Stephen Dorff is loving life. When we met the actor at the Standard hotel, it was clear he was still riding high off the buzz from his performance in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, literally. “I had a Johnny Marco moment last night,” said the 37-year-old actor, referring to his character’s hard-partying ways, which he’d evidently channeled at the Boom Boom Room the night before alongside the likes of Kirsten Dunst and Marc Jacobs at the film’s premiere. Dorff’s also enjoying the sudden attention that comes with playing the lead in a movie made by someone of Coppola’s stature, who only works once every few years. Before our interview began, Dorff asked if I had seen his story in T magazine. When I told him that his costar, Elle Fanning, had a feature in T‘s sister rag New York Times Magazine, Dorff asked one of his handlers why he doesn’t have one. “Someone should call those fuckers,” he half-joked.
But Dorff’s “rediscovery,” as Coppola puts it, is well-deserved. For years, he floated from starring roles in B-movies (FeardotCom) to supporting roles in major releases (Michael Mann’s Public Enemies). He developed a reputation as a live-wire, someone who refused to play the Hollywood game, and his career took a hit for it. He got cast as the villain in the first Blade movie, still his most famous role, and quickly became typecast as a go-to heavy. He never quite disappeared from Hollywood, but for a while, it sure felt like it. It took a director of Coppola’s vision to see a quality in Dorff that few others did: likability. His Johnny Marco lives life in the fastlane (albeit very slowly), drifting through the halls of Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, from one party to the next, in search of something that isn’t there. It’s only when his 11-year-old daughter Cleo shows up for an extended stay that Marco finds purpose, and we can’t help but root for him. We spoke to a chain-smoking, laid-back Dorff about living life as Johnny Marco, being misunderstood, and missing Elle Fanning.
Tell me how you got involved in Somewhere. I got a call from my agent. They called and said she was doing a movie, and I was like, What movie? They said its about a movie star living at the Chateau with an 11 year old, and that’s all they knew. I got the script a week later in an envelope. It said American zoetrope, it was black. It had one little word on it, called Somewhere. It was thin. And I was like, fuck—I read it and I was like holy shit, this is something unique, this is poetic, it jumped out on the page even in the way she writes. So I immediately went to Paris and we had this week.
With her? Yeah, she was observing me, talking to me, we went for coffee. We had a great dinner at this Argentinian restaurant. It felt like a vacation, so even if I hadn’t gotten the part, I would have gotten to see my friends again, and I think it was more for Sofia to see me—she hadn’t seen me in a few years—she’d been living in Paris, had a baby, and hadn’t made a film in a while. She really wanted to go in subtle and intimate with this one, and I think she just wanted to make sure that I hadn’t changed, that I hadn’t become some psychopath. We had dinner with Zoe Cassavetes, our mutual friend, we hung out, and at the end of that week she called me on the anniversary of my mom’s passing and offered me the part.
When you came on set, were you confident? Yeah, I checked into that hotel as Johnny Marco and was there for seven-and-a half weeks, so I was living the part.
Was your name Johnny Marco on everything? Everywhere. I had stationary scratched out with Johnny Marco . If I wrote letters to people, it was as Johnny Marco. I wanted to create this iconic movie star.
What stage do you see Johnny Marco at, in terms of his career? I think he’s a guy that like, 3 years before, had done some good parts with smaller roles, probably the 4th or 5th part, opposite Pacino. But I think he got really famous for this Berlin Agenda franchise. So where we open, he’s about to start promoting The Berlin Agenda. She doesn’t explain this, because she doesn’t really explain a lot, but I think he had that kind of crazy fame where you don’t have the movie to back it up, but you’re on the cover of everything. I remember back when Matthew McConaughey became famous, for I think it was A Time to Kill, he was on everything. I was like, Who is this Brad Pitt-y kind of guy, he must have a good PR guy – it was kind of like that. Because I felt that it would be more daunting for an artist or an actor coming in, and I think Johnny inside is more soulful, and you know, he’s broken inside. I think he would have rather been making Somewhere, he would have rather been working with Sofia. I think he’s worried he’s going to be a sellout, and in a way he is.
So if his fame is still new, why does he seem so bored of it all? I think he’s had two years of just running and running—how many cigarettes can you smoke, how many beers can you drink, how many chicks can you bang—and he’s detached from what really matters, from the people that really know him, which is his ex and his little girl. I saw him as kind of a rockstar dad. He probably shows up to the birthday party with some incredible present, takes Cleo for lunch, and then drops her off at home. But now he’s spent two or three weeks with her, and the fog is starting to lift, and by the end, it’s his beginning, I think he’s going to be a great dad. If he returns to acting, I think his work would probably get better, too.
How hard was it to shoot such poignant scenes with almost no dialogue? The most naked I’ve ever been was in this movie. There’s no tricks. There’s nothing happening behind me. There’s no big set piece or banks to rob. This is the real deal. I found it incredibly challenging.
