Stephen Dorff on ‘Deputy’, ‘True Detective’, and Why He Almost Quit Acting

     January 16, 2020

The Fox drama series Deputy follows Bill Hollister (Stephen Dorff), a fifth-generation lawman who suddenly finds himself running the Los Angeles Country Sheriff’s Department when the elected Sheriff dies and a rule that dates back to the Wild West puts him in charge. And while the pursuit of justice is his number one priority, being in this new position teaches him that doing what he feels is right can ruffle more than a few feathers.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Stephen Dorff talked about how much his experience on HBO’s True Detective affected him, personally and professionally, what went into his decision to lead a broadcast network TV series, the spontaneity of a character like Bill Hollister, the importance of his family, the evolving dynamic between Hollister and Deputy Bishop (Bex Taylor-Klaus), what pilot director David Ayer (who’s also an executive producer on the series) brought to Deputy, why he recently almost quit acting, and how he feels about the career path that he’s been on, up to this point.

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Image via FOX

Collider: Thank you for talking to me about Deputy. Before we get into that, I have to mention that I thought you did great work on True Detective. That was a relationship that we’ve never really got to see before, and I was absolutely compelled, watching that and your work in the series.

STEPHEN DORFF: Oh, thanks. Thank you! I love that show. It was brilliantly written and brilliantly made. Pretty much nothing I look at is ever gonna be as good as that. That’s one in a million. Nothing on cable can touch it. (Show creator) Nic [Pizzolatto] is just a masterful writer. To work opposite Mahershala [Ali], in that kind of dynamic, for three decades, was just beyond any movie experience and beyond anything I’d ever done, just ‘cause the amount of text and the amount of growth of the characters, you can never explore that in the running time of a film. Now, I’m getting a second shot with Deputy, to create a guy who I can hopefully make people want to live with and see him grow, and this one doesn’t end. It’s been a cool ride. It’s great people that I’m working with, and I love the character. With all of these shows, it’s all really about character, at the end of the day. If you look at every show, from True Detective to Ozark to Deputy to any network or cable show, at the end of the day, it’s all about character. That’s what people gravitate to. And then, as far as the storyline, the crime, the love story, or the theme of the show can be great too and change, but for the most part, we’re just repeating things, constantly. So, to me, it’s really about character, what makes him different, and who he is. I’ve got a good one here, so I’m just trying to balance the network of it all. It’s cool. I’m having a good time.

With a project like True Detective, because it was such a personal character study, did it feel like you had to finish that show, to be able to look back at it and really understand the experience that you had?

DORFF: I think so. I didn’t watch anything while I was shooting. I just wanted to get through it and get it in the can. We had just such a great team, with great producers, great technicians and music. It was a pretty first-class operation that’s on another level. It was just a dream role. If I hadn’t loved the role as much, maybe it wouldn’t have affected me as much. Roland was just the richest character and had everything. I’m trying to emulate a little bit of that. The cowboy theme is following me around, whether it’s Roland West or Bill Hollister. They’re very different people, but the West and the idea of the American cowboy is following me around in the roles that I’m doing, for some reason. I’m not really asking for it. It’s just coming my way, and I’m embracing it. I learned a lot about rodeo culture and the West, playing Roland for seven months, and now I’m playing Bill, who’s more of a California rancher or lawman, in a modern world. He still loves being on horses and will use horses when he needs to, to solve a crime. It’s cool because it’s a blend of the Old West meets a very modern world, set in Los Angeles. It’s a completely different thing, but at the same time, the themes are the same. What I like about Bill and this show is that it’s not like, “Let’s solve the crime,” with 10 people in a room. That kind of TV just drives me crazy and I don’t watch it. I’m much more character driven. So, even in this space, I’m trying to bring a character to TV that maybe we haven’t seen in awhile, or ever.

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Image via FOX

Because Bill Hollister finds himself in a situation that he never could have imagined he’d be in, is there a fun in having to live in the moment like that?

