Stephen Dorff explains how he brought a nasty character to life in ‘Embattled’
With Hollywood good looks, a screen demeanor that can comfortably switch from gentle to gruff and back again, and a desire to explore roles in everything from big-budget action films to small arty fare, Stephen Dorff has maintained a steady acting career for three and a half decades. He started with small TV guest parts (“Diff’rent Strokes”), landed a lead in a cheesy horror film (“The Gate”), and made the decision to forego acting school, and jump right into the fray (“The Power of One”).
Parts that have gotten attention over the years include fifth Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe in “Backbeat,” transsexual drag queen Candy Darling in “I Shot Andy Warhol,” the vampire Deacon Frost in “Blade,” and the directionless actor Johnny Marco in “Somewhere.” Last year he had a great run as Roland West in “True Detective,” and now he’s playing Cash Boykins, a troubled Mixed Martial Arts champ in the film “Embattled.”
Dorff, 47, spoke about the film and the career road he’s been following from his ranch in Tennessee, where he’s riding out the pandemic.
Q: You had your first major film role in “The Gate” when you were 11. Have you been following any sort of plan since then?
A: Not really. When I was 17, I couldn’t get a movie, to save my life. I was about to go to Juilliard for theater. But I was fighting to get this John Avildsen movie “The Power of One.” I wanted to act on camera. That was my instinct. I talked to my parents about it, and told them I wanted to make the movie. I said I was flattered the schools wanted me, but to be honest, I’d rather work with Morgan Freeman and Sir John Gielgud in London and Africa than be learning Shakespeare at Juilliard because that wasn’t my passion. They said that I should follow my lead, and do it, and they supported my decision. So, I went off and made “The Power of One,” and that led to “Backbeat.”
Q: How did you come to jumping back and forth from Hollywood to the independent scene?
A: Well, I got “I Shot Andy Warhol” and I thought, “Wow! I’ve never done anything like this! I should be daring and play Candy Darling.” Then I auditioned for Bob Rafelson’s “Blood and Wine,” a studio movie at Fox, opposite Nicholson, and I made that movie. And I worked with Harvey Keitel in “City of Industry.” I went to the greatest acting school ever, because I got to work with my heroes and all these great filmmakers, and I was learning, on the ground, as I was turning in performances. I wasn’t really concerned with Hollywood, and was turning down more commercial fare. Then “Blade” came around, and I was kind of scared to do it. I thought it would kill my career. But I did it and it turned out to be a big one for me. But then there were smaller movies like “Cecil B. Demented” for John Waters. So, I built my career that way. Every few years, if I tend to go quiet, it’s not that I don’t want to do my job, it’s because either there’s nothing that great coming to me, or the ones that I would want aren’t coming to me. Then, out of nowhere, I’d get offered “Somewhere” or “True Detective.”
Q: What’s your process of saying yes or no to a script you’re reading?
A: The initial read is just what is this project? What am I reading? I can usually tell from the first 10 pages if I like the texture, the writing, if the stage direction makes any sense, if the script is any good. I usually have pretty good instincts when it comes to reading material.
Q: What was going through your head when reading the “Embattled” script?
A: I can usually see what’s going to happen in a story, but in this script, I didn’t. I didn’t know where it was going or how it was going to end. I was blown away by where it took me with the twists and the strength of the writing.
Q: Tell me a little bit about Cash Boykins. He doesn’t seem to be the nicest of guys.
A: He’s the (MMA) lightweight champion of the world. He brings in 7 million pay per views per fight. But he’s a monster. He parties, he’ll go to Vegas, win a championship, then get on his jet and fly back to Alabama. He has the swagger and the confidence of somebody like a (UFC champ) Conor McGregor. He has that physicality and arrogance and he sometimes makes bad decisions, yet at the same time he’s electric and charismatic and really good at what he does when he gets in that cage. So, I kind of peeled off the Irish part of Conor McGregor and put an Alabama Southern twang on him. I also thought about peeling off some of the stuff (Floyd) Mayweather’s done in the boxing world, as far as his business aspirations and entrepreneurial efforts, and putting that on Cash. But Cash is also someone who was beat up by his father when he was growing up, and is stuck in his old school way of bringing up his own kids. He’s a tormented guy who sees things only one way - his way.
Q: Did that make him tough to play?
A: It was a hard movie to make, and I probably wasn’t the nicest person while making it. But I couldn’t be the nicest person while playing this part. I don’t consider myself a Method actor - I’ve always been able to turn it on and turn it off. But I definitely went more Method on this one because I had to. Every time I tried to approach the part in a lighter or less intense way, I couldn’t commit to it. All my actor instincts were jamming up on me. That was weird. So, I realized what I had to do was be him, so I started being him, for all nine weeks of shooting.
“Embattled” opens in theaters and VOD on Nov. 20.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.