Stephen Dorff is a veteran. His feature film career stretches back twenty-eight years to 1987. Quite the feat for a man in his early forties. Along the way he has starred opposite greats John Gielgud, Dennis Hopper, Kris Kristofferson, Melanie Griffith, and Christopher Plummer. He’s also starred opposite his excellent contemporaries, including Christian Bale, Johnny Depp, Reese Witherspoon, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Norman Reedus.
Long a recognizable name, Dorff has alternated between lead roles and memorable characters. They have often been rough around the edges. Dorff transcended those characters in 2010 with Somewhere, director Sophia Coppola’s film about a big budget actor just going through the motions. He reexamines his life when his eleven-year-old daughter pays him a surprise visit. The film won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Now in post-production, Sex, Guaranteed is a new film from Brad and Todd Barnes, whose previous efforts include The Locksmith and East Nashville Tonight. It stars Stephen Dorff as Hank. Alongside him are Grey Damon as Kevin, Bella Dayne as Zade, James Debello as Steve, and funnyman Dan Fogler as Carl.
Sex, Guaranteed is set in New Orleans, where it was shot on location. I spoke with Stephen on set late one night in a mansion on Esplanade Avenue, the edge of the historic French Quarter. He took off his character’s headband and sat down, exhausted from a long day’s work.
MH: I would love to hear how you became a part of this film.
SD: It was really Dan Fogler, who plays Carl in the movie. I think he mentioned me to the producers. It was very last minute. I don’t do many comedies in my career. I did a little stuff with Sandler over the years and I’ve done bits of comedy in movies. But I got the script and I just loved Hank. I didn’t know too much about the filmmakers but I did a Skype call with them and heard that they had won a big award at Sundance a few years back for a smaller film they did. I knew they had some shorts in Sundance. Once I researched the Barnes brothers and talked to them, I thought they seemed really smart and interesting. The script was very funny. A couple of weeks before, I was offered another film in Louisiana that was a comedy that I didn’t think was as funny. That had some pretty good comedic talent in it but this one I thought was just really original. It had a real, sweet message, and at the same time was the dirty kind of R-rated comedy that I grew up loving.
MH: How did the character of Hank influence your decision to do the movie?
SD: He’s an amazing character. At the same time also, Hank was a great opportunity to bring in a lot of influences that I liked growing up watching comedies. The kind that I think are missing out in the market place. It was also a chance to do a comedic role in a real way. So I think I jumped on that opportunity. There were also a lot of people – friends of friend – that knew the producers and the Barnes brothers, that knew A.D. Coffman, who casted the film. It all just kind of fell into place and it has been a real cool adventure playing this character. And I love New Orleans because you’ve great music.
MH: You’re working everyday. On this movie, you’re in it to win it.
SD: Definitely this week! Because we’re in Hank’s house. You’re in his bedroom right now in this amazing mansion that were shooting in the Quarter here right on Esplanade. So yeah, the big set up takes place here. The movie starts on the roof and ends in a similar place. It’s a great location we got for such a small film. We’ve gotten a lot of great people around New Orleans that really have helped us and really believed in the material as well. There’s a lot of small films that come in and people do favors but this one it seemed like a lot of people really want to see us win. I felt that when reading it. I think we’ve got great production value for the amount of money we’re spending.
MH: Describe the character of Hank as he appeared to you in the script.
SD: Hank is a lovable train wreck. When we meet him, he’s a very rich, incredibly wealthy man that is probably not from New Orleans but has been living here for a while. He’s about to have a three-day rager. What we realize about him, without giving too much of the story away, is that he’s very depressed as well. Like our main guy Kevin. He’s lost his true love. So, basically, underneath all the dirty jokes and all the dirtiness, there’s a message about love. Everybody in the film is missing that connection. Hank’s idea is, “Let me do one last great thing.” Hank really becomes obsessed with getting Kevin laid. It becomes more about getting his one true love back. In a way, Hank has created a love story, an imperfect match between two people. And maybe Hank’s gonna get a second love. He’s a mixture of a lot of different comedians that I loved that I’m kinda stealing things from. I’m just kind of creating this guy that I want to be iconic. One of those great characters that you remember for years to come, I hope.