DORFF: Yeah, it’s more spontaneous, and Bill is a spontaneous guy in a position of power now because it came out of nowhere to him. He wasn’t expecting it in other way. The way that me and David Ayer had originally thought of Bill, before the pilot starts, when we were creating it together, was that the character is a guy that lost his partner and who’s not afraid things. He’s a guy that probably almost died a few times, and really almost died a few years ago. We haven’t really touched on that yet, but that’s what caused him to join the mounted unit, which is more of a place that you go as a deputy to slow it down. I think he did that for his family and his wife, who was tired of seeing him in the emergency room. He loves his family, which I love about Bill. I love that he has a real family life, whereas Roland was a loner with a big heart. As he grew older, he was alone. So, I try to embrace the family part of Bill. It’s a huge part of what makes him the man he is. I’ve got two great girls, that play my wife and daughter on the show, and I think those scenes are a really great balance to the real balls out action, crazy shit that Bill is doing.

I’ve seen the guy grow, and he’s grown a lot since the pilot, as the shows do ‘cause you just keep going. So, I think the spontaneity of Bill is a big part of him. What you’ll see in the future from him, as he gets a little more comfortable in his job, is that, as the days are running out for his services as interim sheriff of L.A. County, we’ll see where that goes. This is a guy that’s starting to like his position of power because he can, in a smart way, use that power to do the right thing. That’s what people out in the real world are gonna start to love about him, as opposed to the guy who’s in a position of power, that’s going to the meetings and doing the things he’s supposed to do. Bill is gonna bring heart into the job. He’s going to solve cases and put bad people away, and he’s gonna do it with passion. And he’s gonna still be doing it, if he’s in a sheriff uniform or if he’s in his cowboy boots. That’s the kind of guy he is, and that’s what the show is. I like that spontaneity is him. I think that’s what makes it fun and unique, as opposed to just, “Oh, he’s the sheriff and he’s gonna meet the mayor. Next week, he’s gonna meet the governor and go to this dinner party.” Hell no! If there’s a fucking bank robbery going down and he doesn’t have his car, he’s gonna ride his horse down there and go get them. He’s an animal. That’s been fun to play. I’ve never really played a guy like that. He says what he wants to say, and he says things he shouldn’t say sometimes. He’s not always politically correct, in the office of the sheriff. He’s an anti-hero and an interesting guy.

I love that Bill Hollister is not a guy who’s afraid of or intimidated by strong women. What do you enjoy about the relationship between him and his wife?

DORFF: He married a very successful surgeon, who he met when she sewed him up because he’d been stabbed in the gut. He fell in love with this strong, fun, smart, passionate Latina woman, played by Yara Martinez. She creates a great balance. Bill’s not Superman. He can’t take down everybody, and he can’t do it all himself. The reality is that he’s a complex dude. And so, without that family life, he’d probably be a train wreck. But because he has that strong balance of his wife and his beautiful, 14-year-old, smart, tough daughter, played by this great young actress, Valeria Jauregui, it’s really moving. Everybody’s human and, when they come to their safe place, they want to be able to vent, or let it all. He can’t do that in front of the cameras, or in front of his major crimes pals, or even his brotherhood of deputies. He can, to some degree, but the real Bill comes out when he’s at home. Those scenes are special, and we’re creating a really good family unit there. That’s what gives Bill the power to keep going. Paula gives him that strength, which is what you need out of a relationship, and he does the same for her, with the pressure of her job. These are two people with pretty high stress level career choices. Our daughter, Maggie, has to deal with that, which is hard enough. There’s a time when she’s gonna start dating and Bill is gonna get really pissed off, if the wrong guy does something to her. That’s gonna get interesting. That’s a huge part of the show for me. Of course, we’re gonna do the action and all of that popcorn stuff, but the heart of the show comes from the unit that he has at home. She’s spicy and tough, and if anybody can get Bill to calm down or shut up, it’s Paula.

