What's it like being an actor shooting a film about an actor, knowing that when the film comes out, everyone's wondering how much of your performance is autobiographical—wondering if you are Johnny Marco?
We're very different. For one, I'm not a father. But Sofia used a lot of ideas to create Johnny, although he's a much more naked character than I'm used to playing. Actors are used to having a lot more words, set pieces, distractions given to us whether it's a look or an accent or makeup or a crazy hairstyle. This film has nothing for me to do except emotions. Having to say things without saying them. The challenge for me was working with Sofia in a different arena than I'm used to working. Much more real life, more awkward moments, a much more naturalistic performance.
The first half almost plays like a silent movie—you say nearly nothing. And even when Cleo enters, you don't do a lot of Real Talk—you have to express everything through action. How do you channel that?
It just comes from an energy in the script. The script's very specific; it's just underwritten because she doesn't want too give too much away—she wants to leave air in the script, room to find things. Yet the whole movie is very laid out into specific scenes and dialogue. It's more about filling in the blanks. One sequence was called 'Guitar Hero' and it was just one line. It says, "Cleo and Johnny play Guitar Hero in the hotel room." But we fill it with the naturalness of what we're doing: What song do we want to do? Are you using your whammy bar? Then again, certain scenes are completely written like the breakdown scene where I talk to Layla [Johnny's ex-wife] on the phone. It was hard—the hardest things I found were the real time stuff where the camera is sitting on me while I'm smoking a cigarette for four minutes. That's incredibly different because if you're mugging for the camera just one bit too much, the whole scene unravels. I used to say, 'I need more lines!' but looking back, that would have been a mistake. We always hear the obvious, too much information. In real life, people don't communicate what they want to. They do later when they look back. This character's not ready to say the things we want to hear, even though we know he feels them. There's a heartbreaking sweetness to the movie underneath all the decadence, emptiness and flash.
I see two more challenges for you in making audiences connect to Johnny: One, he's such a passive character that you spend the whole movie going where people want you to go, doing what they want you to do, humping people who want to be humped—Johnny makes almost none of his own decisions.
And he's also a flawed guy who audiences would look at and go, 'C'mon buddy, is it that bad? You have a Ferrari, you live in the Chateau Marmont, you have more beautiful supermodels getting naked for you than anyone I've ever seen.'
That was my second challenge—
And in real life, all that doesn't matter. You can win $50 million in the lottery and still be a broken soul whether or not you can buy a private jet or ten Ferraris—it doesn't mean anything. In this culture today where everybody's obsessed with celebrity, it's refreshing to see the other side of a celebrity in his saddest times. Not when he's shooting a movie or feeling like an action guy—what's it like when you run into an actress that you might have slept with a year ago on a movie, and now you have to do this photo shoot while she's saying these incredibly weird things to you? What's it like to ride in the elevator with another actor? It's a teeny scene, but I love that moment with Benicio Del Toro because it's happened to me—it happened to me while I was staying in the hotel with a different actor. Sofia made the film almost feel like a documentary—in a very invasive way, you get to know these people. She sets it up from her opening shot of the car looping around a racetrack—which is a ballsy opening shot, and I love it because you never open movies with anything like that.
And that shot's a good bookend because at the end, you're back in the car driving straight ahead and then, ultimately, getting out and walking on your own feet-now you're going somewhere.
