Stephen Dorff on Inventing 'Wheeler' and Losing His Songwriter Brother

The actor explains the origins of his new country-music movie and reflects on his late brother Andrew

Stephen Dorff reflects on the death of his songwriter brother Andrew and discusses his new movie 'Wheeler.' Credit: Jason LaVeris/Getty

"I'm on a high and I haven't even smoked doobies," actor and musician Stephen Dorff giddily declared just minutes after making his Grand Ole Opry debut on the Ryman Auditorium stage this past weekend. The 43-year-old, whose previous film roles include the big-budget vampire flick Blade and Venice Film Festival award winner Somewhere, is currently in the middle of a promotional whirlwind in support of Wheeler, his remarkable new film about country music. 

Directed by Ryan Ross and shot with only a minimal script in fly-on-the-wall documentary style, the film stars Dorff as Wheeler Bryson, a troubled Texas musician who takes a late-in-life journey to Nashville to share his introspective songs while coming to terms with an unbearable loss. It's an award-worthy performance in a uniquely gentle and disarming film, one driven by Dorff's surprise in-character showcases – in heavy makeup and prosthetics – at venues around Music City. At the Bluebird Café, Dorff delivers a key musical scene in one take.

Born in Atlanta in 1973, Stephen Dorff was just three months old when his songwriter father, Steve Dorff, moved the family to Los Angeles. Stephen took advantage of his industry upbringing to pursue acting, making his big-screen debut at 13 in 1987's The Gate. His younger brother Andrew, meanwhile, gravitated toward music and went on to have a successful career as a Nashville songwriter, penning Number One hits for Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton and Hunter Hayes. Tragically, it was cut short: Andrew Dorff died in December at age 40.

Before his death, however, the songwriter contributed to one of Wheeler's centerpiece songs, the radio-ready "Pour Me Out of This Town," which he wrote with his brother and veteran songwriter Bobby Tomberlin, who accompanied Dorff on guitar during his Opry debut. At one point, feeling his younger sibling's larger-than-life spirit in the hallowed hall, he stretched out his arms and pointed toward the sky in a spontaneous, heartfelt salute.

Dorff continues to grieve for his brother, making the media obligations for Wheeler, released February 3rd in theaters and On Demand, an emotional ride. In a candid conversation with Rolling Stone Country backstage at the Ryman, in a dressing room featuring a huge portrait of Johnny Cash, Dorff reflected on his unique new film, performing at the Opry and the impact of his brother Andrew.

Is there anything in your movie career that compares to the sensation of playing on the Grand Ole Opry?
Not as far as nervousness. I knew I could do it; I just didn't want to screw up. We haven't had a lot of rehearsal because we've been on this crazy press tour in New York and L.A. We've done a lot of radio shows and were jamming with Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols on "Jonesy's Jukebox" on KLOS. I did "Fever" and kind of messed up the bridge. I mess up when I get nervous. But I didn't want to mess up at the Ryman. This was a new venture for me. It was a one movie-one album thing to try to make Wheeler an iconic fictional character that maybe would become a cult thing.

Where did the idea for the movie start for you?
It was October 2014, I was in my house in Malibu. I had a really cool movie I was supposed to do in Rome that, for whatever reason, got pushed. I was doing a lot of music because I was bored. I like being creative. When I'm sitting around I get frustrated sometimes. So I'm sitting around and writing songs. Not doing it like my brother does it, where he's getting paid and getting cuts. I'm just doing it for me in my house in L.A. I was going to a studio in Burbank that my dad recommended, a guy named Michael Woodrum, who's a producer on the Wheeler soundtrack album. I built a lot of the tracks that we didn't do in Nashville with him in L.A. It was just me and him. My voice was pretty straight and didn't have the country twang of Wheeler. It was a little more like Jack Johnson, maybe Lumineers. I had written four songs. I played it for my dad, I played a song for Rick Rubin; and Ryan Ross, who directed the movie, came to Malibu. We worked together very intimately for about five years doing a lot of movies, like Somewhere. He was blown away by the four songs and we started talking. He said, "Dude, I've known you for six years and you've never written lyrics like this and you never sang and recorded demos like this." It all kind of came together and then we had an album.

