‘I Miss the Old Days’: Stephen Dorff on ‘Embattled,’ a Changing Hollywood, and Losing Out on ‘Titanic’

Courtesy of IFC Films

Stephen Dorff only had a few weeks to transform himself into a mixed martial arts superstar in order to play the lead role in “Embattled.”

The actor was booked tight and had no choice but to hit the gym hard after wrapping work playing an Arkansas police officer in the third season of “True Detective.” For Dorff, the chance to play Cash Boykins was worth the punishment. It was a role he fought long and hard to land, having to elbow aside other, bigger and more bankable actors. And it’s a performance that Dorff thinks ranks among his best.

“Embattled” opens this week in theaters and on-demand. Dorff spoke to Variety about the emotional toll of channeling the abusive and egomaniacal Boykins, and shared his unvarnished thoughts about how the movie business has changed in the three decades he’s worked in and around Hollywood. Like the blunt-talking Boykins, Dorff is unafraid of speaking his mind, something that’s all too rare in an industry that thrives on evasion and empty platitudes.

Why did you want to make the “Embattled”?

I was blown away. I love [screenwriter] David McKenna’s work — I loved “Blow” and I loved “American History X.” It felt like an honest look at father-son dysfunction set against the backdrop of one of the biggest sports in the world, MMA. I really wanted to do it, but they didn’t want to give it to me at first. [Director Nikolay Sarkisov] was hesitant. He was interested, but it was his first American film and he wanted to play out some different casting ideas so he could get bigger finances. It was announced I was doing ‘True Detective’ and then they offered it to me. Like anything in Hollywood, they heard I was doing some high-profile stuff and that put it over the top. Nic has crafted a really fine picture. I pick apart everything I do and I have a hard time finding any fault with this movie.

Were you a fan of mixed martial arts?

I’ve been a fan. I did a film called “Felon” a few years ago and I worked with Greg Jackson’s team — he’s one of the biggest coaches in the UFC. I met all these guys on that movie, so that helped me recognize that if I was playing a champion in this movie I needed to up my moves and learn a lot more. I hit the mats and learned what I needed to master. The next thing you know we were in the cage.

How did you get in shape?

I only had six weeks after ‘True Detective’ and I used that to put on some size. I got to the place I needed to be, but looking back I would have liked more time. It was a warp speed process. I had about two months before a movie like “Immortals,” where you had to be ripped and were pretty much naked through the entire thing. I always call that the “abs movie” because I didn’t like that movie that much. It made a lot of money, but it was a terrible movie.

Are you eager to get back to work after the COVID-19 shutdown?

Yeah, I felt like I was doing some of the best stuff I’ve done right before we went into lockdown. I’m frustrated. Some of my friends are back to work on shows. Some are trying to get me to do independent movies. I may do a little movie with Tim Blake Nelson out in Tennessee. It’s a Western. It might work out, but I’m just hoping there’s a vaccine soon and we can go back to work and return to some sort of reality. I’m bored. I’m bored, man.

Your character Cash can be cruel to his family, but he’s also outwardly charming. How did you balance those two sides of his personality?

He was bigger than life on the page. He’s stuck in a different time. He’s stuck in his childhood and in the abusive way his dad raised him. He has tough love thing where he feels like he can’t give a dollar to his family because they have to earn it. He loves his son, but he’s a maniac and has a real hard time showing it.

If Hollywood made this film, it probably would have had a happier ending. It would have ended in an embrace and a montage of me becoming a better dad. That’s all bullshit. This guy will never change. We present a hard look at the way this kind of a guy acts.

Is it true that you almost got Leonardo DiCaprio’s role in “Titanic”?

I was in the final running for it. I did a test with Kate Winslet. At one point, it was my part to lose. Then it became his part, and it wasn’t going my way. It kept changing hands. The last players in the mix were me and DiCaprio, that I know. We both had movies at Fox. Mine was a dark Bob Rafelson movie that was awesome with Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine and J. Lo. His was “Romeo and Juliet,” which was testing pretty good with the young kids and had a hot soundtrack. Whatever the reason was, it was what it was. “Titanic” the movie became a juggernaut. To me, it wasn’t a great movie. It was kind of a soppy, really on the nose kind of love story. But yeah, it pulls your heartstrings.

I don’t go backwards. There are movies that I should have done that were big hits. You’ve got to just keep going.

You’ve been acting since you were a kid. How has Hollywood changed since you first started making movies?

I miss the old days. I miss the old Hollywood producers. I miss the glamor and the mystery of what Hollywood used to be. I look at everything, from awards shows to premieres. It’s all a big joke now. It doesn’t have the chutzpah that it did. I grew up looking at Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and Bob Evans and Bernie Weintraub and the fucking legends that these guys were. There was a different feeling. Now, it’s like going on the Ellen show or being on a game show. It just feels cheap, and I don’t know why.

But it is what it is. You’ve got to go with the future. You can’t fight against it. People want to watch Netflix or they want to watch Disney Plus and that’s great. I’m still a guy when the coronavirus is gone who will want to go to a movie theater.

Do you prefer making movies to doing television?

Cable is where it’s at. I’m developing a few cable shows. The level of how we made “True Detective,” that’s where I want to be. I fiddled around with this network show last year, “Deputy,” where they spent millions of millions of dollars and blew up my face on posters to promote me and the show, but they messed up on the most important thing, which is the creative.

Network TV in general is a stale medium. It’s a medium that doesn’t think out of the box, doesn’t change. Unless you have some incredible showrunner that’s protecting you, you’re flying in the winds of bad studio notes and writers in the writer’s room that aren’t the right writers. I didn’t want to continue on that show. I wouldn’t have continued if they had made a hard push to continue. It wasn’t what they told me it was going to be. I’ve spent 30 years turning down network TV and I turned “Deputy” down many times until it was just outrageous what they were coming to me with. I had to do it. I loved the actors I worked with. I loved the crew. But I despised creatively where the show went. I’m not going to be a guy who you see on an ABC show next year because “Deputy” didn’t work out. I hate the medium.