At the movies

Stephen Dorff goes to the dark side in ‘The Motel Life’

Andrew Toth / Getty Images

Stephen Dorff realizes he has been in almost too many movies to count. Try to pin him down as a specific type and it’s nearly impossible: a boxing hero in The Power of One, a psychopath in Cold Creek Manor, a cop in World Trade Center, a wack-job director in Cecil B Demented, real-life musician Stuart Sutcliffe in Backbeat.

The Atlanta native has never played an amputee — until now. His latest character, Jerry Lee, is a tragic drifter in The Motel Life, co-starring new dad Emile Hirsch as Frank, his equally down-on-his-luck brother. We talked to Dorff from New York about the movie based on a novel of the same name, now playing at O-Cinema:

What attracted you to someone as broken as Jerry Lee?

I loved the script. I thought it was a great take on this relationship and the amazing loyalty and connection between two brothers and how strong it was. I have a younger brother, and I definitely want him to see it. Jerry Lee has become a burden to Frank, but he would never see it that way. They have each other’s back. They are each other’s family.

The movie is pretty depressing, but there are some lighter moments, like the use of animation peppered through.

True, these guys don’t have the prettiest layout for themselves. They have pretty much hit rock bottom. But I always thought of them as diamonds in the rough trying to find their way. They have a certain charm, and I think that comes through. I never saw this as a dark movie. There’s a lot of sadness, but every time it gets too heavy something whimsical and human and funny happens. I liked that balance.

With all that snow, it seems the weather cooperated with the mood.

When we rehearsing, Reno was like the Bahamas, so sunny. The book is set in the cold. Suddenly when we started filming for real we got dumped with tons of snow. That’s when we knew we were into something special.

How do you keep from getting pigeonholed in your career?

Hollywood likes to do that. After I played a bad boy a few times, those were the only kind of scripts I was getting. It was starting to scare my grandma [laughs], and it was getting boring. You want to hit a lot of beats as an actor; that’s why you get into this business. A turning point was in 2010 when Sofia Coppola gave me a big break in Somewhere. I got to play a bad boy but a vulnerable one. Now if this movie is successful I’ll only get parts like Jerry Lee, but that’s OK.

You filmed [1996 thriller] “Blood and Wine” in Miami. How was that experience?

Ah yes, I had a blast! I would go out at night with Jack Nicholson — he was playing my dad — and he wanted me to stay out until the sun came up. The problem was I had to be back at work at 6 in the morning. Jack comes in when he wants. He’s Jack Nicholson!

Madeleine Marr

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