Yeah, and Sofia and I were very clear that he knows where he's going. He's not concerned his car. He knows it's going to get stolen. He's walking to free himself of that. He might not know where he's going, but he know where he's going: he's going to buy a house for the first time in life, he's going to build Cleo an ice skating rink and make her feel safe for the first time in his life, and he's going to get his life together and be a great dad. And if he decides to read one of the 50 scripts piling up on his desk, maybe he'll read them and act again, but first he's going to make his life the more important choice. I think Sofia went through that in her own way having a family while we were makign this film. She had one daughter, now she has another, and her and Thomas [Mars of the band Phoenix] have created this incredible family and they couldn't be busier because she's off promoting her movie, and he's in one of the hottest bands in America. But they make it work and I'm envious in a very cool way—I love to see how she's really a real mom. There's not ten nannies around. It's her. Coming from the junket, she'll probably have the kids come visit her at lunch. She's a sweet lady and she's given me a gift of a role at a time where I felt like I needed it. That's really nice; that's never really happened to me. All the other things like winning Venice [the film won the Golden Lion at the film festival] has been the icing on the cake. And we'll see. Compared to some of this year's other movies—some of which I've seen, some of which I've liked—maybe we're too sophisticated for the old awards season. But maybe not—it'd be refreshing if a film like Somewhere did something. It's a film that really hangs with you. And you'll find that you'll like it more the second time. You'll get repeat business because you find so many details the second time you see it. I have friends who saw it with me months ago and then just saw it again at the premiere, and they were like, 'Dude, this played like a motherfucker the second time.' For me, I hate watching my movies, but I've seen this one ten times and I look forward to seeing it again. I never stay for a screening—I always go to dinner and then come back for the Q&A—but for this one, I don't want to leave the theater, I want to stay and watch it with a new audience.
For awards season, is your challenge getting people to know that you are acting and not just playing yourself?
I don't know? Not to discredit any of the other performances this year, but when you have an accent or a limp or something showy given to you, it's much easier. I know how to mimic anything, so if you turn me into a woman, I can be a woman. I could do a flashy part with my eyes closed. To me, that's so easy. But this part was the most challenging of any part I've ever played. It couldn't be more different from who I am, and it couldn't' be more different than the parts I've played. Sofia's the first director to ever allow me to show my vulnerable side. I guess I did in movies like Felon, but Felon didn't have the launchpad this movie will have—it was an undiscovered release that came out for two weeks.
For a nice guy, you play a lot of mean roles. I saw Shadowboxer, where you do terrible things with a pool cue. And then the new Blade film, which you're the lead in.
Actually, that's just an internet rumor. I'm not doing anything with Blade. Me and Stephen Norrington, who made the first Blade, are good friends. We had an idea when this whole vampire craze started happening more and more: Let's bring Deacon Frost back for a prequel. I love working with Steve, so it was my way of working with him and doing something cool. But then the press got wind of it and there's just so many legal things with Marvel now being owned by Disney, and New Line owning those characters, and New Line now being shut down and faded into Warners.
And you'd have to get a cameo for Wesley Snipes in there.
We really would. Without him, it wouldn't be a Blade movie. I think Blade was so good for the '90s—that and The Matrix were very far ahead of their time in terms of what they were saying-whereas now, I don't think Blade would work. You'd want to revamp it.
Back to Somewhere, you're surrounded by all of these, well, disposable girls who bore you. Even these matching strippers with their outfits and routines. And when it cuts from them to you watching Cleo skating on the rink in her costume, I thought: how is this guy going to make sure the only girl he cares about gets treated with respect?
I love that scene. I think that's the beginning of his wakeup call, even though he doesn't know what that wakeup is. When we jump to that closeup shot and you see me really see her for the first time. I tried to play like I was seeing my daughter as though I've missed her for the last four years. Where have I been? Have I been on vacation? I didn't know she ice-skated? I didn't know she was that tall, that graceful?
And Elle Fanning who plays Cleo told me that Sofia had you get dinners with her and Lala Sloatman [who plays Johnny's ex-wife Layla] to build your own backstory for the family.
It went beyond that. The best thing Sofia did—and I'm sure Elle agrees—is she'd trust us so much, she didn't even need to be there. She left us alone. She gave the responsibility to me, as Johnny would have the responsibility. She didn't pick up Elle and bring her over to my house. She told me to go to her school and pick her up and spend time with her.
You picked Elle up from school?
