Interview: Somewhere's Stephen Dorff
I had the pleasure of talking to Stephen Dorff a few months ago about another film, but all he wanted to talk about was Sophia Coppolaís Somewhere. Ever since, Iíve been particularly anxious to see the film that he said set a new standard for him and now the time has finally come and Somewhere is hitting theaters.
Dorff stars as Johnny Marco, an actor caught between jobs. His schedule is pretty bare so he spends his time driving around town in his Ferrari, chain smoking, drinking and watching his two favorite exotic dancers, blond twins that come fully equipped with their own portable stripper poles. Johnny is ripped out of this haze when his young daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), stops by for an unexpected business. Turns out her mother opted to split and now itís up to Johnny to rearrange his priorities and fit Cleo into his life.
Somewhere isnít just any old movie for Dorff; it was a truly special experience. He even said, ďIíll have to wait until Sofia hires me again to have fun again.Ē Well, heís certainly enjoying this fun while it lasts because during a roundtable interview, Dorff took the opportunity to tell us all about every aspect of this production from his preparation, to working with Coppola and Fanning and even what itís like making a head cast. Read all about that and more in the interview below.
Did they give you any rules when driving that Ferrari? No sharp turns?
Stephen Dorff: No, I had this cool guy that I worked with on the driving stuff we did. He did Public Enemies with us. Heís a great driving instructor and we just worked on that track and got it going.
How was it working with Sofia? Did she give you a lot of room to contribute and try some improv?
From the beginning she made me like her partner. Sheís like the way she is when you interview her; sheís a very soft spoken, kind of elegant, nice lady and at the same time very specific, very detailed, the most detail oriented director Iíve ever worked with and very specific on what kind of a film she wanted to make, this intimate portrait of this guy and it was awesome, the whole experience. You do some improv sometimes because a certain scene will be one line. Itíll say weíre playing Guitar Hero in the hotel room and that scene will end up being like five minutes. A lot of that we make it up, but then a lot of the scenes were very much scripted and very specific. The little dialog that we had was very specific.
How much of this character did you bring in from people you know or from your own experiences as an actor?
I asked her all those questions in the beginning and she didnít want me to do a version of myself or she didnít want me mimicking anybody else. She really wanted to create this kind of iconic movie star that she had in her mind, Johnny Marco, and so it was about using certain things that I could identify with - the loneliness, sometimes the emptiness of a performer or of an actor when you finish your gig and everything stops. Itís a very on and off job being an actor, so I like how she chose to see the character in the in between moments; not necessarily shooting a movie, but whatís it like to wake up and get a call and have to go get your head cast? Just the weird things that we might have to do sometimes. Whatís it like to run into an actress that you probably havenít seen for a year but you obviously had an affair with while you were making The Berlin Agenda? Sheís so good with awkwardness and real life, whether itís me and Benicio [Del Toro] in the elevator. Itís a movie that I think at the heart is about this adolescent father becoming a man and then all the other stuff is all these awkward moments, vignettes, that help drive the story.
Did you make a back-story in your head?
Yeah I did because I wanted to understand how he could have gotten as broken as we find him when we meet him. How did this guy get so lost? I thought maybe he got really famous really fast. Sometimes actors come out of the box and theyíre on the cover of Vanity Fair and all these magazines, yet you donít even know what movie theyíre in. I remember it happened to Matthew McConaughey when he first came out where it was like, who is this guy? So I tried to use that kind of an idea for a guy that I think would be thrown into this thing and at the same time is dealing with a disconnect from his ex-wife, his daughter, mixed with this immense amount of fame and I thought, ĎOh wow, okay, this could maybe lead to this place that we need him in.í
Speaking of your daughter, how was it working with Elle Fanning?