MH: Who are some of the comedians you’ve looked to for inspiration?
SD: Hank’s got a lot of early Chevy Chase in him. He’s got a bit of Jack Nicholson in him. I think he’s got a bit of Bill Murray from Caddy Shack and movies like Stripes. There were a lot of the great comedies when I was growing up. I don’t laugh as much at comedies now. There’s guys like Will Ferrell and people like that that still make me laugh but for the most part, it’s really in the writing. I feel like comedy now is usually forced. Maybe I laugh once or twice in a comedy. Maybe. I haven’t seen a really, really funny movie in a long time. This movie and this script made me laugh out loud because you play it straight. You play it for realism and, to me, comedy is all about tone. These directors completely know what they’re doing when it comes to tone and that’s really important. You can be in a slap stick, broad movie more like Sandler does a lot or you can be in a film like Sideways which has incredible comedy but is played more straight. This is like a mixture of the two. And I really like the way they’ve told the story. I look forward to seeing it. I haven’t seen anything but people seem to be laughing so that’s always a good sign.
MH: Sex, Guaranteed seems like the tightly scripted kind of comedy from the 80s. There were a lot of comedies that came out in the 80s with big stars like Chevy Chase and they had excellent scripts that were very tight pieces of work. They were less improvisational.
SD: To me, comedy has now become almost like SNL vignettes stretched into a whole movie. But once the joke is out, it kind of becomes redundant. With this film, what you have are real characters, a real story and the jokes just play. They keep coming and coming and coming. I don’t read comedies everyday because I usually do dramas. So, for me, it’s a bit of a new frontier. I look forward to doing it more.
MH: Is there any amount of improvisation on set?
SD: Yeah! With a character like this, the Barnes brothers have given me freedom to add lines. I obviously look to them for their judgment and I’ve hopefully come up with some funny stuff. Me and my friend Mark have come up with some funny stuff. We’ve hopefully just added to what’s already really original and funny in the script. They totally give you room to improv but the scripts so tight that I find when you improv in this movie, you’re killing the jokes that are there. I feel like this script is so tight, you can just play the script and it will work. Once in a while, I’ll add a few more little tag lines or funny exit lines or things that the script didn’t have, just to bring it up a notch in those scenes. But for the most part, I’m just playing the character as written.
MH: I know you’ve shot in New Orleans before.
SD: Yeah, a couple of times, but not many.
MH: One movie in particular that I would love to see…
SD: Tony Kaye’s movie?
MH: Yeah! Black Water Transit. I’ve heard so much about it but it’s never been released.
SD: The $30 million Tony Kaye movie that’s never come out. Yeah, I’d like to see it, too. I saw a rough cut. I mean, Tony is crazy, but he’s a great filmmaker. This cut I saw was a visual masterpiece. It didn’t make much sense but it’s definitely worth seeing. Unfortunately, that movie, along with a David O’Russell movie and a bunch of other movies, are stuck in this lawsuit. I don’t know, but maybe one day when I’m sixty, it will come out. I forgot what part I played. It’s been seven or eight years ago. I’ve made a lot of movies since then.
MH: It was a big movie, and it’s just never surfaced. When you came back to New Orleans for this film, was there anything you were looking forward to visiting in New Orleans?
