THESE days Stephen Dorff, star of big and small screen, lives on a 70-acre ranch in Tennessee near Nashville where he spends his time amidst palm trees, four-wheelers, gun ranges and a growing sense that his industry might have gone to the dogs.

“Anyone who tells you the business is thriving and it’s amazing is clueless,” Dorff is telling me as you join us. “Sure, you can make money in this business. And I can act in anything. But as far as content, as far as the movies that are being made, it’s an embarrassment.

“It’s an embarrassment for anybody that’s good at what they do, I think.”

This is typical of the tenor of our conversation today.

It’s Friday morning in Tennessee and the actor best known for True Detective, Blade, Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere and the odd Aerosmith and Britney Spears video is talking to me over Zoom.

His hair is sticking up like he’s just out of bed, hands constantly rubbing his face. Tired or not, he’s looking good on it. Sickeningly so. I’ve only got a decade on him, but I look at least 30 years older.

Dorff looks even better in his new movie Embattled, in which he plays an MMA fighter. It’s a movie he’s very proud of. But in and around that pride there are a whole host of grievances that pour out of him. He is a man who is in love with what he does but not the industry that lets him do it. And, as with his character Cash Boykins in Embattled, he is not one to pull many punches.

HeraldScotland: Stephen Dorff as Cash Boykins in EmbattledStephen Dorff as Cash Boykins in Embattled

Most of the questions I’d planned on asking don’t get asked. I don’t have time. He’s too busy calling out all the things he is horrified by.

Tennessee is not one of them. His move there is quite a new thing. After a lifetime in Los Angeles the 47-year-old has now embraced “God’s country,” he says.

“It’s pretty crazy because I’m a city boy,” Dorff admits, rubbing his face again. “I’m having a midlife crisis, I think, in my own wildlife park.”

Behind him on Zoom the roof stretches up and up, all timbered beams and space. This is where he’s spent much of the pandemic when he’s not been working.

“I had lived in a box in Malibu on the beach for 25 years. I needed a break. This has been cool. I’ve got to be near my dad who has a big house near here. I’ve got to meet some new friends and enjoy a different thing for me.”

The pandemic made him rethink a few things, he says. “LA was such a disaster. I wanted space and land. It’s what you want if the world is coming to an end. I wanted guns and I wanted to be able to protect myself. Everybody was saying, ‘Defund the police.’ I don’t think that’s the smartest thing in the world.”

While I try to take that statement in, he barrels on. “I think everybody was in a very odd place this year. “Everybody who’s in a relationship went through struggles. A lot of my friend’s marriages fell apart. Some thrived. It was an odd one for everybody in their own way.

“For me, it could have been worse. I got to experience it in nature and got some seasons.”

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Dorff even got to see some snow. Not something you get much in Los Angeles. “I’ll get a new pad in LA at some point, but I think this will be my base for a while.”

Embattled then. It’s the story of the aforementioned Boykins, an MMA fighter who you could frame as one part Conor McGregor, one part Floyd Mayweather, one part cowboy, Dorff says.

Maybe there’s a bit of a redneck in there too.

Cash is vicious in the octagon (as the arena in MMA fighting is known), and loud and dominating out of it. His son Jett, played by Darren Mann, is following in his footsteps until some secrets from the past are revealed and lead the two men onto a collision course that will ultimately see them facing off against each other.

It’s a brutal movie. The fight scenes in particular. But it has a roiling energy to it, and Dorff as Cash is its dark heart.

“He’s not a great person. He’s not a loveable person,” Dorff admits. “I can’t say he was a fun guy to play. I was really excited to shake him after, and I’ve got to say it affected me playing him.

“I was very brash to people and to my director in a way that I normally wouldn’t be. I just had to go to a certain place to play him realistically and I’m not going to play a guy like that if it’s not going to be real. I’m always going to go the distance.

“So, if it was uncomfortable at times for the other actors, and if it was uncomfortable for the director, I apologised for some of that. But that’s what we do. That’s what I do for a living. It’s not supposed to be comfortable all the time. Sometimes, being uncomfortable you make your best art.

HeraldScotland: Dorfff as Cash squares up against his son played by Darren Mann in EmbattledDorfff as Cash squares up against his son played by Darren Mann in Embattled

“I could have played him just all showboat with nothing else, but the truth is I wanted to play him real and there are people like that in the world still, especially UFC fighters. You don’t go into a cage and have everything perfectly copacetic in your upbringing and your life. There’s a certain adrenalin and a certain death wish you have to go into that cage.”

Dorff started prepping for the movie straight off the back of shooting the third series of True Detective. “I jumped right in with a couple of trainers that I’ve worked with in the past and just put 10lbs of muscle on as fast as I could. I had about six weeks, so I just started eating and training like a beast.

“And then I got on the ground in Alabama and worked an MMA camp there. Chris Connolly and his team train a lot of UFC fighters. He’s the real deal and he put me through the ringer. So, it was a combination of eating and training, cardio to MMA grappling and boxing, as well as physical weight training, to look as big as I could on camera.”

MMA fighting is like “boxing on crack,” Dorff suggests. “It’s probably the most dangerous sport there is. You could die in that cage and there’s no real limit to what can happen. It’s a crazy profession. I could never do it, but I can act the s*** out of it.”

Did he get in the ring and spar? “Yeah. My coach had his whole team of young fighters. I’d spar with all of them and learn the choreography.”

Any injuries? “I got clocked a couple of times because I went left instead of right. It happens. I also clocked Darren’s stunt double a couple of times which I don’t like doing. It’s the worst feeling because it’s someone you are dancing with and if that dance move goes wonky for a second someone is going to get hit.

“It happened on True Detective too. I had this big bar fight scene with this huge biker, and I popped this one guy in the last rehearsal and broke his nose and I felt terrible. The guy was 7ft tall.

