Let’s get this out of the way: Season two of True Detective was bad—like, almost single-handedly killed one of television’s most promising franchises level-bad. But there’s a swirl of optimism surrounding the show’s high-profile third season, and for good reason. After a steady trickle of promising trailers helped quell fears, early reviews suggest a return to form for the groundbreaking crime series, which comes back to HBO on Sunday after a nearly four-year hiatus.
A large part of that enthusiasm hinges on the show’s return to season one’s winning template. After taking a puzzling detour to explore urban corruption, the U.S. transportation system and Colin Farrell’s mustache, creator Nic Pizzolatto has re-embraced some of the crucial elements that made the original installment an award-winning phenomenon: a macabre murder in America’s backwoods, dueling timelines and a pair of obsessive detectives who must confront their murky past to put the show’s central mystery behind them once and for all.
When HBO announced that Mahershala Ali would play one half of the show’s titular gumshoes, you could feel the sense of relief spread across the internet like wildfire. Since winning an Oscar in 2016 for his performance as a drug dealer with a heart of gold in Moonlight, Ali has established himself as one of today’s most electrifying performers. Who better to help restore one of HBO’s marquee shows to its past glory?
“I’ve made choices for money that sometimes didn’t end up being movies I wanted to make. Those movies are the ones I despise looking at when they come on cable late at night.”
And while Ali is more than capable of redeeming the show on his own, its original formula worked so well because it subverted familiar buddy-cop tropes, which meant Ali’s Wayne Hayes needed a partner. That job went to Stephen Dorff, who was cast as state police detective Roland West. It was a surprising choice for a show that’s been a huge draw for A-list talent ever since Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson helped sear Rust Cohle and Marty Hart into the cultural imagination. Dorff, meanwhile, is something of a relic, a former teen idol who came of age in pre-Instagram Hollywood, and whose nocturnal exploits became tabloid fodder, often overshadowing his actual work.
And it was good work! After leaning into his James Dean looks and rock-star charisma in films like The Power of One, Backbeat and especially as the smoldering bad boy opposite Alicia Silverstone in Aerosmith’s “Cryin’” video, Dorff took a sharp left turn by actively railing against his heartthrob persona with oddball turns in films like John Waters’ Cecil B. Demented, in which he plays against type as the transgender cult leader Candy Darling.
“I always look at who’s the director and is the part something I can challenge myself with,” he says of his unorthodox career. “I don’t want to follow one particular plan—I just kind of do what I want, and that’s how I’ll always be.” Perhaps the role Dorff is most synonymous with came in 1998, when he starred as Deacon Frost, the half-vampire, half-human supervillain in Blade, which Dorff proudly calls “the first fucking Marvel movie.”
“It’s still a movie I get recognized from and that’s talked about all the time,” he admits. The 45-year-old actor explains that, as he’s gotten older, he’s become pickier in terms of the roles he chooses. “I think I’m just bored by the amount of content that’s out and the fact that sometimes movies are just regenerated over and over again. I’m looking for movies that stand out and last for future generations. I don’t want to make an action movie just to make another action movie.”
Blade came out in an era when comic book movies were still seen as frivolous pieces of pop entertainment, and while his over-the-top performance as Frost has since achieved cult status, it nearly sunk his career at the time. Over the next decade, Dorff was stuck in Hollywood purgatory, taking thankless roles in bargain-bin films like Deuces Wild, Feardotcom and Wolf Creek Manor. “Occasionally with my filmography, I’ve had to make money because I like to spend money, so I’ve made choices for money that sometimes didn’t end up being movies that I wanted to make,” he says without a hint of sarcasm. “Those movies are the ones that I despise looking at when they come on cable late at night.”
So how did Dorff go from erstwhile star to the co-lead of one of the year’s most anticipated shows? Well, in many ways, his current place in the zeitgeist mirrors that of True Detective’s. Both are in need of a comeback, something Dorff nearly pulled off in 2010, when close friend Sofia Coppola hand-picked him to play a burned-out matinee idol in her film Somewhere. It was a melancholy meditation on the nature of celebrity, something Dorff, who’d lived in Hollywood for nearly his entire life, was deeply acquainted with. But despite his close proximity to the subject matter, the film didn’t take, and Dorff was left wondering: What’s next?
After the untimely death of his brother in 2016, he even considered quitting acting altogether to pursue other passions like playing music. It’s a good thing he didn’t. “I’m busier than ever acting, so you never really know what’s going to happen,” he says. “Frankly, the parts I’m playing right now are some of the richest parts I’ve ever played.” Over the course of our conversation, Dorff has the jaded disposition of an actor who’s seen the darkest corners of the industry and lived to talk about it, and admits that he’s “kinda bored” of acting unless it challenges him. That’s where True Detective comes in.
“I don’t want to follow one particular plan—I just kind of do what I want, and that’s how I’ll always be.”
“I feel like Nic Pizzolatto and HBO really gave me the part of my life with what you’re about to see,” he said. “I just found it to be the richest writing and the richest character that I’ve ever had.” Dorff is keenly aware of the the pressure to right the ship after the season two debacle and seems confident that they’ve pulled it off. “For everybody that was disappointed because season two felt rushed after the success of the first one, know that Nic’s spent a lot of time doing this and getting ready for this, and we spent seven months making it. It was really mind-blowing.”
It remains to be seen whether True Detective reignites Dorff’s career, but he seems open to what might come next, even if that means reteaming with Marvel 20 years later. “I’m not against comic book movies,” he says. “I would do a badass character in one of those movies, but it has to be the right character, and it has to be the right director. I’m not really interested in jumping into anything just to put a funny costume on. The right one really hasn’t come my way, but it is such a phenomenon now, I’m sure I’ll end up doing one of them at one point. I want to do something gnarly for the kids.”