The Motel Life

Few Hollywood actors of any generation, no matter how glorious their start, achieve consistent success. But even fewer, perhaps, experience the seemingly random phenomenon of the mid-career resurgence, winning a gift of a part that suddenly has everyone take notice all over again. Stephen Dorff undoubtedly belongs to the lucky latter category. While he never really stopped working, or wanted for offers, the big break just didn’t come and he started to accept films that were, by his own admission, of a lesser quality. When he did get to work on prestige projects it tended to be as maybe “the third or fourth lead. Not really my movie…”

But that all changed with his turn in Sofia Coppola’s Venice winner “Somewhere,”  a performance that earned him plaudits and exposure and put him back on the lists from which his name had slipped off. We had the pleasure of a long chat with the actor in Rome last week where he was promoting his new film “The Motel Life.” 

"My agents were saying 'You don't need this part,' but I really fought for 'Motel Life'."

It’s a movie we liked a great deal (read our review here) and which went on to win no fewer than three awards in the Festival, including the Audience prize. Dorff describes the film as “a love story between two brothers,” and it does indeed find its heart in the touching relationship between his physically impaired, deeply unlucky Jerry Lee, and Emile Hirsch’s Frank. We asked about how he came to the role:

“Well, after 'Somewhere' I wanted to be really careful about what I did, but at the same time I wanted to deliver different films for different audiences so I did 'Immortals' which couldn't have been more different from 'Somewhere' and I couldn't have felt more silly running around with my abs out," he explaind. "From there I was looking for my next dramatic role, something, not necessarily flashy, but something that just hit me and so I read every script -- even the ones that weren't coming to me -- and 'The Motel Life' was by far the best screenplay that I read. I wanted to play Jerry Lee from the moment I read it, it was so different for me and I thought I could do it well."

But the role proved a difficult one to land. “I had to talk these new guys [directors Gabe and Alan Polsky] into it -- they didn't see me in the role,” he says. “I remember being with Sofia [Coppola] in Japan and going 'What is going on? I want this part so much! Me and Emile would make great brothers -- I'm friends with him, what the fuck is going on?' And she was like [adopts zen Sofia Coppola impression] 'Well, if they just don't get it…' But I said 'No, I really want this part.' My agents were saying 'You don't need this part,' but I really fought for Jerry Lee. All ego aside, just went in and met with Emile and the boys. And by coming in for that chemistry session they got to see what I could do in that role and I got to see that they were really smart about how they approached this material. I think I kind of almost auditioned them too.”

He’s delighted with the end result. “It was about altering my look and finding this love story between these two brothers -- they have talents, they're good people but they're just screwed. It reminded me of an early Gus van Sant movie like 'My Own Private Idaho' without the hustlers, and it just had this whole cowboy Americana feel to it's one of my favorite films I've ever made. 'Somewhere' and 'Motel Life' have really been my highlights.”

But when you’re hot, you’re hot and another film has been getting him decent buzz of late.  “We've been having a lot of success with this film I did Israel 'Zaytoun'....I play an Israeli fighter pilot and I had to learn Hebrew…[It] won runner-up in Toronto to ‘Silver Linings’ which I hear is going to take it all this year. 'Argo' was the other runner-up, and I thought, 'Woah, those are two big studio movies and this is, like, me and bunch of Arab kids running around with no distributor.” As to the film’s awards hopes this season? “Pathe, who have it for international decided, even with the good notices, to release in England around Christmas for BAFTA, build it in Europe and then hold it for America till next year.”