Lost actor finds himself in ‘Somewhere’Stephen Dorff isn’t calling this a comeback, but he understands why almost everyone else has.
Back in the mid-’90s, the Los Angeles-raised actor was supposed to be the next big thing, on a par with Johnny Depp. But after drawing acclaim for his role in the 1994 Beatles biopic Backbeat, he never landed that breakthrough follow-up — until now. As the lead in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, Dorff, now 37, has earned raves for his portrayal of Johnny Marco, a hard-partying Hollywood actor numbed by depression and apathy, coasting into a downward spiral until his young daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), comes to live with him.
For the first time in years, Dorff is in demand.
“I’m shooting covers of magazines, I’m getting offered all these movies,” says Dorff. “You know [why] people wanna say ‘comeback.’ Well, I’ve always been here, I’ve always been making movies. I just haven’t been front-and-centre in such a special film in a long time.”
Though Dorff has worked consistently over the years, the last major role he had in a popular, mainstream feature was opposite Wesley Snipes in 1998’s Blade. Recently, he’s played key supporting parts in several high-profile films, including Public Enemies and World Trade Center. He also produced and starred in Felon, a prison movie that found an audience on DVD.
“The last three years I’ve been doing really good work,” Dorff says, without a hint of bragging in his voice. “I’ve been trying, you know, to get to a vulnerable place, but... I hadn’t had the part. It took Sofia to show that side she thought existed in me.”
Somewhere, Coppola’s fourth film, explores themes found in her previous work: depression, alienation, and discontent amidst a backdrop of privilege and wealth — this time in Hollywood’s infamous Chateau Marmont hotel. Where Coppola breaks new ground is in her storytelling style: She drops the camera into Johnny’s life without an explanation as to who he is or what he does. What little Coppola does offer in the way of answers over the ensuing two hours might be frustrating to some, but is ultimately refreshing in an exposition-heavy medium.
With minimal dialogue (the first half hour is practically a silent film), the burden largely falls on Dorff’s facial expressions and body language to convey the excess and monotony of Johnny’s life. Dorff hints that he was able to mine his own past to help inform his performance, admitting he has plenty of firsthand experience wrestling with demons similar to Johnny’s.
“Johnny’s got a fast car, likes to drive in circles, follows girls aimlessly — because he doesn’t know what he wants to do, ’cause when you’re depressed, time moves very slow,” says Dorff. “It’s quite sad, but it’s very honest. Being a performer is a very lonely job, even if you have a family. For me, I don’t have a family. I mean, I have my family family, but I don’t have my own responsibilities, so when I go home after a movie ends or after the show stops, it’s weird. I don’t go to an office the next day. I don’t have anything to do except normal stuff. But after a week of that normal stuff and seeing my family and going to the grocery store, it’s like, well, now what?... Being an actor, a musician, any kind of a performer, is a strange job. It’s why you probably hear about all these famous comedians killing themselves, and horrible stories where all these talented people die. I’m sure they were missing something inside and never got to fix it, through success and just constantly going to the next circle and the next round of girls, and you just get lost along the way.”
Though Coppola hasn’t said this particular piece of art is meant to imitate Dorff’s own life, Johnny and Dorff have at least one thing in common: both men were in dire need of a fresh start. And even though he’s been reaping the rewards of Coppola’s casting choice for months, Dorff is still awed by his good fortune — even if he’s not willing to call it a comeback.
“I was just so blown away the way that Sofia embraced me at a time when I really needed it,” Dorff says. “I needed to show a different side of myself. I was over-playing villains. I was ready to grow up into another role, and this was kind of the perfect one to start with.”