Stephen Dorff on 'Embattled' and "Ludicrous" 'True Detective' Fan Theories

Stephen Dorff
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The actor also reflects on the 10th anniversary of Sofia Coppola’s 'Somewhere' and his shootout with Christian Bale in Michael Mann’s 'Public Enemies.'

After seven months of shooting the most material he’s ever shot in his 35-year career, Stephen Dorff was exhausted. But as taxing as his True Detective role was, something told Dorff that a caustic MMA fighter named Cash Boykins needed to be his next on-screen challenge. With little time to get into fighting shape, Dorff called up Josh Perzow, the same Montreal-based trainer who transformed him for 2011’s Immortals, and the two put together an accelerated training regimen that spanned six or seven weeks. Before he knew it, Dorff was on the Alabama set of Embattled, shooting fight scenes at the very start of production.

Nick Sarkisov’s Embattled is a father-son drama set in the world of mixed martial arts, as Cash (Dorff) reconnects with his son, Jett (Darren Mann), who’s following in his estranged father’s MMA footsteps. The fact that the film rests on the dynamic and chemistry between Dorff and Mann is all the more surprising when you consider that Mann was a last-minute replacement.

"We had another actor that I had read with in New York while I was shooting True Detective. And then, about two or three weeks out, the director called me and said we had a problem. And I was like, 'Uh-huh,'" Dorff tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It worried me, frankly, because Darren’s part, Jett, is really the movie. If there isn’t the right Jett, the movie doesn’t work. So I was pleasantly surprised that Darren was a hard worker… but I didn’t know him from Adam. He came out of nowhere. He was physically perfect. I also thought he looked younger and was better for the role, frankly.”

Last year, Dorff delivered a scene-stealing performance as Roland West throughout True Detective season three. Oddly enough, Dorff hadn’t even read for the role when he heard from his agent that he was in the running to star alongside Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. Once the show aired in early 2019, Dorff soon recognized how much energy True Detective fans put into cracking the case as quickly as possible. That also included fan theories such as West and Scoot McNairy’s Tom Purcell being romantically involved, or more outlandish ideas like Carmen Ejogo’s Amelia Reardon being the killer.

“In a show like True Detective, where there’s such rich ambiance and characters, everybody’s going to come up with crazy things,” Dorff explains. “After the third episode, I think everybody in the audience thought Carmen’s (Ejogo) character was the killer. They come up with ludicrous ideas. It’s just one of those shows that’s always had a lot of theories across its three seasons. It’s had a lot of extra talking on the Internet and rumors and piracy issues. It’s just one of those shows…”

In a recent conversation with THR, Dorff also reflects on the 10th anniversary of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere and his shootout with Christian Bale in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.

You’ve been in great shape throughout your career, but how did you pull off MMA fighter-shape in such a short amount of time, especially right after True Detective?

Yeah, I would’ve liked to have had at least two-and-a-half months, or ten weeks, but I had about six or seven weeks to jam it all in. I immediately got with my trainer, Josh Perzow, who’s trained me for a bunch of films. He’s from Montreal, but he came to L.A. and we pretty much hit the ground running. We put about ten pounds of muscle on me, just kind of bulking me up a little bit. And when I got on the ground in Alabama, I spent a couple weeks there continuing to train, learning all these fights and doing a bunch of cardio. So it was just a blend of trying to create the size without having to lose it all when I’m doing all of these fight scenes. The more I sweat, the more I do cardio, the more you shrink. (Laughs.) So it was a balance of really just trying to jam it in there, and once I knew the choreography of the fights, I was confident that I would pick that up pretty fast because I’ve done a lot of fighting. I’ve done a lot of fighting in movies, period, my whole career. So I’m pretty quick with picking up the choreography. It was just a question of learning these fights, learning the moves and working with an incredible group of people. And then Chris Conolley, who trained a ton of fighters out of his stable in Alabama where we filmed and where Cash is from, was just incredible at getting me up to speed quicker than we would’ve liked. The next thing we knew, we were in the cage and we were making it. So yeah, I mean, it was a tough thing to crunch in there, but I always knew it was going to be tight. I always knew they wanted to start right after True Detective just to get it in before the end of 2018. And yeah, now the movie’s been in the can for a while just because the director [Nick Sarkisov] took a long time to get it the way he wanted it, with great technicians. We got the sound designer from Gravity who won the Oscar. We got incredible editors. And he just literally took his time and crafted a really great picture.