Is it uncomfortable at all? Totally. There’s an intimacy because she’s hand-picked this crew and it’s almost like a student film.
What was it like shooting at the Chateau, in front of all the guests? That was cool. We kind of had a covert little mini-crew. We’d venture outside, if we needed the pool we’d go to the pool and shoot that scene. They gave us free reign at the hotel. I remember one day, I was shooting in the lobby and all of these directors came in—I think it was the piano scene where I play that Bach piece—and Alfonso Cuaron and all these directors were checking in, and they were so envious of how Sofia was getting away with shooting a big movie 35mm, and yet it looked like we were doing some little EPK interview or something. And I thought that people were very envious, like how is she making a movie at the chateau? They couldn’t believe it, and I thought that was pretty cool.
Was there a sudden onslaught of fame for you when you were younger? I never had that kind of crazy fame. I guess I was plastered in magazines when I was 19 or 20. You’d walk by and I was literally on 4 or 5 covers. And I was 20 and rebelling against my childhood, because my upbringing was sweet and nurturing and I wanted to kind of–I think when we’re young we just go for it. I was doing some good films, I was starting that movie SFW, I was into Nirvana, I was just in an angst-y period of my life, and I gave some hardcore interviews and was pretty outspoken.
Do you think you got a reputation? Yeah, maybe it added to the whole, Why I couldn’t stop playing villains and stuff. It made everybody think I was really a mean guy, and I’m not, really. I’ve grown up a lot since then. I think I’m doing better in my interviews now, and it’s nice to play a good guy again, somebody with vulnerability who is flawed, who has a soul.
He’s incredibly likeable, too. Yeah, you have to like him or you’d shit on him
How did you try to accomplish that? That was Sofia, because I thought I was on pills—I’d come at it from reality, but that was wrong in retrospect. Like, instead of taking all that time with the room service tray, shouldn’t I just throw the fucking thing and piss on the lawn? She was like, No, I want him to be sweet, and she was right, because that’s what makes you like him. He’s nice to the room service guy or the valet parker. He still mustered up enough applause for those twins to give them what they deserve. Everything that I was stuck on, in the end, I was wrong and my director was right, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. Actors don’t know everything.
A lot of people are using words like ‘comeback’ to describe this performance. Do you see it that way? I said it from the beginning, since they hired me. I told Sofia, You made me cool. And she was like, No, you were always cool. Rather than comeback, she says it’s a rediscovery. That’s a nice way of saying it. Sofia made me cool. She could have had anybody—an older guy like George Clooney—any of my competition, but she chose me and that meant a lot to me, and says a lot about her and her brains.
Was there a period before this role where you were struggling in your career? A few years ago, as I was losing my mom, all these great things were happening—it wasn’t like I couldn’t get a job. I was working with Oliver Stone in World Trade Center, I was working Michael Mann for Public Enemies, so I was doing big movies, I was just maybe not the number one guy, but the number 4 guy, or something. And I worked real hard on this movie called Felon that I produced, that got really amazing reviews but got a bullshit release
The one with Val Kilmer, right? Yeah, it became really massive on DVD. Kids all around the world love it. That’s how I got the whole UFC crowd to be my biggest fans. I made a conscious choice not to go for money, and just work for directors again, and then this one just landed in my lap.
How is your career changing post-Somewhere? Do you sense some more attention from powers that be? Yeah, I think so. I think there’s more scripts coming in, but the movies still aren’t—you finish Somehwere and the scripts I got were like, Predators. And I’m not going do that after what I just did. I did finally cave and I did this movie, Immortals, and who knows how it will be. There are some really great moments and I’m sure it’s going to look great because Tarsem Singh, the director, is pretty talented.
Are you getting a ton of accolades from your peers? Yeah, a lot of actors really identify with the movie. There were a lot of actors at the premiere last night. My friend Michael Shannon loved the movie. Meg Ryan was there, but I didn’t get to see her.
And Marc Jacobs? Yeah, Marc Jacobs, Lou Reed. Who else? James Franco was there. A lot of actors.
Was it a cool feeling watching this movie with your peers? I didn’t watch it last night because I’ve seen it, like, ten times. I would recommend repeat viewing, not just for the box office.
Does some of the fatherly love you had for Elle onscreen trickle into real life? Totally. After the movie I was missing her a lot. I wanted to call her and I was thinking, Is her dad going to think it’s weird, this 36-year-old actor is calling my daughter. But I was like, fuck it, I’m going to call her. So I called, and I was like, Did you hear we’re going to Venice? And she was off playing volleyball and doing ballet and with her friends, so I didn’t want to like cramp her style, but I do love her. She was my leading lady, and I miss her when I’m not with her.