Sofia Coppola and Stephen Dorff

I took the year off after Romy was born. I’d been working kind of back-to-back before then, so I hadn’t really taken a break. I wanted to have the full experience of hanging out and being a Parisian housewife.Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola’s new film, Somewhere, stars Stephen Dorff as a burned-out actor named Johnny Marco who lives in a suite at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, wanders around in untied Red Wings, and appears to be drifting through an endless series of premieres, junkets, parties, and his life in general, with little in the way of meaningful relationships or tethers-save, perhaps, for the twin strippers (played by former Playboy Playmates Karissa and Kristina Shannon) who he routinely summons to his room to perform two particularly memorable (and noisy) synchronized pole-dancing routines. However, Johnny’s own routine, as empty-seeming as it is, gets interrupted when his pre-teen daughter from a previous relationship, Cleo (Elle Fanning), arrives for a weekend stay that unexpectedly turns into a longer one, forcing him to very quickly become the father that she very apparently has never had, and what emerges is a stark and, in many ways, unvarnished portrait of two people searching for something they’ve been missing, and maybe, possibly, finding it.

It’s difficult, though, to watch Somewhere without thinking about the biographical weight that both director and lead actor bring to the movie. The 39-year-old Coppola, of course, is the daughter of director Francis Ford Coppola, and grew up in the orbit of the film world. But if there is one consistent theme that runs through her body of work, from The Virgin Suicides (1999) to Lost in Translation (2003), Marie Antoinette (2006), and now Somewhere, it’s her acute sensitivity to what makes young women tick and to the emotional forces that, at times, threaten to tear them apart. In some way, all of her films plumb the psyches of girls who are struggling to find both themselves and, as they struggle with womanhood, adulthood and their own independence-much like Coppola herself did so publicly when she was younger, after her famously (and some might argue, unfairly) savaged performance as an actress, stepping in to fill the role of Michael Corleone’s daughter in the elder Coppola’s film The Godfather Part III (1990).

Like Coppola, Dorff grew up in and around Hollywood, where his father worked as a music producer and composer. As a child actor, he appeared in a series of sitcoms and TV movies, but it was the double whammy of his starring role in director John G. Avildsen’s South Africa-set drama The Power of One (1992), and his appearance that same year cavorting alongside Alicia Silverstone in the buzz-binned video for Aerosmith’s “Cryin’ ” that vaulted him to stubbled, grunge-y ’90s teen heartthrobdom. Dorff, though, had other ideas. After starring as original Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe in the much-hyped but little-seen Berlin-era Fab Four film Backbeat (1994) and as a disaffected teen in the lukewarm slacker comedy S.F.W. (1994), he took a left turn to play the supporting role of transvestite superstar Candy Darling in Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), and, in the ensuing years, struggled to balance a career hopping between big-budget thrillers like Blade (1998) and the quirkier fare, like John Waters’s Cecil B. DeMented (2000), to which he was more instinctively attracted. For most of the last decade, though, he fell into a rut, filling character slots in bigger movies like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006) and Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), and delivering powerful under-the-radar performances in films like Ric Roman Waugh’s prison drama Felon (2008).

If Dorff felt like he was spinning his wheels in the margins, then it was with good reason: In fact, one of his most zeitgeisty dramatic appearances in the last decade was as the guy who rescues Britney Spears from drowning in a bathtub in the video for her song “Everytime.” So when Coppola approached him with the script for Somewhere, it spoke to him on multiple levels. As a character, Johnny Marco is not dissimilar from the image of Dorff that seemed to manifest itself in the media in the early ’90s: as a hotel dwelling, perpetually unkempt, and unshaven mascot of young Hollywood, stumbling from party to party, by turns too cool for school and inarticulately tortured-all ratty T-shirts, ripped jeans, cigarettes, and fast cars. In reality, Dorff is the polar opposite (save for the clothes): enthusiastic, conscientious, and well-read and well-spoken-and, at 37, he appears more substantial on screen than he did when he was younger, burnished by a soulful gravitas that lends his performance an added heft.