Since actors are taught not to judge their characters, was Cash’s troubled childhood the key to you being able to play him without condemning his many flaws?

I think so, yeah. That’s a good question. Look, Cash, on the page, read the way he is on-screen. He’s a visceral kind of beast of a guy. He’s got a sense of humor. He’s got swag. He’s got his crazy beliefs of how he should bring up his kids, and he’s just living in a different world. We definitely started with a heavy backstory. Where did this guy come from to get to be who he is in our opening scene? And we spent a lot of time just really building a rich background for him as far as, yeah, this is a guy who was probably beaten up by his belligerent dad every day of the week. He’s the guy that has morals, but they’re kind of in his own state of dysfunction. I don’t know. This is the guy that wins all the time, so nobody’s really there to say no to him. It’s probably similar to our President who can’t seem to take no for an answer now that he lost. (Laughs.) I mean, when you are constantly winning and have yes-men around you, it’s probably hard to ever come back down to reality, where you have to look at yourself deeper and try to change yourself. So I knew going in that this is a guy that I wasn’t going to agree with, but it made for an incredible character in this picture. I’ve played characters that I haven’t really agreed with and, look, I’m an actor, so I’ll take on the creepiest of creeps. I’ll also take on good guys. I’ll take on whatever I feel as far as the story. And this guy, on the page, is definitely the villain of the piece, but he’s a captivating one in a lot of weird ways. So I tried to bring some humanity to him. For example, at the very end of the picture, you could see that there is some sort of human emotion in there. It’s just definitely hidden under layers and layers of bravado, so it was a tricky one. I thought of Bob De Niro when he did Raging Bull many decades ago. Jake LaMotta is not a nice character. So it’s challenging. You have to dig deep and tap into a different energy source to completely embody somebody else. I came from a great family. I was lucky enough to have two parents that supported my acting, supported me, and didn’t beat me. I had nurturing, loving parents, which is probably why I’m still around and a good person today. Obviously, I still have things to learn; we all do. But there’s a lot to learn from this story as well as being just a big fight movie. This is really a father-son drama at the core, I think, with the backdrop of the UFC and MMA, arguably the biggest sport in the world pretty much. So I felt like there hadn’t been a movie in a long time in this world. There was Warrior. I don’t know how many years ago that was [2011], but it’s been a while and now there seems to be a few coming. But I feel like ours is definitely on another level than what’s been seen as far as the mindset of a fighter in this MMA world, going into the cage, family, wealth and success and kind of depicting flaws and terrible judgments on my character’s side of things. But it felt like a really timely, special movie to make.

Since the two of you had such great chemistry on-screen, I was surprised to learn that Darren Mann was a last-minute replacement for the role of Cash’s son, Jett. Considering you didn’t have that much lead time with Mahershala Ali either, is chemistry building somewhat unnecessary as long as you’ve got talented actors around you?

(Laughs.) Yeah, we had another actor that I had read with in New York while I was shooting True Detective. I had to go to New York so they got me out for a few days. I also had to give my dad [Steve Dorff] a big award at the Songwriters Hall of Fame a couple of years ago. So I inducted my dad into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York and from there, I went and had a quick reading with Nick and this kid. And he was good. Physically, he was right. Yeah, he was pretty green, but he was raw and pretty good. As far as I was concerned, I went back to work for another four or five months on True Detective and I was pretty deep into that, so I wasn’t really aware of any changes. And then, about two or three weeks out, the director called me and said we had a problem. And I was like, “Uh-huh.” It worried me, frankly, because Darren’s part, Jett, is really the movie. If there isn’t the right Jett, the movie doesn’t work. So I was pleasantly surprised that Darren was a hard worker. He had obviously done some work before, a few indie movies and a Netflix show [Chilling Adventures of Sabrina]. But I didn’t know him from Adam. He came out of nowhere. He was physically perfect. I also thought he looked younger and was better for the role, frankly. So he came in and quickly learned these fights, but the chemistry just kind of happened. We really became these people and had an energy amongst ourselves, but we wouldn’t really hang out too much during the filming. I wanted us to have this aggressive yet somewhat tough love thing.