Were the songs coming out of you as the character at this point?
No, they were coming out of me as Stephen. But after Ryan heard the songs he said, "Ok, let's make a movie." I said, "What kind of movie? What am I going to play, a pop guy? A DJ?" Because some of my songs had electro-beats to them. The only place I could really see creating a character is in Nashville. But we didn't have a script or anything. We started meeting every day after that and in a week we came up with Wheeler Bryson. We came up with Kaufman, Texas, where his grandfather lives on a farm, 30 minutes outside of Dallas. We had this idea of "Where are all the old outlaw country guys? A little more weathered, later in life. They're not 20 and cute, with a big manager and a label behind them. The guys that have lived and are writing about real things." This was before Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson blew up. I was watching a lot of stuff my brother was writing, which was Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan. They're really good and the audience seems to love them, but where's the old-school guy? I told Ryan, "That would be interesting. Why the 40-year-old guy takes the 13-hour drive. Why didn't he go there before, at 20 or 30?" Then we created this whole world for him, with pain and a back story. Then I found the Wheeler voice and we brought in steel guitar and changed those demos.

What made you decide on shooting without a script and doing it in the style of a documentary?
Going into Nashville with trucks and casting actors and doing a five or six million dollar-type Crazy Heart? I didn't want to come into my brother's turf. He's already lived in my shadow, being my younger brother, and he lived in my dad's shadow. He was finally cracking this town on his own. I didn't want to do anything to deter that for him. Then we decided on the makeup thing. I said, "What if we went Andy Kaufman on this, or approached it like Sacha Baron Cohen?" I committed to it in the same way. They gave me this look and I filmed it and got reactions from a lot of real people, then filled in the blanks when we needed to. Once we got the makeup and we dropped in here, I still didn't know if this was going to end up being a good film, but somehow along the way the character really took form. I've never been so connected to a character in my life, in 40-some-odd movies I've been in.

What kind of effect did the makeup and heavy prosthetics have on your acting process?
It's incredibly uncomfortable. It's itchy, tight. What it did do is limit my face from doing normal "Stephen" mannerisms. That's what [makeup designer] Christian Tinsley wanted to achieve. We didn't do contacts. I said no because with the makeup… if people recognized me they recognized me. The eyebrows he built, though, didn't let me do normal movements. If I tried to do it I can't lift them. It would make me feel more like Wheeler. I have a smaller bottom lip but in Wheeler I had a lip over my lip. It's fat and it helped with my accent. That was the most troublesome of everything because I smoke. When you drink and eat it would always unseal. I would [exhale] and it would pop up. Hiro [the makeup technician] would reseal me. Right before the one take at the Bluebird with a packed house and they don't know it’s me, it was making me nervous because it started to lift.

Kris Kristofferson is not only in the film, but he contributed a song to the soundtrack, 'The New Mister Me.' What's that like for you to have him involved?
I didn't even know I was going to get a song from Kris. It was perfect, it's almost like he's passing the baton to this other guy.

The two of you first worked together in 1998's Blade, which is a very different film than this one.
Yeah, I almost killed him in that. I'm so evil. I'm this nasty, blue-eyed vampire. I spit on him and kick him. This is a guy that I have total respect for. I love him and I love that he's in this movie with me, but I had to go DeNiro on him in this scene in Blade. It was pretty brutal. But he comes back. He made it to parts two and three, but I kind of signed out after the first one.

