Stephen Dorff has played a lot of complicated men over the years, but his latest role just might take the cake. In the new film Embattled, Dorff plays Cash Boykins, a two-division mixed martial arts champion in the WFA, a massive international fight promotion with hundreds of athletes on its roster and a $5 billion valuation. Sound familiar?
Cash is what we might have ended up with if, rather than meeting in the boxing ring in 2017, Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor had been fired at one another in the Large Hadron Collider and smashed into one entity.
He’s rich, he’s confident, and ridiculously good at fighting (37-1 records don’t come easy). He drinks too much, he’s abusive, and he’s chock-full of homophobic slurs. Yet he also shows glimmers of goodness, making him a complex and layered character, and a tough one to play—even for an actor as experienced as Dorff, who has previously starred in films like Blade, Somewhere and Felon.
“As an actor, you don’t necessarily have to agree with your characters,” Dorff says. “If I agreed with all of my characters all the time, it would be a pretty boring career. An actor’s job, in my opinion, is to find the energy of a character each time, and look completely different and embody a different person, whether you're the hero or whether you're the villain. In a movie like this, Cash is arguably the star and the flashy part of the film, but he’s the villain.”
Cash’s complexity is most apparent when it comes to his relationship with his family—particularly his son and fellow WFA fighter, Jett. As a father, he’s cold, distant, and downright violent, but he also shows fleeting flashes of paternal pride and concern for his son’s future.
“He is not able to convey emotion the way my parents did with me, or the way I would hope your parents did with you,” Dorff said. “So much of who we become is where we come from, and our surroundings and what kind of energy was around us [as kids]. Cash came from a very brutal background,” he continued. “And the man he is now is basically brutal.”
Beyond the intangible challenges of this role, it was also a difficult one for Dorff physically, as he had to pack on enough muscle to pass as a pro fighter. While he was helped by his experience bulking up for previous roles, this physical transformation was a tall order, particularly given that he’d just wrapped up a stint on season three of True Detective—a role he had to slim down for.
“For this role, I got with Josh Perzow, my trainer from Montreal, who I’ve done some films with in the past” Dorff said. “He got me pretty jacked for Immortals.
“[For Embattled] it was all about dieting and training and putting on as much size as I could in a short amount of time,” he continued. “Mixing in the fight choreography and cardio was risky because if I’m doing too much cardio, I could lose a lot of the size I was trying to put on. So it was really a balance of eating clean but eating a lot and really just pounding those weights and the choreography.
“By the time I got in the cage, I didn’t have any body fat, but I was also bigger.”
While it was Perzow who shepherded Dorff through the challenges of bulking up for this role, the actor also benefitted from a proximity to the substantial list of MMA coaches and fighters who worked on Embattled, such as Spartan Fitness MMA head coach Chris Connelly, former UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, and former UFC lightweight title challenger Kenny Florian.
All of the above helped him zero in on the finer details of life as a fighter.
“I had a great guy on this film: Chris Connelly, who is a trainer out of Alabama and has a big stable of fighters, like [UFC middleweight] Eric Anders,” Dorff said. “He took me to the mats, and he showed me what a real arm-bar was, what a neck-crank was, what a suplex was—all these things that I didn’t know the lingo for or have the specific knowledge of.
“Then when you look to the right of the cage and you have guys like Kenny Florian and Tyron Woodley there [playing commentators]—I would always kind of look to them for pointers as well,” Dorff added.
Like Dorff, the other key members of the Embattled cast and crew took great lengths to understand and thereby accurately portray life inside the MMA bubble. The culmination of those efforts is a film that actually gets the sport right. While many other MMA films have fallen flat, this one successfully captured many of the nuances of the sport, referencing everything from illegal fence-grabs and controversial foot-stomps to fighter pay disputes and unionization efforts.
Dorff is pleased with the end product, and is convinced film-goers—whether they’re fight fans or not—will enjoy it. “I think we made close to a perfect movie,” he said. “From what we were trying to accomplish with this script, there’s nothing in it that I would change. Everybody delivers in this film. I've been doing this a long time. I usually know what a good film feels like after I watch it and this, to me, is that kind of film.”
Embattled is slated for release in theaters and on a host of digital platforms on November 20. The film is directed by Nick Sarkisov and written by American History X’s David McKenna. Dorff served as a producer.