There’s some heavy stuff underway in Tarsem Singh’s ”Immortals” — essentially brutal conflicts that threaten man and god alike — but in the middle of it all there’s a sly scoundrel named Stavros and, like a certain smuggler in the “Star Wars” films, he’s the bad boy who reminds the audience that moral shades of gray can be especially interesting in a black-and-white universe.
“I’m like this Han Solo part of it, I’m the only guy in the film who is not so serious … he wants to bed some women, gets something to eat and maybe steal some cool stuff,” actor Stephen Dorff says of his character in the Greek mythology epic that arrives in theaters this weekend. “I like the human element in that, that’s what attracted me to the role. Tarsem let me go for that.”
Stavros is the cool and cynical troublemaker who crosses paths with Theseus (Henry Cavill, soon to be Hollywood’s new Superman) and the Oracle priestess Phaedra (Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame), who have a date with destiny as a mad king named Hyperion (played with fire-breathing menace by Mickey Rourke) looks to tear down the gods led by Zeus (Luke Evans, a “Clash of the Titans” actor back in mythology mode). There are parts of the film that look like the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling come to life and Dorff says his character helps the audience stay tethered to the action.
“The danger in movies like this is that the set-up is pretty standard — it’s good versus evil, gorgeous girls, fight scenes — and you have to make it stand on its own. In this movie, the gods are doing their thing, you have a king who wants to take over the world, Theseus wants revenge. All of it can get Shakespearean and a little too heavy for a movie like this.”
Dorff added that the balance is key, making sure that the winking moments don’t slide into camp. ”We didn’t want to make it too contemporary but so much of this film is Tarsem’s vision of Greek mythology. It doesn’t pretend to be a history lesson. At the same time, we couldn’t be skewing too modern without undermining the world he created. Stavros has a modern attitude but the contemporary lingo for the era of the movie, if that makes sense. The main thing is this movie shows what’s in Tarsem’s head.”
The mind of Singh is a singular place, without a doubt, but the director knows that ”Immortals” will leave some people scratching their heads or rolling their eyes. That’s part and parcel of making a movie of lyrical mayhem and bloodied beefcake that will remind some people of “300″ (Gianni Nunnari and Mark Canton produced both films, which present a turbocharged vision of the battlefields of antiquity) and inspire plenty of toga wisecracks. The movie is a bit of a blank spot at the moment – Relativity Media wasn’t screening it early for many critics — but Singh is the filmmaker behind “The Cell” and “The Fall” and there are few directors today who approach the screen more like a painting canvas than the Indian auteur.
For Dorff, a relative tourist in the visual-effects sector of film, the only reason to go to ancient Greece was to work with Singh. It also was a chance to surf the success of “Somewhere,” the festival-circuit favorite that gave Dorff new career momentum.
“Going into something like this, it was all about Tarsem,” Dorff said. “I wouldn’t have gone near something like this, probably, without him. I haven’t done too many of these big, larger-than-life, visual-effects movies. I worked on ’Blade’ years ago and been part of films like ‘Public Enemies,’ which was a big production in a different way. Usually the films I make are grounded in reality. Even though with this movie it’s visual effects splendor and everything else that’s in Tarsem’s head all brought to reality, the cool thing about it for me is that he built these cool sets and when you were there it made it feel grounded in a way. The fact that we shot the whole movie inside these huge stages, we had a real foundation. If it was a village, we got real horses and we had hundreds of extras and they were real people, you know? When we’re sitting around a fire yakking, it’s a real fire, it wasn’t added later. It wasn’t like what I’ve heard with some of these green screen movies where everything is created in a computer. We had maybe 75% of the shoot there on camera and the rest was filled in later. It felt real and as an actor that’s what you want to do.”
Dorff’s feature film career began with a genre project — “The Gate,” the 1987 horror film — but it was movies such as “Backbeat,” “The Power of One” and “I Shot Andy Warhol” that defined the contours of his career. He got a major career boost as the lead in “Somewhere,” the 2010 film by Sofia Coppola that claimed the Golden Lion award for best picture at the 67th Venice International Film Festival.
“I was so excited by that film and working with Sofia on it and all these things started happening for me — even before it came, just based on the fact that I was shooting that movie,” Dorff said. “Three years ago, I was getting good offers but I wasn’t getting things like ‘Immortals’ and the other ones I’ve been hearing about. Sofia gave me a nice jolt in a point in my life where I was changing and my focus became different. I’m not knocking my career but ‘Somewhere’ has just opened up the possibilities a bit more and given me a shot at some leads. She gave me that gift at the perfect time, really, and I’m excited and humbled to be working with such great filmmakers now and different genres. I’ve dabbled in comedy and I have two great dramas coming next year. My goal is to keep going and to just rock this [stuff] and work hard.”
Dorff said “Immortals” may not seem like the next logical step after “Somewhere” but he saw in both the most enticing thing possible — a chance to do something new, unexpected and compelling.
“I’m a fan of all kinds of movies,” Dorff said, “but as an actor, the movies I’ve been drawn to are more character-driven movies and they give you time to really know characters and spend time on them and their stories. The ‘big movie’ is a different thing but when it comes to doing a visual-effects movie, I’d much rather be in ‘Immortals’ than making some superhero movie or one of these franchises where it feels like you’ve just generated the same thing over and over. Whatever I do, I always hope it comes out somewhat original and this was definitely a chance to do that.”
– Geoff Boucher
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