Sophia gave us the space in the beginning to just hang out together and get to know each other without her even hanging around with us. She was so smart, Sofia, to do that because usually if weíre hanging out, the director wants to be there. She really gave us our space to create our own trust so that when it came time to getting on the set you could take us in any direction; we were a team. And a lot of that stuff with Chris Pontius and Elle, all those crazy reactions sheís giving because heís so crazy and saying the craziest stuff, I think a lot of that was improv between them.
What was it like living at the Chateau Marmont?
It was cool. I basically checked in as Johnny Marco and I stayed there for about seven weeks. At the beginning of the movie I wanted to live quite rough, I wanted to look kind of screwed up and really be out of it, so I lived pretty hard. And then I thought he slowly wakes up, he should start looking more fresh, he should start becoming clearer. But obviously it was the perfect creative thing; Iíd just leave my room and go right down into Johnnyís bed.
Thereís so much mythology around that hotel from old Hollywood to new Hollywood. Do you have a favorite piece of Marmont lore?
There are so many great crazy stories. I found out in the room where we shot, Johnny Marcoís room 59 and I guess that was the room that Hunter Thompson cut his hand and smeared blood all over the wall and did this painting with his own blood. Thereís a story with each room. So many people are like, ďOh my god, I stayed in 59. I asked my wife to marry me in that room.Ē These stories that even people at the premier were coming up and telling me. Itís just kind of one of those hotels where if youíve had your personal experience, if you went there 10 years ago to do a story or you were doing an interview, you see our movie and I think you completely identify with being there. You can almost smell the place and she got the sounds of the elevator right. Just the whole hotel is so much of a character in this movie. Between the Ferrari and the hotel you could argue which should get billing because theyíre fighting for third and fourth billing I think.
Did you take a cue from any older movies when making this one?
A little bit. Sofia was very clear about certain things she wanted me to watch and listen to. She gave me Paper Moon, which I obviously had already seen. She gave me this Fellini movie that had some short stories, one that Terence Stamp plays a movie star in, a quite extreme movie star whoís drunk all the time. I said, ďYou want me to play him like this?Ē Sheís like, ďNo, just to give you a flavor of where we want to maybe go.Ē She gave me movies from France where it was all behavioral movies, so real-time acting, because she was going to use some of that in our movie occasionally in the makeup scene or whether Iím smoking on the couch, basically just hanging in real time with our guy. She showed me a movie that was made in France, the whole movie, it was three hours long of this woman literally cooking breakfast in real time, eating the breakfast, washing the dishes, and then starting over again the next morning. It was like enough to make you want to lose your mind, but it was really interesting. So I said, ďAre we doing that?Ē She said, ďNo, no, no. Weíre just going to maybe do that in little places.Ē
Did these sustained takes shift a lot of the responsibility to you? There isnít much you can do with those in editing.
Yeah, itís a very naked part. Itís the most raw Iíve ever been. Thereís no tricks, thereís no big speeches, thereís no accent, thereís no banks to rob, thereís no explosions. Thereís nothing happening except my behavior, so if I start acting or if Iím conscious of the camera I think itís going to unravel this movie and what Sofia wanted to do. It was a very awkward balance to walk because it would have stood out like a sore thumb if Iíd been mugging for the camera. At the same time, itís very self-conscious to have nothing happening.
The award ceremony in the film, was that real?
Thatís actually based on a real awards [show] called the Telegatti Awards that Sofia had gone to with her father. Itís kind of like the TV Guide awards in Italy, but they give an award to a legendary filmmaker or star every year. Since Sofia and Francis went, they cancelled the award ceremony so itís not on TV anymore. So, Sofia really wanted to recreate this so she even found those cats, she found those in storage, and they kind of recreated the whole set and we got all these Italians and all the crazy TV presenters from Italy that would normally be there. Itís kind of a show that a new Italian culture would just kind of, not the most incredible part of Italy, but itís this kind of cheesy TV.
A lot of people are speculating about how this is about Sofiaís relationship with her father. Did you and Sofia have any conversations about how to manage the relationship between a father and daughter?