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Image via FOX

I also love the dynamic between Hollister and his security detail, Deputy Bishop, because that’s not a dynamic that we get to see. What have you enjoyed about that dynamic, and how is that going to continue to evolve?

DORFF: Well, there will be a lot of changes in that dynamic. I agree with you, and a lot of people really responded to the fact that Bill is so different from Bishop. It was cute in the pilot, and it’s interesting. Bill is very modern, even though he’s old school. If he doesn’t know about Game of Thrones, he wants to know. He’s not close-minded to sexuality, or anything, really. He’s very open about things. He’s not necessarily choosing that for his own life, but he’s totally down. If you do your job well, he can learn from you, and I like the openness about him. I don’t wanna give things away, but I can say that the dynamic will change and grow into a different area, for her character, but Bishop will remain someone that Bill trusts and will use in future, when he needs her. What I wanted for Bill is that I didn’t really necessarily just want to be in a Suburban, all the time. He wants to drive his Bronco, and he likes to drive himself.

It’s cool that we butt heads, too. It’s not so cutesy, all the time. The pilot was meant to introduce the dynamic and introduce all of the characters, but once you start making the show, it really starts to form and things either groove or they don’t. True Detective was totally different. I had the whole piece. I had the eight-hour movie in my fucking hand, and I did what I had. With this is, I’m learning as I go ‘cause I don’t know what’s coming. It’s a little bit different way of working for me. I have a lot of opinions, and I may not like something that they write for Bill, so I’ll change it. I know who he is now, better than anybody, and I’ll play him as long as people want me to play him, if I believe in what he’s doing. It’s just a little bit scarier, doing this kind of show because you don’t have the scripts. I don’t know where it’s going, but that’s cool because, in a weird way, Bill doesn’t know where his life’s going. He doesn’t know if he’s gonna return to the mounted detail, by the end of the season, or if he’s gonna run for sheriff for real, as the elected position that it is. We’ll see what’s gonna happen.

There’s such a real authenticity to everything that David Ayer does, and he creates such a visceral feeling to his work. What was it like, especially in the beginning, to collaborate with him on that, and really find a sense of what this show would be, with someone like him?

DORFF: Well, yeah, I wouldn’t have done it without him. To be honest, I’m not a fan of most of network TV, and I’m not a fan of episodic television. I love some stuff on cable, and yet, I don’t love everything. It’s hard ‘cause I feel like what I made last year (with True Detective) was like fucking Jesus Christ, at the top of the food chain. Nic is a special writer. You don’t get that, all the time. Guys like David Milch (Deadwood) and David Chase, when he was doing The Sopranos, are on another level. I wouldn’t have done it without my captain. David Ayer is a great filmmaker. I loved Fury. I loved End of Watch. I met him, years ago, but never worked for him. We met, casually, and he wanted me to do it, but I was scared to do it. I didn’t wanna take the first big thing that came my way. I wanted to see what movies were out there. I was a little nervous to jump right into a big contract. I’m not a big fan of being locked down. It’s not really who I am.

All of those things come into play, but ultimately, it came back to who Bill Hollister is, the fact that I had David, and the fact that I had a great network that was on a new beginning. Charlie Collier is a really smart guy, and he made a big pitch for me to do this, while he was taking over the new Fox after the big separation and sale, and all of that. I thought, “You know what? Maybe I should reach more people. That could be good for me.” Something like True Detective is still a niche market. More people are gonna see Deputy that even would see Game of Thrones. You’re being blasted into people’s homes. It’s just a different world, and if I can crack that one, too, then I can really create something special. Then, they’ll start to listen and everybody will start trusting. It’s like anything, until something works, everybody’s afraid ‘cause there’s a lot of money being spent. So, we’ll see if people like Deputy or not.

