Standing outside of a Key Biscayne, Florida, strip mall, Stephen Dorff is trying not to shiver on an unseasonably cold 50 degree January afternoon. Dressed in complete defiance of the weather-a light short sleeve, plaid button down, and nondescript jeans- the 23 year old actor is between takes on Blood And Wine, a noir thriller he is shooting opposite Jack Nicholson, Judy Davis, and Michael Caine. Aggravating a cold with countless cigarettes, Dorff counteracts his vice with an occasional hit off a sinus inhaler.
A gaggle of sweat shirted young girls approaches him for an autograph. He happily obliges then charmingly excuses himself when called to shoot a scene. While he works, several of those acolytes are polled to find out what it is about Dorff they like. Hes too sexy, lets loose Gayle, 16. Hes so fine, so sexy, I love his smile, adds her friend, Adriana, 18, in lightly Spanish-accented English.
Later, when Dorff is approached for an autograph by a tall, coltish brunette with braces, his ability to hit just the right now with people becomes apparent. He compliments her on her green metallic nail polish and bequeaths her with an autograph that reads Cool Nail Polish, Stephen Dorff. With Dorff, there are no phony protestanations of love, no walls between public and star, no insincere come-ons, merely: We spent 30 seconds together and in that time I noticed something unique about you.
If there is one thing that Stephen Dorff now knows, its makeup. Deemed too pretty to be cast in Too Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything Julie Newmar (director Beeban Kidron reportedly thought his beauty would outshine the films other stars) Dorff learned the difference between Revlons Fire and Ice lipstick and Maybelline's Red Spark while portraying 60s factory-era transgender superstar Candy Darling in American Playhouse Films so to be released film I Shot Andy Warhol.
In his modest but pivotal role, Dorff is so effective at connecting with its feminine side that many critics have singled out his performance over those of co-stars Jared Harris (the son of British actor Richard Harris) as Warhol, Tahnee Welch (Raquels daughter) as Factory superstar Viva, Frisk star Jim Lyons, queer film superstar Craig Chester, and even Ready To Wear star Lili Taylor as would-be Warhol assassin Valarie Solanas. As you watch the film its difficult to believe that Dorff has carved out a reputation as one of the new Hollywoods wildest young playboys.
But on Key Biscayne, Dorffs on camera pretty-boy-with-a-nasty-image is charged with an irreverent and uninhibited attitude for life. Without question, there are major differences between Stephen Dorff , the person, and the characters he portrays. His real life persona is probably closer to his role as Cliff, the loudmouth in SFW, than it is to Candy Darling. According to those who know him, Dorff has a talent for showing up at the cool (as opposed to right) parties, hangs out with models and rock stars (and is rumored to have bedded plenty of the former and at least one of the latter), and often says things get him in trouble. In an age when most actors spend their interview time whining that they are just plain folks like you and me, Dorff seems to like the perks that accompany his craft.
Dorff is a 90s style pansexual hipster, and although hes straight, he also says that he is exceedingly comfortable with gay men and lesbians. My agents gay, and my lawyers gay, he exclaims, I grew up [surrounded by] gay people, being really open about it, and not ever feeling, oh God these two guys are kissing over there.
Planted on a sofa in a cozy corner of Miamis candlelit and now deserted, Century Hotel bar on the following evening, Dorff grows animated when asked about his preparation for the role in Warhol. I had three days to prepare, he says, so I said to myself, if I go into that, Ive got to do it right, because if I dont, that worlds going to rip me to shreds.
The first thing Dorff did to transform himself into the 60s transgender downtown diva was to make an appointment at Manhattans exclusive Louis Licari salon to be buffed, puffed and plucked. His eyebrows here waxed and his entire body shaved (waxing wouldve been too painful), and his fingers were outfitted with non-removable acrylic nails. Once his physical transformation was complete, spent his remaining preparation time was in front of a VCR, watching tapes of Darlings performances at Maxs Kansas City, as well as Jackie Kennedys White House Tour.
Once production began, Dorff threw himself even further into his character. More than watching any video, reading any book, or conversing with any of her friends, Dorff says, an experience he had early on at a night shoot near a public bathroom in Greenwich Villages Washington Square Park allowed him to experience how Darling must have felt on a daily basis, at a time cross-dressing was grounds for arrest. I had to take a piss, he says, and I went to the bathroom and I didnt take and A.D. [assistant director]. We didnt close the park down, and Im in there with my skirt, white lipstick, white sunglasses, and Im oblivious. And theres this big black dude looking at me like Yeah chick with a dick. Im like Yo homey, whats up? and hes like Im chillin, and Im like, were shooting this movie. It was heavy, because I thought he was going to go BAM and my face was going to be all over the mirror.
