It’s illegal to smoke in Toronto hotel rooms, a fact seemingly lost on Stephen Dorff, who fills the bathroom of his suite at the Intercontinental with billowing white clouds, while his team of handlers turn a blind eye. It’s a fuck-you move befitting of Johnny Marco, the burned-out matinee idol he played in Sofia Coppola’s under-appreciated ode-to-ennui Somewhere. Dorff’s performance was acclaimed, but not exactly a stretch for the battle-scarred showbiz vet, whose twenty-year career has had more highs and lows than a West Hollywood junkie. His latest role, the one that brings him to Toronto (along with a cameo in The Iceman), is far more audacious. In Zaytoun, the latest installment in what director Eran Riklis calls his “Middle East Cycle,” the Atlanta-born actor plays an Israeli fighter pilot who embarks on an unlikely road trip with a Palestinian boy in 1982. We know what you’re thinking: Stephen Dorff as an Israeli? But the 37 year old aces it, and as we found out over the course of our interview, no one was more surprised by that than Dorff himself.
I know you were in Venice not too long ago for Somewhere. What are the differences between that festival and TIFF?
Toronto and Venice have always been my favorite. Toronto is just mental, there’s so many things going on, you don’t even get a chance to see your friends. Venice is more like one movie a night, whereas here it’s like six a night.
How did you come on board this project?
Well, Gareth Unwin sent the script, and I knew he was an up-and-comer. He’s the producer who just did The King’s Speech, and I wanted to do this with Eran Riklis. I knew of Eran Riklis, but I hadn’t seen Lemon Tree, The Syrian Bride, or some of his other titles. I met Eran in New York and the first thing was that I just loved the script, it really affected me, but I don’t know, why me? I don’t know anything about these people.
Did you wonder why not just use an actual Israeli?
Yeah, and then they explained that they wanted this to be more international, the way that Spielberg did Munich, and how Helen Mirren played a Mossad agent in The Debt, so I’d listen to her accent. Then I met Eran and I was like, “I love this but I don’t know if I can do this.” I don’t feel like I look Israeli, all my friends that are Israeli are pretty dark and sound like this, “Come to Israel!” So I was like, what’s going on? Then he pulled out a picture of this pilot who’s like twenty-nine years old, he showed me this picture and it looked like me. So I was like, “Really? So some Israeli’s are different?” He looked at me and said, “Yes, you have to come and just see it! We’ll get the voice, I know you can do it, you’ve done accents before.”
Did you have a speech coach for the accent?
Yeah, an incredible guy in Israel who’s based in Tel Aviv, he’s just this linguistic genius. He did say because I’ve done English a lot in the past and am pretty good with accents, and mimicking sounds, that it was just about phonetically going through what the accent was going to sound like, and then we did Hebrew separately. That’s a whole other fucking thing, learning those sounds. You can go in and do Southern or English all day long, but Hebrew—I didn’t want to sound like, “I’m from Israel!” (laughs)
Do you think some people might confuse this as a movie about the Israel-Palestine conflict itself?
I would hope not, because I feel like the way that Eran handled it was not so heavy-handed or political. I mean obviously, where it takes place, it’s one of the biggest conflicts that’s ongoing and causes a lot of tension every day over there. It’s obviously something that’s very prevalent. We tell this story in ’82, but it could be happening today. I like the idea of two guys completely trained to hate people, and spending three weeks—if we were arch enemies and hated each other we would have married the same woman, or did something terrible to your family, or something, or we’d have this huge conflict. But then, if we spent three weeks together on an intense journey, then we’d find out human, normal, stuff. I like that idea of two people completely forced together, and through that they touch each other’s lives.
It’s definitely core to the film.
Yeah, and that to me was what really hit me, not being Israeli, not being from there, I don’t live with that tension, but I identified with their friendship. Obviously the world is a crazy place. I familiarized myself with the wars, the history of the Israeli air force, and meeting these pilots who were captured for two years by the Syrians.
