America has a soft spot for the story of the rise after the fall, the promise of a second chance, and the carefully handcrafted hero. Hollywood takes it up a notch: Adoring fans pile on top of each other to get an autograph of their idol one day, and the next those worshiped have become distant echoes replaced by the pursuit of another.
Actor Stephen Dorff’s comeback took many by storm in 2010 when he got the lead role in Sofia Coppola’s drama “Somewhere,” which won a Golden Lion award for best picture that year as the top prize of the Venice Film Festival.
This fall, the actor stars in “Zaytoun,” directed by Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis (“The Syrian Bride,” “Lemon Tree”), and produced by Gareth Unwin (“The King’s Speech”). Set in 1982, during the Lebanese Civil War, an Israeli pilot (Dorff) is shot down over Beirut and taken prisoner by inhabitants of a Palestinian refugee camp where he makes a deal with one of his captors, a young boy (brilliantly portrayed by Abdallah El Akal), and they embark on a journey through the psychological, physical and historic borders of animosity, friendship and identity.
For our interview, we get together at the teeming lounge of a trendy hotel. Arms tattooed, dressed in jeans and T-shirt, the 40-year-old is the embodiment of California cool. Between regularly casting a look at his surroundings and rolling his electronic cigarette in between his lips and fingertips, Stephen Dorff casually tells his story – from back then to here now.
Your work has not been particularly political — why did you take on such a loaded role?
I read the script and I was touched by it. I didn’t think I looked Israeli, I didn’t think I could do it; I met with Eran Riklis, the director, in New York, and told him I didn’t see myself in this role. He pulled a picture out of his pocket and said, “Do you think this looks like you?” And it looked like me, the guy could have been my stunt double. And he said, “Yes, Stephen, he is Israeli; you have never been to Israel, you have got to come see it for yourself.” He was right; once I got there people who didn’t know me would approach and start speaking to me in Hebrew.
The crew is an intriguing amalgam: a Palestinian screenwriter, an Israeli director, a British producer and an American actor.
A lot of people asked me: “Are you doing the Ron Arad story?” [an Israeli pilot missing in action since the mid-1980s]. And I told them: “No, I’m not.” It’s a dangerous world we live in; problems persist, maybe even more right now. I’m telling a story set 30 years ago and here we are today and not much has changed. Eran is this incredibly caring and gifted director, probably the most solid Israeli director out there. He doesn’t go with one side or the other; he tells stories.
It’s a complex conflict, and everybody has an opinion about it.
The goal of this movie is not to make you change your mind, it is to make you think, and to make you feel something. After all those boundaries are broken, this is the story of two people, who at the beginning want to kill each other, then they get to know one another, and they become friends. I think we delivered a fair story. I hope young people, the new generation growing up under this situation, whether Israeli or Palestinian, will get to see the film. The problem is that sometimes people don’t want to see reality, they want to escape it; they want to see “Superman” instead.
What did you discover while making “Zaytoun”?
I spent four months in Israel. It’s a small country; the drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is less than an hour. I went a month early to learn Hebrew, to learn the accent, to get acclimated, to spend time at the air force bases, to meet people who were in the Israeli army. I remember, the alarm would sound and pilots would have to be in the air within three minutes. I sat down with a pilot who had been captured and held by the Syrians for over two years in the 1980s. It was intense; I’ll never forget that.
You steered through a series of reputations – Hollywood bad boy, promising young talent, yesterday’s news …
I don’t read reviews, I don’t believe in them, and I think it’s dangerous for the people who make the films to read the reviews. I make movies for the people, not for the one guy who writes for whatever publication. There are some critics I appreciate and like, but some others have no clue about moviemaking. About me being a “bad boy”: They say that about everybody so I don’t know what it means anymore – it has been said about Sean Penn, it has been said about Johnny Depp. [In terms of] a comeback, for me that’s someone like Robert Downey Jr. – that’s my definition, the guy was pretty much dead in the eyes of Hollywood, a talented guy who was gone, and out of nowhere he got a role in “Ally McBeal,” and he still struggled, and then “Iron Man”; that’s a comeback!
I get that, still, you cannot disregard that “Somewhere” changed your image, not only in America but also around the world.
With Sofia [Coppola] it was a rediscovery. I never went away. I was making tons of movies. I never just disappeared. Sofia had made three movies before that and they are pretty much classics now, so to be asked to do that movie when everybody in Hollywood wanted it, it was an incredible experience. She gave a second wind to my career: You know the feeling of when you are tired and you want to go to sleep but you get a second wind. For a while I was doing these movies that were making good money but were not memorable, and also my mother had passed; Sofia gave me a great wakeup call at a time in my life when I needed it. “Somewhere” didn’t do a fortune in America but it was big for my life, and for my career. I don’t think I would be doing movies like”Zaytoun” and receiving the offers that I get now if I hadn’t done that. I’m not really playing the game as much as some of the others, I stick to my thing. I like my rhythm, and my rhythm led me to succeed in my way. I hope I get to work with Sofia again; not every movie is an experience like that.
Many actors these days step on the other side of the camera. Do you think you’d direct at some point?
When I find the right script I’ll know it, that’s when I’ll say to my agent, “No movie for a year, I’m going to make this one.” Many of the films made by Hollywood today aren’t that good; the best ones are independently financed. I still believe in cinema; that’s why I don’t do TV, that’s why I’m not in a series, I want to make movies.
That’s where you feel that you are in your element.
I feel most at home when I’m creating. I play and write a lot of music, and I want to explore that in the movies that I want to direct. I’m a beach guy; I love the ocean. If I start feeling stressed I just leave, I go for long drives. I love L.A., I love N.Y, but at the same time I love Europe. I don’t have kids yet; one day when I have a family I might have a little more responsibility to deal with.
How would you describe the life of an actor?
It’s a weird profession. Making a movie is sometimes like going to war – little time, lots of chaos, and money involved. Sometimes the phone is dead, and I like that. Lately I’ve been busy, many things are happening, and I want to keep going. My job allows me the freedom to travel, it takes me to cool places, as opposed to going to the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank every day for five months; that’s not for me, I’d go crazy.
How was it growing up in an offbeat city like Los Angeles?
L.A. is one of the worst places for a child to grow up. You are surrounded by people with money, limos dropping you off at school, kids living in Beverly Hills – it’s misleading. I was born in Georgia, we moved to L.A. when I was 6 months old, my dad was a struggling songwriter. My parents were 21 when they had me. I didn’t have a religious family – my father was Jewish and my mother was Catholic, which caused tension between the grandparents. My dad wrote some songs and out of nowhere he became this hot new songwriter. I went from audition to audition – commercials, TV, film— and at 18 I got my first big movie, “The Power of One.” It changed my life.
In Hollywood where ageism reigns, how did turning 40 feel?
Like another birthday, but also like a milestone. I feel like I have been through a lot already. I’m not worried about getting older.
“Zaytoun” opens in New York on Sept. 20.