A longtime slacker icon known for “S.F.W.,” “Cecil B. Demented” and Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” Stephen Dorff shifts gears for Eran Riklis’ Israeli drama “Zaytoun.” He plays a pilot who escorts a young Palestinian boy (Abdallah El Akal) through the Middle East. "Zaytoun" opens in New York City on Friday, Sept. 20.
What prompted you to make “Zaytoun” and play Yoni?
I was moved by the script. I don’t know why they wanted me to play an Israeli, but I like to make films outside Hollywood. At first I was hesitant. I feel it’s a little strange to play someone like an Israeli.
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Did your father being Jewish influence you to take the role?
My dad is Jewish; my mother is Catholic, but I didn’t grow up religious. I’m sure my dad and grandparents are happy I made this Israeli film.
How did you identify with and research the character of Yoni?
I knew how to play a pilot. And a pilot in the US Air Force is similar. I learned Hebrew and the accent, worked with the government and air force there. I was allowed access to El Al captains who were captured and tortured around the time of the story. I learned the history leading up to 1982 [when the film is set].
You spend a good part of the film handcuffed and wounded. How difficult was that to do?
That’s not really difficult. Handcuffs just make you more physically restricted. It’s makeup and props. What is hard is the chemistry, getting the story across and make it real and not melodramatic.
Can you talk about your chemistry with Abdallah El Akal?
We’re two enemies who hate each other and connect in a human way and develop a friendship. It could have been a 9/11 terrorist and a NYC policemen. We found the perfect kid, who was very real and had a rawness. He was from the West Bank but was Arabic. His dad has two wives and he has ten siblings. There was great energy he brought to the picture.
Most actors are warned not to co-star with children but you did here and in “Somewhere.”
It’s a tricky thing. I think I’ve been lucky. Elle [Fanning, from “Somewhere”] is an ingenue, a gem, a brilliant natural actress with incredible instincts. Abdallah is much more of a real kid, with a complicated home life. He loves America has an iPod and listens to hip hop. He was a mensch.
What was it like to make a film like this on location?
A few times when I went to the air force bases on the Lebanon border, there was action coming in from Gaza. If the sirens sounded the [pilots] would be up in the air in five minutes and the meeting is over. They would warn be about that, but ultimately, that didn’t happen.