I meet the newly multi-hyphenated actor-singer-songwriter at his place in Malibu. Blaring the music as I carefully navigate the Pacific Coast Highway through a Sunday rainstorm; notes drifting from a baby grand piano welcoming me before he shakes my hand; “I was just working on a song when you came;” he offers me a beer and we toast “to Wheeler.”
“My dad was a real songwriter, quiet dude, not a real hands-on father,” Dorff tells me. “My mom was really our parent and my dad was always off working and cutting tracks for Dusty Springfield or writing a song for Whitney Houston or Céline Dion, Barbra Streisand, or The Carpenters.” His brother took up the songwriting mantle in his mid-twenties, but the music thing never stuck with Dorff. “When I had lessons as a kid I think I ended up telling my piano teacher to fuck off and my mom was like, ‘Stephen how could you talk to him like that? He just called me and he was practically in tears.’ I’m like, ‘He was weird and he touched my leg strange, fuck him!’ You know, I was that kind of kid,” Dorff admits to me. “That turned me off to it for a while.”
Dorff’s stellar trajectory was formed early on when an agent discovered him during a theatre demonstration at school, back in Atlanta. Commercials and TV shows and big movie auditions followed quickly. “I was going up against the big guys at that time. I’d go up against Matt Damon, or I was kind of younger than the River Phoenix’s. I went up for Stand By Me (1986) when I was young and I got a call back but I was just too young, but then I got The Power of One (1992). I talked to my dad and mom and said I’d rather do this movie and go to Africa and work with fucking Morgan Freeman and Sir John Gielgud than go to theater school. I don’t really want to do Shakespeare, I just I want to make movies.”
Roles in more than 50 features followed, including highly memorable parts in films like I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) playing Warhol’s superstar Candy Darling, Blade (1998) as the villain facing Wesley Snipes, Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010) as an emotionally tapped Hollywood star, and The Motel Life (2012) as a drifter opposite Emile Hirsch. “I just grew up in the movies.” Dorff acknowledges, “I’ve aged in the movies and now I’m playing a dad in the movies and it’s weird. And I think I’ve gotten stronger, I’m a better person as I’ve gotten older. You know when you grow up in this industry, in this town, it’s hard to kind of maintain... I’m lucky I’ve never been arrested or you’ve never read some horror story on me. I’ve certainly had an edgy kind of persona probably and have made some daring choices along the way but I’ve never really had any major drama. I have never really gone off the deep end in some dark way. I think I credit that to my parents.”
Music wasn’t a part of Dorff’s career. It wasn’t even on the radar. “I didn’t really play music, I would always buy it and I loved listening to it. The Stones, Beatles, fuckin’ Jimi Hendrix, Dr. Dre, fuckin’ Tupac, Chili Peppers: Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991) and I grew up on all of it, I loved it! Just didn’t know how to play it.” Dorff didn’t study music, or take guitar or piano lessons, but he had his father’s ear and he could tool around on a guitar or a piano and make it sound good: “I think probably I was about 25 when I started playing.”
In the fall of 2014, Dorff was getting ready to shoot a movie in Rome. He had already done a makeup test for the project and been to Rome twice to meet with the director. The picture got pushed and Dorff was left wondering, ‘what comes next?’ “I hate that feeling,” Dorff tells me. “My career’s like a fucking roller coaster. I’ll disappear for a couple years and then, ‘Bang!’ I’ll get the lead in Sofia [Coppola]’s movie and then disappear for another couple. I don’t plan it that way. I wish it were more stable.” In his downtime, his dad set him up for some time with Michael Woodrum, a recording engineer. Together they recorded a bunch of tracks to have on file potentially for a future soundtrack, but after playing the songs for friends, he was encouraged to take his music more seriously.
“My dad was saying, ‘Stephen, the record business is in the toilet.’” Dorff explains, “’You’re best off doing what you do—what’s in your wheel box—create a character and then do the music and perform in the movie.’” But after a three-hour talk with his friend, Ryan Ross—a former assistant and director of the Blu E-cigarette ads that Dorff appeared in—the two came up with a character concept, and Wheeler Bryson was born.
Wheeler took 13 days to shoot. Ross directed and organized most of the picture including casting people from his hometown. The majority of the cast were not actors and didn’t know they were appearing with Dorff. Makeup genius and friend Christien Tinsley, the man behind all the exploding heads on Westworld, spent three hours reconfiguring Dorff’s face. “This can’t just be Stephen Dorff in a cowboy hat. How do I do this without being the E-cig guy, without being the guy from Blade?” Dorff pondered. “Whatever genre movie crowd you’re in, you’re going to know me from one of those movies. Whatever happens I’ll get recognized. I’m not Tom Cruise, but I’ll get recognized. That would ruin the execution. I needed a face. I needed to be Waylon Jennings.”
Real life musicians were brought in, “Ringers,” as he calls them, who were in on the story. Bobby Tomberlin, who along with Stephen’s brother, Andrew, helped write the first single, “Pour Me,” the beautifully talented Audrey Spillman, and Kris Kristofferson, who had appeared with Dorff in both Blade and The Motel Life. Session musicians were hired who had no idea they were playing with Stephen Dorff.
Dorff plans to take the music on the road after the movie opens. Playing as both Wheeler Bryson in the make-up and as himself. “Look man I’m used to reading bad reviews, great reviews; it always feels better to have a good thing said about your work. I’m an artist that cares,” Dorff admits, “If I didn’t give a fuck, you could talk shit about it all the time, but I do care and I’m doing it for the people, ‘cause that’s what art is right? If you’re gonna paint a picture like Francis Bacon painted, it’s for the people right? If you do a song you want people to listen to it, if you do a movie you want people to find it. I care and I put a lot into my movies. I guess the ones that I haven’t really believed in I’ve put in less. Wheeler I put in a lot. I wanted Ryan to succeed as a director. I wanted the music to succeed. I believe we have some hits on the record, so if it worked, and they wanted a mini tour, I’d look at it like a movie, ‘let’s fucking do it. Yeah, go play the Greek.’ For me, it was a special thing.”
As the Malibu rain eases, the conversation drifts to more lasting weather patterns: “I feel like in this day and age, I don’t know if it’s Millennials or if it’s communication, everything’s like now.” Dorff says, “there’s no real sense of respect. It’s a whole big clusterfuck.”
I watch Dorff snuff out his fifth cigarette as we finish our conversation. Real cigarettes, not E-cigs. I’m sure the smoking adds a richness and a gravel to his singing voice but it can’t be good for a singer. “Probably the worst habit I have now is smoking cigarettes,” Dorff acknowledges, “cause I’m now past that mid-life; that 40s thing, and you need the lungs to regenerate. All my doctors say, ‘Stephen, come on.’ They want me to stop. I wanna regenerate my lungs, you know, I need my tools for my work. Singing, you gotta breathe.”
Check out our Flaunt Film featuring Stephen here.
Written by Jon-Barrett Ingels
Photographer: Dani Brubaker for Lga Management.
Stylist: Mark Holmes for Jed Root.
Hair: David Cox for Art Department.
Groomer: Jen Fiamengo for Walter Schupfer Management using Clé de Peau Beauté