Somewhere, which hits theaters in late December, premiered in August and the Venice Film Festival, where it took top honors, winning the Golden Lion. Like Lost in Translation, to which it will most likely be compared due to its setting, daughter figure-father figure set-up, and one particular goodbye scene, it’s a quiet movie, poetically minimal to the occasional point of murkiness. But if Somewhere is about anything, it’s not spectacle-it’s resonance. Coppola, who was in New York, recently reconnected with Dorff, who was at home in Malibu, to discuss the film, the roads they took to arrive at it, and, of course, their music-video moments.

SOFIA COPPOLA: Somebody sent me the Britney Spears video that you did-the David LaChapelle video. [Dorff laughs] It’s amazing. I hadn’t seen it.

STEPHEN DORFF: That was a body double in the bathtub.

COPPOLA: Oh really? Did you get to know the body double?

DORFF: No, well, it was just . . . I think Britney left, so I did the dramatic part of the video with the body double. I rescued the body double.

COPPOLA: I thought you were going to have a whole story about how you hung out with the body double or something.

DORFF: Yeah, no. But that video was fun because I had done a picture with David [LaChapelle], I think around the time I did that John Waters movie years ago, so he called and just asked me to be in the video. I think it was, like, six years ago. I don’t even know how long ago.

Somewhere, which hits theaters in late December, premiered in August and the Venice Film Festival, where it took top honors, winning the Golden Lion. Like Lost in Translation, to which it will most likely be compared due to its setting, daughter figure-father figure set-up, and one particular goodbye scene, it’s a quiet movie, poetically minimal to the occasional point of murkiness. But if Somewhere is about anything, it’s not spectacle-it’s resonance. Coppola, who was in New York, recently reconnected with Dorff, who was at home in Malibu, to discuss the film, the roads they took to arrive at it, and, of course, their music-video moments.

I don’t think Jack Nicholson has ever called me ‘Stephen.’ . . . He’s like, ‘Hey, Dorff. How are ya?Stephen Dorff

COPPOLA: Really? It looks like it’s from a different era. I actually want to ask you something about your career in general. I feel like the part you play in Somewhere is different from any part you’ve ever done before. It’s different than what people have seen you do before. Do you feel like that’s the case? When you first read the script, what did you think?

DORFF: Well, number one, when I first read the script, I immediately hooked into your style of writing, where not everything is all spelled out. You don’t put everything on the page, you know? You put the main movie there, and the characters there, and it’s all very clear. But I remember reading it and saying, “Wow, this is the kind of role my mom always wanted me to play.” And, in a way, I thought it was the perfect role for me to do at this point in my life because I felt like I was kind of going through a growth in my own life, you know? Just as a person.

COPPOLA: Your mother, she passed away a year before you read the script, right?

DORFF: Yeah, my mom passed away a year almost to the day before you offered me the movie. So it was kind of a double thing because I was so excited to get this opportunity to work with you and to play a father and to play things I haven’t gotten to play as a man. I’ve always played different kinds of roles, and I probably played more vulnerable parts when I was really young. Then I went through years of playing the more edgier parts, or just the bad guy or this and that . . .

COPPOLA: I never saw Blade. Are you the bad guy in that?

DORFF: Yeah. I was a bad guy in that one. [laughs] So to get this part, and then to also have it be something that I think my mom would have loved to have seen me play is kind of a double thing. Also, being in Paris with you, and after that week we spent together talking and meeting and stuff . . . It was pretty awesome to get that call on this day that I was thinking about my mom a lot. I just remember really feeling her in a way.

COPPOLA: I was really glad that you responded to the script in the way that you did. I got a message that you were going to jump on a plane and come out to Paris and see me, because I hadn’t seen you in a while.