A little bit. She, being my director, guided me to the place. I had instincts that were sometimes different. Iím used to having words; I wanted to tell Elle more stuff sometimes, like in that helicopter scene when she canít hear me and Iím saying goodbye. I said, ďShouldnít I say all this other stuff?Ē Sheís like, ďNo, I want you to feel all that stuff, but I want you to just say this one line.Ē It was just things like that that were incredibly difficult to do, but yet in real life I think thatís what she was after was a slice of real life. We donít communicate everything that we want to and we look back and say, ďI should have said this to those guys,Ē or ďI should have said that.Ē She wanted it to feel like almost totally real. She writes a lot from her own experiences. She put a lot of herself in Cleo, sheís open about that, and she put a lot of herself in Johnny too because sheís writing kind of from a manís point of view for the first time. Even though she wrote such a great part for Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, that still was kind of through the girlís point of view, through Scarlett [Johansson]ís character, whereas I think this movieís really from the guysí point of view.
How were cast in this role? Sofia seems to cast her actors very specifically and Iím sure a lot of people were vying to be in her next film.
She said that she was writing another movie, I donít know what it was, but the Johnny Marco character popped in her head and I was in her head. Then somewhere along the lines of writing that movie, Johnny Marco wanted his own movie, so she changed and took the character and created Somewhere. It was like, in a way, I think the best part Iíve ever been given at the perfect time in my life and then at the same time it was kind of the easiest part; I didnít even really need to fight for it. It was just this butterfly that landed in my lap. I went to Paris after I read the script, I met with her for about a week, we had dinner and kind of loosely just talked about the movie and then at the end of that week she told me she wanted me to do it. It was pretty awesome.
Whatís it like going from a setting like this to something grander like Immortals?
A nightmare. [Laughs] I just prefer this kind. I donít know if Iíll ever get an experience like this again just because out of all the movies Iíve made, this was so special. Iíll have to wait until Sofia hires me again to have fun again. Immortals was fine, itís just a different kind of movie experience. Itís big, green screen and running around in a piece of leather. I had a sword. I had a lot of tricks again, which is always easy for me to act if we have a lot of stuff given to us. I think the thing that was the most challenging about this was I didnít have anything, so I found this one to be the hardest because this character has to hold you and hold this movie together. And heís kind of depressing and has everything on the surface, but heís broken inside. Itís a hard thing to try to hook you, so I just kept trying to hook the audience somehow.
How was it doing that film junket scene?
Well, actually that was the most surrealist because the other day when we did the junket in LA, when I did my Hollywood Foreign Press conference I was in the same exact room at the same exact table as I am in the movie. And the Hollywood Foreign Press is in the movie, so those are their voices, because Sofia of course gets the real people. So that Russian guy thatís like, ďOh, Johnny, youíre in such good shape,Ē I donít know who he thinks heís talking to because I couldnít be more out of shape. Maybe Iím in shape physically but heís a very unhealthy guy. [Laughs] But those were all real questions; she wanted them to come in with their own questions and they came in with them.
They ask those kinds of questions donít they?
Oh yeah. My press conference the other day, one of the ladies writes for a magazine about pets, so the first question in my press conference was, ĎDo I have a cat or a dog and what do I think about a pet?í I was trying to think what that had to do with my movie but it was interesting.
Did you actually have your face in that stuff when they were making the head cast?
Oh yeah, I had no idea what that shot was they were doing because once Iím in it and it starts to harden, Iím not aware of what that zoom was. As Iím breathing, Iím really breathing and I love that little phone thatís ringing in the background because you feel like, where the hell did everybody go? Are they at lunch? This poor guyís left alone. That thingís not fun; those are pretty intense. Any actor thatís had to do a comic book movie or any kind of effects picture probably has had a head cast before. Any time you do any of that stuff you usually have to do a body cast or a head cast, and the head cast is pretty surreal; itís pretty intense.
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