Speaking with Stephen Dorff is an opportunity for which we have actually been looking forward for a while, as we were set to participate in a conference call with Dorff alongside Eddie Griffin (!) for American Hero in 2015, but alas it didn’t come to pass. Four years later and here we were talking to Dorff on the phone last month from the Albuquerque set of his new series Deputy, which is set to premiere tonight on Fox. The series is a thrill ride, which was created by filmmaker David Ayer and Will Beall (previously an L.A. detective). The series centres on the L.A. Sheriff’s department and Dorff’s character, Bill Hollister, receiving an unexpected promotion to Sheriff.
In our phone conversation, Dorff spoke candidly about his excitement for the series and for playing this character.
The following is a condensed and version of our exclusive one-on-one interview with Stephen Dorff.
BT: Tell me how you decided to become involved with this show and how much do you feel like the character that you’re playing?
SD: They came to me to do Deputy after True Detective, and I really didn’t want to do a network show, to be honest, I kind of liked the cable space. I talked to David Ayer a lot about why he wanted to do this for Fox and not do it for FX or for cable and he had a pretty good argument about it. He said that at a time when everybody’s going to cable, I kind of wanted to be doing my first TV thing for Middle America and a big network and we could still make a good show and we could reach more people and da da da da da, and I was like: “Okay”. I really didn’t want to do it and I kept coming back to Bill Hollister [chuckles] as I was reading other cable shows that weren’t anywhere near the level of True Detective and the writing and what I had come from, so I wasn’t really interested in those. And Bill kept coming back to me and I thought, “Wow, he is an engaging character”. He’s an antihero, he’s an old-school cat, cowboy, kind of American-style rancher, but with a modern sensibility in a modern world. I thought he’s politically incorrect, he’s now given a position of power and he’s going to do things for the people and not necessarily what the budgets or the bureaucrats or the politicians want him to do. And at the same time as we get to know him, he’s going to navigate through this position and start to get pretty savvy with both, and so I saw a guy that was in this place that he could keep growing. And in the tv world, you want that kind of character, especially, again, coming from True Detective, where it ends, it’s a one-off, movie, kind of, it’s one 8 hour piece and that will never be recreated, it will never be done with me and Mahershala (Ali) again. This is a chance to let something live even longer, beyond 8 hours, and I liked that, and ultimately, I jumped in.
And as far as being like the character, there’s always a piece of me in my characters, but it’s a blend. I didn’t model this character off of one guy, some people say that he’s a younger Clint Eastwood, some people say he’s a modern day John Wayne, I don’t know, I don’t really look at that kind of stuff. All I see are the colours of the guy, I see what he stands for, I see how he is with his family, I see that he’s a dangerous guy because he’s not afraid of anything and he’ll jump out of a helicopter to catch his bad guy. But ultimately, he had all the colours. I went on the journey with David (Ayer) and you go to this ridiculous rushed space of trying to form this pilot, and it’s kind of this biggest, silliest thing I’ve ever seen. But you try to in three weeks create something that can live on for years, maybe, and ultimately, David and I hit something, to where it worked. And now we’re getting a chance to really put the character on his feet with a lot more time, a lot more thought, a lot more storytelling and a lot more scripts, and now we’re seeing the character move and shift, so I’m excited. I’m excited to see where it’s going, I’m excited to see if the audience likes it. They’ll kind of like it or they won’t. It’s not in my hands now.
BT: What did David Ayer say to convince you to come on board for this series?
SD: You don’t really know until you get on the field, it’s like anything. I knew he was a good director, I knew he made some good movies. My personal favorites were Fury and End of Watch, I thought that they were really strong films. I know he’s good with law enforcement, I know he comes from the street, I know that he has an authenticity about street culture, I know he’s friends with criminals and tons of law enforcement and he’s best friends with Jamie FitzSimons, who’s the sheriff of Summit County in Colorado, he’s an elected official. He’s studied this world most of his life and put it through his films. So to me, I knew I hit a home run in a director, I still was weary in being in a network television show. But once I looked at it, it’s really like doing a long movie. I mean True Detective took me seven months to shoot, 130 days for eight hours. I’ll do less time on this show and I’ll make more episodes, so I’ll still be free to make my movies and do whatever else I want to do. I guess that I don’t like to be limited into one thing. I’d like to lay out Bill Hollister and be able to do something completely different at the same time because I like to be able to play different kinds of people. But I am having a good time playing Bill and I like the character a lot. As of right now, and as early as this is for me as a venture, so far pleasantly surprised, I hope that the audience is as well.