DORFF: Yeah, I wanted to. As soon as I read it, I kind of felt like, “God, I want to go to Paris now.” Like, “Why wait? Let’s just go! Is Sofia even in Paris? Can we find out?” [laughs]

COPPOLA: I’m glad, because I was thinking about you early on when I was writing it, but I hadn’t seen you for a while. I loved the stories you told me of you and your little sisters-especially the youngest one, Kaitlyn. I think that had a lot to do with how you related to Elle.

DORFF: Yeah, I mean, obviously I don’t have my own child yet. But I remember telling you that I do have these two half sisters, and one of them, Kaitlyn, who is 10, has kind of this crazy attitude. She’s very sophisticated for her age. She will say things to me just to cause these reactions. And then whenever you have a young person, and you’re responsible, whether I take her to Disneyland or I’m kind of the parent because my dad is not around . . . So it was neat to be able to pull from that a little bit. And then I met Elle, who comes off a little bit older than Kaitlyn.


DORFF: But I was still able to find that kind of thing in her. And then, obviously, having so many kids around-your daughter, Romy, was there–I was just surrounded by children. I don’t know if I’m getting older or what, but I’m really starting to appreciate these cool relationships I have with children. But I do remember the exact moment you offered me the part. I was on the top of this hotel with our friend Zoe [Cassavetes]. She was doing a commercial, and I was going crazy, wanting to know. I was anxious. So I was like, “Well, maybe I should leave Paris.” Zoe was like, “Just chill and hang out tonight.” And then I remember when I got the call. I was like, “Shit! Sofia’s calling!” And then I answered the phone and everybody was standing around me and I walked away and then raised my thumb up in the air. I remembered wanting to jump off the balcony and scream. Then I thought, “Well, if I do that, then I probably won’t be around to make the movie. So I probably shouldn’t jump off the balcony.”

COPPOLA: Didn’t you see the Eiffel Tower light up?

DORFF: Yeah, the Eiffel Tower was literally right off the balcony of this hotel, so I was very close. It wasn’t in the distance just the way you imagine it. As soon as I got that phone call from you it just started going techno—which I guess is what it does. Every hour for five minutes it goes haywire or disco. That’s when I really felt like my mom was a part of this, like she was looking down on me and really happy. It was a wild night. It feels like a long time ago, but it was only a year-and-a-half ago now—or maybe a little more I guess.

COPPOLA: I love that you lived at the Chateau Marmont like the character in the movie.

DORFF: I love that you guys allowed me to do that. I wanted to live pretty much like the character, especially in the early scenes of the movie. I also wanted to go a bit hard because, you know, the guy is sleeping late in the day. That’s why it was so cool that you let me actually live in the room. I think it was totally right to not have me live at my house in Malibu, and to not have me out in the sunshine, or waking up early to the sunlight.

COPPOLA: I remember telling you to drink more and get a baseball cap.

DORFF: Living at the beach, it’s hard to get out of the sun. I remember when we went to Italy, I was worried about getting any sun exposure before we started shooting there, so I walked around in a sweater and a hat. People were like, “What are you doing, man? Come swimming!”

COPPOLA: Do you usually think of other actors or roles when you start a movie? What do you do when you first start a part?

DORFF: I don’t know. It’s different. The first thing that I like to do is figure out who the character was before—where he comes from, what his dreams were, and some of the early stuff we talked about. I always like to know who the guy is, his energy, his personality, his interests. If the character is a real person, like my character was in Public Enemies, where I played a criminal who was in the press, and was somebody known, then I also need to do a little bit more mimicking. You do a little bit more work finding the look of the guy and that stuff . . . But I think I just try to get an essence of who the guy is. I really enjoyed what we did with Somewhere, where we did these kind of relaxed rehearsals that weren’t about going over text or blocking scenes. They were much more like, where was this family five years ago? Where was this family when you first got to L.A. and got your first movie? We did those fake memory things, where we just kind of went out for a meal or I picked up Elle from school. . . . Those things immediately put me into Johnny’s head. I found those exercises really helpful. I’d never done anything like that. I loved that process.

