True Detective alum Stephen Dorff on putting the badge back on for Deputy
Following his well-received turn as Det. Roland West on the HBO anthology’s third season, Dorff is putting the badge back on for Fox’s Deputy. Co-created by director David Ayer (Suicide Squad, End of Watch), the new series stars Dorff as Deputy Bill Hollister, whose conflicts with the higher-ups in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has him on the verge of being fired — until an arcane rule finds him suddenly thrust into the top position.
Ahead of Deputy‘s Thursday premiere at 9 p.m. ET on Fox, EW chatted with Dorff about surprising himself with his pick for a True Detective follow-up, trying to be the anti-network cop show, and not wanting to repeat CSI: Miami.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After wrapping up your run on True Detective, what was it about Deputy and this role that made this the perfect next step for you?
STEPHEN DORFF: I was coming off True Detective and a lot of things were coming my way — films and other shows, cable stuff — but nothing was really on the level of True Detective and that writing and that experience. Deputy was in there, and I wasn’t really thinking I was going to do a network show after coming from such a creative cable experience, but then David Ayer kept popping up. I was attracted to David Ayer in the sense that I’ve liked his movies — Fury and End of Watch — and I thought, “He’s a really good director and maybe in this day and age it doesn’t really matter, there’s 9 million places with content to watch, so you’ve got to start with character and director, and whether it’s Hulu or Quibi or this one or that one, who gives a s— that it’s on network? It’s going to reach more people if we make something good.” And I got with David and we just started about Bill and the opportunity to see a guy at mid-life, with a family, been a deputy all his life, and he’s now the interim sheriff, so he’s got a clock on him. But I saw, “Wow, with all this power and all this responsibility, can this guy handle it?” And I thought, “Yeah, he can.” And I wondered where we could go with this, and I saw a real open canvas for him, as far as this is a character that you could just keep riding with. I liked that, I liked what David had to say, and that made me want to jump in.
You mention coming off of True Detective, so was there any hesitation to follow that project up with another cop show? Or did you not even think twice about it in that regard?
There are only so many things that you can play. [Laughs] It’s always a cop or it’s a doctor; we’ve kind of seen every different kind of character. It’s all really in the execution and vision of each specific thing. As far as cop to cop, I think it’s weird that there’s a cowboy quality to both characters, but that’s very different. Roland West was a rodeo cultured guy through three decades, we meet him in the ‘80s and he went all the way through 2015. In this, we’re in a modern world in 2019 but Bill drives a ’78 Bronco, he rides horses sometimes to work. He’s a rancher who lives in Santa Clarita and he comes from three generations of law enforcement that has been in the Sheriff’s Department, so his world is catching bad guys and he has that oath that he lives by. There’s a real honesty to him. And the real Bill kind of comes off when he comes home, and I’ve been really happy with the scenes that I’ve done with my family. There’s a real warmth to that family and against a really hard vicious world that is outside our front door every day. It’s about balancing that and I think that’s what the show explores.
Did you take anything from making True Detective and bring it to Deputy?
Not really. They’re very different characters, even though they have some similarities in that they like horses and western culture. I didn’t really necessarily bring anything to True Detective. All of my projects are part of me, so I bring all that to the table when I come in and play a new character, so it might have something to do with that. Bill is a kind of a character I haven’t really played before, because I haven’t been old enough. He’s a family man, he’s brash, he says what he wants, he says what he feels, he’s kind of a blue-collar hero that has a real sensitive side, too, and we’ll see all of that. And so the more colors we can bring, like Roland had, I think the more interesting the character will be to watch week-to-week.
As you said, there are so many cop shows out there, so what differentiates Deputy from all of those others?
Network TV is mostly glossy, there’s not a lot of time, you get 42 minutes for a story, so it’s a very different genre of creating. I don’t really watch network television myself. I watch The Crown, because I love Olivia Colman, I think she’s a fantastic talent and I liked that show from the beginning. But I don’t really watch the CSIs and all that; they’re really successful shows, but they all tend to be the same to me: very glossy and eight people around a very bright set figuring out crimes and stuff. Week-to-week, there’s a procedural formula that happens in network TV that you have to abide by, but we were given some freedom on our show to keep story lines alive, to keep continuing things within the characters. Things won’t get wrapped up all the time — sometimes they will, but the bigger picture, maybe not. I’m not really involved in that; when I get the script and I don’t believe in something, I usually just change it, and I’ve had the freedom to do that. I’m just kind of playing this new game, and, if it works, then I think going into the next one I want to be really involved in the story lines, because the only negative to me of doing this kind of show is not knowing what I’m doing next week. I don’t know if I get shot, I don’t know if I get killed. So there’s a bit of spontaneity to it, but Bill’s a kind of spontaneous character.
David Ayer is the opposite of glossy, and he’s made a career of writing and directing gritty cop films, whether it’s Training Day or End of Watch. What does David add to something like this?
He brings authenticity, which to me is always important with whatever story you’re telling. David Ayer literally comes from the street. He grew up in East L.A. and he knew criminals growing up, he knew policemen, he’s best friends with Jamie Fitzpatrick, the elected sheriff of Summit County, Colorado who actually does a cameo in the pilot. And he was a huge influence on me creating Bill, just as far as talking to me about props, how the belt’s worn, would I wear the gun belt all the time, how many stars do I have on my wrist. I’m a pretty detailed guy and so is David, so in that rushed space of pilot shooting, we had really great technicians and people who showed up for David, and because he’s had his name on it and he’s never touched anything in TV, so in his mind this was probably his brand. I knew what kind of show he wanted to make, I knew he didn’t want to make one of these shows on a stage, in a lab. I knew it wasn’t an ensemble show, it was really a single lead, which is rare on TV these days, because usually it is an ensemble and you’re always wondering even more where your character is going, but at least I know that Bill is driving the story and Bill is an integral part of where the show is going. And then you fill it with all these incredible supporting players around me. I want to play a character who people want to see every week. Maybe he’s going to do some s— that we don’t think he’s going to do; I want to mix it up, shake it up, because, to me, that’s the energy of what’s happening everywhere in the world. Bill is in a position to really implement some things with his power, so it’s a cool canvas to play on — as long as they get it right.
The issue of immigration plays a major role in the pilot. Will a focus on relevant social issues be something we should expect to continue?
Yeah, pretty much. It’s very modern, so we’re trying to do things that you haven’t seen on the other 95 network television shows. I always say that I don’t want to do an episode if it’s been done on CSI: Miami. It’s very rare to touch on a story that hasn’t been done; everything is about good vs. evil in a way. It’s always the same, so it’s really in the execution. But I’m an extra hard critic on the scripts, even though I know we only have 42 minutes to tell a story each week, I’m still real anal about story and where Bill goes, because I want to protect him — I want the character to be special. I don’t want him to just be a guy in a cowboy hat. So as far as ICE in the pilot, Bill is going to surprise a lot of people with issues that you wouldn’t necessarily think a cowboy from Santa Clarita would get himself into. But he’s down to learn, he’s an open-minded guy, and, now that he’s in a position of power, I think it broadens his openness more, because it will only make him a better deputy, and that’s what he really is in his heart. So you’ve got a person in an incredible position of power and responsibility that is still throwing himself in front of a hail of bullets every other day because he likes it. [Laughs] And that’s a cool character to play.