BT: Do you enjoy exploring the idea of good and evil through your projects?
SD: Yeah, I mean some characters I’ve played have been on the evil side, and some are on the good side. Lately I’ve been playing a lot of law enforcement. Whether it’s Roland West on True Detective, this is now a deputy turned sheriff of L.A. County, which is a huge, huge position and responsibility. He’s in charge of 12,000 deputies in the biggest county in America. I respect law enforcement. As far as if good and evil is a path in roles I take, I wouldn’t say that. Every movie, from a Martin Scorsese film to a Stanley Kubrick film, has good and evil. Every story is good and evil, pretty much. Bill is a hero, he’s a lawman, he wants to lock bad guys away, he wants to clean up the streets, and he wants to give people a fair shot, too, if they’re wrongly convicted. He wants to get to the truth, he’s that kind of dude, and he comes from three generations of lawmen and it’s in his blood. And he also likes shooting guns and taking down bad guys and getting it done, and he kind of gets it done in his own way. So I like the brashness of Bill as well as the sensitivity of Bill, because if he can play a character that has a lot of colours, then you’re grooving into something, whereas a one-note character always bores me and makes me hate acting, and so I’ve got to have a guy, whether it’s a great villain into which I can dig deep, I’ve got to be catapulted through the character or it’s kind of a pointless exercise, it becomes a very boring profession for me. I’ve always kind of looked at characters that way and what will give me that canvas, and ultimately, it’s up to the writers what they give me, but I try to make it the best I can and change it if I have to and make it real for who this guy is. I’m anxious for people to see Bill and where he goes.
BT: You and your co-star Bex Taylor-Klaus interact really well on screen. How did you create that chemistry?
SD: No clue, really. It was written that way, a lesbian girl as my driver, she’s a national security analyst in D.C., she’s obviously very smart and it’s a clever kind of pairing. The relationship goes through a lot of changes throughout the season and I think that it will be interesting for people to watch and learn from. Ultimately, it’s cool because Bill is an open guy, even though he’s stereotypical “old school”, in the fact that he won’t drive anything but his ’78 Bronco, he loves horses, he’s a rancher, he’s a cowboy at heart, that’s his culture. He’s completely open to new things that he doesn’t understand, whether it’s the Arts, whether it’s sexuality, he doesn’t see things in one way, which I like that he has a broader mind. I like that he’s old school at 45, but he’s living in a very modern world and sees changes and wants to learn. Ultimately, that will help him do his job better. And yeah! A lot of people respond to the pilot as far as me and their character. Ultimately, all I can say is that it won’t be as cutesy as it comes off in the pilot. [laughs] It’s going to get rough and tumbly and they’ll butt heads at times and also, I don’t want to be driven by someone all the time, so expect a lot of changes, but at the same time, I think that there’s a lot of different aspects of the show that make it interesting, not just your one hour action show with your badass lead. There’s a lot of other stuff going on with our supporting cast and really clever storylines weaving through that I think ultimately make for an even better show, because it has different levels going on and different dynamics.
BT: I have read the series as billed as a Western. Do you think of it in this way?
SD: I don’t see it as Western, no. I see it as the lead of the show, who I play, is a throwback – he’s a cowboy, he lives in Santa Clarita, he’s a California rancher, he’s got stables, he’s got horses, he likes to ride. That’s about as “Western” as it gets. It’s in modern day Los Angeles, 2019. He’s taking down rapists, drug dealers, fuckin’ dealing with the weather, whatever he’s dealing with at that time, it’s a character study, I think. But I don’t see it as a Western, to me a Western’s an old dinky town with your bar and your whorehouse and it’s more like Deadwood or something. [laughs] I’d call it a modern show about the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, to a bit of a throwback to the Western culture as your lead. And he will ultimately use horses to do things, but he’s now looking after the biggest county in America, 4083 square miles and he’s in charge and that’s a big responsibility, and about 10,000-12,000 sworn deputies for whom he’s responsible. It’s a life changing career move, so it will be up to him and the people around him to see what happens once his time’s up as the sheriff. And that’s kind of what this first season’s about, laying the foundation for all that and growing with these people and see where we go.
