Stephen Dorff Explores Uncharted Territory

By Michael Gluckstadt

The man who plays Roland West discusses what makes True Detective different from anything he’s done before.

Like any good police pairing, Roland West and Wayne Hays have an unspoken natural bond, an intuitive understanding of each other’s strengths that makes their partnership more than the sum of its parts. For the actors who behind these two men — Stephen Dorff and Mahershala Ali — that connection was forged on set. “Mahershala and I had a special chemistry playing these roles,” Dorff says. “I don’t know if I’ve ever gone to the level of emotional intimacy as I did with him.”

In the interview below, Dorff goes deep on Roland’s backstory, playing the same character across multiple time periods, and how True Detective is unlike anything he’s done before.

HBO: Tell us about your character, Roland West.

Stephen Dorff: He’s kind of a cowboy at heart. When we first meet Roland, he’s 30 years old and partners with Wayne. When I talked to [show creator] Nic [Pizzolatto], he felt that Roland came from Texas and grew up on a ranch where he did bull-riding. Then he went to ’Nam and was in motorpool. He still has that rodeo pizzazz; he likes to dress sharp in his cowboy boots. He believes in his job, but he has a soft spot. He doesn’t like to see people in pain.

HBO: How would you characterize his partnership with Wayne?

Stephen Dorff: They’re very different and they butt heads, but there’s an overall trust that remains unbroken. No matter how upset they get with each other, there’s a resolve that wants to happen right after. They complement each other well: There are moments in the early episodes where my character is talking Wayne up, “He’s a hunter, quiet, methodical.” The kind of guy who was dropped in the jungle for two-three weeks and came out with scalps. Roland likes to be around people. He wants to schmooze and charm to get his information.

HBO: And how was it playing that partnership with Mahershala?

Stephen Dorff: Mahershala and I had a special chemistry playing these roles. We were like brothers. I don’t know if I’ve ever gone to the level of emotional intimacy as I did with him. We’re very different as people, but we connected in a way that I’ll never forget.

HBO: When we see Roland in 1990, he landed on a much more successful track than Wayne. Why do you think that is?

Stephen Dorff: Roland is a smart guy. He played the game a bit more; he shook the hands he needed to shake to get things done. Wayne doesn’t play that game. He’s more of an instinctual being. Roland would sit back and think about the ramifications of his actions, like a businessman. Wayne doesn’t do that.

HBO: What was it like to portray the same character across multiple time periods?

Stephen Dorff: I’d never done it before. I’d never played any character that keeps going on the page past a 110-page movie script. Once I got this script with the mammoth amount of pages it was challenging, but really awesome. In a movie script, you know what the moments are that you really have to hit it out of the park. In a story like this, we have 40 of those, instead of two or three in a movie. I was stoked to have eight hours to play him, so I could really explore all those different ages.

HBO: Did you play Roland differently in the different time periods?

Stephen Dorff: I did. The way he talks, the way he walks. His energy slows down. He’s a green cowboy detective in the ’80s. In the ’90s, he’s more of a man whose comfortable in his own skin. I also looked different in the different decades, which made it easier to adjust. But Roland still retains who he is at heart.

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