SD: I just remember New Orleans being such a fun town.I like being at a bar and being able to take your drink to go. That’s pretty cool. I’m also a fan of just the characters that you find. Talented musicians that you see on the street. Walk by and there is some sixteen-year-old girl playing the violin and it’s amazing. I like the quirkiness of the town. I like the people. For the most part, people are friendly and passionate. They don’t like change much. They’re very loyal to what the vibe is, which I think is great. Cause it’s an old city and it should have that feeling. I love the restaurants, the food, the music, going to Frenchmen Street, hearing the music. It seems like every weekend, there’s a different event, whether it’s French Quarter Fest or Jazz Fest or WrestleMania. A couple of weeks ago, there were wrestlers everywhere! It’s a kooky place but I like it and then you can leave it and go up Magazine and it becomes a different world in Uptown. It’s got flavor.
I can imagine worse places. I did a movie in Cleveland. That wasn’t fun. But New Orleans is fun and I always like going to the places that we’re shooting a movie in. I think what’s great about this film is that it was written for here. Brad Barnes has been here for like eight months writing and prepping this comedy, which is a long time. He got to really know the city and I think that’s smart. I’m not a big fan of coming to Louisiana and then trying to make it New York or another other town. I always find that to be terrible. I believe you should be in the city that you’re supposed to be in. If you’re for London, you go to London. If you’re in Peru, go to Peru like my last movie. If you’re in New Orleans, let’s do it in New Orleans. But obviously there’s a lot of tax breaks here and people are shooting tons of movies here, so it’s really become the back lot of the South.
MH: There are a lot of films shot here and sometimes people try to do something here that doesn’t really work.
SD: If you’re doing stage stuff, it doesn’t really matter. But the great thing about this movie is that not many movies are shot right in the French Quarter. We’re doing stunt scenes and some pretty crazy stuff right here off Esplanade and Chartres. That felt pretty cool. You see all the characters driving by right near Port of Call so you can go get a burger if you get hungry.
MH: Stephen, I see you spent time here…because you’re pronouncing everything right!
SD: Yeah, man, I know the good spots. Bacchanal in the Bywater, that’s a new spot that I’d never been to. It helps that I have some friends here. Mark, my buddy, he lives here and most of the time he keeps a place here. He’s done so many movies here. He showed me some spots I didn’t know because I prefer the non-touristy spots myself. I like to check out the cool New Orleans spots and that we have done.
MH: Frenchmen Street is a great place to start.
SD: Yeah, that’s a fun place. You really wanna hit it when there’s some great bands playing. Some nights are more commercial than others. I’m actually doing another movie right after this here so I’ll be coming back. I’m hoping to get Jazz Fest in, either the first weekend or the second, because I’ve never been for that.
MH: What’s the next film?
SD: It’s kind of an experimental film that I’m doing with a director named Nick Love. He’s kinda coming up over in England. He did a movie called The Sweeney with Ray Winstone. He does gangster movies in England. He’s real tight with Guy Richie and he’s young and this is his first American foray. It should be good and it’s really a big idea and a smaller, intimate story that’s character-based. It’s like Trainspotting meets Chronicle. It deals with a character that has powers but he’s not from a different planet. He just can do certain things that normal people can’t and it’s a pretty experimental thing. Right now, we have a very big treatment but the script is being formed as we speak. I really liked him and he brought his whole team from England. I’ll have some people hopefully from this one crew of people that I’ve worked with and go shoot that for five or six weeks from May till the end of June, I think. I’ll be here in the heat.
MH: It definitely gets hot.
SD: Yeah, it gets kinda sticky. I’m not the biggest fan of humidity, but we’ll give it a shot.
MH: There are drive-thru daiquiri shops.
SD: Drive thru daiquiri shops! I’m not usually driving so that’s a good thing. The reason my eyes are this red for this on-set interview is that I’m on my third day of my binge party here at the house. So I’m supposed to look a little messed up.
MH: I’m a really big fan of Blade. And comic book movies are unbelievably big now. That movie struck a note that I think has set the tone for the modern comic book movie. What were your conceptions of that film at the time? Did you have any idea what it would become?
