Stephen Dorff admits that when he first auditioned for the third season of “True Detective,” he “didn’t know what the part really was.” What at first seemed to be a straight-forwarded cop character quickly became so much more as the anthology crime story moved between three different decades, requiring some of the actors, including Dorff and his on-screen partner in policing, Mahershala Ali, to sit in the hair and makeup chair for hours to be turned into older versions of themselves.
But because Dorff says he got a “natural feeling” for who is Detective Roland West was supposed to be internally from those first few scenes, he quickly realized “what a great role I had.” And as the months since the show wrapped went on, Dorff realized he loved Roland so much, he didn’t want to fully shake the man. His next small screen series, “Deputy,” also sees him playing a “horseman lawman,” as Dorff puts it.
Here, the actor reflects on his experience working with Ali and “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto, creating Roland’s accent and older look, and explains why his character on the HBO anthology inspired him to buy a farm.
Looking back over your arc on “True Detective,” what element seemed most challenging at first glance that became one of the more enjoyable moments?
I think that was the third decade, for me — the older guys. Any actor that’s done that [makeup process] before, it takes an incredible amount of patience, but the way [prosthetic makeup designer] Mike Marino did it, and the way the scene was played out, that was, to me, I think, my most enjoyable part. It was about finding it with Mahershala. We pretty much started in the ’80s, so I think maybe the most scared I was was when we were about to jump to the ’90s for the first time, just because we had built a rhythm in the ’80s. I remember we were just nervous to get in there, but I have to say it was just a very neat, special experience — one that you don’t find a lot at a time when a lot of things are about space and comic books.
In speaking to finding the relationship with Mahershala, it seems like it may have helped to start in the earlier years of their partnership, in the ’80s. But what else did you feel like you needed to work on with him to flesh out the backstory and get yourselves as actors to a place where it felt right that your characters were so comfortable with each other that they have nicknames for each other and whatnot?
Me and Mahershala flew out there together, in, I think, the end of January, and we left first or second week of August, and I pretty much didn’t leave Arkansas the whole time. We had exchanged really nice emails, and then, really, we met for the first time, in this little terminal, that I’d never even flown out of, at LAX, where it’s the only flight to Fayetteville, Arkansas, direct flight, once a day. From then on, we built something really special together. But I did have a lot of questions about Roland for Nic. We know he’s of Western culture. We know he’s like an old cowboy, kind of, but I had questions about his family, about things in life. We know Wayne was in Vietnam. We know he was a hunter. He was a killer. We know where he kind of comes from more, and Nic was very forthcoming with [telling me that] Roland grew up on a ranch and came from a rodeo culture, was maybe going to join the rodeo, but then went off to Vietnam and worked in motor pool for a couple years, but he didn’t see any action compared to Wayne, who was in the jungle. Then I would ask him all kinds of questions: How long have they been partners when we first meet them, when they’re shooting rats? Where’d they meet? How did they become partners? I asked just kind of the basics that I just wanted to know, because, really, in building this guy, I wanted to really create something special, because I was given something so special.
You mention Roland coming from a ranch and rodeo culture, which sometimes can inform a person’s physicality and way of speaking as much as geography. How did you approach things like his accent?
I didn’t want to overdo it, but I did think he should have an accent. [Nic] told me Oklahoma at first, but then he said, “Roland’s too cool to be from Oklahoma,” so he changed it to Texas. Meanwhile, nobody knows this; it was just our backstory for me.
When the audience meets Roland for the first time in the 2000s, there is a lot of mystery around where he’s been and why he and Wayne haven’t been in touch. So Roland had a lot of experiences that inherently changed him to which the audience wasn’t privy. How did that affect how you treated him?
I think he’s the same person. I wanted him to dress the same. Emma Potter, our costume designer who I’d worked with before on a film, is awesome, and we had the idea that he never takes his boots off, no matter how old he is. If we meet him at 85, he’s still in his same boots. Funny enough, a lot of the companies that made his wardrobe, like Wrangler and Levi’s and Lee, they still exist, so they still sell the same stuff, only for older gentlemen, so he went and got older Roland outfits, which were great, which helped me. It was my idea to kind of have a belly. I wanted to have a paunch belly and so we kind of put that on and just started finding the way he walked and moved. I think I approached him as a much lonelier person, though; I think, when we meet him in the ’80s, he’s a lover, he’s kind of a kid, and he’s always had morals. He’s just, overall, the richest character I’ve ever gotten to play, because he’s the tough guy when he needs to be — he’s the muscle — but he’s got a sense of humor, he’s soft-spoken sometimes, but he can be intense. He can get into a bar fight, but he can kind of try to protect the person that’s suffering.
Did you feel a sense of tragedy in those missing years when Roland was out in the woods on his own, after having such a strong relationship with Wayne?
I felt for him when he was alone and when he was saying those things to Wayne — “I don’t have anybody. You weren’t even a friend to me. You didn’t even f—ing come and call me. You didn’t even say you’re sorry.” But in the end, I think his happiness is being alone, being with his dogs, and being in the wilderness. When Wayne comes, it means a lot to him. Why they didn’t speak for 20 years is a big question. When we find out what Wayne did — we get those answers later. To me, Wayne’s married twice. To me, Roland and Wayne are like a flawed marriage. That’s what this show is. It’s these men, this incredible partnership over time, and it just so happens we’re kind of solving the same crime. Meanwhile, Wayne has got to go home, and he’s married to Amelia in the ’90s, and he’s having babies, and he has a family. Wayne is a complicated character in his own right, so he makes the choices he makes, and ultimately it makes Roland, in that scene on the porch, which is our first scene in that [later] timeframe, mean a lot to me, because Roland wanted him to reach out, and it was up to Wayne to reach out, and he should’ve reached out and just said, “Let’s have a beer. Let’s watch a game.” That’s where that emotion came from in that scene. That’s probably the scene of the whole series for me. It felt that way when we made it. I don’t know, it’s just so beautiful.
Does that make you want to carry this experience or this character through to your next one?
The weird thing is that the Western culture is following me around! I don’t know what it is, I’m playing a California rancher in this new show that just got picked up [entitled “Deputy”], and then I have this movie about a bull rider that I really want to make. I have had a really hard time shaking Roland. Normally, I can just shake the character — in a week, I’m done. But I literally got attached to Roland so much so that I bought a farm outside Nashville. I wanted to have a creative hub, outside of L.A. and New York, that I could kind of just go to in between projects. I needed to do something. Roland inspired me to get this farm. Roland’s kind of still with me, and I think he’s not letting go.
Is it OK to borrow from Roland for Bill Hollister on “Deputy”?
He’s a California rancher man — like a Marlboro Man without the nicotine. He’s a really cool character, too. When I was [shooting the pilot] a little Roland came out still, and I was like, “Oh, s—. He doesn’t have this accent. What are you doing, man?” Maybe playing him really added something to my arsenal, so I can say, “What would Roland do?”