01 Jan Stephen Dorff details crash course in MMA as he prepared to play ‘beast of a man’ in new film ‘Embattled’
Actor Stephen Dorff has played a lot of roles during his career.
He’s portrayed a criminal as well as a cop in recent roles such as True Detective season 3 on HBO. He’s become synonymous with past parts in films like Blade where he played a powerful vampire opposite Wesley Snipes.
In his new film Embattled, which drops on VOD on Nov. 20, Dorff plays Cash Boykins, a grizzled veteran and the best lightweight fighter on the planet, who also happens to be an absentee father to his sons. The movie is directed by Nick Sarkisov based on a screenplay from David McKenna, who is best known for writing films such as American History X and Blow.
According to Dorff, he was initially attracted to the role based solely on McKenna’s script, but it took some time for the project to finally come together with all the pieces of the puzzle getting put into place.
“It was really McKenna’s script,” Dorff said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “It came to me not even through my agent. I met Nick, our director, and I talked to David and he was pretty gung ho for it and then it was just convincing Nick and the financiers. At the time, they never really pulled the trigger and gave it to me. I really loved the script. I loved the father and son aspect. This beast of a man. Tried to put it together the guy that was on the page but fill it with because of his life and the way that he was brought up, why he’s kind of stuck in these old school ways when it comes to his children but at the same time being a smart businessman and a hell of a fighter. Just trying to fill that. It jumped off the page.
“Then when it was announced that I was doing True Detective, the Embattled team called and said they’d love to do a deal.”
While Dorff definitely had the acting chops to pull off the dramatic scenes required for this film where his character Cash is anything but a conventional father to his kids, the physical aspect required plenty of work.
That’s where the filmmakers called upon fighters like Kenny Florian and Tyron Woodley to help with the technical aspects of the movie as well as a trainer in Chris Conolley to put the actors through a rigorous training camp in order to pull off the fight scenes.
Conolley is best known as the head coach for fighters like UFC heavyweight Walt Harris and middleweight fighter Eryk Anders but for Embattled, he became the trainer responsible for making Dorff look and act like a champion mixed martial artist.
“The fight scenes that we coordinated there was a lot of technical stuff going on, especially with the jiu-jitsu and some of the grappling sequences,” Conolley said. “What was crazy was Stephen had just come off True Detective and we designed all these fight scenes and we were like ‘I don’t know if we’re going to be able to get this’ but he came in and hit the ground running.
“I mean we were doing eight hour days when we started. Starting at eight in the morning and going until six in the evening, just training, training, training and walking through the fight scenes. He picked it up really, really quick but it was like he said, it was pedal to the metal. The training was intense.”
While this was his first time participating in a coordinated MMA fight, Dorff had the chance to get to know several prominent athletes and coaches during his work on a previous film. That combined with the overall growth of MMA around the world gave him a pretty good idea of what to expect once he started training.
“I think you’ve got to be pretty not on the planet if you haven’t really followed the UFC or MMA,” Dorff said. “It seems to be the top sport around. It definitely overshadowed boxing. It’s just become a sport where every time there’s a fight, when they happen a lot all over the world, there’s kind of madness and commotion in bars, at least before the world took a big turn.
“For me, it’s always been a sport that I’ve been a fan of. I’ve done other pictures in the past, when I did a prison film called Felon in New Mexico with Val Kilmer, and that film I got to meet Greg Jackson and [Donald] “Cowboy” Cerrone and Rashad Evans and a lot of these fighters from that part of the country and that team. Some of the moves in MMA, that was the style of fighting in the yard for that film and recreating what happened.”
Conolley says the training for Dorff and the other actors engaged with the MMA fight scenes was intense and there was no pulling punches in order to get them ready.
Because there are so many different layers to MMA from striking to grappling to wrestling, Conolley knew he needed Dorff to look every bit the part of a champion in order for the scenes to be convincing to the audience.
“The same kind of training you put professional athletes through,” Conolley said. “Maybe not as intense as far as the conditioning element goes but you’re taking a person who is not a jiu-jitsu practitioner and you’re getting them to pull off high level, technical jiu-jitsu moves. Some highlight reel stuff for the movie. I was blown away by how Stephen and the other guys picked up that stuff. It was a lot of fun.
“Cash has a particular style. The character is kind of a gritty, do whatever it takes to win kind of guy. So Cash’s objective was to go out there and make it look dirty and gnarly. His character was more about ‘I’ll just whoop your ass.’”
Dorff describes his character as a little bit Conor McGregor, a little bit Floyd Mayweather but with “southern roots” and a bit of a “hillbilly vibe.”
In the end, he believes the training and preparation paid off for Embattled while also adding that as much as this film centers around the world of MMA, there’s definitely more to this story than just the competition.
“It’s storytelling in a major fight but I’ve never seen a fight that long and that intense where it goes quiet and it goes loud,” Dorff said. “It’s just beautiful in the way it’s executed. That’s what I’m really proud of. I’m proud we’re doing something deeper than any sport because it has to do with the heart and father and son, stripped down and then you put this incredible sport and the amount of attention this sport gets, you have a recipe for a really strong movie.
“I just think it’s a unique film. I think that it is a father-son story, a family drama with a very exciting twist and a very exciting world that it’s set against.”
Embattled will be released in select theaters as well as video-on-demand starting on Nov. 20.