SD: I knew it was the first Marvel movie made and I knew it was based on a comic that wasn’t that popular. Deacon Frost in the comic looked more like Whistler, Kris Kristofferson’s character. But Steve Norrington was the guy that sold me on that. To be honest, I had done a lot of independent movies before independent cinema became so trendy and I was not really interested in high concept movies. When Blade came along, it was the first huge paycheck. A big studio movie. It was a great character but I thought it was going to be the end of my career to be honest. I thought I was like a major sell out for doing it because I was really interested in art movies. When I was younger and working on Bob Rafelson movies and working with Harvey Kaitel and Nicholson. All these great actors I got to learn from. So, I thought doing this movie with fangs and blue eyes and… I though, “What the hell am I doing here?” I didn’t realize that I was turning a character into something that I still hear about every day if I walk down the Quarter.
MH: How has the legacy of the film surprised you?
SD: It’s crazy. We made it and it came out end of 1998-1999. It’s fifteen years ago. That’s pretty weird that people are like “Deacon Frost!” They’re still tripping but that’s a credit to the film. That was definitely an interesting time. I would put the first Matrix in there as well. I think Blade and The Matrix were definitely ahead of their time when it comes to effects. The groundedness of a comic book, where it doesn’t have to be so fantastical and I think that’s what made movies like Iron Man strong, too: putting Downey in that character and grounding it somewhat. Always in the end of those movies, they always get so fantastical. I feel like they always go too far with the fight scenes, spaceships and they start to lose me.
MH: I think that’s one of the real strengths of Blade’s finale. I remember seeing footage of what the original computer generated Frost at the end was supposed to be, and it jumped the shark.
SD: Yeah they spent like $8 million on this blood monster that never worked.
MH: And at the end of the day, the solution was a character solution.
SD: A huge fight scene. A nasty fight with the two guys. That’s all you need. You just wanna have it come to a head and this blood lava lamp thing they tried to do was just silly. The whole movie was hard, so why are we going silly at the end? I think it was hard for New Line and Bob Shaye to have to swallow that $7 million dollar waste of money but in the end, I think he made the right call. The movie was incredibly successful and spawned two sequels.
MH: You also did an amazing movie with Sophia Coppola called Somewhere.
SD: Yeah I love that movie.
MH: I love all of her films. They’re incredibly poignant.
SD: She’s the best. I think she’s a total original and Somewhere came at a time that was perfect for me to play that kind of character. She just embraced me in a way that really was out of nowhere. I was doing good films and was working. I had just done Felon, which seemed to get really popular after it came out. I did Public Enemies and World Trade Center. I was working with all of these great directors on more character kind of parts. And then Sophia just landed me after Felon. It was just an incredible experience working with her and winning the Golden Lion [at the Venice Film Festival]. And then I hear about that movie a lot, too, so obviously every audience is a different movie audience. You have your genre movie audiences that will talk about Blade and Felon and then you have artistic people who will be like, “Somewhere was the greatest film.”
I always get hit by different people and I believe as an actor you wanna hit different genres. I actually texted Sophia and said, “I’m doing a comedy. I’m playing this guy Hank. I think you’re gonna like it.” And she was like, “I’m so excited you’re doing comedy.” She’s always telling me I should do more comedy, so we will see how Hank Landry turns out.
MH: Somewhere’s a great film and it’s a certainly different side of you as an actor. It’s great to see you go from horrendously terrifying villain in Blade to action star in Public Enemies. And then Somewhere just came out of nowhere.
SD: I just try to mix it up. After Somewhere, I did Immortals as a commercial play, which obviously did really well and was Relativity’s biggest film. But after that, I wanted to do something intimate, so I did The Motel Life which got incredible reviews. I wish it would have done better and had more of a release but the work was awesome. That movie will become very famous in a few years. It might just take a little time but Emile Hirsch is in that with me and that was just a great experience. It’s just about mixing it up. I don’t wanna do the same thing all the time.
Sex, Guaranteed is now in post-production.