Stephen Dorff - A wilted talent finds somewhere to bloom

His role in Sofia Coppola's new film is the best part Stephen Dorff's ever had. It could be career-changing, he tells Gill Pringle

Stephen Dorff rubs a stubbled chin and speaks in a low, gravelly voice, reminiscent of the hard-living film idol he portrays in Somewhere. It's a role he knows inside-out – from long before Sofia Coppola sent him the script for her film, two years ago. As Somewhere's fictitious but all-too-familiar Johnny Marco, he's forced to reexamine his life after his 11-year-old daughter is deposited at the infamous Hollywood hotel he calls home, an act that brings into question his sybaritic lifestyle.

At 37, the never-wed Dorff may have no children of his own but he has got the rest of the character down pat, having lived the part for half his life. "Sofia gave me, single-handedly, the best role in the last five years for a young man. Nothing compares to it. I've read everything and it is the best," he says with a fierce intensity.

Raised in Los Angeles, where his father, Steve Dorff, continues to enjoy a successful career as a television and film composer, the young Dorff naturally gravitated toward film. Just 12 years old when he first appeared on TV, he featured in popular shows such as Married with Children and Roseanne, making his film debut in the lead role of horror movie, The Gate, aged 14.

In 1992 he was chosen from 2,000 young actors around the world for the coveted role of PK in John G Avildsen's The Power of One, earning him the Male Star of Tomorrow Award from the National Association of Theater Owners. Two years later, he achieved overnight fame with two hit movies, playing Stuart Sutcliffe in Iain Softley's award-winning Beatles drama Backbeat, and as S.F.W.'s indifferent kidnap victim opposite newcomer Reese Witherspoon. His choice of roles thereafter point to a man torn between artistic endeavour and box-office bucks, skipping between a curious choice of indie films such as I Shot Andy Warhol and Cecil B DeMented and commercial hits such as Blade.

Dorff's is a typical tale of too-much-too-soon. Success went to his head and he quickly became a victim of believing his own fame, exposed to living legends such as Jack Nicholson, with whom he forged an enduring friendship after co-starring in Bob Rafelson's 1996 bomb Blood and Wine.

Perceived as arrogant by the media, his star dimmed. No longer cast as the leading man, the past five years have seen him relegated to minor roles in Oliver Stone's World Trade Center and Michael Mann's Public Enemies. Thus, it is a seemingly contrite Dorff who today expresses gratitude to Coppola for casting him in a film he considers to be a career-making turn.

"Certainly this is the best part I've ever played, especially in this time when there are less and less movies about real characters and original voices and directors that have original styles. She's one of the only ones left, and also one of the only ones who can get her movies green-lit.

"It was by far one of the best experiences I've ever had – in my life – and I've made about 35 movies. Now I think the best is to come. She gave me such an opportunity that now all these retards want to come and join the train, so great! Join the train!"

Recalling the events that led to his being cast in Somewhere, he says: "I'd just produced my own film, Felon, which became a bit of a cult hit and then I did Public Enemies. After that I heard Sofia was making another movie and I was told I was on her shortlist. It was the one-year anniversary of my mom's death coming up," says the actor, whose mother Nancy suffered from brain cancer.

"I wasn't in a very good place, but I just flipped when Sofia sent me the script – it was that good. I remember it was Oscar week last year and my agent said, 'I think you should just go to Paris and meet Sofia rather than wait'. So I went to Paris that same week and we had dinner and she was saying things like, 'don't cut your hair,' but she hadn't really told me that I had the part. By the sixth day, I'm still in Paris, going crazy," says Dorff.

"But my agent was like, 'you're not leaving Paris until you get this part!', and I'm like, 'I'm gonna tell her that I'm leaving on Saturday but if she needs me, I'll stay longer'. She'd just had another baby so I didn't want to impose, but I was also going a little crazy and I texted her the night before saying, 'I can't really sleep, I can't stop thinking about this part but I also don't want to be a nag so if you do need me, let me know before I head out on Saturday'.

"And I didn't hear anything from her and I was starting to worry. This was now the night time of the day that my mom passed. I was on a hotel balcony with a view of the Eiffel Tower and I was sad and then my phone rang and it was Sofia saying: 'I don't need to look anymore. Do you want to be in my movie?' And I said, 'yeah, are you serious?' At that point, the Eiffel Tower started going techno the way it does on the hour and I felt my mom's presence for the first time in a year. I had a flood of emotion and started crying in the street. Two months later we made the movie and it was single-handedly the most poetic, amazing, relaxed creative, environment I could have ever asked for. It was like nothing I've ever experienced before." His eyes fill with tears.

"I've been in the business my whole life. I'm an old man. I'm 37, for Christ sakes!" he says. "But after working with Sofia, I'm having a hard time finding anything that is remotely as good. Working with Sofia was kind of like the kiss of death. I told Sofia, 'I hope we get to do another one because it's very hard to find another one now after I've worked with you because it was such an amazing experience'." Dorff stars in Somewhere with Elle Fanning – younger sister of child star Dakota – as his daughter, and will next be seen as a muscle-bound Greek slave in Tarsem Singh's Immortals and as a porn star in Tom Brady's comedy Born to be a Star.

Despite having regained favour with Hollywood's power brokers, he's nevertheless determined to do things his own way. "I like to make movies about characters. I like smaller films, that's what I love to do," he says. "I love acting, number one, but I think now I'll get more into producing and make some more films, à la Felon, maybe even a little bigger. I have a comedy idea that I came up with that I'm doing with Adam Sandler's company that I want to do with Jack Nicholson, who's still a good friend of mine.

"It's a very funny comedy idea for me and him set in the South of France. We're not in script form yet but I wrote the treatment and they've already bought it so as soon as I get a break from working, I'll turn that into a script and I'll go and tell Jack," he says, knocking on the wooden table between us, "'Jack you have to make this with me...' and he'll say, 'Dorff, come on, let's do it.'" He does a flawless Nicholson impression. "And I'll get Sony to give him his $15m and then we'll go and make the movie – because he likes money. Just the way I like money too.

"I enjoy my lifestyle, living by the beach in Venice. I'm not afraid to admit I enjoy the money," he told The Independent several months ago, in what was one of his last interviews before his pre-Somewhere media training; studio bosses were clearly aware of Dorff's past "own-goals".

"I have to go and be media trained because they really want me on my best behaviour. I think they thought I was going to be upset about it but I actually want to have media training because I sometimes don't know what to say," he says. "I had so many years when I did it for so long and then so many years when nobody wanted to talk to me or I just did photo shoots for the girly magazines but I never had real interviews. But now that I'm doing interviews again, its cool," says the actor whose career once threatened to be restricted to music videos: he featured as Britney Spears' boyfriend in her video for "Everytime" as well as appearing in videos for Aerosmith and Limp Bizkit.

As much of a star of Somewhere as Dorff is Hollywood's famous gothic styled Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard. "I'm no Method actor but on this I went a little more hard-core – I lived with the part and lived in the Chateau Marmont," says Dorff, who stayed at the Chateau's $1,800-a-night two-bedroomed bungalow during the movie shoot.

"I went a little more extreme with it because it's a character-based film."

'Somewhere' is out on 10 December