×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Stephen Dorff on ‘The Motel Life’ and What’s Wrong with Hollywood

In a candid interview, the star explains how the business has changed for actors

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.'”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Benjamin Wallfisch - scoring session, Abbey

    Composer Benjamin Wallfisch Signs With Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency

    Composer Benjamin Wallfisch has signed with the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency (GSA) for worldwide representation, in partnership with London-based agency COOL Music Ltd. A top composer, whose scoring credits include “It Chapter Two,” Shazam!” Hellboy,” “Hidden Figures” and “Hostile Planet,” among others, Wallfisch has worked on over 75 feature films and is a member of the BAFTA [...]

  • The Moneychanger

    Toronto Film Review: ‘The Moneychanger’

    Uruguayan auteur Federico Veiroj (“The Apostate,” “Belmonte”) broadens his usual intimate dramatic scope to diminishing returns for his fifth feature, “The Moneychanger,” . Adapted from a novella by compatriot Juan Enrique Gruber, the period (mid-1950s to mid-1970s) tale centers on the eponymous character, an amoral currency exchanger, who winds up laundering some of the dirtiest [...]

  • Send Me to the Clouds

    Film Review: ‘Send Me to the Clouds’

    The social and economic pressures felt by China’s “leftover women” — referring to those older than 26 and unmarried — are examined in “Send Me to the Clouds,” a rewarding dramedy about a 30-ish journalist seeking financial reward and sexual fulfillment after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Bold by mainland standards for presenting a positive [...]

  • Jamie Bell Without Remorse

    Jamie Bell Joins Michael B. Jordan in 'Without Remorse' Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jamie Bell is in final negotiations to join Michael B. Jordan in Paramount’s adaptation of the Tom Clancy novel “Without Remorse.” Stefano Sollima, who most recently helmed “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” is directing from a script by “Sicaro” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. As previously announced, Jordan is starring as operations officer John Clark, also known [...]

  • Elizabeth McGovern, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter,

    'Downton Abbey' Movie Sequel? Producers Tease That They Have 'Some Ideas'

    “Downton Abbey” holds the record as the most-nominated international show at the Emmy Awards with 69 nominations and 15 wins — and now, it stands a chance to nab an Oscar. More than three years after the beloved series signed off the air following six critically-acclaimed seasons, “Downton Abbey” is making its big-screen debut. “It [...]

  • Todd Phillips Joaquin Phoenix Joker Movie

    What's Woker Than 'Joker'? Film Critics Made Everything Political at Fall Festivals

    “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” asks Joaquin Phoenix, playing a deranged incel version of the DC supervillain in “Joker,” the unconventional comic book movie that’s sucked up much of the air from the fall festival circuit. Like an aggro caricature of the “involuntary celibates” who troll message boards online, [...]

  • Running Against the Wind

    Young Africans' Dreams Are Focus of Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda Oscar Picks

    Films about young Africans trying to fulfill their dreams in the face of war, poverty, tradition and other forms of adversity have been submitted for Oscar consideration by three East African nations. The selections by Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda to compete in the international feature film category reflect the relative youth of filmmaking in the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content