In 2010, Stephen Dorff found himself on the industry’s hot list after starring in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” a meditative drama about a Hollywood actor and his lonely daughter. Dorff recalls a stream of offers from a fickle business that he’s been navigating since he was 12.
As he sifted through the stack of scripts that he’d been sent, he finally came across what he was looking for.
“What the fuck is this doing at the bottom of my pile?!” Dorff recalls asking his agent. The movie in question was “The Motel Life,” a dramatic tale about two brothers who experience hardships after a tragic car crash.
Dorff, 40, wanted to play the part of the older brother, Jerry Lee, who loses his leg early in the film from an amputation.
“I just thought, Jesus, I don’t know how to play this guy,” says Dorff. He was drawn to the challenge of “how do I find the inside of the a character that could easily go too sentimental, too hokey, too ‘Of Mice and Men,’ Lennie? What I felt from the movie when I read it was ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ or ‘My Private Idaho.’”
Dorff tracked down the first-time directors, brothers Alan and Gabe Polsky. They weren’t sure Dorff looked beaten down enough, and he only convinced them when he agreed to test with co-star Emile Hirsh, who he had greeted years ago at a party with the premonition: “I think we’re going to play brothers one day.”
Dorff was thrilled when he eventually won over the directors. “You’ve got to go for it,” he says. “Otherwise, my job is boring, waiting for ‘Robocop 8’ or whatever the fuck else garbage they make.”
He says the business is “majorly changing. I watch a lot of movies. There is very rarely a movie now where I’m like, ‘Fuck, I should have gotten in that.'”
As an actor, Dorff wishes Hollywood made more films with medium budgets. It seems like his only choices now are small arthouse projects or tentpole blockbusters. (He’s not interested in comic book movies, and he says “Thor 2” looks like “a weird soap opera Halloween spectacle.”)
Dorff describes himself as a voracious script reader, even for films that haven’t been offered to him. “I find that dialogue is bad in most scripts,” Dorff adds. “I just think there are very few writers that can capture the natural way people talk.”
Dorff revealed that he tested for the son character in early incarnation of Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” a role that Will Forte eventually landed. And he read “Dallas Buyers Club,” with an eye to the part Jared Leto plays, but decided he had already worn drag in another film.
A few years ago, after appearing in mainstream fare like “Blade,” “Cold Creek Manor” and “Feardotcom,” Dorff made the decision he wanted to be in more movies that made him proud — “I was always these nasty fucking villains,” he says — even if that meant taking supporting roles. He started to work with directors like Michael Mann (“Public Enemies”) and Oliver Stone (“World Trade Center.”)
He also appeared in Lee Daniels’ 2005 directorial debut, “Shadowboxer,” as a mobster. The part was risky for another reason: he appears in a scene wearing only a condom, and he describes the role as “the one where I show my thing for a second.”
“My lawyers and everybody was like, ‘Stephen, are you sure you want to do this?'” Dorff says. “I said, ‘Look, everybody is getting naked in this movie.'”
He says his friend Sofia Coppola helped him professionally and personally when he needed it the most by offering him “Somewhere.” “It was a great role at a perfect time,” he says.
“I was in a pretty dark spot,” he explains. “I had lost my mother a year before. My mom always wanted me to do movies where I played, whether I had flaws or not, guys that had a good heart,” which is how he sees Jerry Lee.
“The Motel Life” was shot over 25 days in Reno, and it didn’t have an easy path to the big screen. Despite a prominent cast featuring Dorff, Hirsch and Dakota Fanning, it was rejected by indie distributors and film festivals. A round of edits made the final cut much stronger. But by then, they had missed the opportunity for a splashy debut at Sundance.
The movie was eventually self-distributed by its directors under the label Polsky Films, and it’s now playing in select theaters and on VOD. Dorff, who like his “Somewhere” character resides in a hotel (but only when he’s in New York; he mostly lives in L.A.), made a formidable publicity push on behalf of his movie, even doing Skype interviews.
He’s not on Twitter, because he’s not sure if the social media platform actually succeeds as a marketing tool. His buddy Charlie Sheen once mentioned a movie Dorff was producing to all his millions of followers, and it didn’t result in a financial bump. “I’m kind of a believer that shit is all hype,” Dorff says.
Dorff, who runs a production company, La Costa Productions, eventually sees himself transitioning into more roles behind the camera. He sounds like a producer at times, especially when he talks about weighing in on the first trailer for “The Motel Life” and helping with casting.
And there are other opportunities he’d also like to explore “I haven’t found the movie that I want to direct yet,” Dorff says. “I want to make a movie where people are, like, ‘Whoa.'”