Stephen Dorff: A party animal grows up

He had a wild time in Israel filming Zaytoun. But this time, everyone's favourite actor on the brink of the big time is hoping for more than just a fun ride, he tells Kaleem Aftab

Can we step into the bathroom?" asks Stephen Dorff when we meet in a hotel room. It's lunchtime and it's impossible not to be intrigued by such an out of the ordinary request. And so I find myself chatting to the 39-year-old star while sitting on the edge of a bath. He has made sure the smoke alarm is out of commission before lighting up.

It's common knowledge that Dorff likes to party. He's constantly being pictured living it up at glamorous locations around the world. Even while training with the Israeli army to play a pilot in Zaytoun, it didn't take long for Tel Aviv to know that the Atlanta-born star was in town.

"Yeah it was pretty wild," he guffaws, the tattoos on his bicep creeping out like vines from under the sleeve of his white T-shirt as he puffs on his cigarette. "They definitely like chasers. The word I heard most was 'chaser', which were these shots, everywhere we went, every day and every night, 'Stephen do you want a chaser?'. I was like, no! I'm dying here."

Then there is Dorff's justification for being out so much during the three-month shoot: "The truth is that there were a lot of public holidays. Every time I got into a rhythm of shooting we had a four-day holiday. So what are we going to do?" Quite.

It was playing the "Fifth Beatle" Stuart Sutcliffe in 1994's Backbeat that many first became away of Dorff's talents. Sutcliffe has always been marketed as the quintessential nearly man, almost famous. It's a fate that almost befell Dorff, before his career was jacked by a mesmerising performance as an actor stuck in an existential crisis in Sofia Coppola's Venice Golden Lion winning film Somewhere.

"Somewhere was like a dream part, a dream experience," he reminisces between puffs. "Sofia embraced me at a time when I really needed it."

An example of why Dorff's career needed a boost in 2010 can be found in a game that I play with my friends. Mention the actor and without exception everyone says how cool he is. After all Somewhere confirmed him as one of the hottest properties in Hollywood. But ask someone to name five Stephen Dorff movies and suddenly they are clutching at straws. He has more than 50 credits to his name, but so far only one of my friends has managed to come up with five. Dorff is the actor that everyone loves, but they just don't know why. He's everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

It's an odd situation given that Dorff has starred in so many high profile movies: Blade, Cecil B Demented, World Trade Center, Public Enemies, I Shot Andy Warhol, Alone In the Dark, S.F.W and Space Truckers to name some of his more successful ones. He often plays the bad guy, vampire or errant detective.

The best analysis of his career comes from Dorff himself, who seems to have given his own trajectory some thought. "I was doing mostly character work," he explains. "It kind of started changing after I did this movie Felon [in 2008] that I produced. It was a film I did with Val Kilmer and Sam Shepard that got buried when it came out, but it became a massive movie and it seems like it's been seen by every young person in the world who is into UFC and fighting. It was this movie that Sofia saw. Then I did Public Enemies and some character work, but it wasn't until Somewhere that it changed. Now I'm playing good guys again, playing dads. I'll probably play a grandfather soon."

We move back into the easy chairs and Dorff begins scoffing a plate of chips in between sentences. Zaytoun sees the actor make a departure from the man-child roles that he often gets to play. Set during the Lebanon War of 1982, he plays Yoni, a pilot shot down over Beirut and captured by the Palestinian Liberation Front. Locked in a cell in a camp, he is guarded by a myriad of figures including a young rebellious 12-year-old boy who yearns to fulfil his father's dream of planting an olive tree in his ancestral home. The pilot convinces the boy that if he frees him, he'll help him do this. They then embark on a dangerous road trip and a friendship builds between the two enemies. "The natural instinct is to think of having an Israeli for the part," says Dorff. "But producer Gareth Unwin and director Eran Riklis wanted this to be a more international film. So I read the script and I was taken by this idea of friendship."

Dorff's dad, a composer and music producer, is Jewish. And religion was a part of the actor's young life growing up; in interviews he's always stated that he was raised half-Jewish. Zaytoun afforded him an opportunity to learn more about Israel and the conflict in the Middle East: "I learned a lot of things about Israel, even geographically how small it is. I just didn't know how tiny it is and how there are all these enemies around it. It's a very weird bubble. The air force showed me that when they are training they go up, then boom, they have to turn around as there is no airspace."

Dorff was given lessons on the history of the conflict. While learning about the Yom Kippur War and the backdrop of the 1982 Lebanon War, he met with pilots who had been captured. "I met one pilot who was incredible and opened up to me, He was captured by the Syrians in 1982 and for two years had them believe that he could not speak English." As to the thorny political question of whether Dorff thinks there is a possibility of co-existence. "I try not to get too involved," he states. "I'm not political in that sense. I know that there is definitely a huge argument there and the Palestinian people have that argument and every right to have that argument but I would hope at some point that it would all be resolved and there can be that co-existence.

"And also it feels like in Israel the people are so lovely and whatever that land issue is, it would be great if the people could just come to a happy medium."

'Zaytoun' is out on 26 December

This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of The Independent's Radar magazine