Marie Antoinette was fun, but there were so many people involved. . . .I wanted to go back to doing something more simple, like Lost in Translation.Sofia Coppola

COPPOLA: I learned that from my dad, doing all those kinds of preparation exercises.

DORFF: It was very helpful. I think there’s only one scene on camera, with my ex-wife, who is played by Michelle Monaghan, but we have phone calls with her throughout. In that scene when I meet her, even in those few lines that we have together, it feels loaded. It feels like there’s a history.

COPPOLA: Obviously, I don’t like a lot of dialogue, but I liked that there is all of this stuff between them that is unsaid and you can feel that it’s there without saying it. I feel like life is like that. So I’m glad we did those rehearsals, if you can call them that. I feel like it also helped to get all the big emotions out so we could be understated with the movie, but have them underneath it. Should we talk about Ed Ruscha? I’m glad that you told me about that piece of his. I’m looking at it right now: Cold Beer Beautiful Girls.

DORFF: That came from me, kind of. I was at the studio and I’d become friendly with Ed. I originally met him through Tony Shafrazi [the gallerist and art dealer], but I always loved his work. I was in Paris and at your apartment and I was checking out that room where all those photos are in there?

COPPOLA: Yeah, my little office.

DORFF: You have that awesome Dennis Hopper picture of him. I was close with Dennis and that’s one of the reasons I got to know Ed, too—kind of from that whole Dennis–Santa Monica scene and through some friends in the art world in L.A. So I met Ed again at one of his shows at Larry Gagosian’s gallery, and I was at his studio randomly when I had gotten back from Paris. I was excited about getting the part, but I couldn’t really tell anybody, because we were kind of a few months from shooting and we didn’t really want it everywhere. So I didn’t really tell many people, but at Ed’s studio, I did leak it to him. He said, “What’s been going on?” So I told him, “I’ve just come back from this incredible trip to Paris and I think I got the role of my lifetime so far.” So then I was walking around the studio as he was finishing up some business and I saw that he was working on a smaller painting called Cold Beer Beautiful Girls. He was working on the prints for it, doing his artist proof and touching things up. So I was like, “What’s this, Ed?” He’s like, “Oh, that’s just some work. I’m doing a very limited number of prints.” So I said, “Oh, wow. You know, it’s so weird, but I think Sofia is a fan of yours and she has this great picture. You know the Dennis Hopper one?” And he’s like, “Oh, really?” And I said, “Yeah. She has it in her Paris apartment and we were talking about you a little bit when I was over there, and it’s just weird to be here now and then to see this picture. I think this would be really cool as set dressing in his hotel room—you know, like the character went out and bought it?” Just hanging there . . .

COPPOLA: Unwrapped.

DORFF: Yeah, just sitting on the wall. And then Anne Ross, your production designer, did that bill on top of it.

COPPOLA: The label.

DORFF: Like he’d just purchased it and hadn’t opened it yet. So Ed was really jazzed about that idea. I told him that we would all have a beer at the Chateau. He was all excited. I think he and his wife are going to come.

COPPOLA: That would be so cool. I love that you’re friends with Ed, and you’re also friends with Jack [Nicholson], and you were friends with Dennis [Hopper] when he was around.

DORFF: I’ve always found, when I was younger, that the older guys—the guys who weren’t of my generation but were 20, 30 years older than me—were the cool guys. I always wanted to be around adults when I was young. So I guess when I became a young adult, all my friends kind of got older. As I’ve gotten older, they’ve gotten older. I’ve lost some of them, but a lot of them are still around. I don’t know. I just always found that the movies I got to do when I was younger, when I had this older cast around me—these iconic people, whether it was the Bob Rafelson movie I got to do, Blood and Wine [1996], which was probably when I was sitting on set with Jack and Michael Caine . . .

