How Stephen Dorff Became a Flashy, Brutish MMA Fighter in ‘Embattled’
Stephen Dorff was coming off the grueling production schedule of True Detective’s third season when he started the work to become Cash Boykins, the volatile brawler of MMA drama Embattled. The HBO anthology series had taken a lot out of him, and he dropped weight for the role, so the path to becoming a welterweight roughneck was already uphill.
“I was running on fumes after True Detective, but I was excited about Embattled, and I had this surge of adrenaline that latest a month,” says Dorff. For four weeks before filming kicked off in Alabama, the veteran actor worked with trainer Josh Perzow to get into combat-fighting shape. “My whole life was working out and eating during that time.”
Not making weight wasn’t an option for Dorff, who’s a long-time fan of mixed martial arts, and would be sharing his set with UFC headliners like Tyron Woodley and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. We spoke with Dorff on his training process for Embattled, mixing it up with MMA legends, and pulling swagger inspiration from fighters like Conor McGregor to create Cash Boykins.
Men’s Journal: What about the Embattled storyline drew you in?
Stephen Dorff: This script just moved me. There have been movies based in the fight world that I like, but not as many as you would imagine given how big the sport is and is becoming. In contrast, there have been a whole lot more boxing movies, because it’s been around longer. I love boxing movies. Cinderella Man is a brilliant piece of work. But there’s no doubt that now it’s MMA’s time. It’s more relevant and prevalent. There’s been Warrior and a few of that caliber, but the writer of this, David McKenna, is just so talented it sets itself apart. I wanted the role immediately, I knew that he isn’t the nicest guy, but undeniably a fascinating character.
I know you’re a fan of UFC. How did you first get introduced to that world?
I started becoming a fan, because I’d been following boxing a bit, and mixed martial arts were starting to kick off. I started to prep for Felon with Ric Roman Waugh and through there I met Greg Jackson’s team. There were a bunch of great guys out there, like Cowboy Cerrone. I actually kept in touch with him. We based a lot of the fighting we were doing in the yard around their fight styles, and the story was loosely based around what actually happened in California State Prison, Corcoran. .
How did you envision the character once you got the role?
He’s had a welterweight title at one point, but he’s really the featherweight champion of the world…the kind of fighter that brings in six or seven million pay-per-views. He’s that guy. I immediately went to the champions that exist today with that kind of flash and showmanship we were looking for. Obviously a guy like Conor McGregor is going to be a big inspiration, if you strip away the Irish and replace it with this Southern swagger. That same kind of abrasive fighting talent is what I wanted—the kind of unpredictable instigator who flusters opponents, gets in their heads, then puts them on the floor. I took a little of the flash from Mayweather as well. I like how he’s always showing off money. I thought about Cowboy Cerrone as well, as far how much of a lion that guy is. He’ll walk into a ring with literally anybody, anywhere. Not the biggest guy in the room, but the biggest personality, larger than life. I tried to morph all of those guys together for Embattled.
And how did you start the physical preparation for Embattled?
Once it was announced that I was going to be doing the third season of True Detective, they knew they wanted me for the part. I told them I wanted to do it after I was done filming, but I needed some time because I wasn’t going to be close to as big as I wanted to be. The plan was to be pretty lean and skinny for True, so I needed time to transform into an MMA fighter after. I started the ramp up to the process while I was filming though, slowly doing more workouts and eating more. Once we wrapped, I went all-out with my trainer, doing a big calorie load. I put on about eight to 10 pounds of muscle in the short time we had, which is a lot for me. Especially in just four weeks.
Did you already have a trainer in mind?
I found myself in Montreal doing the movie Immortals, and I really needed to be in shape for that. There was an enormous amount of shirtless scenes, in addition to the battles that were in the script. I ended up connecting with these guys who work with a lot of hockey players, one being Josh Perzow, who I’ve worked with on a few movies since. I just really liked the way he worked, and the fact he works with real athletes and fighters. Once I got this, I gave him a ring, because I really needed someone there with me in Los Angeles. We should have had two months for this kind of prep, but we had four weeks. We made it work, though.
Was it difficult to balance the Embattled fight scenes with the rest of production?
The biggest request I had was making the fights the first thing we filmed. There were people in production who wanted to get to them later, because they didn’t want to risk people getting hurt during the stunts and not being able to finish their scenes. But I knew we needed to put trust in our crew, because if I had to film these crazy long days, just doing the drama, I’d be beat and have no time for real workouts. That would end up cutting the legs out from under the work I already put in. So we moved the fights to the front of our production schedule, which allowed me to focus singularly on getting into shape for combat. The real effort started in Los Angeles, and Josh was able to put size on me immediately. We traveled to the set in Alabama together and kept up our sessions—two weeks of eight hours a day, then getting into the cage.
Speaking of the cage, once the workouts were going well, how did you start doing the mixed martial arts training?
I was glad I put in all that work with Josh, because once I got to Alabama, it was time to start working with Chris Conolley and his team out of Birmingham. Being around real fighters at that point was huge, and Chris is legit, working with guys who are fighting in the UFC now. I think he has one of his guys competing on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi soon. Not only was he working on the movie, but he’s also in it; he plays the referee. I learned a lot of great grabbling moves and submissions. We worked hard to have the executions look real, making sure I’m doing it right on camera. There are some intense movements in there. I’m getting a lot of comments on a scene where I come up with my elbow on my opponent from people who know the sport well. There are elements of that training I would like to keep up with even past this experience. I need to make sure I stay in touch with the guys.
The sprawls that happen in MMA are hard to get down to an exact science, as far as choreography, because it’s so reactive. Did you find yourself coming in contact with your scene partners?
There were a few times I made contact. I clipped a few doubles during those scenes. I was on the receiving end myself a few times. We say sorry, then we move on, usually. I remember I got hit really bad during the filming of Felon. Took one to the cheekbone and it puffed up to a point where we couldn’t keep filming. That’s just the cost of doing business.
How did you put together Cash Boykins’ style?
I’ll be honest, the look just came together. I was in Malibu when the director asked me what I was feeling, and I just said let me handle it. I actually had a dream where I pictured myself having these gold teeth, and I thought his teeth should have been knocked out. So we went with it. We literally bonded the gold teeth onto my actual teeth, and I kept them on for a while after filming, until I had to get into another gig. I also had the idea to shave my head, so I just did it, and sent a photo to the director. He loved it.
There are some well-known UFC personalities in the movie, like Tyron Woodley in Embattled. What was it like having guys that that in the cut?
Getting champions like Tyron Woodley and familiar faces like Kenny Florian as a part of the production just gives us all the more reason to get it right, and the right advice. Getting their thumbs up after some of the fights was huge. Not to mention, it makes it feel real for everyone. The fight organization in the movie is called the WFA, but it’s quite obviously the UFC to the modern viewer. We got a Dana White-type actor to play the head of it. We actually even went to Dana White and tried to get him to be in the movie. He said, “I’m not an actor, but I want to see it when it’s done!” It’s been great getting the response we have from the whole MMA world. I have a habit of picking apart the movies I’m in, and this one stands up more than most. I am extremely proud of it. I hope everyone is able to enjoy it, and to see the effort we put in.