“It sucks when it happens, but it is what it is. It happened on Blade. It happened on Felon, a prison movie. I had to shut it down for two days because I had a knot on my eye the size of a golf ball and there’s not much you can shoot, no matter how much ice you put on it. You’ve just got to let it go down.

“I’m looking forward to the next couple of movies because I don’t have any fight scenes. It’s more straight-up acting so that will be good. But look, you do what you’ve got to do to tell the story.”

He can’t say enough about how much he likes Embattled. “I wish it didn’t come out in America during Covid because I think it would have been a lot bigger. But critics loved it. I think we got a lot of eyes on it, and now, hopefully, Universal is going to blast it everywhere overseas.

“And these days that’s all you can hope for because everything’s being seen on your TV. It’s all about that stupid little box on your streamer.”

In the last few years, Dorff has been working a lot on TV shows. He’s not against the idea. He’s had one of his best jobs in True Detective in which he played opposite Mahershala Ali. But then TV also gave him one of his worst, Deputy, a series that was cancelled by Fox after just one series.

“True Detective to me was a home run,” Dorff explains when I bring the two shows up. “It was the most brilliantly written show of the last 10 years. I don’t think anything on TV can touch what we did there. There are some good shows. I like The Crown; I like Queen’s Gambit. But it ain’t Nick Pizzolatto and David Milch writing two characters like they did for us. We just had a gift there.”

HeraldScotland: Dorff in True DetectiveDorff in True Detective

As for Deputy? Ah well. Different story.

“Deputy was more of a money gig. I was promised that they’d let me make a cool show. They were a bunch of idiots, so I told them to go f*** themselves. I didn’t want to continue, so they cancelled the show, and I was happy because I wouldn’t come back anyway. It wasn’t the show I signed up for.

“I’ve turned down network television in America for over 30 years, and they finally threw so much money at me after True Detective. I thought there’s at least a character on Deputy I could try. And everyone from [director] David Ayer to the network turned the show into a bad soap opera. And I have no interest in being on a show for 10 years like Law & Order. Sure, I’d get super-rich, but I mean, they’re terrible shows.”

He is only just getting started.

“I was completely let down on that show,” he says of Deputy. “So, I’m back to making movies. I’m going to go work with Shirley MacLaine next. I’m going to make a big movie in London. I’ve just made a western with Tim Blake Nelson which will be in competition in Venice in September.

“Yeah, I’m jamming in a world of garbage … I don’t know if you’ve seen a good movie in the last couple of years? I haven’t, except for Embattled and maybe Nomadland. But, for the most part, in a sea of s*** I’ll still find roles and I’ll still find those directors. And that’s my challenge.

“And if people are watching them on their TV or their computer, so be it. I can’t really fight the movie thing anymore. Sure, I’d love my movie Embattled to be seen on a big screen. That’s where it was designed to be seen. But it ain’t really happening these days, although there was a little hope, I guess, with Quiet Place and these silly horror movies. They make some money. I watched Quiet Place. It was f****** terrible.

“Anyway … I’m a harsh critic.”

He pauses, but only for a moment.

“It’s a different place than when I started. It’s a different business, it’s a different game. The Oscars are kind of an embarrassment. They’re more like a game show. It’s all just changed.

“My business isn’t as sexy as it used to be, which is sad to me. But I try to bring that sexy in as much as I can. I mean sexy not in the way it looks. I mean sexy as far as the movies that were made in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, even in the 2000s. Even 2010 when I made Somewhere with Sofia Coppola.

“I don’t know where the movies are these days. It’s pretty pathetic.”

All of this pours out in a continuous, uninterruptible, don’t-give-a-s*** splurge. It’s compelling to listen to, all energy and anger and thumb-nosing piss and vinegar.

Maybe there is a nostalgia in there somewhere too. Dorff has been around long enough to know what his industry used to be like. Back in the day, he was a child star, appearing in commercials and making a horror movie called The Gate in 1987 when he was just 11 (“which I don’t really remember making. Tarantino and all the film makers worship that movie because it was very ahead of its time,” he says).

He made an impact in the 1992 film Power of One, playing an English boy in wartime Africa and then he did Backbeat, in which he starred as John Lennon’s best friend Stuart Sutcliffe in Iain Softley’s 1994 film about the Beatles in Hamburg.

“Yeah, my first couple of movies I was playing English people. The Jude Laws and the Ewan McGregors and those guys were auditioning for these movies and not getting them, and I was. So, it was very weird. Everyone thought I was English and I was from the Valley in LA.”


After Backbeat he returned to LA and started hanging out with Jack Nicholson, dating Pamela Anderson, getting a reputation as a Hollywood bad boy.

But he never stopped working. He was one of Hollywood’s new faces of the 1990s.

“Once I started getting into movies in the early 1990s there were five or six of us in our age group. There was me, DiCaprio, Matt Damon, who was a little older than us, Sean Astin, a handful of guys. And we’d always get all the movies. It was like a movie club for our age group.”

Sometimes they were in competition. Dorff lost out to DiCaprio for the lead role in Titanic. But there was always another job. Not all of them great, some of them terrible. But now and then he’d get a really good job. Like Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere.

And now? Well, it’s all changed, he says.

“The generation ahead of us were the Johnny Depps and the Sean Penns, interesting guys working with really cool directors that were 10 years older than us,” he recalls. “But now it’s just a clusterf*** of everybody.

“I could be acting with a YouTuber. I could be working with a director who doesn’t know how to direct from Adam but had a successful horror movie. The whole business has changed and frankly sucks.”

Stephen Dorff wants you to know his new film Embattled is worth your time. He’s not so sure about anyone else’s.

Embattled is out now on digital download