What do you think you learned about yourself from the character and from making the film?
It was pretty magical, what we did in those two weeks. If we had six or eight weeks I don't think it would be a better movie. The thing I took away from it was that it could almost be a dream, the whole thing could have been a dream for Wheeler, in his whole head. That came to me later, but if you watch it with that in your head it's pretty trippy. What I love most about him is he's the most humble, sweet, caring guy. The thing he does that hurts him the most is probably smoking. He's just the nicest guy in the world. To play a guy with that much heart and that much loss is interesting. There's an old soul in him and he's not contrived; he's very real. He's almost like a little boy.

What was the first country music you remember listening to?
Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers and the stuff my dad was involved with when I was growing up. He wrote for everybody – George Strait. I got to meet all these people: Clint Black, Clint Eastwood. Even in L.A. they were kind of country in a weird way. I used to play around and sing Randy Travis for my dad. I'd always be able to just mimic things. I was like 12 or 13 and I'd be like, "Hey, Dad, listen to this: [sings in Randy Travis voice] 'I'm gonna love you forever. Forever and ever, Amen.'" I would do the jaw and everything. In my early 20s I was buying Kristofferson records. I loved his acting; then I found out all the songs he wrote. I loved the Highwaymen. I collected all that stuff. I loved the albums Rick Rubin did with Johnny Cash, that stuff was fucking unbelievable.

"My brother got to enjoy his success, but he was robbed of so many years and I miss him so much"

Do you have a favorite music-related memory that you shared with Andrew?
I was fighting for him when he was an artist. There was a label called the Work Group on Sony, they broke Fiona Apple and Macy Gray and Andrew was actually going to be the third act. He was going on tour. I went to Paris and saw him open for Steve Winwood. Andrew was singing almost like Tom Waits; he was like this beatnik kind of kid. He came back from the tour and my mom and dad and everybody, we were worried about him. Then he did another record, for Lost Highway, another great label. I went to the Viper Room [in L.A.] to see him and he was great. Me and my dad are going to get that record back from Universal because those songs are amazing. I might even try to record some of those songs. In the end, Andrew didn't want to do it. For eight years, nothing was happening here. But it was happening. He was meeting people and building this thing. I used to say, "Come back to L.A., get out of Nashville. They're not cutting your songs." I was the greedy brother because I wanted to see my bro. I missed him. He said, "Nashville's a different beast, I'm building something here." And he was.

How much did you write with him?
We did write a couple of songs when he was doing those records, but I was always busy doing movies. I love my brother more than anything, though. He was my distant best friend. When he moved here he really created a new world for himself that I got to visit when he'd have his Number One parties. But I didn't really know his friends. I didn't get to be at the tribute concert they had where Jake Owen did this great song called "LAX" and Old Dominion, Andrew wrote the Kenny Chesney hit with Brad from that band and they have three of Andrew's songs on their new record coming out. "Pour Me Out of This Town" is the closest I've come to [all of that]. I'd play the songs for him and he wouldn't say much. But he'd tell me the truth. At the beginning, I think he was worried. "What the hell is Stephen coming to this town for?" But I told him not to worry.

Andrew's songs are still all over the charts. Is that some very small comfort for you and your family?
Four Number Ones in two years and he's going to have one with Rascal Flatts' [single "Yours If You Want It"]. He's probably going to have one with Keith Urban, and I think he's got a new one with Little Big Town. My dad's going through his catalog and he's only in the Bs yet. It took him all day yesterday. He had so many songs. Universal [Andrew's publishing company] said he's got 10 singles in the pipeline. 

My brother got to enjoy his success but he was robbed of so many years and I miss him so much. So this is a bittersweet time for me. I'm broken inside. But to be at the Ryman, to be able to [look up and] say, "I miss you" on the Ryman stage, that's better than any review or any box office. I don't understand certain things about things that happen. I miss Andrew, but to be able to say that out there, I'm just glad I got it in there. I'm just so proud of him being a part of this town and getting to meet his friends. He was going to come to the premiere and bring his whole gang. I still can't fucking believe it. This world is trippy, man. Sometimes I hate it. But then it's a beautiful place, too, to be alive. It's all so fragile.