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Rome Interview: Stephen Dorff On ‘The Motel Life,’ The Coppola Clan & The Dilemmas Of A Career Renaissance

Rome Interview: Stephen Dorff On 'The Motel Life,' The Coppola Clan & The Dilemmas Of A Career Renaissance

Few Hollywood actors of any generation, no matter how glorious their start, achieve consistent success. But even fewer, perhaps, experience the seemingly random phenomenon of the mid-career resurgence, winning a gift of a part that suddenly has everyone take notice all over again. Stephen Dorff undoubtedly belongs to the lucky latter category. While he never really stopped working, or wanted for offers, the big break just didn’t come and he started to accept films that were, by his own admission, of a lesser quality. When he did get to work on prestige projects it tended to be as maybe “the third or fourth lead. Not really my movie…”

But that all changed with his turn in Sofia Coppola’s Venice winner “Somewhere,”  a performance that earned him plaudits and exposure and put him back on the lists from which his name had slipped off. We had the pleasure of a long chat with the actor in Rome last week where he was promoting his new film “The Motel Life.” 

It’s a movie we liked a great deal (read our review here) and which went on to win no fewer than three awards in the Festival, including the Audience prize. Dorff describes the film as “a love story between two brothers,” and it does indeed find its heart in the touching relationship between his physically impaired, deeply unlucky Jerry Lee, and Emile Hirsch’s Frank. We asked about how he came to the role:

“Well, after ‘Somewhere’ I wanted to be really careful about what I did, but at the same time I wanted to deliver different films for different audiences so I did ‘Immortals‘ which couldn’t have been more different from ‘Somewhere’ and I couldn’t have felt more silly running around with my abs out,” he explaind. “From there I was looking for my next dramatic role, something, not necessarily flashy, but something that just hit me and so I read every script — even the ones that weren’t coming to me — and ‘The Motel Life’ was by far the best screenplay that I read. I wanted to play Jerry Lee from the moment I read it, it was so different for me and I thought I could do it well.”

But the role proved a difficult one to land. “I had to talk these new guys [directors Gabe and Alan Polsky] into it — they didn’t see me in the role,” he says. “I remember being with Sofia [Coppola] in Japan and going ‘What is going on? I want this part so much! Me and Emile would make great brothers — I’m friends with him, what the fuck is going on?’ And she was like [adopts zen Sofia Coppola impression] ‘Well, if they just don’t get it…’ But I said ‘No, I really want this part.’ My agents were saying ‘You don’t need this part,’ but I really fought for Jerry Lee. All ego aside, just went in and met with Emile and the boys. And by coming in for that chemistry session they got to see what I could do in that role and I got to see that they were really smart about how they approached this material. I think I kind of almost auditioned them too.”

He’s delighted with the end result. “It was about altering my look and finding this love story between these two brothers — they have talents, they’re good people but they’re just screwed. It reminded me of an early Gus van Sant movie like ‘My Own Private Idaho‘ without the hustlers, and it just had this whole cowboy Americana feel to it …it’s one of my favorite films I’ve ever made. ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Motel Life’ have really been my highlights.”

But when you’re hot, you’re hot and another film has been getting him decent buzz of late.  “We’ve been having a lot of success with this film I did Israel ‘Zaytoun‘….I play an Israeli fighter pilot and I had to learn Hebrew…[It] won runner-up in Toronto to ‘Silver Linings’ which I hear is going to take it all this year. ‘Argo‘ was the other runner-up, and I thought, ‘Woah, those are two big studio movies and this is, like, me and bunch of Arab kids running around with no distributor.” As to the film’s awards hopes this season? “Pathe, who have it for international decided, even with the good notices, to release in England around Christmas for BAFTA, build it in Europe and then hold it for America till next year.”

Dorff, being so long in the game, is all too aware of the various strategies distributors employ that boost, or sometimes damage, their films’ awards chances. “On ‘Somewhere’ [Indiewire] put me on their top list that I was gonna win all the awards, even before the movie came out.  And I was like, hey Indiewire has taste!” And then we won everything in Europe, and got to America… [trails off eloquently]. I think Sofia’s movie was a little too bold for some of the American audiences and I think our distributor, Focus played it a bit wrong in America. They had ‘The Kids Are Alright‘ too, which, I didn’t really like that movie all that much. I mean I liked Annette Bening, she’s a fucking great actress. I thought Mark Ruffalo was a little too styled, too cool.” 

We indicate our general approval of anything Mark Ruffalo and Dorff comes over all mock-offended. “You have the hots for him? Now I’m jealous.” He laughs.   

His recent career choices have proven very fulfilling, but he would like to do a big studio film because, as he says, “there are two worlds — real movies, independently financed that then come out via a Weinstein or a Fox Searchlight, and then there are the studio films, and I don’t know if my ‘renaissance’ has totally hit the studio world yet. So I don’t know how many renaissances I’m going to have to go through to get where I want to get to….[recently my roles] have been kind of all over the map and now I’m ready to play a straight-up American action guy, maybe a superhero minus the silly costume…”

And of course, there’s stuff on the horizon. “I read a script recently which is an action film with a great character within it, I don’t know if I’ll do it yet but Roland Joffe is going to direct it. I think I’ll meet him soon.” However he’s aware the balance is a tricky thing to maintain, “ …the ‘Motel Life’s and the ‘Somewhere’s are very few and far between and there’s a group of us actors all going for the same parts. ‘Somewhere’ was a blessing for me, and allowed me to get back into get making really cool films but now I fall even more into the Johnny Marco thing because I’m like ‘What am I gonna do next?’ ‘Cause I’m not doing  ‘RoboCop‘ and I’m not doing that one, and I don’t like that one….”