BT: I enjoyed your work in the movie Somewhere. Do you see your previous roles as leading into this one, in a way?
SD: I think that as far as my work and what I’ve done in my career, I’ve always learned as I’ve gone through my directors and through working with great actors and surprising myself learning, doing things I didn’t think I could do I think leads into the present day of what I am making right now. As far as did the roles have a similarity or a connection to Bill? I wouldn’t say that. I would say that every experience is different, every tone and every director’s different and every set is different, and where I’ve landed this minute is on this set and making a show for Fox and trying to make it the best I can. I don’t think Somewhere or Johnny Marco has infiltrated Bill Hollister in any way, yet it’s all part of my arsenal. So as an artist, I’m bringing all those experiences with me in my work, you know what I mean?
BT: You can take this show in fascinating directions.
SD: Who knows where we can take it? Definitely is not one of these shows that reads great on paper for a season, but then if it’s a hit, you don’t know where the fuck it’s going to go. This show has a blank canvas – you’ve got your characters, there’s so much room to grow and it’s a situation, what I liked about it is there is no limit on it. If you sign up to do the sci-fi show that they’re trapped in space for Netflix or something and they’re trying to get back at America, I don’t know how many seasons that show has, on the page it’s limited. Or if you’re hunting serial killers every week, how many serial killers are there, whether it’s Mindhunter or Fox’s show Prodigal Son, it’s that there’s certain limitations on I think a lot of these shows that come out and do well at the beginning and then change. Whereas Deputy, I think, can get better and better as it goes because it has a formula canvas. It has an open canvas with a very engaging lead and great characters around him to really tackle a lot of cool things and to really, within the formula of good versus evil, going back to that, it can really explore these people as people and bring this honesty to the world of what these characters are doing. And that’s what I’m trying to do. So if we can make that work, that would be, I think, a huge achievement on network. Obviously cable gives you more freedom: you can curse, you can smoke, you can fuck, [laughs] you can be naked, you can do whatever the fuck you want because they want that on cable, because the crazier it is, the better the show does or gets talked about, right?
But network, we have to play a game, because it’s often about advertising, so it has to be censored in the rulebook. I’m trying to navigate through those censors and make it as visceral and exciting to watch as I can still, while playing by some rules, which is to me fine. If I go do a Disney movie and tomorrow I had three children and I wanted to do a Disney film for them, I’m sure working on a Disney film for them, there’s going to be rules. [laughs] Every genre you do or every place you go, every story has a different audience. If you’re making the R-rated vampire movie, Blade, okay, we know that it’s going to go far and we can take it there, it’s adult fare. Whereas Deputy is on at 9 o’clock, some kids are going to be watching. It’s cool to feel some sort of limits. It’s making me use my strengths in other ways and I don’t need to curse in every scene. Sometimes I would like to say: “Fuck you!”, but I can’t [laughs], but that’s the only drawback. I’ve been having a pretty good time otherwise.
BT: What would you like to accomplish on screen that you have yet to do?
SD: I’m not sure, because I have done a lot. I haven’t done a Western, which I’d love to do. I have done a lot: I’ve played a woman (Candy Darling in I Shot Andy Warhol), I’ve played [laughs] bad guys, good guys, there’s not really that one specific thing that I’ve never gotten to do that I want. I guess that it would be the directors that I love and adding to the filmography, adding to the characters. For Deputy, I’d love Bill Hollister to become an iconic character. I think that he’s written that way, I’m trying to act him that way and I’m trying to bring something special to a new kind of tv lead that we haven’t seen in a lot of these episodic procedural shows…that do very well, by the way, but aren’t necessarily with what I really vibe. They tend to be very glossy and shot very poorly I think. [laughs] What I love about this show is that we’re making it like a movie. It looks real. That’s what David Ayer brought. He brought an energy and a style to the show that I think will stand out as well. This isn’t going to be CSI, and God bless ’em they went for I don’t know how many years, but it’s not going to be that kind of show. I like that, and if the audience likes that, we’re opening the box in the world we’re in, which is a new world of content. It’s a new world of that there’s 9 million places to go to watch things. There’s 90 million movies and television, mostly tv, and as an audience member, as a person that’s seeing all of this content myself, I gravitate to the things that I love watching and those are the ones that you want to watch week to week or binge watch. If anything, it makes you work harder to try to stand out in a very competitive marketplace.
Deputy premieres tonight on Fox at 9/8c