That toilet encounter, says the actor, gave him an idea of what its like to deal with gender conflict. Every time she had to take a piss its like a complete setback, he says, Youre set back to what you are. I think thats what Candy was most sad about. It cant be more obvious than when you have to pull it out and go. She wanted to be a woman, but she was born the wrong way, and everytime I went to the bathroom I thought about that.
Dorff was well aware his 11th hour casting had been controversial. He had replaced New York drag artist Lily Of The Valley, who, from all respects, has devoted her life to imitating Darling. Lilly is talented and beautiful, says director Mary Harron, but we felt we needed someone with a lot of cinema experience. Yet with the growing controversy over the lack of work for openly gay actors in gay-themed movies, the ground is ripe for a backlash. Its the same as when I went over to Liverpool to play [fifth Beatle] Stuart Sutcliffe [in BackBeat], he observes, They looked at me like I was some kind of stupid fucking American surfer kid playing a Beatle. When you enter that thing, you get that. So I just used all that shit to make it better.
Parallels to BackBeat are not out of place, since I Shot Andy Warhol is another slice of the 1960s pop culture history. Warhol follows Valerie Solanas- lesbian, self-styled artist, playwright, founder and sole member of SCUM (society for cutting up men), as she tries to attach herself to Warhols Factory scene. Plagued by commercial and social failure and the delusion that Warhol is plotting against her, Solanas ultimately shoots the artist, a crime for which she is sentenced to three years in a state psychiatric hospital.
Severely wounded, Warhol recovered, although friends of the artist said he never really got over the incident, that he was haunted by it until he died in 1987. Although her SCUM Manifesto was published all over the world, Solanas never saw a penny of profit, she died in poverty and obscurity in 1988, never having committed another violent act.
Candy Darling was Solanas confidant and her entrée into the Factory scene. Regarded by some as a footnote to such Warhol superstars as the Velvet Underground, Edie Sedgwick, Nico, Joe Dallesandro, and Holly Woodlawn, Darling is reverently regarded professionally and personally by those who knew her. (Darling died in 1974 from cancer, a result of years of unsupervised hormone treatments.) She was very talented and very unique, reflects filmmaker Paul Morrissey, who directed the transgender superstar in both Flesh and Women In Revolt. Had she lived she wouldve definitely had a career.
Although Morrissey is highly piqued at the notion of anyone making a film about Solanas, whom he calls a ridiculous, defiant, damaged person- he reluctantly concedes Dorff was a good choice to play Darling. Hes a good actor, he offers. I expect hell acquit himself well. Adds Harron, I thought he was wonderful.
The roots of Dorffs empathy for Candy may spring from his childhood. His heterosexuality notwithstanding, Dorff considered himself and outsider. I didnt have much fun as a child, he says of growing up in LAs suffocatingly normal San Fernando Valley. Besides being kicked out of a handful of private schools, he admits to almost always being the last boy chosen for teams in sports- something all too familiar to a lot of artistic boys.
Dorff figures that hed fare pretty well as a gay man. I think I wanted to be gay, I wouldnt have a problem getting laid and Id be open about it. He says. But he also takes the opportunity to disabuse any male suitors of any possibility of becoming their next boyfriend. I love women, I am a straight guy, he asserts, although he resists categorizing himself in stone. Right now Im completely here. The way I live is day to day. I dont know if in four yearsI have no idea. All I know is that Im pretty confident with my sexuality.
When the conversation turns to the topic of living within the glare of fame, Dorff brings up the subject of his friendship with REM front man Michael Stipe. He says he was somewhat pained last year when rumors surfaced that he and Stipe were involved in a passionate love affair. If I said I didnt care, Id be lying because I did care. I found it kind of funny, kind of fantasy a young cute actor with a controversial rocker guy. Michaels a great guy. Hes a great artist and a writer. As soon as we met, we had a natural rapport. I dont want to think about Oh my God, I cant hand out with him because hes gay and Im getting to get my picture taken and Im worried about what people might think.
In time, Dorff will probably adjust to the stress of living his life in public and like his predecessors, be all the more interesting to the public because of his refusal to follow the rules. Like Jack Nicholson- the headliner in the movie Dorff is now filming in the Florida Keys- eventually he will probably be able to say whatever he wants, hang out with whomever he wants, and do whatever he wants without adverse effect. The truth is, he says, when I meet someone I find interesting, I am fortunate, because I happen to thank theres a lot of really boring, lame people in this world who just dont get it-when I meet someone who does I get excited by that. We do too.