Stephen Dorff left the grueling season three production schedule of True Detective when he began work on becoming Cash Boykins, the fugitive thug in the MMA drama Embattled. The HBO anthology series had lost a lot of his weight and he lost weight for the role, so the path to becoming welterweight Roughneck was already going uphill.
“I was busy steaming after True Detective, but I loved Embattled and had that adrenaline rush that lasted a month,” says Dorff. Before filming in Alabama began, the veteran actor worked with trainer Josh Perzow for four weeks to get into fighting shape. “During this time, I’ve trained and eaten all my life.”
For Dorff, who is a longtime fan of mixed martial arts and would share his set with UFC headliners like Tyron Woodley and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, not doing weight was not an option. We spoke to Dorff about his training process for Embattled, mistaking him for MMA legends, and taking inspiration from fighters like Conor McGregor to create Cash Boykins.
Men’s Journal: What was the story of Embattled that interested you?
Stephen Dorff: This script just moved me. There have been movies in the fighting world that I like, but not as many as you can imagine, given how big the sport is and is becoming. In contrast, there have been a lot more boxing films because they have been around longer. I love boxing films. Cinderella Man is a brilliant piece of work. But there is no doubt that now is the time for MMA. It’s more relevant and prevalent. There have been warriors and some of that caliber, but the author of this book, David McKenna, is just so talented that it stands out from the rest. I wanted the role right away, I knew he wasn’t the nicest guy, but he was definitely a fascinating character.
I know you are a fan of UFC. How did you first get into this world?
I started becoming a fan because I followed boxing a bit and mixed martial arts started to take off. I started preparing for Felon with Ric Roman Waugh and there I met Greg Jackson’s team. There were a lot of great people out there, like Cowboy Cerrone. I actually stayed in touch with him. We based a lot of the fights we fought in the yard on their fighting styles, and the story was loosely based on what actually happened in California’s Corcoran State Prison.
How did you envision the character when you got the role?
He once had a welterweight title, but he really is the world featherweight champion … kind of a fighter who brings in six or seven million pay-per-views. He’s that guy. I immediately went to the champions out there today with the kind of blitz and showmanship we were looking for. Obviously a guy like Conor McGregor is going to be a huge inspiration when you strip the Irish off and replace them with that southern swagger. The same kind of aggressive combat talent I wanted – the kind of unpredictable instigator who makes opponents nervous, gets into their heads, and then puts them on the ground. I also took some of the Mayweather Lightning bolt. I like the way he always shows off money. I also thought of Cowboy Cerrone for that lion. He’ll get into the ring with literally anyone, anywhere. Not the tallest man in the room, but the greatest personality, taller than life. I tried turning all of these guys together for Embattled.
And how did you begin your physical preparation for Embattled?
When it became known that I was doing the third season of True Detective, they knew they wanted me in the role. I told them that I wanted to do it after I finished filming, but it took me some time because I wasn’t going to be nearly as tall as I wanted to be. The plan was to be pretty lean and thin for True, so it took me time to turn into an MMA fighter afterward. I started the ramp for the process as I was filming, slowly exercising more, and eating more. After we swaddled, I went all out with my trainer and made a big calorie load. I’ve put on roughly 8-10 pounds of muscle in the short amount of time we’ve had, which is a lot for me. Especially in just four weeks.
Did you already have a trainer in mind?
I was in Montreal doing Immortals and I had to be really in shape for that. In addition to the battles included in the script, there were an enormous number of shirtless scenes. I ended up connecting with these people who work with a lot of hockey players, including Josh Perzow, who I’ve worked with on a couple of films since then. I just liked the way he worked and how he works with real athletes and fighters. When I got that, I gave him a ring because I really needed someone there in Los Angeles. We should have had two months for this kind of preparation, but we had four weeks. But we did it.
Was it difficult to reconcile the competitive battle scenes with the rest of the production?
The biggest request I had was to do the fights for the first time, which we filmed. There were people in production who wanted to see them later because they didn’t want to risk people getting injured during stunts and not being able to finish their scenes. But I knew we had to put trust in our crew because if I had to film those crazy long days, just the drama, I’d be beaten and wouldn’t have time for real workouts. That would result in the legs being cut out from under the work I already did. So we put the fights at the forefront of our production schedule, which allowed me to focus solely on getting in shape for the fight. The real effort began in Los Angeles, and Josh was able to assess me immediately. We traveled together to the set in Alabama and continued our sessions – two weeks of eight hours a day, then we got into the cage.
Speaking of the cage, how did you start mixed martial arts training after training?
I was glad I did all of this work with Josh because when I got to Alabama it was time to work with Chris Conolley and his team from Birmingham. At that point it was huge to be around real fighters, and Chris is real and works with people who are now fighting in the UFC. I think he will soon have one of his boys on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi. Not only did he work on the film, he’s in it; He plays the referee. I learned a lot of great grabbling moves and submissions. We worked hard to make the executions look real and made sure I did it right on camera. There is some intense movement in it. I get a lot of comments on a scene where I put my elbow on my opponent from people who know the sport well. There are elements of this training that I want to keep up with after this experience. I have to make sure I keep in touch with the guys.
The spreads that occur in MMA are difficult to pin down to an exact science in terms of choreography because it is so reactive. Did you come into contact with your scene partners?
There have been a few times that I’ve made contact. I cut a couple of doubles during these scenes. I’ve been to the reception page a couple of times myself. We apologize, then we usually move on. I remember being hit very badly while filming Felon. Got you on the cheekbones and it’s puffed up to the point where we couldn’t keep filming. That’s just the cost of the business.
How did you put the Cash Boykins style together?
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 deal with it. I actually had a dream where I imagined I had those golden teeth and I thought his teeth should have been knocked out. So we went with. We literally connected the golden teeth to my actual teeth, and I kept them on for a while after filming until I had 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 quite a few well-known UFC personalities in the film, like Tyron Woodley in Embattled. What was it like to have guys who cut that?
Getting champions like Tyron Woodley and familiar faces like Kenny Florian as part of the production gives us all the more reason to get it right and the right advice. Getting thumbs up after a few fights was huge. Not to mention, it feels real to everyone. The fighting organization in the film is called WFA, but to the modern viewer, it’s obviously the UFC. We have a Dana White type actor who plays the head. We 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 was great to get the feedback we got from the whole MMA world. I have a habit of tearing apart the films I’m in, and this one stands up more than most. I am very proud of it. Hope everyone can enjoy and see the effort we have made.
Embattled will be released in select theaters and on VOD on November 20th.
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