an actor, you want to keep doing what you do.
By “fun stuff,” do you mean “Immortals”?
Yeah. That was cool. Freida Pinto was cool. I do most of my [scenes] with her. I liked working with her. I think she’s a really sweet girl, beautiful and a really good actress. Mickey Rourke’s in it too and John Hurt. I don’t know what that will be like. So much of it is done in post [production]. I had fun. It was totally different from “Somewhere.”
Then I did this wacky comedy. I did a John Waters movie a long time ago, but this is my first big studio comedy. I play a porn star named Dick Shadows. Adam Sandler wrote and produced this movie. It’s really funny. It’s kind of like a “Happy Gilmore” in the porn world. It’s called “Born to Be a Star.”
You mentioned that you once thought about quitting being an actor. If you had quit, what would you be doing with your life?
I don’t know. Playing the piano at some jazz bar late at night and getting tips at the bar. I don’t know what I’d do, because I’m a creative person. I’ve never really been able to do anything else. I’ve never wanted to do anything else … I’ve just started getting into writing a little bit. I’ve never been a writer, but I’m working on this project and developing, so I’ve been working on that more than I’ve ever done.
I love acting. I’d hate to quit. I just want to have good parts. Maybe I’ll start creating more stuff for me to do. We’re getting into more producing anyway. I produced that movie “Felon” a couple of years ago. That was a great experience.
That prison movie was a tough one to shoot, wasn’t it?
Yeah, that was a hard one. We got a lame release on it. I don’t think the studio knew what they had. We had real street credibility on that movie — what the studios normally want, and we had it. And they had the DVD release pinned up the [theatrical] release they did in L.A. and New York. We were getting all these great reviews, like in the New York Times … And Sony actually called and said they wanted to do a sequel to “Felon.” There is no sequel. I got out of prison, you idiots! I think they just wanted the title [“Felon”] so they could make more money putting [it straight to] DVD. I’m like, “No, you already blew it on this one.”
Have you and Sofia Coppola talked about working together again?
We haven’t, because I don’t think she knows what she’s doing next, but I would love to. She’s the best. I’ll do anything for her. I’ll play a grandpa next.
Speaking of playing an old person, there’s a scene in “Somewhere” with Johnny Marco getting prosthetic makeup on to look old for one of his movies. What was doing that scene like?
That was heavy. That was about eight hours of makeup. The head cast, because we did it in that shot, took about six minutes, but in real life, it hardens in 12 minutes. But the whole process takes about 45 [minutes] by the time they wrap the bandages, but the actual goop hardening happens fast. It’s really uncomfortable. So I had to do it about six times that day, and by the end, I was getting a little nauseous.
But the makeup part was cool. You’ve just got to sit there and let them do their work. Those guys, I think, did “[The Curious Case of] Benjamin Button.” They’re really good. Those guys in the scene with me are makeup guys. They’re not actors; they’re playing themselves doing what they do. If they’re doing Robert Downey Jr. for “Iron Man,” or if they’ve got Johnny Marco coming in for the next movie, this is what they do every day: put goop on people. But I love that scene.
You’ve traveled all over the world, so besides the Chateau Marmont, where would you like to live in a hotel for several weeks?
I’d probably live in Paris. I love Paris. I feel like it’s a cool city. I’ve got a lot of friends there. Paris is so expensive. Hotels are expensive. You’ve got to be living well. Johnny’s got to be doing well to be living there a lot.
Is there any particular scene in “Somewhere” that really packed an emotional punch for you?
I get really sad for the character. I guess because it’s me doing it. I don’t really like watching movies that I’m in, but this movie, I can watch all the time. I can always pick p new things and new details, whether it’s a bottle of pills by the bed that I never noticed. Sofia’s all about these details to the point of craziness, which I loved. I think the scene where I [as Johnny Marco] break down, as a person, it gets me, because I feel like he’s talking to his daughter and saying the things he wanted to say to her but couldn’t and didn’t want to go there and maybe will in the future when she’s older.
My instinct when she cries in the car was to pull over and just grab her and talk to her. And Sofia said, “You know, my dad used to always, if there was a problem, try to make light of the situation, so that it almost didn’t draw attention to the heaviness of it.” And there was something to what she said. It was not my instinct. My instinct was to pull over and talk to her. Maybe that would’ve been too extreme to pull over and talk to her.
By just grabbing her and holding her and rubbing her head [and saying,] “It’s going to be OK,” it’s all while he’s realizing, “I’ve got to make these changes. This poor girl can’t feel like this anymore, where she’s being torn [by] ‘Where’s mom and where’s dad?’ F*ck this! Get it together, Johnny!” I think that’s building. By the time I break down, I think that’s a really important scene. I feel like you need to see him cry, you need to see him break, because he’s been so subtle throughout the movie. It’s all about those moments.
What’s up with those text messages that Johnny Marco keeps getting?
I asked [Sofia Coppola] who’s calling. “Is it one person?” She’s like, “It’s probably just a couple of girls. [Johnny Marco] broke their hearts.” “They’re texting him in Italy, too?” “Yes, you’ve got a world phone.” I’m like, “OK. All right.” Just those little details again. By the fourth or fifth time it happens, you’re like, “Oh my God!”
You really had to carry “Somewhere” since you’re in almost every scene. What brings the best out of you as an actor for a movie like “Somewhere”?
The character. I think this character had a lot of vulnerability on the page. I could feel his pain in the script, even in the short script that I got. It was very clear. And I think it is the director. Obviously, when you work with the best, it ups your game. It’s like when you’re on the Yankees, you’re probably going to win. Sofia is an amazing director. I could only hope to have a team like this again, because it upped my game.
I also had an incredible co-star [with Elle Fanning] … I credit Elle with more than half of my performance. She’s a special little lady. She’s just awesome to work with. I couldn’t have done that if it was just a young actress who was being a young kid and wasn’t as sophisticated as Elle. It might have been a girl who was sidetracked very easily …
Thank God I had a partner who was just right [there], toe-to-toe with me. It was like dancing with a dance partner. We would just groove. She’s special. There’s something really special about Elle Fanning. She’s a hell of an actress. And what’s great is that I think she’s a normal girl too. There’s no crap. It’s the real deal. Her parents are doing something right.
For more info: “Somewhere” website
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