Additionally, he’s developing a project right now with a view to starring in it, “a big comedy, actually Alan [Polsky] is involved, said he would produce it with me, he loved the idea so much. So me and him and Allan Loeb we interviewed writers and gave them the pitch and found this really cool husband and wife writing team who are working on it now. I’m kind of hoping to do it with Jack Nicholson who is my favorite, who I worked with before, but he hasn’t even read the script yet. Now I bet he’s gonna be [annoyed] like [does a pretty good Nicholson rasp] ‘What’s this movie you’re talking about Dorff?’ ” 

What Dorff definitely does have next is “Tomorrow You’re Gone” coming out in March. “The director, David Jacobson is like David Lynch but… beyond. It’s this really dark, surreal film with me and Michelle Monaghan who’s awesome in it, and Willem Dafoe‘s in it. I dunno how commercial it is but It’s a really cool movie.” And that’s not to mention his small cameo in Roman Coppola’s “A Glimpse into the Mind of Charles Swan III.” 

“I heard I got a pretty big laugh with my line? I haven’t seen it yet, but Sofia said my scene was one of her favorites. Roman is just so cool, he’s always so perfectly dressed, his shirts have a little ‘Roman Coppola’ on them [When we meet Coppola the next day, his shirt is indeed monogrammed] He’s so pimped and in his house there’s the laundry that he turned into a sick bar with a Pac-man and strobe lights and actually our Gold Lion from Venice was in there for a while,” Dorff said. “I think it’s in the Coppola Archives now, it was at the Chateau Marmont for a while…it’s got a little roadshow. But Roman, I loved how he was really devoted to Charlie [Sheen], even when all that shit was going on he was still ‘No, Charlie should be in my movie.’ ”

In fact he has nothing but good things to say about the whole Coppola dynasty, but would really like to work with Francis Ford, who he actually met first. “My relationship with the family started with Francis — he called me to audition for him back when he was gonna make ‘On The Road.’ And then three years before ‘Somewhere’ when he was doing ‘Youth Without Youth,’ and he was kind of nervous about coming back in to the game, and I was like, ‘You’re the best director ever, what are you talking about?’ He wanted me to play that 60 year-old, 70 year-old man, so I went down and worked with him, I stayed in Sofia’s room in the house. It was a very intimate, amazing week that I spent with Francis and then he wrote this beautiful email like a month later, and I kind of felt in my instinct that I wasn’t right for the part, and he just said ‘I’m gonna go with Tim Roth, but I’d really like to work with you [another time] Stephen.’ And then, couple years later, I’m working with Sofia.”

And speaking of family, “The Motel Life” became kind of a reunion in many ways. “I first met Emile 10 years before … I said to him one night, I think a little tipsy at a premiere party, ‘We should play brothers one day.’ And a few years later there was a script that came our way and they were interested in us playing brothers but the film lost financing him we didn’t end up doing it. And then ‘Motel Life’ came and on the cover letter, which was buried under a big pile of commercial scripts (probably nobody had really read it) they said ‘Emile Hirsch is cast’ and I thought ‘Fuck, that’s exactly what I said 10 years ago.’ So I read the script and I was just bawling… I think [the directors always] saw him as Frank from ‘Into the Wild.’ He was really cool in that film… But I really love him as a friend, we really became brothers, we still text each other, I’m like ‘Frank where are you, why aren’t you in Rome’ and he’s like ‘I’m playing a war victim in a Pete Berg movie in the desert in New Mexico’ So I’m holding down the fort…. And it was kind of surreal to work with Dakota [Fanning] even though I didn’t many scenes with her, but I’d turn around and hear her laugh and it would sound like Elle [Fanning] and Elle and I worked so closely together. And her Mom is there who I know because she basically travelled with Elle for a year, and Kris Kristofferson I helped put into the film. He’s an old friend of mine from ‘Blade.’ He was tired, he does a lot of touring with his band and he’d just finished another movie, but I said this is a great part for him and he ended up in it.”

Already a three-time producer, he does have vague plans to direct in the future. “Maybe I’ve been doing it [acting] too long, maybe I need to retire, maybe I need to direct. I don’t know, every actor’s directing and when I direct a movie I really wanna blow people’s minds. I won’t be in it, I’ll direct the shit out of the actors that I work with but I’d never be in my own movie. I think it’ll be a drama first, not that I’m not a fan of big popcorn movies…”

And in the cyclical way of things, mention of that film sends Dorff right back over the 20-year span of his career to his first film “The Power of One,” which also starred a certain Daniel Craig. “Now we have Bond coming out, gonna knock all our little movies out of the water, thanks Daniel! He was in my first movie, he was 19 or 20 and plays the bad guy and at the end of the movie I beat the shit out of him. I always think it’s funny that I kicked James Bond’s ass.”

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