And as far as Mahershala, yeah, we met on an airplane and had emailed a bunch. But we had met on an airplane going out to Arkansas and the next thing we knew, we were in prep, having to create a relationship that’s pretty much a best friendship, a partnership that goes for three decades. When good actors are put together, yeah, you don’t have to necessarily hang out every night for weeks on end to form a bond, but it is always nice to be able to spend as much time as possible with that person, depending on what the story is. I’m kind of 50-50 on it. In a relationship like Embattled, I don’t need to spend too much time being Darren’s best friend and talking shop as Stephen. It was more about who we are and where we are in this story. As far as True Detective, yeah, Mahershala is so good, and we fit so perfectly into those two parts that it really just started happening naturally. It wasn’t something we had to force. And it’s interesting because I consider Mahershala a brother when it comes to the work we accomplished, but I’ve yet to ever have a beer with him because he’s Muslim and doesn’t go to bars and drink. And he doesn’t really hang out. He also had a brand-new baby girl so he had his hands full in real life. Whereas on the flipside, I only have me. I don’t have a family. I don’t have a wife. So I’m more like, “Hey, let’s go get a beer! Let’s talk.” With Mahershala, it was a little bit limited that way. We could always talk. We could always spend as much time as we needed, but I also understood that the man just had a baby girl. He was moving houses in L.A. and was just dealing with a lot of stuff. And then we were about to embark on this monstrous amount of material that we were going to film. So it was quite challenging, but at the same time, the writing was so rich that Mahershala and I just fell into the pocket. And that was probably one of the greatest creative experiences I’ve ever had with an actor just because of the amount of work we had. I’m not used to doing eight hours of a character. I’m used to doing 100 minutes of a character in a movie, and you don’t have nearly as much time to tell that story and give those characters the color and the arc that you wish you could.  Mahershala hadn’t ever done anything like it. I’d never done anything like it. It’s not like we had come from a bunch of limited series. This was our first time, the both of us. Every time you’d finish one, or get close to finishing one, you’d get a lot more to do. (Laughs.) So if anything, it made moviemaking a lot easier to me. God, making movies is simple compared to the amount of work we had on True Detective. So if anything, it kind of lightened the load for me when it came time to go in and make a film now. It’s so much shorter than the content of a series. But yeah, I think it’s a blend of both. I think you need to definitely be good at what you do, and I think you have to be able to let it all go and just look in the eye of your other actor, partner, and make it fly. And you can’t force it because if you force it, you’re going to feel that and then it’s going to be like acting. I never want to see acting when I’m watching a movie or I’m in a movie. If I see acting, it means that it’s poorly directed in my opinion. There’s so much acting these days that it just feels like acting class to me. I don’t know how to really describe it. If you find who you’re playing and you commit and you’re truthfully in that connection with the part, you should never be acting. It should feel real at all moments.

While Scoot McNairy told me it was never discussed on-set, were you surprised when True Detective fans theorized about Roland and Tom potentially being involved with each other at one point?