Did meeting these people give you a greater appreciation of what you have?
Oh yeah, fuck yeah, big time. It was a great experience for my life, as well as the movie. It felt like City of God almost, there was danger amongst a child, a boy in there, and then the ending being bittersweet: not being able to keep him, not being able to visit him there, our friendship is going to end here, but it’s a beautiful thing and we’ll remember this forever.
Tell me a little about your relationship with the actor who played the boy.
Abdallah. I couldn’t have done it without him. Eran found him when I went to Israel for my first trip in February. We read with some kids and a lot of them were trying to play tough, they were actors and you could tell they came from good families. Abdallah came in and he was just a guy with a danger about him, a cockiness, a natural fuel, and I immediately felt it.
Did your work with Elle in Somewhere prep you for working so closely with a young person?
Yeah it did. Well, Elle is like a grown woman even when she’s eleven. It’s funny, in some ways she’s more of the adult than the dad.
When you share the screen with these young people, are you ever blown away at the abilities that they have, as far as acting goes?
In different ways. Elle comes from an incredible family of thespians, her sister’s been acting forever. I just did a movie with Dakota, actually, she’s awesome. It’s weird working with both of them. Sorry, I got side-tracked there for a minute. But Abbie was different, he’s the real deal. His mom is Palestinian and his dad is Arabic. He has the street thing about him, which was very prevalent when I met him.
How physical was the shoot on both of you?
It wasn’t overly physical. There wasn’t any heavy training like you would do in an action movie, but it was physically just exhausting because there’s a lot of walking involved. I was amazed how small Israel is.
Are you worried that audiences might not get a chance to see it, because it isn’t your typical Hollywood film that’s going to be released in 3,000 cinemas?
Yeah, I don’t know. I think we have a pretty smart team behind us. I know that there’s a big distribution overseas already with Pathé, but hopefully we’ll get a nice big US company to support it, but I don’t think it’ll come out like Immortals. I don’t think it’ll come out in your multiplexes and 3,000 screens, but I think this film could be a real player as a title where people hear about it and tell other people to go see it. It’s not a film for the young girls (laughs).
Today is the anniversary of September 11th, and you were in World Trade Center. At the time were you a bit concerned that the movie was coming out too soon after the actual event?
No, you know it had been five years when they released it, and Oliver made such a great movie. I met some really heroic people, the guy I played Scott Straus, was really cool. That was before Somewhere and all of the resurgence. I’d gotten good parts in Public Enemies and I did World Trade Center, but I was doing more character parts. I loved that movie though, it was a really strong movie, almost a little too intense I think for most people, but it ended up doing really well. For Oliver it was one of his biggest movies. It’s a tough one but it’s a beautifully made movie. One story out of thousands that exist, but it’s still relevant.
It’s kind of like Zaytoun in that way. It’s this small story in the context of this way bigger event.
Exactly, and you go with that. Obviously the story in World Trade Center was a real, heroic, mission. This marine came down and found these guys, and they made a call and Scott Strauss ended up on top of this rubble, and they went down in the flames. I met this guy! It’s interesting when you play a real person, I wonder what it’d be like if Yoni did exist, if it was a true story. It’s a lot different because Yoni is a fictional character. It feels real because it’s all based on reality, but it’s fiction so it gives me some room. With Scotty I was trying to copy everything that he did and do as much as he wanted seen, because I felt a loyalty to him.
You talked a bit about the resurgence from Somewhere. Are you still feeling the effects from that role?
Yeah, I just love that movie and people would always talk about it. She made a great movie. We got a little snubbed in America, but we killed it in Europe.
You won the Golden Lion
For me it was an amazing experience, it was a great part, a great time, and now I’m in the situation where I’m trying to do interesting films and work with cool filmmakers. It’s harder because, as you know, there are fewer interesting films. There’s either these monster, Immortals films, book movies, or it’s these teeny little movies.