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Image via FOX

I’ve followed your career, since the beginning. The first time I remember seeing you in something was when I went to see The Gate in a theater when I was 11 years old. At that point, what did you want or hope for, as an actor? And what do you think that actor version of you would think about the career path that you’re on now?

DORFF: The good news about me is that what I’ve always been most happy with is all the different kinds of films I’ve made and all the different directors I’ve worked with. I’ve never wanted to pigeonholed as one thing. To me, that makes acting boring. To just try to look good and say the lines is boring to me. I wanna play a character that I haven’t played before. I wanna learn through a character. To me, acting is my education. Acting has been my life. I grew up, travelling the world and making movies, and working with all different artists, to the point where, now I’m 46, and I know what every single department is doing when I’m acting. I’m aware of everything ‘cause this was my education. It’s like, if you’re a contractor and you’re on a building site since you’re 12 years old and you’re now 46, you probably know how to put a building up pretty fast and can do it right, unless you haven’t paid attention.

I’ve just loved all of the different filmmakers that I’ve worked with. My filmography, whether those movies hit or not, and usually they hit for me, unless there were a situation where it was a movie I shouldn’t have done because it was just a paycheck, ‘cause I like money and I like to spend money, so it was a balance. I had to figure out when I had to spend less money ‘cause I didn’t wanna take the dumb movie, or when I had to spend more money, so I had to take the dumb movies. I had to make some choices, like a lot of the best of us actors have had to do. Some of those titles will come up, at the end of the night on Showtime, and you’re like, “Oh, man, why did I do that movie?” But ultimately, even on the bad ones that I did, and there are probably five or six of those out of 45, I still had great experiences with ‘cause I always made them get me great actors to work with. I did a terrible movie was Bob Hoskins, but I got to work with Bob Hoskins before he passed, and that was fucking awesome. I did a terrible movie with Maria Bello, but I love Maria Bello. We did World Trade Center together and didn’t get to work together, so we did this payday and it was a fucking train wreck, but I love Maria and she’s my friend. So, I never was so down in the bottom that I wanted to just quit.

The only time I wanted to quit acting, funny enough, was right before this whole big upswing in my career, when my little brother passed away, which was three years ago, in December. I just didn’t want to act anymore. I didn’t want to do anything. I was done. I literally told everyone that I was done and that was it. I said, “Don’t send me scripts. Don’t call me. Fuck off!” That was my plan. I was maybe just gonna go do some music, travel, and try to figure out the next chapter of my life. But then, a year since my brother’s passing, they offered me True Detective, out of nowhere, and now I’m still sad, but I’m working through it. I’ve been working so much and been so busy, between the movie that I made after True Detective and this show (Deputy), I just haven’t really stopped. Me working and focusing on my characters has helped me heal, as much as you can, after the loss that I had. I think it’s made me a better person, but it’s also made me really laser-focused, in a way that I probably wasn’t in my 20s. I could always act. To me, that’s easy. I’ve always been a mimic. I can copy things, and look at people and look at the way they walk. I’ve always just loved acting and cinema and great directors. The idea of that art form has always just been my bag.

Now, I have the opportunity to play a character, day in and day out, where the movie doesn’t end. Obviously, this season will end and I’ll go do a movie because there are a couple of really good ones that I like and wanna do. I just keep doing my thing, and I’m having fun doing it. For me, sitting around waiting for a movie, all the time, is not necessarily the best thing for me, in this time. It’s good that I’m surrounded with people that I love and respect, and that I’m getting to do some good. Hopefully, people will really gravitate to Bill. I do art for my audience. I don’t really do it for me. Yeah, I get paid, but I do it for the people. The movies either work or they don’t. Either you flip for something, or you hate it. That’s how I feel when I watch something. I either love what I saw, or I think it’s totally forced and terrible. I want that audience to gravitate to Bill, so I’m working hard at trying to do that, and we’ll see where it goes.

Deputy airs on Thursday nights on Fox.

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