True Detective star Stephen Dorff: I knew we'd connect if we did this right

The first season of True Detective put Matthew McConaughey back on the map, but for the star of season three, Stephen Dorff, his dreams post-filming are a little more grounded.

“Maybe I’ll just quit [acting] and open a restaurant,” jokes the Somewhere actor, who spent seven months last year filming the third and long-awaited instalment of HBO’s award-winning crime drama. Most of the scenes were shot in the murky outback of Arkansas, but Dorff says he and co-star Mahershala Ali “embraced” small-town life among the Ozark mountains.

The pair were mistaken as Walmart reps when they got off the plane, and Dorff says he found the anonymity refreshing. “I was sitting next to some guy from Coca-Cola, so I said ‘I’m with Trident chewing gum, who are you with?’” he laughs.

“Neither [Ali or I] have jobs at the moment so maybe should go back and open a restaurant in Arkansas. We can call it Wayne and Roland’s” — a nod to their detective personas.

Pictured: Candyce Hinkle as Patty Faber & Stephen Dorff as Roland West (HBO)
Pictured: Candyce Hinkle as Patty Faber & Stephen Dorff as Roland West (HBO)

On-screen, Ali plays lead detective Wayne Hays, while Dorff takes the supporting role as Roland West, a young detective who’s a bit of a “cowboy”. The pair have been partners for about six months when we meet them and the series follows the case of two missing children, Will and Julie Purcell, set over three separate decades.

Dorff, 45, says he felt a “real connection” to West’s character from the off. “He’s got a bit of everything: he’s got a dry sense of humour, he’s honest, upfront, tough, but he’s got a soft spot too.”

Creator Nic Pizollatto’s writing was “a dream” but playing the same character over four decades — in his 30s, 40s and 70s — was “a challenge”, says Dorff.

On the days he played an elderly West (30 in total), make-up took five hours and he wore 10 pieces of prosthetics, from a bald cap to a “belly leotard”. The final stage was sticking the beard hair on, which was a “pain in the arse” because the machine used an electric charge.

Leads: Mahershala Ali as Wayne Hays & Stephen Dorff as Roland West (HBO)
Leads: Mahershala Ali as Wayne Hays & Stephen Dorff as Roland West (HBO)

“I’d be holding onto this thing and it would be shocking the hell out of me. It’s like being in the dentist when you’re waiting for that sharp feeling.”

A highlight, however, was FaceTiming his father, the American songwriter Steve Dorff, while made up as an old man: “He was like ‘Jesus!’” laughs Dorff.

Dorff hopes he gets his father’s genes but says filming made him feel his age. Piracy issues over the first season and today’s online spoiler culture meant Pizzolatto and HBO were “really paranoid” about leaks, “so there were no real copies of scripts” he recalls. “I’m kind of old school: I like to write on my script but everything was on iPads, and I was calling at midnight, saying ‘I can’t get into the thing, I’ve gotta learn my lines.’”

Finally, he, Ali and Carmen Ejogo, who plays Hays’ wife, were given hard copies, but they were printed on red paper so it was hard to read. “I’m getting older now so my eyes aren’t what they used to be and I couldn’t read on the red paper, so it was just driving me crazy,” says Dorff. “It’s like a secret paper that’ll disintegrate or set on fire or something if you try to leak a copy of it.”

Scripts were so top secret, in fact, that he and Ali weren’t told the ending until halfway through filming. Did he predict the suspect? “I was totally wrong,” Dorff admits. “It’s pretty awesome, but I’m sworn to secrecy.”

Into the limelight: Actor Stephen Dorff (Chris Delmas/AFP/Getty Images)
Into the limelight: Actor Stephen Dorff (Chris Delmas/AFP/Getty Images)

His and Ali’s good-cop-bad-cop double act has drawn parallels with McConnaghey and Woody Harrelson’s in season one, and Dorff says it was an “intense relationship”. He congratulated Ali on his Golden Globe earlier this month and hopes he gets the Oscar for his latest film, Green Book.

Did he feel a pressure after a shaky second season? “A little bit,” Dorff admits. “Nic just said ‘Forget about season one, forget about season two, this is a whole new animal. We knew that if we did this right it would resonate and be its own creature.”

The series launched in the UK earlier this month and fans are pleased to see the drama getting back on track. “My little sister told me I was trending on Twitter,” says Dorff, laughing. “I don’t know what that means.”

He admits he has a fake Instagram account to “follow silly things like skateboards” and “an occasional girl”, but mostly he’d rather keep things offline and focus on what’s next.

What would his dream restaurant be if he were to set one up? “Maybe a fish-and-chip shop in London with a full bar and a dance floor,” says Dorff. “I like acting. But I like fish and chips too.”

True Detective Season 3 Episode 1 & 2 is available now on streaming service NOW TV, with a new episode released every Monday and on demand.