COPPOLA: Is that when you met Jack?

DORFF: It was around that time, yeah.

COPPOLA: Doesn’t he call you “Dorff”?

DORFF: Yeah. I don’t think Jack Nicholson has ever called me Stephen. He’s like, “Hey, Dorff. How are ya?” I called him after we won the award at Venice, and he was like, “Way to go, Dorff.” [both laugh] I can’t wait for him to see our movie. Jack has some incredible art, too. That’s where I think I learned about art: between Tony Shafrazi and Jack Nicholson.

COPPOLA: I didn’t know that Jack Nicholson collected art, too.

DORFF: He’s got an incredible collection. It’s unreal. It’s like the ultimate, coolest collection because he keeps it in his house that he’s lived in since the ’60s. The pieces are just thrown up against the wall. Meanwhile, each painting could probably buy the whole block of the house, you know?

COPPOLA: When you started to work, did you want to collect art?

DORFF: Yeah, I always wanted to, but Tony is the one who got me into the market. You live and learn as you go through it. I hope one day I can build a nice collection. But if you can collect these pictures at different times in your life, they become almost like tattoos. It’s almost like you remember the time in your life that you got them or what movie you were doing—like, “Oh, I got that one off Sofia’s movie,” or “I picked that one up in Italy when we were shooting.” It makes it neat.

COPPOLA: Yeah. I like having souvenirs. I’m happy I have that Ed Ruscha print from our movie. I love when you get to get something by someone that you love.

DORFF: I was going to ask you something: I think it was about four years between Somewhere and Marie Antoinette. You had Romy right after you finished that movie. At that point, did you just step back and take a break and then move into writing Somewhere?

COPPOLA: I took the year off after Romy was born. I’d been working kind of back-to-back before then, so I hadn’t really taken a break. I wanted to have the full experience of hanging out and being a Parisian housewife. [Dorff laughs] But after a while I missed working, and actually I did that commercial in Paris for a perfume.

DORFF: Oh, yeah—that Dior one, right?

COPPOLA: It was the commercial for the Dior perfume. I hadn’t worked in a year. It was also my first time working since having a kid, and I thought to try something that was only a few days, a smaller thing, to ease my way back into it . . . So my friend Anne Ross, who is always matchmaking, said, “You have to work with Harris Savides [the director of photography on Somewhere]. You’d really like him.” Because she thought that we’d work well together. I actually had met him years ago when I had my own music-video moment, where I was in a Black Crowes video [in 1992, for the song “Sometimes Salvation”].

DORFF: Oh right, yeah.

COPPOLA: And Harris shot it. So I had met him a long time ago, but just on that.

DORFF: Did he shoot that White Stripes video you did with Kate Moss [“I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”]?

COPPOLA: No. Lance [Acord] shot that. I love the way that one looked.

DORFF: I remember just staring at this Kate Moss thing going, “God. This is just so cool. She’s pole-dancing to the White Stripes.” We worked with the same choreographer on Somewhere, didn’t we?

COPPOLA: Yeah. Robin [Conrad]. [Photographer and director] Melodie McDaniel told me about her. I read that Robin was a modern dancer from CalArts. She would do dance routines, but to, like, Tom Waits. You know, she was more arty about it.

DORFF: She actually put the stripper poles in and taught the pole-dancing twins in the movie [Karissa and Kristina Shannon] how to do all those numbers.

COPPOLA: Yeah. I met up with them at the Playboy Mansion. Robin was rehearsing with them.

DORFF: And I once caught you . . . I think it was on their show [E!’s The Girls Next Door]. I watched the episode where you guys went to the mansion.

COPPOLA: Oh, god . . . Me at the Playboy Mansion. Me and Hef, hanging out. It was so funny. So many people e-mailed me. I didn’t realize so many people watched that show.