Yeah. I'd pick her up from her real school, and then it'd be up to me where we'd go for a few hours. Huh. And as I'm driving over in my car—I drive a Porsche, not a Ferrari—I'm noticing that my car smells like smoke. I'm thinking, 'Jesus Stephen, you're picking up a young girl. I gotta get this car smelling better. She's going to have books, we have to make room for them, is the seatbelt working?' I'm immediately starting to feel like Johnny Marco! It was awesome. And I asked Elle if she wanted to go for ice cream and she said, 'I don't really like ice cream.' 'You wanna get yogurt?' 'Yeah! We could do that.' We get there and it's awkward. Then we went to Color Me Mine and made some pottery. I'd never been to Color Me Mine. And all these weird things, we did on our own. Then when it comes time for us to be on set, Sofia knows we've built something and she can direct it. It's a beautiful way of working. I think she got some of those techniques from her father—it's almost theater play. I've worked with directors where we're blocking scenes in a room and we're not even going to be shooting in the room. The scene takes place on stairs—I find that to be totally pointless. I hate over-rehearsing. But the rehearsal process on this was pure elegance. We had that dinner with Lala, and she's only in a few phone calls and one scene. But you feel the weight of this family and I feel like that came from us having a two hour dinner that we pretended was four years ago-we jumped back in time to see how it would be like when we were still a family.
I hadn't really thought about how long they'd been split up—I just assumed it was longer.
I think it's been about four years. Johnny's done some work in Italy, some work with Al Pacino and Sharon Stone. You figure he's gotten a couple breaks, probably had the fourth lead in these movies with the stars. And then he's gotten this big action franchise and became super-famous, say, two years ago, and he's been living at the Chateau for probably a year and a half. Enough time to fall into this isolation, this weirdness. To lose contact with family, be the rock star dad who shows up for three hours and is going to Paris tomorrow.
Have you seen that isolation happen to anyone you know?
I think so. There's a natural emptiness in being any kind of performer. When you read about the great comedians that ended their lives, John Belushi and some of the famous ones from the Chateau. Chris Farley is someone I knew really well and I thought he was a genius. He made me laugh every time I went and saw him in the movies. He was a lovely guy, but he obviously had crazy demons. How could somebody who's that funny be so sad? I read that Jim Carrey had that kind of depression sometimes. These guys are bigger than life. Me, I'm not a comedian. I don't do stand-up. But I am a performer in my own way and I get sad after a movie ends. After Somewhere ended, I felt like Johnny Marco—I wanted to go to New York and see Sofia. I wanted to call Elle, even though I'm sure she wanted to hang out with her friends at school and not some strange actor. She has her own dad in real life, but I missed her. Being any kind of performer, you give so much to an audience. You give when the camera starts rolling or when the play starts, you give on tour. Any kind of art you're in: painting a picture, photography, writing, you give what your talent is. And when you do that, you lose a part of you. When it comes to you, Amy, or me, Stephen, where are we? I've been playing characters for the last three years—I don't know where I am. Now I'm older and I think I'm becoming a better, stronger person, so I think I'm able to decipher those things a little more clearly than Johnny Marco. But I'd like to have a family. Sofia has this beautiful family, so she can leave this world and go into that—that's nice. I don't have that yet. I've got a couple sisters, my brother who lives out of town, my dad. I lost my mom. I feel lonely at times. I would like to have my own children. Especially now that I'm 37 and there's more children around me, liking me, connecting with me. It feels almost like somebody's telling me, 'You're going to be good at this.' Maybe I need to have a son or a daughter? My little sisters are telling me that telepathically. Romy, Sofia's daughter, is telling me that telepathically. I'm doing an interview with New York Magazine the other day and Romy, Sofia's three-year-old, comes up to me at the Chateau and says, 'Hi Stephen!' I'm just talking to Romy and this poor journalist, I forgot he even existed. I'm playing with Romy asking, 'How was Disneyland?!' I find I have a connection with these young people in my life more than I've ever had with a girlfriend. I think this is the beginning of something else for me. And I'm excited about it. I don't really want to play villains or nasty characters anymore. If the Coen Brothers or a filmmaker I really respected gave me a really juicy villain—a really good part—I'd probably do it. But to just play stereotypical dark people, I'm not interested in that anymore.