In a show like True Detective, where there’s such rich ambiance and characters, everybody’s going to come up with crazy things. After the third episode, I think everybody in the audience thought Carmen’s (Ejogo) character was the killer. (Laughs.) They come up with ludicrous ideas. As an audience member, when you’re watching something, it’s a lot different than knowing the text. When I watched the first True Detective, I had no idea who the bad guy was and I’m sure that’s what Nic (Pizzolatto) wanted. He’s a writer that constantly takes you in different directions. It’s just one of those shows that’s always had a lot of theories across its three seasons. It’s had a lot of extra talking on the Internet and rumors and piracy issues. It’s just one of those shows, and I’m sure there are others. But no, Scoot’s character, to me, always was a clear person. Roland is a guy that doesn’t want to see people in pain, even though he’s the toughest of tough and can take your head off if he wants to. He cared about Tom, and I think he believed, through those decades, that he was never the killer. Tom was a good man that was in a volatile relationship, but I never, ever saw that the warmth between them was a gay thing. I heard that and was asked that in some interviews. But I just loved working with Scoot, and I thought he embodied Tom so beautifully. We both just connected as far as those characters. One of my favorite scenes with Scoot is when I go visit him in his trailer once he’s, I think, on the mend and doing better. He makes Roland pray with him because it’s just not what Roland would normally do, but because he cares for Tom and worries about him, being a good dude, he’s able to pray with him. So Roland is a special character in so many ways and that many colors of a guy don’t exist in a lot of movie characters these days. There’s just no time for character development. We’ve got to get to the next big set piece, and blow up this, blow up that. I’m all about character and I’m all about what Nic does, which is take it slow and breathe with these characters. He puts two guys in a car and lets them really get to know each other. He went to that extreme from what he did with Matthew (McConaughey) and Woody (Harrelson) to what he wrote for me and Mahershala. We were doing three decades and growing into old men together. So yeah, I don’t really pay attention to the hoopla or the stories, but every viewer is entitled to come up with their own scenario.

So what’s it like to be in a moving gunfight with Christian Bale and Michael Mann [in Public Enemies]?

(Laughs.) Intense, man, intense. Especially when you have forty squibs on you. I love Michael, and my mom was passing away when he offered me that part of Homer Van Meter. I really wanted to work with Michael because I was a fan of his movies. I was literally sitting with my mom who was leaving me and asking her what I should do. I felt like I should tell Michael, “I’m not going to be able to leave when all the other guys leave and you’re going to have to bear with me here.” And a guy like Michael, who’s starting a $100 million movie, could have had anybody he wanted in that fifth lead or whatever my billing was in the movie. So I just told him honestly what I was going through and he was a real mensch about it. He’s like, “Nope, I want you. You can come later and I’ll catch you up to speed on the gun training.” I said, “I’m pretty good with guns so it won’t take me long.” He was a real mensch and still is a friend of mine. He’s a monster director of big, crazy sequences, and that was one of them. I mean, when Christian takes me out, I think it was below zero that night in Wisconsin, and we flipped the car. When it came time for me and Stephen Graham to run out and get shot up, everything was moving as it’s happening. They played it smartly. So it was complicated. I had some ringing in my ears after laying down dead because I went left instead of right. You’re trying to sell the gunshot squib, but at the same time, I’d never had so many on me. Usually, it’s a chest shot, an arm shot or a leg shot, and you can react with two squibs or three. But when you have 30, you almost have to do a dance. There’s just no way to time it with an effects guy. So I went left when I should’ve gone right, and I set my ear down too low and a squib went off in my ear. (Laughs.) So I had this ringing in my ear for about five minutes, which was a little scary because I need my ears. But it came back and everything was fine. So it was definitely challenging. It was cold, but it was the mood of the movie. So I’m all about, like, “Let’s shoot when we’re in the mood of the movie.” I’ve done movies that are supposed to take place in the snow and we’re in 90-degree weather in Reno. When we were starting The Motel Life, Emile (Hirsch) and I were in sunny weather, and I was like, “How is this movie going to work? We need the mood of the snow. We need that bleakness, that cold and the air coming out of our breath.” And then sure enough, I went to London for some award thing I had to go to for Somewhere, and when I came back two days later to start shooting, Reno had a huge snowstorm and we were in business. I said a prayer and just said, “Man, I don’t want to do this movie in the sun. It’s changing my whole vibe.” And I’m really about a vibe and an energy when I’m working. I want to feel the world we’re in. I don’t want to be in a world where I feel like it’s a Hollywood made-up world of that world. I want to be in the world. And every great director I’ve worked with will put me in that world, and that’s what Michael Mann did. He put us right in the middle of Little Bohemia. He put us right in the middle of the wilderness in freezing cold weather with trees exploding and automatic Tommy guns. And that’s just what that movie was and what that time was. So I love working with different captains, whether they’re female or male, or whether it’s Michael Mann, Oliver Stone or Nick Sarkisov on this movie, Embattled. It’s just all a different reality depending on who you’re working with. If you work with Sofia Coppola, it’s the most pleasant, sweetest, nicest experience and smells like a candle all the time. (Laughs.) It’s just like a different energy. When you work with some of the crazier filmmakers on the bigger shows, it’s going to get a little more chaotic, but I grew up doing this crazy job, so I’m kind of used to it now.