DORFF: It’s funny, because I recently met Melodie McDaniel. She shot the Immortals poster.

COPPOLA: I’m curious to see Immortals. I love that it’s just so different from what we did. And then you did that porno comedy, Born to Be a Star, with Adam Sandler. I love that the three movies you did back to back to back are so different from one other.

DORFF: I try to hit all the genres. I wasn’t going to find another one like Somewhere so quickly. I don’t think I’ll ever find another one like it again. And then I went back into the popcorn world with Immortals a little bit. But I think it will be cool. I don’t know—I guess I’ll see Immortals in a year, because it’s 3-D.

COPPOLA: I remember you had those hair extensions for Born to Be a Star. You were going around to premieres and stuff with those things. I remember you coming up to me and my friends somewhere, and you had your extensions and, like, a trucker cap over it. It looked . . . realistic.

DORFF: Yeah, and you kept saying as we got closer, “When are we getting the hair out of here?” But I remember the funniest was when you had me pick up Elle from school, and I still had that hair in. I went to go get Elle and she was like, “Why do you have that weird hair?” I couldn’t really tell her I was shooting a porn comedy so I was like, “Well, I’m doing this movie about surfers in Malibu.” [both laugh] And then she was like, “Oh, okay.” It was pretty funny because everybody looked at me even weirder when I picked her up from school. [laughs] Where were we?

COPPOLA: We were talking about Harris and that commercial.

DORFF: So you worked with him on the Dior thing.

COPPOLA: Yeah, and I was talking to him about a lot of the things I don’t like about making movies in general—like, I hate doing coverage. It’s just not fun. So I told him what I didn’t like and we started to talk about how simply you could do a movie, and that inspired me to want to do something—

DORFF: That went back to the intimacy of a movie like Lost in Translation?

COPPOLA: Yeah, because after Marie Antoinette, I wanted to go back to doing something more simple and intimate, with just a few characters and not all the fanfare. I mean, Marie Antoinette was fun, but there were so many people involved. To do all the incredible costumes and the whole thing was such a big production. I wanted to go back to doing something more simple, like Lost in Translation.

DORFF: I remember you were very concentrated on let’s go in with as few people as we have to and let’s limit the apparatus.

COPPOLA: That’s part of why I loved being at the Chateau. Shooting in a little hotel room, we could only be a small group, and I liked how it felt—it was like working on a student film or something. And I think Harris helped protect that it stayed small and intimate. He kept the crew small. Having that conversation with Harris on the commercial got me excited to write a script, and to do it in that style, and not like Marie Antoinette, because that movie was so ornate and frilly and girly. I wanted to do a movie from a guy’s point of view that was really stripped down and minimal in a way that there wasn’t a lot of action going on—that all of the interest could come from more of an internal struggle. So yeah, I was glad to talk to Harris about that—and I’m glad you didn’t scoff at my very short script. [both laugh]

DORFF: It was almost like a pamphlet when I got it. It just gave me a feel of the world, like photographs, colors, clothing, style. It was just a great way to work.

COPPOLA: I like making scrapbooks to get what we’re all doing, the style of it.

DORFF: I don’t know if you remember, but one day I was making jokes during the shower scene and you got really embarrassed because your dad walked in. In fact, every time your dad visited the set, I seemed to be naked.

COPPOLA: Every time he visited, you were naked. He was like, “What’s going on here?”

DORFF: You were afraid that he was going to start thinking that we were up to something, making some weird movie.

COPPOLA: Yeah, he asked a couple of times about the scene where you pass out on the girl at the party. When he saw that, he asked Thomas [Mars, Coppola’s longtime partner and the father of her two children] about it—like if that was a story that I knew something about. [laughs] He would never ask me.

DORFF: I remember calling out for Stacey [Battat, the costume designer on Somewhere]. I was like, “Can I get a robe?! Please! Francis Ford Coppola is here!”