Somewhere’s 10-year anniversary is coming up, and I still marvel at the photoshoot scene with Michelle Monaghan given the back-and-forth shift in character dynamics. What do you remember about shooting that scene?

How real it felt. I mean, I’ve been there. I’ve done that. But I haven’t necessarily had a love affair with an actress that I’m having to stand next to in a photocall at the Four Seasons. I’ve never had any awkward run-ins, luckily because most of the actresses I work with tend to be my friends. I don’t tend to have on-set romances like some of my other friends. It’s weird; it just never happened for me. But I look at them as kind of my partner and I guess they do what I do, so it’s just never been… Even if I find them attractive, I’ve never really connected that way. But to answer your question, yeah, Sofia made it so real that we were doing the Hollywood Foreign Press Conference with the Hollywood Foreign Press. I mean, it was the same people that I’ve done interviews with. These are the guys that vote on the awards and they’re in the movie, getting close-ups and asking their questions. So she just made it feel so real. Even that actress who played Johnny’s publicist, she’s that great comedian, Ellie Kemper. She’s so awesome, and she was so funny. She just nailed that PR thing so well, and we’ve just been there. (Laughs.) And Michelle’s a friend. I had worked with her before and she’s a great girl. And yeah, it was hysterical with the apple box and the heels. That’s the thing about Sofia. She knows what she knows so well, and she’s had so much experience through her father in Hollywood. So that movie, she just nailed. She somehow got the smell of the Chateau Marmont to come through the film camera on that. I don’t know how she did it, but I think that’s why that movie is held in such high regard. It’s really a ballsy picture. She was shooting film and holding the camera on me for seven minutes. There are ballsy moves in that movie because nobody really makes those choices in Hollywood. Nobody can afford to. So I’ve always loved Sofia, when we were friends and when we were growing up. Zoe Cassavetes was my good friend, and we were all close and would see each other. After her success on Lost in Translation, I was around for some of those evenings. I was invited to celebrate that, and then she gave me this incredible part. We were talking in Paris about me doing Somewhere and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. I mean, I’ve had the blessing of having great gifts come to me at weird times. When I think it’s maybe over and I’m getting nothing that I want, some amazing thing will fly out of the air and I definitely consider Somewhere as one of those times. It was right after Public Enemies. It was a year to the passing of my mom, in one of our favorite cities, Paris. And when Sofia gave me the role, it was the evening of the one-year anniversary. So there’s something to that. There’s something to what I felt when she gave it to me. It didn’t feel like a normal movie role you get, and it was a similar thing with True Detective. It was a year to my brother’s passing. A year after he died in a tragic accident, HBO offered me True Detective. I mean, it was, like, “What?” I didn’t even know they were doing another True Detective. I mean, I had heard rumblings, but nobody called me. So I’m really lucky and I’m grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had and hope I continue to have. I feel like I’m in the best creative place I’ve probably ever been, even though I’m a little older. I feel like I’m ready to take on challenges. I’ve always wanted to take on challenges, whether it was in my 20s and I played Candy Darling in I Shot Andy Warhol or when I went for crazy stuff to prove I could do it. I feel like I’m in an even better situation now, though, because I have more in my arsenal to give. And I’m older, so I’ve lived more. And the longer you live, the longer you learn, the better you become is what I would hope. So I’m trying to set the bar high, and obviously, we’re in a screwed-up time where a lot of what’s filming is a bunch of garbage, or TV shows that had to finish, or that have to be on TV, with limited crews here and there. But I’m holding out; I’m holding firm. I’m bored, but I want to get to work soon on something good. But I’m proud of Embattled. I think it’s one of my strongest movies in a long time, and maybe ever. I think it’s just really a well-made picture, so I’m excited to get as many eyes on it as possible.

Embattled is now available on VOD and Digital.